Louis Kahn’s complex at IIM Ahmedabad again faces threats of demolition, reconstruction, and renovation

“What Do You Want, Brick?”

Louis Kahn’s complex at IIM Ahmedabad again faces threats of demolition, reconstruction, and renovation

Louis Kahn Plaza, the main central space in the old campus at IIM in Ahmedabad, India (Courtesy IIMA)

Louis Kahn, with Indian architects B.V. Doshi and Anant Raje, began work on the campus for the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) in 1962. The project, realized in brick masonry, was nearly complete when Kahn died in 1974. It was intended to stand the test of time.

On November 3, IIMA revealed its plan to cease restoration of “the faculty blocks, classroom complex, and dorms other than D15” and begin a process to rebuild major components of the campus. In response, it has been met with public outcry from the global architecture community about the enduring value of Kahn’s architecture and the potential for its adaptive reuse.

As noted in its press release, IIMA, after consultation with two groups of experts (including unnamed structural and earthquake engineers, restoration experts, and architects), intends to initiate an RFP process to reconstruct “the faculty blocks, classroom complex, and the peripheral dorms 16 to 18 with the same exterior facade, a seismically safe structure, and non-major renovation of the internal space to improve its functionality to suit the needs of the users.” It additionally noted that “other dorms will be remodeled, in line with the Louis Kahn heritage and keeping in mind the functional needs of current and future residents of the campus.”

brick and concrete buildings with a lawn and trees in Ahmedabad, India
A portion of the original IIMA campus, designed by Louis Kahn with B.V. Doshi and Anant Raje (Klaus-Peter Gast/Courtesy William J.R. Curtis)

This is not the first time Kahn’s campus has come under existential threat. According to IIMA, there were complaints about the deterioration of the buildings as early as 1982. In 2014, British architectural historian William J.R. Curtis took to The Architectural Review to write about the threats of demolition faced by important works of modern architecture in India due to the nation’s “hyper-inflated capitalist boom,” warning then if the work was bulldozed to make way for a flashier building to satisfy “an emerging management elite,” it would be “an act of vandalism that will reflect very badly on the reputation of IIM as a responsible international institution.” Curtis also noted that the IIMA campus suffered damage during an earthquake in 2001 and argued that the “brickwork was never maintained properly by the owners.”

In late 2020, IIMA announced a plan to tear down 18 dorms on its campus, which was swiftly met with public outcry, causing the institution to not follow through with its plans. At the time, IIMA’s Director Errol D’Souza (who remains in this role today), described the structures as “unsafe for living in without restoration.” The announcement prompted strong responses from Curtis and others, including Vishaan Chakrabarti, historian Robert McCarter, Martino Stierli, and members of Kahn’s family. An online petition initiated by Manon Mollard at The Architecture Review gathered the names of well-known architects among its over 19,000 signers, and public discussions about the potential for creative adaptive reuse ensued. At the time, Chakrabarti mused that “it seems like some of this is just driven by the fact that some of the students want air conditioning and an en-suite bathroom.”

With this current news, it seems IIMA has resolved to demolish and rebuild a number of central buildings with “the same exterior facade” but in a seismically safe manner that also improves functionality. (While dorms 16 to 18 will be reconstructed, other dorms will be remodeled.) In a letter circulated on November 10 and provided to AN, Curtis yet again wrote in defense of preservation. Subsequently this communication was covered in Indian news outlets, including The Indian Express and the Ahmedabad Mirror. In part, Curtis’s letter reads:

More than just a collection of buildings this is a citadel of learning, a collective entity fusing buildings and spaces between in an extraordinary unity, within which many complex conditions and social interactions occur. It weaves together solids and voids, light and shade, materiality and immateriality, in a timeless manner. A place of inspiration and even now of collective memory for generations, it supplies  a rooted architecture of stunning authenticity full, of echoes from the past, yet embodying a social vision for the then newly independent, secular Republic of India.

