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Explained: Why IIM-Ahmedabad wants to raze the legacy of Louis Kahn

The Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad is planning to demolish the dormitories built by legendary American architect Louis Kahn on its campus. Why has this triggered controversy?

Written by Ritu Sharma , Edited by Explained Desk | Ahmedabad |
Updated: January 1, 2021 12:41:45 pm
Louis Kahn, IIM Ahmedabad Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn buildings, Who is Louis Kahn, Indian ExpressAmerican architect Louis Kahn (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The board of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad has decided to demolish the dormitories built by legendary American architect Louis Kahn on its campus triggering a controversy. The restoration of the dorms was part of an ongoing project by a well-known Mumbai-based consultant.

Why are the dorms being demolished?

The IIM-A plans to bring down at least 14 of 18 dorms which were built between 1968 and 1978 have problems of leakages from the roof, dampness in walls, leakages in toilet walls, slabs etc. Besides this, the earthquake of 2001 caused major structural damages to these buildings.

In a letter to alumni, IIM-A Director Prof Errol D’Souza has justified the demolition and construction of new dorms which will increase housing capacity on campus from 500 to 800, as per the tender. In the letter, he also questioned Kahn’s signature exposed brick structure, calling the bricks substandard. As concrete encasing was not used to protect the embedded reinforcement bars in the brickwork, the bars have rusted and the brickwork cracked, he has written.

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Louis Kahn, IIM Ahmedabad Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn buildings, Who is Louis Kahn, Indian Express Designed by Louis Kahn on the old campus. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

What is the new bid by the IIM-A and the controversy around it?

The institute has invited an Expressions of Interest (EOI) from architectural and design firms for ‘comprehensive design of student housing at Main Campus’, a five-year-long two-phased project likely to commence mid-2021 with 60 to 80 per cent dorms (nearly 600 rooms) followed by student housing of nearly 200 rooms in the second phase expected to commence mid-2024. The institute targets to add 50 to 60 per cent (nearly 300 rooms to existing 500) additional rooms with efficient use of space.

This, even as well known Mumbai conservation architects Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) were working on an ongoing restoration project on the campus that included the 18 dormitories, the Vikram Sarabhai Library, the faculty and administrative block and the classroom building. SNK won the competition for the restoration in 2014 and was “not aware” of the new bid. The conservation architects had restored dorm D-15 as a sample in 2017 which the institute found to be “not satisfactory”, as per the tender notice.

The tender notice was put out on December 4, barely a week after one of the founders of SNK, Brinda Somaya, gave a virtual presentation at CEPT university on “The Restoration of IIM-Ahmedabad: Continuity and Change”. In her talk, a recording of which was accessed by this paper, Somaya also speaks about how Kahn’s spaces “supported and promoted easy personal interaction and provided inspiration”.

Louis Kahn, IIM Ahmedabad Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn buildings, Who is Louis Kahn, Indian Express The IIM-Ahmedabad dormitory. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

In his letter, D’Souza also questioned Kahn’s central theme that revolved around the concept of ‘meeting’. “In today’s world our experience is that students hardly use these shared spaces as they have gravitated to virtual modes of interacting”, he wrote to the alum in the 11-page letter tagged with images of the damaged portions of the said dormitories.

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What does the demolition mean for the IIM-A?

For students of architecture, bringing down the Kahn buildings also means defeating all that restoration and conservation stand for. The alumni have expressed concern about the campus losing its cultural and Kahn’s architectural heritage, while some have stated that this will make the campus lose its central theme of “meeting and socialising”.

Contrary to the tender document which says all 18 dorms are to be demolished, the email sent out by the institute director states that “after much circumspection” it has been decided to restore Dorms 15 to 18. These are the ones along the cricket ground that have been the backdrop of all customary group photos creating memories batch after batch for years.

Besides, the IIM-A symbolises the best example of a Public-Private Participation (PPP), built with the collaboration of space scientist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, eminent industrialist and philanthropist Kasturbhai Lalbhai, and the support of the then chief minister Dr. Jivraj Mehta who brought together the central and state governments, the local industrialists, Ford Foundation and Harvard Business School to found the institute.

Louis Kahn, IIM Ahmedabad Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn buildings, Who is Louis Kahn, Indian Express IIM campus in Ahmedabad. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

In his letter, D’Souza’s said for other dorms in the inner core, architects have been invited with options of ‘buildings that are in sync with the frontage of the existing dorms’ and ‘the structure in congruent with the grammar that Kahn visualised for the campus’.

The institute director argued that the Building committee and the Board of governors discussed all the issues including questions as to “why we should presume that the past is not changeable and why we should assume that future generations will value things in exactly the same way that past generations have. We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonise future perceptions of living spaces. As we try to preserve the past to prevent loss how much are we creating our own imagination of the past”.

The new dorms propose attached toilets, unlike the old ones, which are preferred by the students today. D’Souza promises the alumni to give a “spatial experience that is contemporary” in the new dorms.

The new campus

To meet the expansion needs of the institute, the new campus built on nearly 40 acres with 16 dormitories, an academic block, seminar rooms, residential blocks for married students, sports complex, guest rooms was completed in 2006. Said to be in harmony with Louis Kahn’s ‘heritage campus’ while “avoiding mimicry”, the project was undertaken by HCP Design, Planning and Management. The two campuses set apart by a busy road, are connected by a subway, that passes under it. Unlike Kahn’s imposing red brick old campus, the buildings of the new campus are built in exposed concrete as the primary building material with fenestrations in a combination of mild steel and wood. However, students share that the old campus remains “more interactive” than the new one, although they add that the dorms in the new campus are “more comfortable”.

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