Demolitions represent not only the destruction of material edifices but also ideological ones, of histories being rewritten, of memories erased. The campaigns to resist them might offer insights on legacy, ecology, and empathy – on other ways of worldmaking.
On December 23, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, through a letter to its alumni, made public plans to replace (demolish and rebuild) 14 student dormitory buildings on its campus designed by the late American architect Louis Kahn. Kahn worked on the campus from1962, until his death in 1974.
Following his death, Anant Raje who had worked with Kahn in Philadelphia from 1964 to 1969, and who directed the site office from 1969 to 1974, continued work on the campus. Raje remained a co-author of the IIMA campus until 2000, along with various other architects, engineers, and visionaries, whose stories remain buried in the hagiography surrounding Louis Kahn.
IIMA’s announcement prompted national and international concern. Voices of condemnation and appeals for reconsideration poured in from emerging and eminent architects, academics, historians, students, from the alumni of the IIMA, the World Monuments Fund, The International Council of Monuments and Sites, The Getty Foundation, The International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement, from Councils of Architecture and from Louis Kahn’s children.
A change.org petition started by the Architectural Review garnered over 18,000 signatories.
On hearing of the impending demolition, we, the authors of this article, sent a letter to the IIMA director and members of the institute’s governing council urging them to reconsider the decision. We believe these buildings embody the collective memory of a fraternity that encompasses not only the IIMA community but also architects, academics, historians and cultural critics. This collective memory acknowledges a continued relevance of the project through values of universal humanism that are imbued in the work.
We appealed to the IIMA to recognise this legacy, to abandon its plans for demolition and expand existing conservation efforts to include the entire east campus. We emphasised that doing so could be visionary and allow for new uses, modern amenities and structural compliance. IIMA’s restoration architects Somaya and Kalappa had already received UNESCO recognition for conservation work done on the campus.
We used a simple Google document to solicit signatories by writing personal emails and through a word-of-mouth campaign. The response was overwhelming. Five days into the campaign, we reached 669 signatures, across 30 countries and 118 universities. On December 31, as expectations grew that the IIMA would soon convene on the matter, we decided to send the letter even as the list of signatories was growing.
January 1 brought encouraging news. The IIMA heard the multitude of voices calling for reconsideration. It withdrew the Expression of Interest to demolish and rebuild the dorms with a letter to stakeholders. The letter said that the IIMA would “deliberate on the feedback received, re-evaluate the options, consult the best global conservation and structural experts, and chart out a course of action”.
While this was portrayed in the press as cancelling plans for demolition, the Institute has yet to state this unequivocally. We await the institute’s response and hope for the adoption of a comprehensive conservation plan that does justice to the stature and legacy of the work. This makes it a prudent time to reflect upon the wider implications of these events.
In public correspondences from the director of IIMA, two primary motives emerge for the proposed “replacement”. The first is “safety”, and the other, a difficulty to upgrade the buildings and integrate modern amenities that foreground comfort.
The issue of safety, particularly seismic design, is frequently brought up in cases of heritage evaluation. However, it is often forgotten that seismic design is not an absolute science. The key aim for seismic design is to prevent loss of life. In doing so, the level of permissible damage to a building is subject to various considerations, especially those concerning use.
Public buildings in which the loss of life has the potential of being catastrophic are required to be designed to a different standard than those with a smaller number of users. It is critical to note that such a building will withstand (with damage) and not collapse to cause loss of life.
We often forget that new building codes make the same distinction of use across building types and allow for similar attitudes to post-earthquake damage. Most new buildings are designed to be earthquake “resistant” and not earthquake proof. It may well be that a dormitory is deliberately designed to “withstand moderate earthquakes with limited damage and major earthquakes with significant damage” irrespective of whether they are old or new. This may be as much an economic consideration as a structural one.
In the recent past, it has become a norm to use structural safety and particularly seismic compliability as an excuse for demolition and change. Even more common is demolition by negligence. Neglect strips the building of its symbolic power, which once devalued can be easily followed by its material “replacement” with another edifice.
