Explained: The signature of Kahn and other foreign architects on Indian cities

The importance of being Louis Kahn is never more real than now, as the American architect’s only project in India faces bulldozers.

A controversy has been playing out over the last several days over a decision by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad to bring down 18 dormitories built by legendary American architect Louis Kahn on the old campus, and replace them with new building. Since then, Kahn’s family has written to the IIM Ahmedabad authorities urging them to reconsider.

Kahn, in fact, is one among several foreign architects whose work defines several Indian cities.

Antonin Raymond & George Nakashima

Golconde, one of India’s first modernist buildings, was conceptualised in Puducherry by the founders of the experimental township of Auroville. Tokyo-based Czech architect Antonin Raymond was invited to design this space as a universal commune, and Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima would complete it after Raymond left India. It is possibly India’s first reinforced concrete buildings, built between 1937 and 1945. Its façade creates the impression that one could open or shut these concrete blinds, without compromising on privacy, while the ascetic interiors helped provide a meditative atmosphere.

Otto Koenigsberger

Berlin-bred Koenigsberger was already working for the Maharaja of Mysore in the late 1930s, when he was commissioned by Tata & Sons to develop the industrial township of Jamshedpur in the early 1940s. He would later design the masterplan for Bhubhaneswar (1948) and Faridabad (1949). Having seen children and women walk punishing distances to reach schools and workplaces, he planned for schools and bazaars in the city centre and for a network of neighbourhoods. At a time marked by Partition and rioting, his housing plans included people from different social classes and religions.

His friends Albert Mayer and Mathew Nowicki would go on to design Chandigarh. However, much before Koenigsberger, there was the Scottish biologist and geographer Patrick Geddes, who wrote town planning reports, from 1915 to 1919, for 18 Indian cities, including Bombay and Indore.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Though the legendary American architect never built a structure in India, his influence was unmistakable. Two of his students, Gautam and Gira Sarabhai, founders of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, requested him to design the administration building for Sarabhai Calico Mills in 1946. It would possibly have been the city’s first high-rise with terraces and a podium. Though the building never got built, Gira remodelled an existing bungalow using Wright’s signature cantilever roofs and a strong indoor-outdoor connect. Padma Vibhushan Charles Correa, one of India’s finest architects and urban planners, was hugely influenced by Wright.

Le Corbusier

Before Swiss-French painter-writer-architect Corbusier came on the scene in Chandigarh, there was Polish architect Mathew Nowicki, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and American developer Albert Mayer. Nowicki’s death in a plane crash ended the commission, and Corbusier came on board. With English architect Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew, Corbusier with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret would design many of Chandigarh’s civic buildings, from courts to housing. Corbusier’s modernist approach, without decoration, gave India its brutalist, bare concrete buildings. Many architects thereafter, including Pritzker Prize winner B V Doshi and Shivnath Prasad, would be inspired by him. According to critic-historian Peter Scriver, Corbusier’s contribution was “a new cast of mind, not just shapes”. He won favour with the Sarabhais of Ahmedabad and built the Sarabhai House, Shodhan House, Mill Owner’s Association Building and Sankar Kendra. He is often called the “father of modern Indian architecture”.

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Buckminster Fuller

Futuristic innovator Fuller is known for his geodesic domes – large-span structures made of a network of triangles. While Wright’s Calico administration building never got permission from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, its foundation had already been laid. Gautam Sarabhai, inspired by Fuller, designed the Calico Dome in 1962, at the same site that served as a mill shop. Since its recent collapse, it has been in disrepair and neglected.

Joseph Allen Stein

He was invited by Vijayalakshmi Pandit in 1952 to come to India and establish the Department of Architecture and Planning at the West Bengal Engineering College. Though he also practised briefly in Orissa and West Bengal, it’s in New Delhi where Stein left the deepest imprint. From the Triveni Kala Sangam, with its temple-like repose, the High Commissioner’s Residence and Chancery for Australia, where his polygon-shaped masonry with local stone made its first appearance, to ‘Steinabad’ in Lodhi Estate, where many of his buildings stand, including the India International Centre, Ford Foundation and the India Habitat Centre, Stein gave Delhi cultural landmarks that blended Indian craft with international modernism.

Louis Kahn

The importance of being Kahn is never more real than now, as the American architect’s only project in India faces bulldozers. The design for IIM Ahmedabad (1962-1974) carried the essence of learning in the humility of its material, and the way spaces were managed — placing the dormitories, the library and classrooms at the same level, or the faculty residences across a waterbody.

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