It was a rite of passage for every architecture batch at the Delhi Polytechnic to visit Fatehpur Sikri with their teacher Cyrus Jhabvala. Raj Rewal remembers his visit. From learning about construction techniques of mosques and tombs, halls and doorways, to the spaces between the buildings and their expressions, they were directed towards the essence of tradition. “He would ask if a building spoke to us; to imagine how a stone was carried to the site and how stone brackets supported sun shades,” says Rewal. Ram Sharma, his classmate, recalls how Jhabvala taught them to sharpen a pencil. “He showed us how to draw. Our only equipment then was the drafting board and the T-square,” says Sharma. Rewal and Sharma were part of the 1952 batch of super achievers — architects who would become renowned for their buildings in modern India.
But at the turn of the 20th century, architecture was not an obvious career choice; most often people stumbled into it. Bombay’s JJ School of Art was the only institution at the time that groomed architecture students to faithfully replicate the ornamental detailing in classical buildings.
On the heels of India’s independence, the making of Capital Complexes across the country began. It was the need for architects and engineers after World War II that made British architect Walter George begin the department of architecture at the Delhi Polytechnic in 1942, along with his friends. The Kashmere Gate campus, which had morning and evening classes, saw its first batch of students graduate with diplomas in 1950. Firms by architects Narendra Kothari and Achyut Kanvinde were among the early architectural firms in Delhi.
The exposure to the outside world of architecture came from books; in particular, from the Atmaram book store, where students read about Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Otto Konigsberger, among others. Even as the new capitals of Chandigarh and Delhi were being built, architecture students here were drafting for them.
George, who had worked with Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, got his friend TJ Manickam (a senior architect in the Central Public Works Department) to start the School for Town and Country Planning. By 1955, it began in Kapurthala House on Mansingh Road in Delhi. Nearly three years later, the campus moved to ITO, and thereafter in 1959, the department of architecture of the Delhi Polytechnic was merged with it. The integrated institution at Indraprastha Estate was renamed the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), with Manickam as its architect and founder-director.
Even as it celebrates its platinum jubilee, SPA is the destination of every eager student who believes there’s more than just the tools of architecture that is passed on to you here. As one of India’s premier institutions, despite bureaucratic lethargy that surrounds its functioning, it is still at the forefront of nation building, as students find way to engage with the city, community and the government.
It’s come a long way since the time architects began looking for new idioms of style. “With the government as the main patron, architects used Islamic and Buddhist motifs in their attempt to find a new Indian language. The bhawans — Vigyan, Rail, Krishi, Udyog — are prime examples of these,” says architect and educator IM Chishti, who entered SPA in 1970 as a student.
By then, architects who had trained and worked abroad were returning to India. Ranjit Sabikhi, who was also from the 1952 batch, believes their search for new meaning and expression came from what they saw around them.
“The British in many ways had turned their back on the history of Indian architecture. As a newly-independent nation, it was a difficult time for us. Traditional craft systems had broken down. While we were influenced by the Modernists, we were also on tight budgets. For instance, in the YMCA Staff Housing (1963, by Sabikhi and Ajoy Choudhury), we built at Rs 20 per square foot. We were learning from the craftsmen and masons on site. Our mistri controlled everything, from the quality of brickwork to handpicking labour, and plastering. This was the kind of exploration that we instilled in students. We showed them that it’s against this background that they had to work,” says Sabikhi. who, along with Rewal and Sharma, was teaching the next generation at SPA. Since they were practising architects, students often got hands-on experience of working on their projects. Rewal and Sharma were winning government competitions for housing and public projects, which meant students were also helping them draft and prepare schemes.
Jhabvala was instrumental in professionalising architectural education. A fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), he was faculty (1949 to 1957) and department head (1966 to 1978), and, later, director of SPA, Delhi for a year. It isn’t unusual after all these years to hear his name in the corridors and studios of SPA. He was a man who knew that despite being a science discipline, architecture couldn’t do without the finer touches of humanities and gave his students every opportunity to experience life.
Jhabvala had invited Amal Allana to direct a play with the students.
