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The shape of an icon

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

(1901-1974) was an of Estonian origin who built only one building in India but left a big impression on the modern Indian architectural imagination. His Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (built in 1966), is generally considered one of the great buildings of 20th-century architecture in India. Of course, like much modern architecture admired by architects, it often inspires extreme reactions from users who either love it or hate it. Either way, few are left unmoved by it.

FORM WITH FEELING
Kahn helped bring emotion back into architecture at a time when Western architects were designing more with logic than with feeling. Early 20th-century modernism believed that showing the way a building was built or the way it worked would automatically yield a satisfying form and feeling. It also rejected references to the past. Instead it believed that a viable new culture of the future could be fashioned by embracing industrial technology.

Through his work Kahn showed that many of the oppositions in this view — like between past culture and future technology — were false. Perhaps this explains his impact on Indian architecture. Unlike Le Corbusier (who designed Chandigarh), he did not offer any specific set of forms that Indian architects could imitate. But he appears to have offered a crucial new sanction to young architects in a materially poor but culturally rich new nation. Study the architecture of the past to build a viable architecture for the future, his buildings say.

THE CAMPUS
Great works are seldom faultless. Moreover, their magic cannot be reduced to a specific set of explanations. Both observations hold true with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that it embodies two conflicting realities: the architectural vision of a Western architect as well as the contingencies of a place with a unique climate and culture, both different from his. By comparison Le Corbusier, often considered the greatest architect of the 20th century, managed to imbue Chandigarh’s with his personal vision alone, ignoring the local culture of dwelling.

A local material — brick — and the harsh local light were the resource and the pressure his design responded to. The mystic in him asked: what does the brick want to be? The answer was: an arch. Out of this he developed an imaginative (and often technically ingenious) architectural language of arched and circular openings, and massive fort-like walls (with buttresses). Though partly inspired by Roman architecture, these also resonated with the extensive Islamic architectural heritage of Ahmedabad. This, along with Kahn’s approach to modulating light, perhaps makes feel as if it belongs to its site.

MANAGING LIGHT

Kahn was always much concerned with the way light played upon and inside buildings. At he recognised that the challenge was to deflect and block the harsh Ahmedabad sun so that it was tamed on its way in. Thus Kahn effectively began by creating a dark interior and illuminated it bit by bit.

What he did was actually quite simple. To use architectural jargon, he ‘layered’ spaces. Windows and other openings usually opened onto intermediate covered spaces created by recessing external walls. Each such space was like a layer of space between inside and outside. These spaces were in shadow and softened the light that finally entered the building through abutting windows.

The layering, the deep shadows, and the frequent absence of windows on exterior walls also created the monumental grace that Kahn was always after. He wanted architecture to provide sanctuary for the spirit. For him, the monumentality of architecture promised the dweller an enduring presence.

PROBLEMS WITH THE DESIGN
Some of Kahn’s design decisions have created problems. The massive brickwork has started to wear. Kahn had perhaps stretched the material too close to its limits in the quest for a visionary design. Rectifying the problems is very challenging. Exposed brickwork forbids any solution that involves the usual resurfacing. Since the brickwork is load-bearing (and not just an infill wall as in a typical RCC building) it is difficult to replace walls that are in bad shape. At the level of design, the combination of monumentality and interior darkness in many parts of the campus are also disquieting for many users. There is much sense in Kahn’s attempt to modulate the light, but perhaps inevitably, it did not always work.

KAHN’S INFLUENCE
has been called a ‘graduate seminar’ for young Indian architects. The project was officially handled by the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, with Kahn as design consultant. NID’s project office for the building had young Indian architects like and working under the local supervision of Kahn controlled the design development from his Philadelphia office, with occasional visits to Ahmedabad. Thus, through this project several young architects were directly trained by Kahn. Raje extended Kahn’s philosophy as a whole, masterfully, and passed it on to the next generation of architects like Gautam Bhatia. Others like Doshi (who later designed IIM Bangalore) and Kapadia internalised some of its tenets but explored other ways of building.

Kahn thus left an impression at different levels of design thinking, whether of intention or of expression.

THE EXTENSION TO IIM-A

The first phase of a new extension to the campus (with a built-up area of approximately 600,000 sq ft) of the IIM-A was built in 2008. Built on a 38-acre plot across the street from the main campus and connected to it by an underpass, it was designed by Ahmedabad-based architect Bimal Patel.

Adding to a masterpiece, even if it is across the street, is a daunting challenge. Like any other architect in a similar position, Patel had a number of difficult choices to make. For example, he could have chosen to continue Kahn’s material palette and language, or to respond to it with something completely different. He did a bit of both.

Patel’s campus answers Kahn’s warm brick with a very different material: exposed concrete, which is much more alienating (Kahn himself used it in his Salk Institute in La Jolla, California). But it continues some of Kahn’s rhythms of form and space. He also adds a spin to the design with playful metal screen-sculptures (by artist Walter D’Souza) that challenge the unsmiling concrete order.

The strategy works, but only in part. Kahn’s architecture takes the humble brick and creates from it a monument that is also a nurturing presence. The monumentality is counterpointed but never diluted. The alternation of high and low, large and small openings and spaces is one way in which this is achieved. Another is the intricacy of brick itself. Neither undercuts the seriousness of the monumentality.

With a simple geometry like Kahn’s, the built masses of the extension are already severe. The concrete surface makes them even more so at the moment. Some of Patel’s attempts at counterpointing the severity work — the metal screens, for instance. Others don’t. Small panels of exposed brick in the concrete frame, and the occasional circular openings, are relatively weak gestures that never challenge the concrete masses in the way the metal screens do. They only nibble away at the dignity of the overall order without necessarily softening it. But it must be remembered that the complex is incomplete, which adds to the sense of severity. As they grow, the trees will probably cast softening shadows on these walls, and as more buildings spring up a greater sense of intimacy will emerge in the outdoor spaces. That will be when the dialogue between the new and the old can be properly assessed.

First Published: Sun, June 27 2010. 00:51 IST
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