A few weeks ago, the debate amongst architects, as well as the popular press reporting was high on the proposed demolition of a large number of the dormitory buildings at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Ahmedabad. Within a few days, it was announced by the institute's Board of Governers that the expression of interest put out earlier has been withdrawn for the time being and that they would now "deliberate on the feedback received, re-evaluate the options".

The IIM-A campus was originally designed by the architect Louis Kahn, a much-reputed figure across the world and very highly regarded in India. Kahn’s design for the large institutional buildings, especially its library and the main plaza, are the iconic images of the campus in many discussions on modern architecture in India; the institution is a kind of pilgrimage centre for architects and students of architecture in India. It is also often visited by those from abroad interested in many histories of modernism — especially the regional-moderns such as the architecture we find in India across the twentieth century; there is even a label we go by — the “Indian Modern” — although today I would caution [against] the use and usefulness of this labelling.

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Above: Louis Kahn designed and built IIM-A's site plan.

Obviously, many in India and some across the world were disturbed, even devastated, and concerned at the idea of losing this valuable heritage, and an essay under the label ‘Outrage’ by William Curtis in Architectural Review was a key trigger to a series of vehement outbursts against the demolition of these buildings. Curtis has been an important historian of Modern Architecture as well as the author of an architectural biography of the works of Ahmedabad-based senior architect Balakrishna Doshi, who was recently awarded the internationally prestigious Pritzker Award and then the Padma Bhushan. Doshi was a keen student of Kahn and worked with him on the IIM-A campus design and construction.

The destruction of any heritage, or any production of human civilisation is no doubt disturbing; if anything constructed or shaped by human civilisation is not detrimental or threatening to human life, or social or psychological well-being, there is no need to destroy what we have built. Having said that, one must also caution that heritage, and especially built heritage is part of any ongoing process that is evolving within human societies and civilisation at large. Heritage, we should remember is indeed a modern concept, and any architectural heritage preserved or conserved is indeed part of the contemporary world thereon.

What the debate around the demand for conservation, and vehement opposition to the proposed demolition of many dormitories at IIM-A does not possess is a maturity of understanding either what is conservation or heritage, nor the responsibility and maturity of shaping a public debate and action in the public realm.

Built environments are public realms. I have written and commented in the past, publicly as well as in the classroom, as to how we as a professional group were at a loss or too meek to make our voices heard in the public arena of politics and action when we lost the magnificent Hall of Nations to a cowardly demolition in the dark of the night two years ago. But the case of the Hall of Nations is very different from that of the IIM-A dormitories, and we should not just collapse them into a discussion on heritage or modern India easily.

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Above: The 80 flat arches that had to be fully reconstructed during the recent conservation process.

As I write this column, one hears that there has been an offer from a certain architect to help the institute's management to reconsider their proposal to demolish and build new dormitories. This is what the larger professional body and many groups should have done – offered ideas for negotiating a solution – rather than jumping on the high horse of ‘holy me’, ‘I demand and command you cannot demolish’. In the whole series of public letters and newspaper reports and resolutions from architectural organisations and architecture university alumni, there was only one voice that attempted a detailed and respectable debate with the IIM-A director, and that was the Bengaluru-based architect and critic, Prem Chandavarkar, a senior voice on matters of architectural and urban developments in India.

The open letter from Dr Errol D'Souza, the director of IIM-A, was not only a technical explanation of how the management had come to the sad decision of demolishing the dormitory blocks, but he also raised some key questions on how we see ‘heritage’. Many may not agree with his statement, but it is surely a statement that needs a discussion and demands a response and conversation. This is what he writes:

“For the other dorms, however, it was decided to be guided by three imperatives: (1) functional needs, (2) cultural heritage, and (3) available resources. As you will appreciate it is a complex task to have all three of the imperatives met successfully. 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.

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? We have had conversations as to whether we should protect the dorms from significant alterations by our current generation for future generations or whether we should treat them as a part of the life of the present community which has a say in the maintenance or alteration of the resource.

With the contemporary user’s need for efficient service, how sensitive should we be to the vision of the past and how innovative should we be in order to be in tune with the future? Should the functional requirements of the current user be privileged over the memories of the past? Are all the buildings of Louis Kahn non-renewable or is it justifiable to have just a few – the dorms – redesigned in a new format that preserves the language of the great architect who gave us a campus we are thankful for daily?”

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Above: Recently renovated and conserved views of some of the campus blocks, which is is said will need frequent booster-conservation treatment, maybe every 4-5 years.