“I had just finished my graduation from the National School of Drama (NSD). It was the beginning of ’69, and my first professional experience. I wanted a play that would include as many students as possible, so I chose Ernst Toller’s Man and the Masses (1923). It’s about social revolution and the Utopian idea of a new society against the backdrop of industrialisation. Rather than create a set, I wanted to experiment. A little away from SPA was a hot-mix plant, with huge turbines and tall ladders. Once we got permission, we decided to stage the play there. We borrowed stands from the Republic Day parade, which was just over, and had prints from German graphic artist Kathe Kollwitz as well. So after the factory closed, we would troop in for rehearsals. Since the lead character was a lady, we got artist BC Sanyal’s daughter Amba, a theatre artist, to play the part. Rta Kapur Chishti, Mala Singh and Rajeev Sethi were there as mentors,” says Allana.
More than two decades later, author Arundhati Roy would script In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1989), a film that captured life on the SPA campus. The hippie sub-culture had come in. “SPA was the undeclared mini-centre of that, and the co-ed hostel, which was in the Planning Block, was the epicentre. Students from Delhi University and IIT would hang around here. The long hair, the bell bottoms, the drugs — it was all on this campus. “The students, in particular those a few years senior to us, were so uniquely crazy…Annie… is actually set among final year students of the batch of ’74…It was five years of continuous ‘Those Ones’,” says Roy, who attributes her “weirdness” to Italian architect-designer Carlo Buldrini, who also influenced many others on campus.
“Did you know the band Indian Ocean kind of originated here? Sawan Dutta, who was a student here, with Susmit Sen and Asheem Chakravarty, used to jam at the SPA hostel. Actor Piyush Mishra, who was then at NSD, used to direct our plays; his wife is from SPA. It was the closest you could get to a liberal arts course, with the safety net of a professional degree,” says Anubha Kakroo, design consultant. “It was completely anarchic, not ideologically driven as CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Most of its graduates are good architects undoubtedly, but SPA made well-rounded people. It gave students the ability to design their own lives. Many of them have chosen not to build but use the imbibed design thinking in their respective fields,” she adds.
While the oil boom led graduates to Iran and the Middle East, concerns about the environment and conservation were growing. “In the early ’70s, we were discussing energy efficiency and sustainability. We had ideas of growing our own food in cities and finding ways to not exploit the earth. Teachers like Vinod Gupta were talking about building materials such as bamboo and mud. We started the first environment and climate lab in SPA, with Arvind Krishnan at the helm,” says Manoj Mathur, former head, Architecture department.
It was also the time that Delhi saw architects come into their own, creating designs that had the world talking — Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan, IIT Delhi, Chanakya Cinemas, Shriram Centre. Many of them were role models for the students at the time. “The studio was our life. Teachers would drop by in the night for discussions. It was a continuum. It gave room for vertical interactions between classes. You could be a third year but listen in on a session of the fourth years,” says Mathur. With fewer students, 30 in a batch, the studio provided ample scope for students to work together, making models, ideating and watching friends get roasted at juries. For instance, redevelopment projects in Old Delhi as part of the Masterplan 1962 was discussed in the studios.
“With classmates from across the Commonwealth countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Singapore, Malaysia, even Africa, we got a flavour of their culture. We’d go for all-night classical concerts, and watch plays in Mandi House,” says Snehanshu Mukherjee, visiting faculty at SPA. Many years later, when he with his team members, AR Ramanathan and Anurag Gupta, won the competition for the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, SPA was their “workshop”.
Sanjay Prakash, founder, Shift — Studio for Habitat Futures, Delhi, who arrived on campus in 1975, had won the first place in the All India Higher Secondary School exams. That he would choose architecture over IIT was a surprise to many. But it also made architecture the new destination for toppers.
Since there were fewer students, interaction with teachers at juries also turned into an impromptu talent search. “When an architect came and saw your work, he would needle and question you to identify your strengths. One would get a note in the next few days for a visit to his office, which invariably meant a job offer. The profession was actively engaged in picking better people to work for them. Currently, we have no system of selecting who should work for us,” says Mathur.
