Kuldip Singh, legendary Indian architect, dies at age 86


Kuldip Singh, legendary Indian architect, dies at age 86

Model of the Kuldip Singh–designed National Cooperative Development Corporation building in the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art exhibit Delhi: Building the Modern, curated by Ram Rahman (Ram Rahman)

Kuldip Singh, a prominent architect who designed two of the most iconic government buildings in Delhi (the National Cooperative Development Corporation building, completed in 1980, and Palika Kendra, completed in 1983), died on November 10 from COVID-19. He was 86.

Singh was known for his structurally complex modern designs and his use of concrete, which was still an experimental material when he started working with it. He graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi in 1957, which was then part of Delhi Polytechnic. Along with his contemporaries B.V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, Achyut Kanvinde, and Charles Correa, he was a highly regarded figure who was an important part of the modern architecture movement during the decolonization period in India, even though his work was not well documented.

Sean Anderson, associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a friend of Singh’s, remembered him as a very genuine and soft-spoken person.

“We would always have lunch at the Delhi Golf Club; he loved it there,” said Anderson, who last met with Singh in February this year. “He would share great stories of how they would resolve very complex engineering problems working with [Delhi] and then the municipal corporation.”

Anderson pointed out that Singh’s buildings are not only iconic for their innovative design and scale but also for illustrating a moment in India’s architectural and social history. In the decades following India’s independence from Britain, modern buildings became monuments for a new society and nation trying to move beyond the bonds of colonialism. One way in which to emblematize new meaning in the country’s Nehruvian political climate was to build an architecture that was indicative of newness and of the nation. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, established this early on. He had invited Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh.

Photo of Kuldip Singh, Mahendra Raj, and Ram Rahman
From left to right: Kuldip Singh, engineer Mahendra Raj, and Ram Rahman in 2017 at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art exhibit (Ram Rahman)

“[Singh] was one of the first moderns who started practicing in Delhi,” said photographer-curator Ram Rahman, a friend of Singh’s. “The quality of architecture produced in Delhi in those days is quite stunning. Delhi has an incredible collection of modernist architecture.”

Anderson recalled visiting Delhi for the first time in 1996 and seeing Palika Kendra and immediately wanting to visit it. At the time, he did not know about Singh. “Palika Kendra is right next to [an equinoctial sundial built in 1724 by Maharaja Jai Singh II, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in New Delhi], so, clearly in the shaping a formal experimentation,” Anderson said, “he’s evoking a relationship with Jantar Manta, but at the same time, it’s not ‘I am going to make a building that is reminiscent of the groundedness of that monumental history.’ And that’s the difference with Kuldip.

Singh was also known for his unique art collection of Thanjavur paintings, a South Indian style of art. He accidentally started the collection by bringing two of such paintings from Chennai to Delhi for a friend who later decided not to keep them. Singh eventually owned some 350 of the South Indian–style paintings.

“He was a collector. It wasn’t just paintings; it was wood screens, furniture, columns, and so forth,” said Anderson. “This last time I was there, I pleaded with him, that I could come in, see the collection, and he said, ‘Well, maybe next time.’”

Rahman remembered Singh as an architect who built buildings that had extremely complex structural and volumetric forms but were also graphic.

“He’s one of those individuals that you feel the kindness that emanated from him and his slight humor,” said Anderson. “I think those buildings are quite generous in the sense, yes, they are iconic, but at the same time they do attempt to negotiate all of these different conditions that are happening on the ground.”

Just like their creator.