It is for us to be responsible in judging if there is an ideological position here that is outright critical of Kahn, his philosophy or the time and context of ideas within which this wonderful (I refrain here from typing the word ‘great’) building was created and built; or is it an offer to table a set of intellectual moorings while dealing with this complex situation at hand and maybe also invite some thoughts and discussions on the same. It is important here to also talk of the online lecture and presentation by the architect Brinda Somaya of SNK (Somaya and Kalappa Consultants) made to the students of the Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University on 28 November 2020.

SNK won a competition for the conservation of the campus, successfully carried out studies and the conservation of the Vikram Sarabhai Library, Classroom Blocks, and the Faculty Blocks and were overseeing a pilot study of the conservation of one dormitory, D-15; SNK went ahead to win the Award of Distinction at the 2019 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation for its restoration and conservation work on the Vikram Sarabhai Library.

Somaya continuously annotates her presentation with important issues, and she at the onset makes it clear that ‘reverence’ will not help as an approach while you are trying to conserve a building such as IIM Ahmedabad; if it is a building such as the Rajabai Tower, reverence is important but we have to understand relevance in the new context when we are talking of a building such as IIM-A. She often notes the not-so-satisfactory quality of building work in the original construction including a detail such as the bad choice for the pointing work of the brick, and she confesses humbly that she sympathises with the institute that these buildings are not easy to maintain and run. Despite the enormity and precarious nature of the task at hand, the wonderful collaboration between SNK and IIM-A with other supporting and consulting agencies went ahead and finished the conservation of three out of the four parts of this important campus.

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Above: The large geometric forms of IIM-A with visible cracks in the circular arch and the corner of the building block.

Raising resources and sumptuous funds was crucial and important for IIM-A as the costs have been exorbitant for this restoration and conservation project, and in Somaya’s presentation you can clearly understand why. Somaya describes how, besides correcting the faults in the original construction, removing layers of bad maintenance, upgrading the buildings for changed and new modes and systems of services, were all layers of the problem, and at one time they had to remake 80 flat arches with precisely chamfered brick voussoirs, and for the library literally reconstruct a full wall.

It is important for us to table the question, after all these efforts, after raising large amounts of funds for these three-of-four core parts of the Kahn design why has the institute decided not to persevere further with the dormitory blocks. The dormitory blocks were part of the original project for conservation awarded to SNK Consultants as mentioned on their respective websites and Somaya's presentation online, but now they seem to be changing the decision on this.

In a letter from the Kahn family, they mention how D'Souza on his visit to the University of Pennsylvania in 2018, took a tour with some of the members of the Kahn family of the recently renovated and repurposed Richards Building, to actually review the success of a building initially slated for demolition but restored and working very well today. After all these efforts one need not doubt the commitment of the director or the governing board of IIM-A or SNK Consultants to not only the philosophy and value of Kahn’s contribution to modern architecture in India, to IIM, and the vision of a young nation set forth by no less than Jawaharlal Nehru as well as the vision and patronage of families such as the Sarabhais.

Chandavarkar also asks this question of change of heart between 2018 and 2020; however, I would like to propose that this is precisely the space where the architectural fraternity should have stepped in, and stepped up, and offered open help (beyond ‘open letters’), and architecture school alumni associations rather than simply opposing the demolitions and stating the obvious debates on restoration and adaption of architectural language around heritage buildings, should have used their collection of brains to offer intellectual and professional help, as well as offer proposals for financial assistance since they point out that simply exorbitant cost cannot decide the fate of something valuable across the world. This is also the point where it is necessary to discuss the history of such endeavours where a monumental building today, one of international importance, is actually giving way to the quality of construction and structural detailing at the time of the original construction.

In D'Souza’s letter as well as in Somaya’s presentation they both, very importantly, talk about the transition from a past to a present and that is something we — like it or not — we will have to address, howmuchever we love a building. And it is also a legal question, not just one of history or criticism: how do you decide why you love a certain building more than others and why do you press for a building to be preserved at all and any cost. One has learned that during the arguments in courts of law to stay or reverse the proposed demolition of the Hall of Nations, the judge, very open to many discussions and hearing all points of view, asked about the validity of choice – who decides this is valuable heritage? There is no point getting aggressive at this question because it will not take us far nor make us any wiser. But in addressing this question we may reinforce our professional selves better for future situations of a similar nature.

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Above: The present view of the interior of the renovated and conserved IIM-A library by SNK Consultants.

