THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE IN INDIA
Ayan Choudhury & Kunal Rakshit
Amidst the busy and mundane daily life that we live today, ever taken some time away and reflected at the past? Ever tried to turn back the clock? Google Earth provides us with an important tool, the Time Slider, it allows one to literally turn back the clock and revisit any place anytime in the history and experience the change that place has got under. In other words, it is called retrospect. Now, ask yourself, what if the change didn’t happen the way it did? What if in the timeline of History, something got altered and one set of actions got replaced by something else, where would we stand today? How the world would have shaped up today if all didn’t go according to the ‘plan’, the divine plan.
If we turn the clock back to the 1940s, amidst the bloodshed and the revolution, the cry of ‘Vande Mataram’ echoing through every alley, a new country is emerging, a young country with a rich history but with a burning desire to create something new, India, Modern India. Post-Independent India went through a lot of turmoil, it was like the day after an Indian Wedding, the guests are gone but the ‘memories’ of their stay remains along with the mess, you don’t know which stuff is yours and what to throw out, every corner of the house throwing up a treasure chest. India needed to be rebuilt; it needed to make a mark of its own and Architecture played an important role during this modernization of the society.
The Western Exports
At the stroke of midnight, 15th August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru took on the reigns to administer a newly born nation, India and immediately after, India was graced by the presence of two of the most influential architects of the modern era, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Both of them visited India within a gap of a decade and interestingly, both occurred as coincidences, and the rest, as they say, is history.
After the partition of India, the former British province of Punjab was divided into East Punjab and West Punjab, the latter comprising of the Muslim population while the other, the Hindus. The Indian portion or the East Punjab required a new Capital to replace Lahore (now in Pakistan) and thus Chandigarh was carved out of Punjab to serve the purpose. Now, Modern India needed a newly planned modern capital. In came Albert Mayer, an American based planner and Matthew Nowicki, his architect partner and together they developed the master plan for the city. But on the fateful night of 31st August 1950, the Trans World Airlines Flight 903 plunged to its death in the Libyan Desert and with it died Matthew Nowicki, he was returning from his visit to Chandigarh. Mayer, clearly in mourning, discontinued the project of Chandigarh soon after, though he continued his stay in India and occupied himself with developmental projects in Rural India. The mantle of designing the city of Chandigarh now went on to the celebrated architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier.
What if the plane had not crashed? What if Albert Mayer had decided to continue on his Master Plan of Chandigarh, after all it was his friendship with Nehru that got him the job? What if Le Corbusier never accepted the job of planning Chandigarh (he did refuse them once before)? Let us RE-imagine the scenario if Nowicki never died in the plane crash.
No Corbusier in India!! A little too tough to imagine right now but that’s exactly what would have happened. The Chandigarh what we see today would not be the rectangular city with a grid-iron pattern for the fast traffic road, instead it would have followed the fan-shaped master plan which spread gently to fill the site between the two river-beds; a curvilinear network of roads surrounding the residential blocks, the 2 axial routes bordered by linear parks which would connect the zones, namely: Apartment Housing, Low-Cost Housing, Schools, Temples, Outdoor Theatres and Bazaar. The super block would have been a self-sufficient neighborhood units placed along the curvilinear roads and comprised of cluster type housing, markets and centrally located open spaces. We would never witness the Assembly building with the paraleloide hyperbolic roof and the domino style would have taken couple of decades to enter India. We might be studying Albert Mayer’s works as examples of Modern Architecture in India. Chandigarh might have turned out to be the ‘Chicago’ of India and we would be studying his works on post-colonial Delhi rather than ‘Piloti Architecture’ and its influence in Mass Housing today.
We don’t know what would happen in place of Sanskar Kendra Museum, Mill Owners Association (ATMA), Sarabhai house or Shodhan House in Ahmedabad. Certainly Ahmedabad’s modernist design legacy would not have been discussed like what we do today. The Carpenters Centre at Harvard University which was also Corbusier’s only building in the States would not have the same design if Shodhan house was not made in its place. Talk about butterfly effect? Instead, probably we would have spent time discussing more about Walter Gropius’ influence on Achyut P. Kanvinde’s built works and how it faced resistance from Claude Batley (who established the Department of Architecture at the J. J. School of Art) as one of its leading protagonists. Batley held the opinion that traditional Indian character and motifs in building had to be expressed in contemporary work which was un-gropiusian definitely. More debates would follow on line of how we are adapting Indian motifs in practical dimension. Without the thumping presence of Corbusier in Indian context, we don’t know what would have happened to modern masters like B.V. Doshi who was doing apprenticeship in Corbusier’s Paris Studio. Maybe the whole IIM Ahmedabad and Bangalore’s design fate would have changed its course.
