Ahmedabad: Fifty shades of grey

It is perhaps serendipitous that Ahmedabad has managed to hoard such a concentrated wealth of the modernist movement

Sanskar kendra museum
Sanskar kendra museum
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Percy Bharucha

If there were a uniform for artisanal coffee houses and indie microbreweries, it would be the exposed brick and concrete façade. Like moths to a responsibly sourced flame, the burnt orange and dull-grey spells haven to the millennial connoisseur as they sashay towards it in their tasselled loafers. This is ritualistically followed by a caffeine overdose and an uncontrollable twitching under the warm, amber glow of a lampshade-less Edison bulb.

It has been a while since the indie coffee joints co-opted the factory/warehouse setting in an attempt to physically suffuse their products with ‘historical character’—bare tungsten bulbs and exposed ventilation ducts and beams, brutal brick-and-concrete walls, steel furniture and chalkboard menus. The industrial setting became such a draw for moneyed hipsters that even major chains like Starbucks adopted it. You would think that this would mean death by mainstreaming for the industrial aesthetic, but no—just like the French press versus drip coffee arguments, it keeps popping up.

But long before our urban centres were turned into a monotonous clump of single origin, hand-roasted dating spots—apologies, I meant coffee shops—there were a few masters for whom brick and concrete were major building blocks. The story of their experiments takes place in the then tiny city of Ahmedabad.

In 1950, Le Corbusier was contacted by Jawaharlal Nehru to propose plans for building an entire city - the same Le Corbusier who was the figurehead of modernism in France, a vocal champion of a new form of architecture that was pure, functional and free from any form of decoration. His new movement was based on innovation in construction technologies that used glass, steel and re-enforced concrete in a minimalistic embrace of function which form was to follow. Corbusier had discovered around the time of the First World War that reinforced concrete presented incredible resources and variety to him. He had experimented with concrete in his Dom-Ino House and other subsequent designs. Through its abundant usage, he discovered a new expression of freedom in designing ground plans and facades. It was that same raw concrete form that Corbusier used to cast the city of Chandigarh–for which a constant, daily battle was waged with the workers who could not resist the urge to smooth and finish the raw concrete. One can almost hear the Indian worker going, ‘Enh, but we’ve been doing it this way for centuries. Who are you again?

Corbusier made several trips to Ahmedabad between 1951–57 upon the invitations of the city’s textile barons and leading industrialists. On one such visit, he was asked by the mayor of Ahmedabad to design a cultural centre for the city. This was to become the Sanskar Kendra, But, the only part constructed was the museum depicting the history, art and culture of Ahmedabad. B.V. Doshi, Corbusier’s protégé, called it one of the greenest buildings ever done—a green cube cooled by plants that were to envelop it from all sides, designed like a thermos to gain artificial air conditioning and ventilation. The building was raised and set on pilotis. The exterior in brick and unpolished concrete was to have creepers wrapped around it to provide relief from the heat. One entered from underneath the building into an open court with a large pool and a ramp that led up to the exhibition spaces, the introverted courtyard was designed to enable passive cooling. The terrace was to have a massive garden with large basins holding water, employing hydroponics to grow vegetables and flowers. Corbusier wanted the lighting of the building to be similar to the system of a musical score—internal spaces emphasized using indirect skylights to preserve the objects, art and historical documents that would be stored in the museum. Corbusier’s buildings in Ahmedabad were always designed to be shelters from the sweltering heat. It is also no small measure of irony that a building in contemporary India that has the word Sanskar in its name should be allowed to languish and fall into decay until its restoration in 2000.