In the discussion on the Hall of Nations, the twin-authors Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj, both alive, in fact offered their own services to make the building suitable for new use and new developments around it, but clearly their offers did not go far. In the case of Hall of Nations, it was a clear case of an ideological difference, where a ‘new India’ was insistent on wiping out any earlier evidences of another and Nehruvian ‘new India’. The Hall of Nations was a wonderful example of the strength and resolve of a young India and its young and dynamic professionals such as Rewal and Raj. This building was the emblem of ‘Make in India’ if this idea excites you; this building was a symbol of India’s 'new spirit' in the second half of the 20th century, but we lost this building (and the lawyers fighting the case agreed) because we, as a professional body, were neither organised in our arguments and thoughts, nor had we the charge to be political and argue with an ideology.

I have said it often and am repeating it again, our arguments that worked and are now established for the restoration of 19th-century buildings, cannot be simply transported to our work and arguments with what we are now terming ‘modern architectural heritage’ in India. The earlier days of the conservation movement struggled with many economic arguments and questions of not simply public awareness but inculcating a notion of value – human, civilisational, intellectual – in conservation.

But today we should not play naïve, by ignoring that conservation is already facing many ideological challenges: not creativity but the nastiness of identity politics, and a constructed irreverence for certain kinds of pasts, especially our immediate pasts, are being sacrificed on the altars of some fantasy of a very distant past that is best left unaccounted in history, precisely because it is promoted as super-glorious, and supernatural.

In this context, I would go back to the letter by Errol D'Souza to the IIM-A alumni, and the sections from it I quote above – the questions D'Souza is asking are necessary for us to ask as a professional and intellectual body, because if we do not ask them and discuss them we will be beaten by the ideologies that precisely ask these questions from the perspective of wiping out histories and creating only mythic landscapes.

If we are not alive to history, let us not cry about heritage!

Heritage, we must accept, is a child of modernity. Heritage is not about old values but about the new anchoring itself in a historical landscape; it is quite possible that there could be many new values that precisely wish to change the historical moorings and hence imagine heritage differently. It is to be aware of these debates and realities and what D'Souza or Somaya say is important to a very high proportion – we should not treat these questions and ponderings as only intellectual flirting. Heritage is the sign of a maturing civilisation, that simply does not believe in living from day to day or epoch to epoch but is conscious about the rooting of our civilisation, and the many routes that have shaped our present, projecting into a future.

Hence, two things are most imperative – simply jingoism will not help, in fact, heritage jingoism or a ‘listen to my voice’ attitude will be the demise of heritage; and secondly, we have to review how our architecture histories have made preferences for, and created haloed monuments and masters out of some buildings and certain personalities. To add to these complexities, we will have to be clear where we stand in our contemporary politics, as it is the history of this politics that will more and more decide the fate of how we interpret value and taste in ‘heritage’.

In the case of the Hall of Nations demolition protest, we lacked teeth and conviction as a profession, and here one has argued in the past, this conviction is not about liking or disliking a particular building, or believing in conservation or not, but it would come from the larger self-introspection on our role and self-imagination as architects. As architects, what are we supposed to do? What is our work, as moral contribution to human civilisation through the buildings we make, shape, and preserve? Five hundred-plus schools of architecture and we could not display conviction enough for the law courts and powers to be to take cognisance of what we were saying.

While I am clearly convinced in a studied way, that the debates around the proposed demolition of the dormitories at IIM-A and the demolition of the Hall of Nations is absolutely not the same (while many who argue the two cases can be clubbed should review their understanding of both cases and should also think more critically of the present histories they occupy); I would argue that in both cases, what is similar is the professional response, that was something that indicated the weakness of thinking – intellectual and political – within the fraternity. To jingoistically rally around a historian will not help, especially when the historian is writing less of a studied analysis and more of a rhetorical argument.

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Above: The visible cracks and the bad state of many parts of the dormitory blocks.

There are many other questions here as well: if there were certain ‘master architects’ of today involved as younger architects in the campus design and construction when it was being designed and built, beyond appreciating the philosophy of Kahn, why in all these years has there been no creative pressure on the IIM-A to let them use their first-hand knowledge and masterly experience for sustained renovations as the building was giving way over decades? Why did they, or other senior architects in love with this building, and who visited the campus so often to study it, or students of certain schools and universities, not propose or suggest studies and preparation of maintenance and conservation manuals? Why the shouting when we have come to breaking point?

