Rather secluded, and a parking lot now, the Lodhi Plaza in Delhi was once imagined as a cultural space. A few steps away from the KK Birla Lane, it could possibly have become the nucleus of Lodhi Estate. Surrounded by the Alliance Française de Delhi, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) headquarters, the India International Centre (IIC) Annexe, and the World Bank Regional Mission, the plaza conceived by American-born architect Joseph Allen Stein, was to have a landscape garden with basement parking.
What architects call “Steinabad” includes the buildings adjoining Lodhi Gardens, where Stein built several of them, over three decades, including the Glass House in the garden. “This place has a role in the urban design history of the city,” says urban planner KT Ravindran, leading a walk, organised by the Institute of Urban Designers India (IUDI)-Delhi chapter, along with architects Rajesh Dongre and Meena Mani. Ravindran recalls that earlier a canal cut through the land, which was carved from the Lodhi Garden to accommodate cultural institutions. The land was levelled, and roughly from 1962 (Ford Foundation) to 2004 (when Alliance Française shifted here from South Extension-Part I), the area grew into an institutional hub. In the early ’80s, Ravindran says, “Stein drew out a base line in terms of urban design that would become the guidelines that the Delhi Urban Art Commission approved for future buildings. From elevation control to setbacks and materials, Stein evolved a language for the entire precinct.”
At that time, Ravindran says, “there were two strains of modernity in the Indian scene. Corbusier with his Brutalist buildings, and (Californian modernist Richard) Neutra-inspired Stein’s take on nature and architecture.” While the jaalis (lattice) at IIC echoed the Moorish architecture in Spain and Italy, the galloping arches and the curved building came from Neutra. Stein’s buildings thus bridged tradition and modernity with great efficiency.
If IIC is a building in a garden, across the road, at the India Habitat Centre (IHC), built 30 years later, Stein made a garden in a building. Individual plots made way for an integrated development as institutions came together to make IHC. Mani says, “We opened the ground level for public functions to use the space after office hours.” With varying height levels of the buildings, Stein grew the garden over the car park. In the ambience of the “introverted” building, which has its back to the city, “the sun screens and trees create a unique micro-climate, making it cooler and conducive to hang around in,” she says. The building, thus, is a good example of incorporating natural light and common areas, which the urban models of institution complexes often compromise on. “IIC was a response to the context of the Lodhi Garden, with respect to the height of the tomb and echoing the monuments’ blue tiles. At IHC, he responded to the urban fabric to deal with density and car-parking issues,” says Dongre.
Ravindran remembers what Stein had said to him once: “If architecture can’t take responsibility for nature, it will make itself irrelevant.” One wonders how this environmental architect would have reacted to today’s buildings, which are less informed of context and nature.