The proposal for the Central Vista in New Delhi uses much the same arguments to justify the demolition of the Sansad Bhavan. Le Corbusier’s City Museum in Ahmedabad portends a similar fate.
Further, in casual speak, the idea of structure is conflated with the idea of “technology”. This brings the discussion into a polarised debate between nostalgia for heritage and the justification for the new. When it comes to matters of structure, we must insist on transparent and objective structural analysis, in lieu of a confused cacophony of public opinions.
Renovations foreground a deeper understanding of the relationships that govern the very shape of things. They celebrate renewal but resist the veneer of newness or the comfort of premeditated prescriptions. They call for patience and a deeper engagement of all stakeholders, a faith in the process. In most cases the renovation dissolves or integrates with the building in much the same way as a well-crafted surgery.
In doing so, the singularity of the project becomes nuanced, as the whole is reconstituted. But we occupy a time when patience, nuance, or deeper engagements remain in short supply. Instead,we are witness to the use of demolition of physical structures as a tool in establishing a singular, hegemonic order. The impatience exhibited at the scale of a project, becomes inadvertently or otherwise, yet another act of erasure of the syncretic, palimpsestic histories of a region.
Conservation as a discipline is itself a product of the modern world. Conservation policy is often predicated on the very same understanding of authorship as when linked to formal production. One can see this reflected in the conservation plan drawn up as part of IIMA’s master-planning efforts in 2014.
Here legibilities are created through carving up of the campus into “chunks” by way of differentiating architects of the buildings, where the value of each building object corresponds to the relative reputation of the architect author. It exposes our time as one that valorises individual buildings as “artifacts” and “singularities” and icons over the collective built environment including the spaces between buildings that give them their cohesion.
This is a shift that corresponds uncannily to the move from the socialist ethos of institution building in post-Independence India to the market-driven neoliberalism of our times.
The IIMA campus is emblematic of an authorship accrued over time, of the many people and their fellowships that made this ensemble possible. A more critical reading of the campus’ development would reveal the fascinating transfer of authorship from Kahn to Raje; the deep objectivities shared by both architects with Vikram Sarabhai, the renowned physicist and astronomer, initiator of India’s space research programme, philanthropist and Institution builder; Kasturbhai Lalbhai industrialist, philanthropist, co-founder of the Ahmedabad Education Society under which several institutions of education including IIMA and CEPT (formerly the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) were instituted; Jivraj Mehta, the first chief minister of Gujarat state; and Kamala Choudhary, one of the first faculty members at ATIRA or Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association and IIMA who made significant contributions to the establishment of both institutions – her work studying socio-economic condition of the mill workers led to significant improvements in the textile industry both from the production as weel as the workers perspective.
There was also Ravi Matthai, a professor of marketing and subsequently director of IIMA, brilliant educator, institution builder who also co-founded the Institute of Rural Management in Anand; BV Doshi, renowned modernist architect and educator who founded CEPT, who was instrumental in the commission for the design of IIMA being given to Louis Kahn and coordinating the initial stages of the project, recently has been awarded the highest international architectural honour of the Pritzker Prize; RJ Vasavada, MS Satsangi, and Sharad Shah – all significant members of the architect’s team in Ahmedabad who would subsequently make notable contributions to the profession.
And then there were the relationships that this endeavour nurtured between institutions such as Harvard University, The Ford Foundation, Ahmedabad Education Society, the National Institute for Design and CEPT. The resulting architectural ensemble is surely a richer legacy than the singular authorship (architect) model valorised by the 2014 master plan.
In the history of modern India, the construction of IIMA represents an apotheosis of a period of post-Independence institution building. A Nehruvian belief in a secular, scientific temper, for publicly funded institutions, laid the foundations of the modern Indian state – the Indian Institutes of Technology, the IIMs, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Commission for Space Research to name a few. The enthusiasm with which these were instituted and designed had less to do with the ideological bent of the founders or of the architects, than a collective optimism found in a young and newly independent country.