One must appreciate that SNK Consultants have now made the required manual, but that is now; and it also seems the current conservation process will continuously, every few years, need booster shots of repair and conservation. It also begs us to think that in all our celebration of the philosophy and ideas that shaped this building, and very rightly so, neither our historians nor the architects who worked on this project drew our professional attention to the quality of construction and detailing of the building. We should have shown responsibility as a professional and intellectual fraternity in these ways. To rally for reverence and blind faith is not only less useful, but I would say detrimental. What is the difference between this jingoism and those who demolished either the Hall of Nations, or the dome on 6 December 1992?

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Above: The state of the buildings and structures in and around the dormitory blocks.

Our histories will have to expand beyond Ahmedabad and Delhi in some of these cases – and that is another very important issue that comes to us quietly but pointedly in this debate. Often our histories have been repeatedly about some names and some buildings. Although the detailed chronological approach to India’s architecture history since 1947 in the exhibition "State of Architecture: Practices and Processes in India" curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, and Kaiwan Mehta in 2016 helped look beyond a few haloed examples to a wider idea of our architecture history, newer efforts will be very necessary. History is not for shelf-value; debates such as these clearly show that not taking history as an alive debate, as a site of action rather than reverence, is actually now come to causing much pain and exposing the weakness of debates within the professional space.

Even in the opposition to the proposed redevelopment of the Central Vista project in New Delhi, many professional groups that came together on social media and digital platforms, with genuine concerns and interesting arguments, failed when some of them argued that the current national politics had to be kept out of these groups and their discussions, and focus only on the project at hand – this is a fundamental error, to imagine that what is happening with architecture and the physical fabric of our cities is one history, and the everyday politics of protests and pandemics is another matter. This is the sign of a profession and intellectual system that lacks a reflective and broader, nuanced understanding of its profession and discipline. Yes, sometimes you separate your battles, but you never lose sight of parallel battles. While on the other hand, clubbing the cases and debates around Hall of Nation, or the redevelopment of Central Vista, New Delhi, or IIM-A dormitories is actually the case of missing the opportunity to deepen the debate through careful analysis of each case rather than make a generic call for heritage or modern heritage – which in my view is not the battle at all, anyway!

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Above: Ongoing restoration work being done on the campus.

You may wish to disagree and in self-preservation justify your jingoistic fervour and rally to protect the Kahn-designed IIM-A dormitory blocks, but of what use will that be? To address the present is actually the task of heritage conservation – and you get a sense of this in a very nice and subtle, yet forceful in the way Brinda Somaya talks of the conservation work her team has already carried out on site. That spirit with which SNK approached the task at hand has to be taken to a discussion table in the present situation. One also hears that some professional help has been forthcoming to practically see how the situation of the dormitories can be best salvaged. Philosophical anchoring and the politics of everyday life, and its practice will have to simply go hand in hand.

This I humbly suggest is one more chance for the architecture fraternity to also open more avenues to bring architecture to people beyond the profession. Everyone uses architecture every day, but they briefly acknowledge it only when they see a monument; they also understand monuments as sites of awe and pleasure in a past, and we need to change that. All buildings are the sites of our everyday lives, and history unfolds in all its corners, monuments or not: a crumbling chawl in Bhuleshwar or dormitories designed by Kahn, architecture has to be seen as a part of our living landscape, embedded with memories and hope, history and everyday politics. It is only this that will allow us to then discuss heritage. It is only in connecting histories, and everyday lives, with national destinies and politics that will allow us, in a civilisational way, to contribute to our present and future.

We do not need any more monuments and masters or heroes, we need the humility to study and learn from everyday life, and not take these for granted as common sense, we need to accept the politics we are embedded in and understand that there is no building beyond our everyday politics, egos, lives, and desires. If the dormitory blocks at IIM-A are conserved, that would be wonderful, but when will we restore the professional understanding of our roles and responsibilities as architects in shaping the professional and public realm – its intellectual, political, and aesthetic (philosophical) dimensions and discourses?

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Above: The main and iconic place and view of the IIM-A campus; the plaza is now named after Louis Kahn in his memory and respecting the iconic building and campus his architecture has given us.

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Kaiwan Mehta is an architect, academic and researcher, and has authored books like Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood (2009) and The Architecture of IM Kadri (2016). He is the managing editor of DOMUS India, and professor (Adjunct) and chair of Doctoral Programme (Faculty of Architecture) at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.

— Banner image via Wikimedia Commons. All the other photographs courtesy of the author.