Louis Kahn’s architecture at IIM-A is an example of his imagination, optimism

You can only look up at those bare brick walls that rise 40 feet into the Ahmedabad sky, a load-bearing, massive, geometrically-precise structure of immense gravitas. The shapes and forms are unfamiliar, daunting, monumental. You try to make sense of them, but they are also so simple, consistent and logical that they escape in silence and one must return again and again to make them familiar.

For 30 years, we have been returning to the IIM campus to admire those brick walls, their restraint and power. Many of us have fond memories of visiting these sequestered “citadels” of red and green, full of shadow and shade: An oasis in the hot, dry and then much-dustier landscape of Ahmedabad.

Over the years, the awe and admiration for Harvard steps, the Louis Kahn Plaza and that incredible façade along the cricket field have been complemented by other experiences of intimacy: Of the dormitories, their cellular monastic rooms that scale their internal facades around shaded quadrangles that form the student “hang-outs” between the buildings. In a city that has recently turned 600 years old, these “modern” buildings seem completely at home. Not unlike the sultanate architecture, say the Bhadra Fort, these buildings of the IIM, can be both imposing and intimate.

This is a far cry from much of our contemporary built environment where buildings have been reduced to real estate numerics, that have neither practical performative nor ideational concerns. These buildings are only about themselves, which take pride in cutting off their insides from all that is without.

We live in a time of disintegration, where this fragmented physical world only mirrors the compartmentalisation of our minds along the lines of wealth, community and nationality, where the idea of India has shrivelled with a myopia, to fit into an insecure exclusivist definition. Let us then remember Kahn, on his 120 birthday, an architect whose broad humanistic imagination would find nurture in the optimism and enthusiasm of a recently-independent nation, encouraging him to give shape to “institutions” of humankind.

Institutions for Kahn were opportunities for communion. Not just humans meeting humans, but where the “sun met the brick” or the “buildings met the sky”, or the city met the river. Thinking through the idea of meeting at all scales allowed Kahn to develop a matrix of universalist ideas that bordered on what one might refer to as the spiritual.

While many were preoccupied with important prosaic dimensions of the profession that followed the WWII, Kahn’s work kept alive a poetic, metaphysical imagination which drew deeply from history in search of continuities beyond style. This is what makes the recent issue of replacing 14 of his dormitories at the IIMA so tragically ironic, where the arguments in favour of “demolition and rebuild” are contrary to the legacy that the institution now professes to recognise.

Kahn’s early works were largely civic in nature and were done in partnership, first with George Howe and then Oscar Stonorov. It was in the subcontinent where he would realise most of his overseas work. The IIM campus in Ahmedabad was contemporary to the design of Gandhinagar-state capital (unbuilt), Sher-E- Banglanagar-Dhaka, and a bit later the Family Planning Centre, Kathmandu. It seems that his design approach found particular resonance in the climatic, programmatic requirements, but most importantly the historical imagination of the region.

Kahn was a small man, and he had a delicate voice and gentle, soft hands. However, his often nervous, hesitant, shy exterior held within a powerful imposing monumental imagination. Perhaps, the dialogue between these two contrasts, his personal inside and outside, can be seen embedded in his architecture’s search for a unity.

The writer, an architect, is currently involved in preparation of the heritage conservation plan for UNESCO World Heritage City, Ahmedabad

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