The Great Houses standing in North Kolkata today and described in this book were built by the cream of the indigenous elite during the city’s colonial era. Some exceptions apart,
these mansions are now largely forlorn reminders of the ways of life, aspirations and aesthetic values of the wealthy Indian landowners, bankers and traders who flourished during
the heyday of the city’s colonial era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The houses are important part of the urban and architectural history of Kolkata and are past
representatives of the ongoing debate over what it means to be modern while representing a living culture in built form.
Taking off from Joanne Taylor’s widely acclaimed award-winning book The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta and drawing from her thesis The Great Houses of Kolkata, 1750-2006,
this book is a more comprehensive endeavor bringing in Joanne Taylor’s first- hand experiences and research in Kolkata and Jon Lang’s knowledge of the broader context of
architectural history and the attempts to display contemporary design attitudes in built form, not only in today’s changing world but also during India’s colonial and post-colonial
With the help of meticulously researched and informative text and fascinating photographs, the book showcases the ‘Great Houses’ both during the city’s golden era when Kolkata
was described as ‘ The City of Places’ and the present. It raises current issues in architecture, not just in India but around the world.
The book is a fresh view of India’s first capital and a fascinating insight into the lives of Kolkata’s great families, the bhadralok, during the British Raj. It is an essential work for
architecture, students of architecture and readers who are interested in British and Indian history.
Joanne Taylor born in Sydney, holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and theory and English literature from the University of Sydney. Her undergraduate studies on the
history of India led to her post-graduate research and the award of a master’s degree from the University of New South Wales for her thesis. The Great houses of Kolkata, 1750-
2006. She has travelled widely in India particularly in Kolkata and Bengal. An accomplished photographer, she is the author of the widely praised award- winning book The
Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta.
Jon Lang is an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wale where he headed the School of Architecture. Born in Kolkata, he received his early education in
the city and in Kalimpong. He has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand and a doctorate from Cornell University. He taught in the urban
design program at the University. He taught in the urban design program at the University of Pennsylvania before setting in Australia. This book is the fourth that he has written or
co-authored on architecture in India. In 2010 he received the Reed and Mallik Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers in London.
The Great Houses standing in North Kolkata today and described in this book were built by the cream of the indigenous elite during the city's colonial era when the city was known
as Calcutta. With a number of important exceptions these mansions are now largely forlorn reminders of the ways of life, aspirations and aesthetic values of the wealthy Indian land
owners, bankers and traders who flourished financially during the heyday of the city's colonial era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The houses are an important part of
the urban and architectural history of not only India but the world. They are past representatives of the ongoing debate over what it means to be modern while representing a living
culture in built form. In addition, the changes over time in the form of the Great Houses demonstrate the relationship between the plans and aesthetic qualities of buildings and the
evolving social and cultural patterns of their inhabitants.
While some, if highly superficial, attention has been paid to the buildings of the British colonial administrative and business leaders, architectural scholars have until recently largely
dismissed the Great Houses of the indigenous elite as uninteresting and inconsequential buildings. They were seen as a 'mish-mash' designed in a heady but crude mixture of
Bengali, British and European styles. Their plans were rarely, if ever, discussed. Even today hypothesising why they are the way they are falls outside the mainstream of
architectural discussions. This lack is surprising because the Great Houses were larger and more opulent than all but a very few of the houses of wealthy British residents of
Calcutta. The British were not settlers but temporary residents of the city. They took any wealth they had accumulated in India back 'home' to build substantial houses in, primarily,
the English countryside whether they were Scots, Welsh or English.
An understanding of the Great Houses and those of the British in Calcutta and the values that shaped them not only adds to our knowledge of the architectural history of India but
illuminates many of the values present in the built form of cities today. In particular, such an understanding brings attention to the tussle between global and local design concepts
for inspirational hegemony in the hearts of architects and their clients around the world.
Until recently the Great Houses were referred to only in passing in books on the architecture of India and even then attention was usually drawn only to one example: the Mullick
mansion (1835) better known as Marble Palace. The houses of the wealthy Indian elite were regarded as inferior and, as they were hybrid types, they were something for the
architectural cognoscenti to denigrate. Such mansions could not be held in as high esteem as those buildings that followed a single, unified design paradigm. In addition, the
families who owned them, who had equated the coloniser with the colonised, galled Indian nationalist sentiment. Although ultimately the families were closely allied with moves
towards independence, their mansions were and remain symbols of their owners' earlier elite position in Calcutta's indigenous, colonial society. Both the people and their buildings
are considered by many to be best forgotten.
This situation no longer prevails. The houses have been rediscovered. The goal of this book is indeed to celebrate the hybrid nature of the Great Houses and how they reflect the
lives and values of former rajas and merchants who astutely throve alongside and under the British during the generations of colonial rule. The book is not an apologia for the
houses but rather a celebration of the cultural congruity of their designs. This study attempts to integrate an understanding of the cultural context in which the houses were built, the
way their plans afforded specific ways of life and how their appearances represented the aspirations of their owners and designers. It has its origins in Joanne Taylor's innate
curiosity and delight in discovering the 'largely' untouched backstreets and by-lanes of North Kolkata. In doing so she came across its old mansions and ruined palaces. The area
has a rich heritage of Great Houses now often hidden at the ends of lanes or behind untidy shopfronts. The houses were and continue to be fascinating to her. Her passion for
photography has enabled her to record her discoveries and serendipitously given her access to scholars, laypeople and today's owners of the Great Houses who have been
interested in her work. Ultimately this book is a synthesis of the research on the Great Houses by Joanne Taylor and numerous other scholars, some well-known and others whose
work awaits recognition.
What have I brought to Joanne Taylor's endeavours? It is, perhaps, some knowledge of the broader context of architectural history and the attempts to display contemporary
design attitudes in built form not only in today's changing world but also during India's colonial and post-colonial eras. In particular, my concern is with what it means to display
both modernity and locality in house form. Our collaboration has enabled us to present a broad written and photographic picture of the Great Houses that we hope will encourage
others to delve more deeply into their histories and to devise ways of bringing them to a diverse public's attention. We have chosen to write this book for a broad international
audience because we believe that it raises current issues in architecture that apply everywhere. Today many architects wonder how best to design for locales and local ways of life
when they are under pressure from multinational companies, often seeming to be our contemporary equivalent of the East India Company, to design buildings within a global,
commercial approach because it is seen to be modern and prestigious.
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