Lost opportunities and heroic visions.

Post-Independance India brought about a whole new set of opportunities for the country. Fresh with the idealism of independance from centuries of British Rule, now was our chance as a nation to show the world what we could do. The famous midnight speech by PM Nehru, that night on August 14, 1947; finally brought India as a nation to the doorsteps of the world.

In the list of new opportunities, were those for architecture. Indian architecture for milleniums and more has been at the pinnacle. One needs to look at Mohenjodaro, 5000 years ago and all the way down to the fantastic cities, temples, forts and other feats of architecture, to realize that we were no new kids on the block.

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In this scenario, Nehru, in my opinion did a brilliant act of inviting two of the greatest architects of the last century, to come to India and build ideas and buildings for a new emerging nation. There is a lot of controversey about this act. Was it a smart move to invite two foreigners to design in a country they did not know much about ? I think that in the end, sane logic prevailed and art and architecture were the winners.

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Le Corbusier, arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century, put pen to paper and dreamed up the city of Chandigarh. No one needs an introduction to Le Corbusier the architect. For anyone who has seen or experienced a building designed by him will tell, the experience never leaves you. Having seen Ronchamp, one of his greatest projects, words dont come to mind to describe how the man conceived the ideas of sculpting light.

Chandigarh was to be the urban utopia that India cherished. A city that would break away from the shackles of centuries of organic growth, and spring to the 21st century. The intentions were noble, but sadly the implementation left a lot to be deserved.

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Anyone who has gone to Chandigarh will in the same instance marvel at the completely different style of architecture and vast urban spaces, but on the other hand wonder why they are so desolate. Le Corb wanted to design a classless society in 1950’s India, something that was an error of judgement on the part of the maestro. However the legacy of the Government Complex he designed and left behind, spurred on a generation of architects. The likes of Charles Correa, B V Doshi, Achyut Kanvinde, Raj Rewal, Anant Raje and hundreds of others, took Corbusiers vision and gave it a completely new and bold Indian vocabulary, in myriad towns and cities across the country.

Corbusier, however was not the only big influence on India. According to me, a larger, but lesser known influence was Louis I. Kahn, an architect who I deeply admire and respect, even so more now, after seeing some of his seminal works in the US, besides his works in India.

louiskahn.jpgKahn, as an architect, bloomed late in his professional life and built his first great building at the age of 54. His life was recently documented in a movie by his son, called My Architect, a must see.

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Kahn came to India at the invitation of a few wealthy businessmen in Gujarat who had heard of his work in the US. He was commissioned to design the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He designed a building complex, where the decision makers of a new nation could study and go out into the world. All the design elements are catered to this purpose.

Louis Kahn, then went on to builid the Capital Complex for the new capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka. The forms he created and the spaces that evolved, were mind-boggling to perceive, but when complete awe-struck the world. dhaka01.jpg Louis Kahn, was a philosopher first, teacher second and architect third. He taught a legion of architects, at the School of Architecture, Univ of Pennsylvania, and some of his students became the torch bearers of American architecture in the decades since Kahn passed away.

Sadly, Kahn never lived to see his greatest work, completed. He died, in mysterious circumstances. He was found dead in a WC stall at the Penn Station in Manhattan, NY, just having arrived back from Dhaka on a flight and about to take a train home to Philadelphia, where he lived.

The reason why I write about these two architects and especially about Kahn is because of this recent article in the TOI about how India lost an opportunity to have Kahn design the city of Gandhinagar.

There will always be pros and cons in architectural circles, about the influence of these two greats on Indian architecture and our cities today per se. As an architect myself, I can surely say that they by their deeds and works, left our country, with a vision and a zeal that far outpaced other influences in other fields. They taught us how to think big, and kick-started a process to help Indian architecture and Indian architects, come abreast with the world, after having been subjugated to alien influences for close to three centuries and more.

‘Gandhinagar missed the bus’
TIMES NEWS NETWORKFRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 02, 2005

AHMEDABAD: If celebrated American architect Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management (IIM) building continues to draw world attention, imagine how splendid Gandhinagar would have been, had it been designed by him! But Kahn did not design the city, although he had agreed to do so. A city which could have become another Chandigarh — designed by Le Corbusier — or even better than that, was ultimately designed by HK Mewada and built between 1965 and 1982.

A still-to-be-released book ‘Gandhinagar — Building national identity in postcolonial India’ written by a US-based Ravi Kalia explores how government nonchalance was responsible for losing an opportunity to design an architecturally important capital city. The book is part of a trilogy on post-colonial capital cities.

Incidentally, the cover of the book has a picture of IIM building in Ahmedabad instead of Gandhinagar, clearly symbolising what it could have been.

“Judged on some very important criteria of monumentality and accessibility, the Gandhinagar capital is an outright failure, while on others it serves the functions for which it was designed,”Kalia observes in his book.

Few know that Kahn would have designed the city, had the government of the time shown conviction to create a piece of architectural history. Instead, it now seems just like a cluster of administrative offices.

“Everything was settled; Kasturbhai Lalbhai had endorsed Kahn’s choice as the architect for Gandhinagar and even assured that he will arrange for foreign exchange. We submitted the plan to the government but it didn’t go further than that,”said leading architect-planner BV Doshi, when asked to comment on the book.

So what went wrong? As Kalia points out, “whereas Chandigarh resembles an acropolis of monuments dominating the city, Gandhinagar appears a disembodied ensemble of government buildings attesting to the PWD’s plucky attempt at creating monumentality.”

Kalia further says, “The contrast between Chandigarh and Gandhinagar stems from their different pedigree and the intensity of convictions held by the architects.

Le Corbusier served the profligate Punjab government backed by the cosmopolitan urbane Nehru, at a time when the whole world seemed under reconstruction after World War II, when the avatars of modernism were proclaiming a new era that would be the culmination of human evolution… HK Mewada, by way of contrast, served the stiff and ungainly Gujarat government…”

8 Comments

  1. arZan September 4, 2005

    IU.

    Thanks for your comment.

  2. iu September 4, 2005

    Arzan,

    A fascinating article! I enjoyed reading it — thanks for writing this.

  3. iu September 4, 2005

    hmmm… my previous comment hasn’t showed up, so I’m reposting it:

    Fascinating read, Arzan. Thanks for writing this.

  4. sunil September 5, 2005

    great post Arzan…..it’s great that you keep an eye out for architecture related media articles as well. Always rewarding to visit here.

  5. Rahul September 5, 2005

    Arzan, its not like Mewada snatched away the job from Corbusier or Kahn. As a Senior Govt. functionary, he did what he had to do. This is how the Indian system works. Recently, when Ajit Jogi was the CM of the newly carved out state of Chhattisgarh, he floated a proposal for the New Capital City near Raipur. A lot of money was spent and large tracts of land were acquired. I am sure it has also become a similar story. On the smaller scale, we see monstrosities carried out by Hafeez and like. On one hand we have sterile places like Gandhinagar and Chandigarh and on the other we have most Indian cities where the growth is so organic that is has become cancerous now. Anyway, interesting read.

  6. Sakshi September 5, 2005

    Very interesting read…

  7. deeshah September 8, 2005

    very interesting read, particularly appealing is the architectural presence of Kahn which has influenced architecture students and like in india..
    and yes the movie made by his son is a must-see..
    an architect, a philosopher…

  8. deeshah September 8, 2005

    very interesting read, particularly appealing is the architectural presence of Kahn which has influenced architecture students and like in india..
    and yes the movie made by his son is a must-see..
    an architect, a philosopher…

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