Corbusier was commissioned by the president of the Mill Owners’ Association to design their headquarters in Ahmedabad. He incorporated a fine balance of the public and the private in his design approach; using the concept of the house as a palace, he interplays privacy with scale. A grand ramp beginning from the parking lot ends at the entrance, a three-storey void almost in the centre of the building. The view from the ramp faces the brises-soleil—the curved slants of the façade—and are oriented diagonally to prevent outsiders from looking in, while still permitting enough light and breeze to flow through. Yellow light dances off the columns of sombre grey, punctuated by dashes of green as plants spill forth from the concrete. On the rear side, the brises-soleil are perpendicular to the façade, allowing the river breeze to filter in unobstructed and framing the panoramic river view. There is a stark contrast between the rigid grid exterior of the building and the soft convex and concave spaces within—a conference room ensconced in a curved, brick wall. This building became a visual proclamation for Corbusier’s modernist architecture.

Another fine example of Corbusier’s concrete cubes is the Shodhan Villa. Originally commissioned as the residence of Surottam Hutheesing, it was later sold to Shyamubhai Shodhan. What is striking about this house is its interplay with nature, the sun, the wind and the view. Corbusier constructs a cube that is placed perfectly in alignment with these elements, through the installation of the brises-soleil and the positioning of the facades. The bare concrete still carries clear markings of the wooden formwork. Sheltered under the shade of a roof parasol, the rooms open out to large terraces overlooking a swimming pool. Another Corbusian characteristic marks the house—the presence of a ramp that connects the various floors. The roof features an oval aperture that lines up with an opening, the lower slab roof framing a view of the heavens. To root the building culturally in the landscape of Ahmedabad, Corbusier gave it double-height living rooms, a prominent feature of the wealthy at that time. The Shodhan Villa is an elemental harmony, immortalised in concrete, eternally modern. A faceless Rubik’s cube, ever mysterious.

Corbusier’s modernist, concrete legacy was passed on to B.V. Doshi, who won the Pritzker Prize last year. Doshi’s initial works retained much of the Corbusian aesthetic. The Institute of Indology, for instance, has an ark-like structure built out of brutal concrete, naturally cooled through cross ventilation. The basement, where the manuscripts were stored, was tempered to filter through soft, natural light. The institute was designed to house ancient manuscripts, and Doshi studied Jain Upashrayas before designing it, incorporating into his design the full-length veranda and the high plinth.

Another of Doshi’s experiments with the brutalist concrete form was the Tagore Memorial Hall, an imposing edifice built out of concrete with rigid folded plates forming the outer shell. Within the hall was the detached seating bowl carrying 700 people,.

Over time, Doshi found his work alien to the space it occupied—they felt ‘rootless and looked foreign’. He switched to using more bricks, indigenous to India and Ahmedabad, and reduced the scale. His spaces became more humane, intimate. While the Corbusian scale was built to create inspiration and awe, the Doshi scale was built to introspect and draw people closer.

It is perhaps serendipitous that Ahmedabad has managed to hoard such a concentrated wealth of the modernist movement. It could be said that the brutal purity of function, the minimalist oeuvre, and the clear distaste for vacuous ornamentation had a certain pull amongst the straight talking, cut-to-the-chase Ahmedabadi businessmen. And perhaps it behoves the city of business to have as its palette the accommodating shades of grey.

Another of Doshi’s experiments with the brutalist concrete form was the Tagore Memorial Hall, an imposing edifice built out of concrete with rigid folded plates forming the outer shell. Within the hall was the detached seating bowl carrying 700 people.

Over time, Doshi found his work alien to the space it occupied—they felt ‘rootless and looked foreign’. He switched to using more bricks, indigenous to India and Ahmedabad, and reduced the scale. His spaces became more humane, intimate. While the Corbusian scale was built to create inspiration and awe, the Doshi scale was built to introspect and draw people closer.

It is perhaps serendipitous that Ahmedabad has managed to hoard such a concentrated wealth of the modernist movement. It could be said that the brutal purity of function, the minimalist oeuvre, and the clear distaste for vacuous ornamentation had a certain pull amongst the straight talking, cut-to-the-chase Ahmedabadi businessmen. And perhaps it behoves the city of business to have as its palette the accommodating shades of grey.

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