December 30, 2004
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-chief
My first sight of the Taj Mahal hit with
superhuman force, unburdening me of a lifetime's pent-up emotions
and expectations. Up until the moment when we turned and caught
a glimpse of it looming inevitably, its outline traced against
the mercurial evening sky, a black cutout form poised against
the magenta night, or the blue sky offered up a domed flyspeck,
off across Agra. Jostling for space in my mental landscape
were the primary hues of postcards or pages from the World
Book, and the monochromatic scenes from Richard Halliburton's
pulp-wonderful Book of Marvels, in which he sneaked a moonlit
reverie behind the locked garden walls: Childhood still lurked
just below the surface of this adult.
Then, there it was, a glistening sugarloaf
of a building, combining the presence of all colors, both
reflective and absorbing its own light---the embodiment of
white, white, white. So large it dwarfed the arching portal
leading to the gardens far ahead; so large that human form
merely peppered its base.
From where I stood, it leaped and danced,
from its settled podium up to the solid mass of its body,
where arched niches carved shadowed recesses and repeated
its harmonies, then around in a domed sweep to its tip. Anchored
by four spires, one at each corner, for muezzins who would
never come, punctuated by rooftop pavilions and smaller spires,
this mausoleum sang a cosmic song, suggesting order, amplitude
within bounds, and direction. It humbled me, as great art
can, with the realization that geometry points toward truths
that we have ignored, and that beauty is a real and potent
force, even in this debased and imperfect world. It took my
My trip to the Taj occurred on the final
day of a five-day whirlwind trip to the subcontinent, where
we had been guests of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture,
a triennial event. As with other such gatherings to celebrate
architecture in or for the Islamic world, held in various
sites worldwide, our host had prepared visits to noteworthy
architectural monuments, including the Taj. In our case, the
awards proved to be a Mughal feast.
The awards ceremony itself took place
in Delhi at another mausoleum (think how funerary structures
dominated early civilizations). Humayun's Tomb (1569), erected
by the ruler's widow Hamida Banu Begam, predates Shah Jehan's
memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal by almost a century (1631-1648).
For the contemporary occasion, which included not only the
Aga Khan himself and his invitees, but the Prime Minister
of India, the domed, polychrome structure had been illuminated
for a private son et lumière. The assemblage consisted
of an international coterie in full native finery, from saris
woven with cloth of gold to an African chief in robe and cap.
Counterpoised against this magnificent 16th century backdrop,
the moon rose full, while the Silk Road ensemble coaxed their
plaintive instruments. Not even an emperor could match the
rose-petal strewn drama.
Subsequent travels included a ceremony
at the massive Mughal fortifications in Agra, whose Red Fort
(built by Akbar in 1565, added to by Shah Jehan in 1630-55)
gave new insight into the word, "heft." There the
red sandstone walls, many feet thick, rose with hieratic emphasis,
once cradling the treasury of an empire-Shah Jehan's wives,
and the Peacock throne, his seat of justice. As if to underscore
the otherworldliness of this lost hegemony, green parrots
swept through the air calling at sunset, seeking their roost,
while a tribe of monkeys paraded around the walls, peering
down at our sober gathering. Where had the empire fled to?
Our final destination was a deserted
city on a hill. Close your eyes from the heights at Fatehpur
Sikri, a town constructed in the 1570s to become the Mughal
capital from 1571-1584, and you could be at Vézélay,
in France, were it not for the calls from the mosque. Following
the emperor Akbar's lead, the court removed to this aerie
spot to honor a holy Sikh who had predicted Akbar's first
male son and heir. When he left, the red sandstone buildings
remained. Restored, solitary, and urbane, this ghost town
encapsulates history and almost speaks.
Touring this rich array of cities, fortifications,
and funerary monuments only skims a fraction of India's architectural
wealth; however, the analogies with other historical monuments
is striking. The Red Fort, which surveys the Yumana River,
bears close resemblance to China's Great Wall, or to the Alhambra,
all of which came from a period of expansion and conquest.
However, they also contain typological similarities with European
fortifications from the same period (think of the Loire valley,
with its turreted chateaux, or of 16th century England).
Towers, like those at the tombs, or the
mosques, crop up in Italy (at Torcello, outside Venice, or
San Gimigiano for example), at religious structures and fortifications.
Simplistic as such a question may sound, what worldwide developments
elicit similar building forms? Do the answers lie in the evolution
of technology, or of building systems, or in philosophy? Visiting
actual architecture consistently stimulates us to ponder and
to wonder, confounding our expectations, both feeding us and
leading us to hunger for more.