Across various geographies, democratic socialism offered architects state-sponsored patronage for building architectures of social consequence – a key agenda of modernism to bring design and modernity to a vast population. From his office at the D18 dormitory at IIMA, Anant Raje designed and built the Galbabhai Farmers’ Training Institute in Palanpur, which imparts basic training in cooperative dairy to rural farmers.
Similar acts of institution building were intrinsic to architecture practices in the decades following Indian independence. They were also of seminal value for Kahn, who saw the role of the architect as giving form to the “institutions of man”.
Today, as neoliberalism and laissez-faire capitalism continue to erode the values of a syncretic socialism, we see an overwhelming distrust in public institutions across the globe. This corresponds to a worldwide decline of the legacy of the modern movement, its structures and the concomitant ideologies of its time.
It is necessary to be reminded that Kahn imagined the campus as a whole, an integrated environment for student and faculty life. The rich and complex spatial interweaving of the dormitories create intimate common rooms, both open and enclosed. These complement the plaza’s grand ceremonial spaces. To demolish one and keep the other, would be a violent act, not merely in the destruction of the material fabric, but in transforming the very meaning of a campus from a built environment to a dis-integrated collection of buildings. It is the built environment as a whole that constitutes the legacy of this architecture.
While much of early modern architecture from around the world sought a clean break from the past, the late work of Louis Kahn embraced the ambiguity of ruins and a continuity of history. A walk through the IIMA resonates as much with the palace complexes of Mandu, or the Baths of Trajan in ancient Rome, as it does of a medieval town in western India or Italy. We are reminded that architecture, for all its cultural embeddedness, can still embody a universal appeal in material experiences, in the intricate dependencies of activities and rituals of use, in rhythms of light and shadow, and those of mass and void.
“Good” architecture not only has the strength to connect us with its own immediate materiality but by association to a much larger tradition of building and world making that has percolated through time.
And yet meaning cannot survive through the discovery of resonances alone. Meanings become abstract and wither away if we do not find ways to continually engage with them, to nurture and keep them alive. We retell stories, we relive milestones in our lives, we renew vows. Each time, the form of the institution may shift, but the practice of care endures. For architecture to continue to be anchored to its place and be relevant it needs constant engagement by those who inhabit and use it.
In this context, maintenance is not to keep the building looking new, but rather to renew periodically our inhabitation of it. Through repairs and rehabilitations, we augment its material integrity, as we often do through repurposing and reimagining its use. This allows the nature of activities, their relationships, and by extension, human institutions to evolve.
It is the essential middle ground between orthodoxy and change, a perennial, yet incremental opportunity for re-membering. Here each act of engagement registers renewal while simultaneously re-iterating those enduring relationships that are foundational.
Such traditions are not new to an Indian ethos of living. In the same city as the IIMA, 400 year-old pol houses are cleaned, decorated, and often repainted and repaired during the festive seasons of Holi and Diwali. Modern buildings of glass, steel, and concrete replaced the idea of maintenance and its rituals, with an assumed permanence devoid of care.
In India, the “pucca-ness” or firmness of concrete, gave it a sense of presumed longevity that became aspirational. As these architectures in India start to age, we become acutely aware of their vulnerabilities. Much like the materials they replaced, they also require routine maintenance (albeit perhaps to different cycles).
Furthermore, building sciences now suggest that the more “pucca” the material, the less forgiving it is to the ad-hoc improvisation needed for a “culture of care” to evolve. Far more technical regimes are required for these materials. This has rarely been recognised by the owners and users of modern architecture, who continue to believe in the myth of “maintenance free” construction. The rituals and regimes of repair and care remain entirely missing for aging modernisms in India, and this explains their inevitable dilapidation and decay.
