“What is design?” “Can design be taught?” These are questions that were debated in the attic of Ahmedabad’s Sanskar Kendra, the city museum designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in 1951, which now lies in disrepair. It is here that the idea of India’s first design school — National Institute of Design (NID) — was deliberated by the Sarabhais (Vikram, Gautam, Gira) with their first faculty member, artist Dashrath Patel.
Sanskar Kendra, on the west of the Sabarmati river, and across the road from NID, was commissioned by the family of industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai. The mayor of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Chinubhai Chimanlal, invited Corbusier to design a cultural centre for the city, which would have multiple pavilions for natural history, archaeology, sculptures, anthropology, besides a theatre, and cafes. It would be Corbusier’s first public building in the city, besides the Mill Owners’ Association Building, and Sarabhai and Shodhan Villas.
The architect’s theoretical ideas of spirals and scope for incremental expansion of exhibition spaces found structural reality in Sanskar Kendra. Its brick and unpolished concrete rectangular facade stands on piers. It is scooped out from the centre with an introverted courtyard that allows for passive cooling. A ramp hoisted by a large pool leads to the exhibition levels. Corbusier wanted a roof-top terrace for the museum, and had left scope for large concrete basins that could become planters for vegetables and flowers, through hydroponics. He dreamt of each basin “strewn with leaves or blossoms…an ensemble forming a checkerboard of blue, red, green, yellow and white”. In his Oeuvre Complete, Volume 5, Corbusier writes about his idea of growing tomatoes on the roof. He also wanted the lighting of the building to be “analogous to the system of a musical score”.
For the architect, materials of city planning included “sky, space, trees, steel and cement — in that order”. The unplastered facade was meant to have relief from creepers grown in the concrete channel wrapped around the building. The internal spaces are dimly lit through indirect skylights to protect the exhibits — objects, art and historical documents surrounding Ahmedabad and its history since the 11th century. It also has the kite museum, which records the city’s kite-flying tradition.
Ahmedabad, until then a city full of exquisitely carved wooden buildings, like fine jewellery boxes, says architect BV Doshi, saw a healthy interplay between money and culture, through some of the innovative modern buildings like Sanskar Kendra. Not everybody understood the building, says Doshi, who carried forward Corbusier’s work in Ahmedabad. His generous spaces and monumental scale was much criticised. Doshi had learnt how to defend his mentor’s stance. In his autobiography, Paths Uncharted, Doshi says: “In the case of Sanskar Kendra, I would say, ‘Do you know that the Municipal Corporation had actually asked Corbusier to design a milk dairy and that is why he has provided a ramp for the buffaloes to reach the main floor? The mezzanine floor is for storing their feed and the square punctures in the ceiling have been provided to spread the feed on to the main floor, which is where the buffaloes will be. That is why it has this blank façade.’”