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Monday, January 25, 2021

Outrage as IIM-A to raze iconic dorms designed by Louis Kahn

The new buildings are also expected to accommodate more students — in place of the existing dorms, which can accommodate 500 students, the plan is to build 800 student rooms in a new hostel complex.

Written by Ritu Sharma , Shiny Varghese | Ahmedabad, New Delhi | Updated: December 25, 2020 9:41:11 am
Louis Kahn, IIM Ahmedabad Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn buildings, Who is Louis Kahn, Indian ExpressDesigned by Louis Kahn on the old campus. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

A controversy has erupted over a decision by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to bring down 18 student dormitories built by legendary American architect Louis Kahn on the old campus — also called “heritage campus” — and replace them with new buildings.

The plan to replace the buildings, built in the 1960s, with new ones are on the ground that they have suffered structural damage over the years, including in the 2001 earthquake. The new buildings are also expected to accommodate more students — in place of the existing dorms, which can accommodate 500 students, the plan is to build 800 student rooms in a new hostel complex.

The decision was taken even as the Mumbai-based Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) was already working on restoring the existing dorms, along with the Vikram Sarabhai Library, the faculty and administrative blocks and the classroom buildings, based on a competition it had won in 2014. Last year, the firm won a UNESCO award for the library restoration work.

Somaya, one of the founders of SNK, confirmed to The Indian Express: “I was not aware of the new bid”

Amid the uproar over IIM-A’s decision, an online meeting scheduled on Thursday to open the new bids was put off.

Justifying the decision to bring down the dorms, IIM-A Director Prof Errol D’Souza wrote a 11-page letter on Wednesday to the institute’s alumni, citing multiple problems in the existing structure that made it “unliveable”, among them “concrete and slabs falling from the roofs with damaging consequences for the lives of the residents”.

The IIM-Ahmedabad dormitory. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

When contacted with questions on the decision, D’Souza told The Indian Express, “I have written to the alumni yesterday. The queries you have raised are answered in that letter.”

Architecture experts, students and faculty are, however, enraged that Kahn’s iconic work on the campus should be brought down.

Revered as one of the world’s finest architects of the 20th Century, Kahn is known to create powerful and evocative compositions of geometry and space. The IIM-A campus is a choreography of form, light and shadow in brick.

Kahn, who first came to India in 1962 at the invitation of IIM-A founder-director Vikram Sarabhai, as consultant for the National Institute of Design, gave his buildings a poise few could achieve at the time.

His work — be it the Salk Institute in California, the Kimbell Museum in Texas, or the Phillips Exeter Academy Library and Dining Hall in New Hampshire — allowed people to explore quiet corners in the in-between spaces.

William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design that manages Kahn’s archives, said, “The IIM-A revived a prestigious award from UNESCO for the conservation of the Vikram Sarabhai Library. The award also called out the school’s commitment to its architectural heritage as a model for India. It is a bitter irony to see the administration turn their backs on their own accomplishments. The school and the dorms are a unit. Remove one and the magic dissipates, never to return.”

Architecture experts, students and faculty are enraged that Kahn’s iconic work on the campus should be brought down. (Express Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Rabindra Vasavada, one of the first architects to join Kahn as assistant in the 1960s, calls the idea of demolishing the dormitories an erasure of history itself.

“Kahn was always in search of the roots of institutions… In this case, it was an institution of learning. He saw every student as a disciple. That value was enshrined in every dormitory, where 10 of them lived together. Out of their classrooms, the dormitories were a space where people could get together to share ideas, without any sense of exclusivity,” says Vasavada.

In his letter to the alumni group, D’Souza had, however, wondered if it was “appropriate… to colonise future perceptions of living spaces”.

“We have grappled with 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,” D’Souza went on to say, adding, “In today’s world, our experience is that students hardly use these shared spaces as they have gravitated to virtual modes.”

Ahmedabad based architect Riyaz Tayabji said, “These are buildings of great architectural sophistication. Their sheer frugality in a time of sparse means showed us that great architecture is not a luxury but could be achieved with the barest of resources.”

A faculty member at IIM-A said, “Among the major issues is that the cultural heritage associated with the campus will be lost. We can understand that they are doing this because of increasing student count but doing away with these will also mean losing the social and cultural aesthetics of the campus.”

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