Over the 70-odd years of modern architecture in the subcontinent, concrete has moved from its symbolic stature as an industrial engineered material reserved for the temples of modern India to becoming a cottage industry, where small-scale operators in the peripheries of towns and villages produce precast modular elements for an informal building industry.
So widespread is this distribution network of small scaled concrete contractors that major national and global cement companies have significantly reworked the production and supply of their material. Along with the domestication of technology, there has been innovation in the treatment of poorly cast building elements through processes of concrete maintenance and repair. Following the earthquake of 2001, in Gujarat, this industry of repair was formalised through structural engineering into practices for retrofitting.
One of the conundrums of heritage conservation with its apparatuses of listings and inscriptions is that it reframes a “culture of maintenance” from a performance of quotidian acts, to one that requires increasing professional expertise. This often implies additional costs and deferment. With the delay of maintenance, the building requires not just material engagements but often sophisticated technical interventions. Purely professional frames, divorced of empathy, distance us from our built environments rather than enabling the potentials for intimacy.
Acts of maintenance, repurposing, and reuse are not only the most ecological form of living, they point to another ethos of worldmaking. The building construction industry of today can be traced to an industrial-age economy of extracting, producing, using, and discarding.
The numerous ecological crises facing our present time – climate change, species and habitat loss, resource depletion, and their corresponding social consequences – behoove us to recalibrate our material cultures toward more circular logics. We must build a new system that entirely removes the concept of inevitable “waste” and “negative externalities”. Only recently has thinking on sustainable building construction privileged embodied energy in buildings as much as operational energy.
A vast amount of embodied energy has gone into the production of bricks and concrete at the IIMA. This material should not become detritus in a spectacle of demotion. Rather, we must privilege the reuse and creative reprogramming of the dormitories, reinvent rituals of maintenance and repair, and in doings so reiterate the aphorism that “the most ecological building is the one that is already built”.
Humanity is on course to triple material extraction in the next 30 years and triple waste production by 2100. This is analogous to adding the entire building stock of New York City every month for the next 40 years. Rapidly developing countries like India, have an incredible opportunity to demonstrate that other ways of worldmaking which are premised on ecology, empathy, and re-membering, are not only possible, but crucial for the very survival of life as we know it.
On January 1, as a response to IIMA’s decision to withdraw the call for demolition, we wrote a second letter to the institute. We heartily welcomed the decision and urged for transparency of process in appointing experts that will deliberate on the future of what we consider to be a shared legacy.
Transparency would also entail allowing the existing conservation team of Somaya and Kalappa to be heard and respond to key findings – to be participants in the process of reconciliation and conservation, particularly since their work was both referenced and implicated by the institution.
Meanwhile, our appeal to the institute has now been signed by 1,200 stakeholders in over 200 universities and 60 nations.
Sarosh Anklesaria is a practicing architect and T David Fitz-Gibbon Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. His research explores an expansive notion of architectural agency that synthesizes questions of social and ecological pertinence across scales and geographies.
Shubhra Raje founded shubhra raje_built environments, and is a visiting professor of Architecture at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad.
Riyaz Tayyibji is a practicing architect and partner at anthill design. He also leads a team at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, working on a Heritage Conservation Plan for the medieval city of Ahmedabad following its UNESCO inscription.
The authors would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions in promoting the campaign: Lily Chi, Cornell University; Kai Gutschow, Carnegie Mellon University; Blanca Bravo Reyes, Mazumdar Bravo Architects; Udayan Mazumdar, Mazumdar Bravo Architects; Julie Janeo, HOK Architects; Melissa Smith, BandukSmith Studio; Neelkanth Chhaya, Srishti Manipal Institute of Art. Leah Kendrick, Madhu Malukani and Shariq Shah for help with the infographics.
The authors have made a concerted attempt to accurately represent the facts mentioned in this article based upon currently available sources. As more sources become available, these details might be refined.Copyright: Unless indicated otherwise, the authors retain all copyright of drawings and charts mentioned in this article. These may not be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of the authors. © 2021 Anklesaria, Raje & Tayyibji