13. Buildings Have Souls

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

A couple of weeks ago, as part of the annual Spirit and Place Festival sponsored by the POLIS Center of IUPUI, a group of people gathered at North United Methodist Church to hear Indianapolis architect and artist K.P. Singh talk about his drawings of historic buildings and his philosophy of life. Raised in India as a member of the Sikh religion, Singh studied architecture and city planning at the University of Michigan and came to Indianapolis in 1967 to work as a planner for the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development. He soon found himself in an odyssey discovering the historic architecture of his new home. Singh also noticed that some of the key landmarks of the capital city were being demolished. When one of his favorites, Union Station, faced destruction, the young planner joined forces with fellow architect Don Perry; Robert Braun, then executive director of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana; and others to form a committee to save the station. One of the ideas that emerged to create more public awareness about the importance of the threatened building was for Singh to create a line drawing of the structure that could be reproduced and distributed. The popularity of the drawing led Singh’s friends to suggest that he depict other Indianapolis landmarks, to increase public appreciation for local heritage. New drawings of the Morris-Butler House at 12th and Park Avenue, the Indianapolis City Market, the Kemper House at 10th and Delaware, and the Maennerchor Building at Illinois and Michigan soon found ready buyers.

In 1972, K.P. Singh decided after a visit to India for reflection that he could both make a contribution to his new home state of Indiana and make a living by creating drawings of Hoosier architecture from the past 175 years. His goal was to build public acceptance of the idea that like Europeans and Asians, Hoosiers have a heritage with meaning and value. Over the past thirty years, Singh has traveled throughout the state, the rest of the United States, the Western Hemisphere, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and sought out the defining landmarks of each locale. His primary audience has always been Indiana residents, and he has prepared drawings interpreting the architecture of many communities and cultural and civic institutions. One of Singh’s ways of interpretation has been to collect facades and details of notable buildings associated with a particular community or institution and arrange them in composite drawings. The lesson has been that along with new skyscrapers, libraries, stadiums, and city halls, the identity of each place lies in Romanesque style courthouses, Italianate style Main Street buildings, Renaissance style cathedrals, Gothic college buildings, and turn of the century fountains.

In 2003, he collected a selection of his drawings, accompanied by essays and poems on the universality of architecture and its capacity to enrich individual lives. One of his particular interests has been the architectural expressions of human spirituality throughout the world, and his book, The Art and Spirit of K.P. Singh, contains several composite drawings in which the holy structures of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikh faith, Bahai faith, and others are brought together. In between the world-wide composites are drawings of historic Indiana places of worship. The message is that the human quest for understanding the infinite and worshipping the Supreme Being takes many architectural forms, all equal in value and importance and all sharing certain attributes. For Hoosiers, Singh implies that the architectural expressions of our religious heritage, though not nearly as old as that of other continents, have their own validity and essential role to play in our lives.

One of his beliefs is that buildings have souls. They contain something of the life force of those who designed them, built them, lived or worked in them, and visited them. Singh believes that when we encounter the landmarks of our past, we also encounter something of the people who have preceded us. One of the participants in the discussion session at the Spirit and Place event agreed that buildings have their own spirits, expressed in their art and architecture, and are even living beings. As such, she thought it unforgivable when soulful buildings are demolished.

K.P. Singh’s comment was that architecture can indeed be something that pulsates and has life.

Cover of K.P. Singh’s 2003 Book

Cover of K.P. Singh’s 2003 Book

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