The Other One
Let us shift our focus to the post-Independence education of India. Calcutta and Bombay had already established themselves as pioneers in Indian Education with top-ranked Universities and Colleges flanking its sides and raising its neck out in the competition. The first Indian Institute of Management, initiated by Nehru, was already established in Calcutta in 1961 and a new one was commissioned soon after in 1962 at Ahmedabad. Eminent Physicist Vikram Sarabhai and businessman Kasturbhai Lalbhai played a pivotal role in setting up the institute. Indian Architect Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi was initially commissioned with the job of designing the Institutional Building but having worked for and under a certain Louis Isadore Kahn back in America, he was aware of his importance and the impact it would have on both Kahn and Indian architecture, he recommended the job to Kahn.
More importantly, if Corbusier did not come to India and would not have the rapport with Vikram Sarabhai then probably Mr. Sarabhai would have never considered Doshi for the prestigious project. It was Sarabhai’s blind faith with Corbusier that he entrusted young Doshi with such prestigious project. What if Doshi did not realize that? What if in the bid for personal glory, he accepted the job and continued designing the Institute? What if Vikram Sarabhai did not give the famous nod to go ahead and commission Louis Kahn for the job? Louis Kahn would have never set his foot on the Indian subcontinent.
We now envision India without Louis Kahn, how would it look like? IIM-A or IIM-Ahmedabad would be an institutional building designed by B. V. Doshi and Anant Raje, and would most probably lack the monumental character that is trademark of a Kahn building it has today. A building by Doshi would certainly be a stroke of genius without any doubt, but there is still doubt whether it would have the same effect Kahn’s design has, the gigantic opening to the plaza, the majestic appearance of brick walls. We often see the Brutalism and heavy use of geometry in Doshi’s work especially in Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Ahmedabad but that was after he was influenced by Kahn’s work but with no Kahn, modern architecture would still be following dome and vault structures, something which was broken by Kahn after he visited Asia.
Louis Kahn did not limit himself to only India; he also took on projects in Pakistan (East and West both). He designed the National Assembly building in Dhaka in 1962, when he was at the pinnacle of his career. The use of reinforced concrete at the then present context was a bold move and again, the sheer monumentality of the building gained by the huge monolithic walls made it one of the icons of Modern Architecture and showcased how different was Kahn’s approach in using concrete from that of his contemporaries.
But we are looking at a world where Louis Kahn does not visit Asia and thus does not design the National Assembly building, Dhaka. Who would have built it then? Maybe Fazlur Rahman Khan would have built it, being one of the top engineers to be born in Bangladesh, or it could have been Muzharul Islam, the one who was actually commissioned to design the building.
If Muzharul Islam designed the Sangshad Bhavan, it would have followed his usual exposed brick structure, eminent from its use in the College Arts and Crafts (1953-54), a style which we see being followed in Institutional buildings here like the CEPT by Doshi or NID (National Institute of Design) by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai (both in the 60s and 70s). The building would have reflected the architectural style that dominated the sub-continent during that period, use of reinforced concrete to build the frame and fill in with masonry walls, the distinction between the two surfaces would then be obscured with stucco, often containing decorative detail. This method of construction gained popularity hugely in India and its sub-continent due to its easy manufacture and cheap availability of labour; Bangladesh was no exception, the works of Islam was a living example. Thus, if we envisage a Bangladesh without the influence of Kahn, an insipid society with identical houses with no flare for creativity and boldness comes up. The Assembly Building would be a grand building without a doubt, but it would definitely lack the austerity that Louis Kahn’s design brought.The whole gamut of architecture profession in Bangladesh would have been class apart without Kahn’s definite direction. The modern architecture of Bangladesh would lack the tooth for sure.
Another famous architect who would have been a strong candidate for designing the National assembly was Fazlur Rahman Khan. Now that would have been an interesting turn of events, Fazlur was one architect who was ahead of his time; he was considered “the father of tubular designs for high-rises” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was famous for devising innovative construction methods which influenced sky-scraper designing throughout the world, especially in USA where he designed the Willis Tower (second tallest building in USA) among other buildings. He would have influenced Bangladesh’ architecture a long way if he had designed an iconic building for his motherland. His framed tube structure or trussed tube structure if used extensively would have created a new language for Modern Architecture in Bangladesh. He had the potential to bring up Bangladesh into the international map architecturally and even bring it at par with international cities like New York or Chicago (famous for their skyscrapers). Not a debauched outcome sans the influence of Louis Kahn, a very different outcome but a positive one none-the-less.
And it goes on
The history of architecture since time immemorial never had had such an influence on a single incident and that too being an airplane crash. It was that fateful night of 31 August/1 September 1950 that changed drastically the course of architecture in the Indian Subcontinent for years to come which would eventually touch the lives of billions of people. The divine plan. Was it for good or bad? Time is not ripe yet.
Photo Courtesy: Kunal Rakshit