Kuldip Singh died on November 10 from complications due to Covid-19. He was a master architect, city planner, and builder, with some of Delhi’s most important and innovative modernist structures to his credit. He was an artist in the use of architectural concrete, though he preferred not to refer to himself as a Brutalist; the term, he said, served only to constrict one’s creativity.
A quiet, soft-spoken man, Singh enjoyed Urdu poetry. In his retirement years he devoted himself to collecting South Indian art. Yet his most successful buildings were composed of hulking, massive geometrical forms which, to many eyes, at least, would appear to be both unpoetic and inartistic.
Kuldip Singh’s genius laid in his experimentation with form and materials, desire to be true to a building’s purpose and context, and willingness to provoke a reaction. His work consistently asked what should constitute an Indian modernism – how should modern architecture balance the legacies of the past with the needs of an ambitious, yet poor, post-colonial nation? Singh’s buildings were poetic in just this way. He understood the quiet pragmatism and patience needed to create large-scale, public-facing structures in India, but he never lost sight of his artistic and social vision for a constructive, modern, Indian architecture.
Kuldip Singh was born in Simla in 1934 and came to Delhi to take his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Delhi Polytechnic (now the School of Planning and Architecture) in 1951. After graduation he worked on the Chandigarh project, like so many of his contemporaries, though he worked most of this time under the mentorship of JK Choudhury who was then overseeing the construction of a small planned settlement near the Bhakra Dam.
It was this experience, Singh once told me, that first piqued his career-long interest in urban planning. The lesson he learned from Chandigarh, he said, was that it was a call for Indian architects to experiment, to break free of earlier traditions, and to remake architecture for India in a new way.
After two years’ work in Chandigarh, Singh left for England, attending University College London. For a time he also worked with the celebrated architect Howard Robertson, contributing to the University of Keele’s new library building. This was a project that required a particularly innovative structural design, given that the ground in this part of England was prone to settling because of extensive coal mining.
Singh was responsible for overseeing the construction of the library and he told me how much he enjoyed the technical challenges involved in the building. But he also faced the challenge of winning over the local workmen, unaccustomed as they were to having a slim, turbaned Indian in charge. By the completion of the project Singh and the workmen took their tea together.
Singh returned to India in 1963 and went into joint practice with his former classmate Raj Rewal. The partnership between Rewal and Singh resulted in some enormously imaginative plans and buildings. Together they set a new standard for innovation in post-colonial Indian modernism. An early proposal for a high density core in Delhi, to be located just to the south-east of Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk), called for a series of towers that mixed office and leisure space, creating, in essence, a real downtown for Delhi on the model of US cities.
Their entry for the new tower at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai incorporated over a hundred small arches, each mimicking the Gateway of India opposite, creating a remarkable and unique honeycomb effect. Most memorable, however, was the overall site plan for Pragati Maidan in Delhi which, when completed under Rewal’s leadership, featured the distinctive concrete space-frame construction of the Hall of Nations and the Hall of Industries.
It was during the late 1960s that Rewal and Singh first began their career-long collaborations with structural engineer Mahendra Raj (whom they both continued to work with even after their partnership dissolved). Singh’s respect for Raj’s engineering prowess was enormous, so much so that Singh did once say to me that he would never ask Raj to solve the same problem twice – he felt it was a waste of his time and talent.
Singh also branched out at this time into the design of residential projects intended to help solve the enormous problem of housing Delhi’s rapidly growing population. Working with the Delhi Development Authority during the 1970s, Singh created his biggest housing project in Malviya Nagar (known as the Golf View Apartments, 1971-’76). Singh described the project as embodying CIAM directives (under the leadership of Le Corbusier) to create high density housing while also accommodating Indian climatic conditions and social norms.
Singh went on in the later 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s to design a wide range of structures, including the Marine Drive waterfront development in Cochin (Kochi). He also oversaw the development of the 45-acre commercial development of Saket district center.
Kuldip Singh is best remembered now, however, for his two monumental, bare concrete government structures in Delhi – the National Cooperative Development Corporation building in Hauz Khas (1978) and the New Delhi Municipal Council buildings at Palika Kendra (1983).
The NCDC building is a remarkable structure composed of two inclined nine-storey wings that meet at the top, creating an open atrium below. An enclosed cylindrical staircase is featured at the front entry, but it is not structural (as many observers suppose). The exterior concrete finish is prominently imprinted with its wooden cladding marks, all in creative geometrical forms.
The NDMC towers feature a similar negatively curved form, though here the effect of the structural, sheer exterior walls, recessed balconies, and more subtle cladding marks renders the overall exterior appearance much smoother, even lighter in some ways – a remarkable accomplishment, given the buildings’ huge sizes.
These buildings reflect, it has been observed, older architectural forms common to India. Habib Rahman remarked that the NCDC looked like the gopuras of a south Indian temple, while the towers at Palika Kendra can be seen to reflect the forms of Jai Singh’s observatory instruments situated nearby. The relationship was incidental, Singh told me. Nor were the exposed concrete finishes overt gestures towards Le Corbusier or Chandigarh’s form of modernism.
Instead, it made sense to build in exposed concrete because it was more cost effective at the time. At least this is what Kuldip told me during our last conversation, just a little before Delhi’s first Covid-19 lockdown. I wonder whether he was just being coy or modest, as he often was with me. I had asked him what makes the NDMC towers “Indian architecture.” His reply was that they’re Indian because they wouldn’t be anywhere else but here.
Without question, Kuldip Singh made his mark on Delhi’s modern urban form like few other architects of his era. And in this respect he was an important innovator in the creation of India’s distinctive post-colonial architecture. He will be missed, though his buildings – at least for now – are still living with us, reminders of his particular genius and that quiet, mischievous desire of his to build an architecture that both provokes and serves those it is intended for.
Michael S Dodson is Professor of South Asian History at Indiana University Bloomington. He is writing a book on modernist design in Delhi during the 1960s, ’70s and ‘80s.