Modelled on the Bauhaus mode of education, the studio format of solving a problem meant you couldn’t rote learn. Suditya Sinha, who graduated in 2003, with Moulshri Joshi and Amritha Bhalla, and began Spacematters, says, “The first challenge is how to unlearn everything. It can be tough when you approach a problem from nothing and find there can be multiple answers. You are compelled to think for yourself and how much do you push back if a teacher is being provocative?” That such an education opens up your thought flow to not only think out of the box, but look at the box from above, below and sideways, is what is integral to learning.”
Once SPA became a Deemed University (1979), dissertations came in, and entrance exams, which until now was held only in Delhi, moved to centres across the country. “The anglicised, privileged students had to make room for candidates from remote areas. It had its own social and academic fall out,” says Chisthi.
However, the engagement with the city continued. Slum redevelopment, low-cost housing and mud construction designs were being discussed. The Delhi Urban Arts Commission was set up by faculty and alumni through an Act of Parliament in 1973. Its mandate was to protect the quality of the built environment. Issues of transportation and landscape, conversations around modernism, post-modernism and regionalism were gaining studio time.
In the ’90s, liberalisation had opened up the markets to imagine highrises as a way of life. It also changed the way architecture itself began to be viewed. “The real estate boom fuelled the need for architects. Salaries shot up, and for many, it became just another lucrative profession. Until then, architecture attracted the non-linear thinker, you had to literally search for the college to get into the course,” says Mukherjee.
Meanwhile, at the School, batch sizes grew, the hostel which was the epicentre of activity was shifted to Maharani Bagh, cutting an arterial link the college had with its students. “What was designed for 30, now had 120 students. It began feeling the infrastructural insufficiency. The detachment from the hostel to the college, which was a 24×7 campus, hurt SPA,” says Tapan Chakravarty, senior professor and head, department of Interior and Spatial Design, Pearl Academy, New Delhi.
“Until now, the faculty on campus was practising professionals. With the Council of Architecture ruling on having only PhDs as full-time faculty, it not only took away the on-ground expertise in the classroom, but changed the way teaching itself was being done. What was a practitioner’s den turned into a run-of-the-mill academic exercise.
Meanwhile, the government which was the largest builder and gave scope to many young Indian firms to build public projects, was no longer the primary player. By the time the 2010 Commonwealth Games came up, capitalism had reached our doors. Foreign architectural firms changed the way we got projects,” says Mukherjee.
Other SPA campuses — Vijayawada and Bhopal — came up as institutions of national importance. Across the country, the number of architecture colleges grew; currently there are nearly 600 schools. “The interference of the ministry (Human Resource Development) has been overwhelming. And the Indian Institute of Architects and the COA are not enlightened in their approach either. This systematic breakdown too has affected SPA,” says Sabikhi.
Some see it a schizophrenic development, where, on one hand the department of architecture becomes the hotbed of creative ideas, and, on the other, planners, as builders of the state, plug into the state machinery. “It’s a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde situation. That’s why you have disasters like Kidwai Nagar. The city is our test and we have failed it. Our students are at these places, and as an institution, we should take stock. That assessment is part of a self-preservation that isn’t happening,” says Joshi.
For Kanchan Joneja, a recent graduate though, it’s a different world view. “Many of my classmates are now in other fields. SPA continues to teach us how to look at the world differently, be it a bus stop, a pavement or a kiosk. It has given me a sense of meticulous planning and problem-solving abilities that make it possible for me to work even in collaborative projects, which require you to think on your feet,” she says.
Mathur, who designed the AIIMS flyover, has seen design studies at SPA become a reality on ground in the country, be it initiation of city development authorities, or the formulation of the 73th and 74th amendments, that gave constitutional recognition to panchayats and municipalities. As head of the department, Mathur observes how a “side channel” has been created over the years, where students interested in technology, crafts and art need to find expression within the curriculum. “We are not creating one type of person; the idea that we are creating different types of architects should be practically done. This is what we need to focus on, as we move into the next decade,” he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Out of the Box’.