But it is, or was, also the home of generations of students and faculty who have recalled in letters and interviews how the buildings themselves were part of their inspiration and education, even encouraging them to aspire to excellence in their own work and careers. One would not demolish an Oxbridge college and replace it with a collection of soulless two star hotels with bland spaces between them. But that is what is likely to happen at IIMA.

AS before, the reasons given are specious: to do with supposed structural instability and with lack of response to contemporary expectations of comfort. The first argument has been demolished before several times and the second is easy to solve in a country which has successfully transformed ruined fortresses and palaces into comfortable hotels. Improvements can also be made th[r]ough relatively inexpensive landscaping. In fact, according to reports from Ahmedabad, the structures of IIMA have suffered from lack of proper maintenance for years. Some have called it negligence.

It would not be difficult to restore and shore up the masonry brick structures which also define superb external spaces for social interaction and the passage of breezes, then to insert more comfortable interiors in a tasteful minimalist way with fine furnishings supplied by top class Indian designers and high quality craftsmen and craftswomen. Ahmedabad has always existed on the knife edge between the rural and the industrial, and is after all the home of NID the National Institute of Design, which from the very start sought to integrate local craft and textile traditions with modernity. Let us not forget that this is the home of Gandhi, home spun cotton and a rich textile tradition.

IIMA need to think outside the box and realise that they have a chance to ‘rebrand’ their place in relation to a great local history and tradition, rather than a skin deep Americanisation.

There is a lack of transparency in these decisions. Apparently a team of engineers from IIT Roorkee prepared a report, but the IIMA administration is refusing to make this public. As for the ‘architectural assessment, this has been made by ‘American architects’, but there too there is a refusal to reveal their judgements, their criteria and even their identity. Why all this secrecy? Naturally there is suspicion of a ‘white wash’.

One does not want to fossilise Kahn’s scheme but one does need to respect its essential qualities, attributes and guiding principles.The challenge here is creative reuse, but in a manner that respects the integrity of the original; not the absolutely wasteful destruction of a masterpiece replaced by a third rate pastiche. Not to mention the huge waste of resources involved in destruction then construction of a new building. Is that IIMA’s model for economic development in a time of scarcity and diminishing resources?

In subsequent paragraphs, Curtis waged that the current political climate under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted “smash and grab capitalism” combined with an “anti secular, anti democratic [sic] Hindu nationalism.” Curtis singled out the recent Central Vista project in New Delhi as “disastrous” and noted that its architect, Bimal Patel, who is currently chief architect of IIMA, in addition to leading the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology School of Architecture (also in Ahmedabad), is one of Modi’s preferred architects.

Currently, Patel is Managing Director of HCP, an office founded in 1960 that today provides professional services in “architectural design, interior design, engineering, urban design, urban planning, communications, project management and construction management.” In 2009, HCP completed an extension to Kahn’s campus, which added a host of new buildings designed in homage to the original scheme, though largely physically separated due to the city’s inner beltway. HCP also completed the design of a new academic block and sports complex in 2016 which went unbuilt and, in 2019, a masterplan for the campus, which, according to HCP, “holistically protects, enhances, and integrates the two major assets of the campus, the iconic heritage buildings by Kahn and Raje, and the natural heritage, namely the network of spaces around and in between the buildings.”

brick and concrete buildings showing wear in Ahmedabad, India
A portion of the old campus at IIM in Ahmedabad (Vastrapur/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-3.0)

Already, others in the architecture and design world have voiced dismay about this latest news, including British design critic Alice Rawsthorn and Federica Zanco, director of the Barragán Foundation, who reposted Curtis’s letter in full on Instagram.

While no official petition has circulated, and wider, coordinated efforts have yet to coalesce, it seems this current decision by IIMA has the capacity to sweepingly alter a large-scale work by one of the 20th centuries most celebrated architects.

The renewed battle over the fate of both individual buildings and the overall campus evidences the major role that concerns of maintenance and stewardship play in realities of buildings and their owners and users. In this case, Curtis lodged that the complex has been poorly maintained for years, while IIMA accused Kahn of allowing “second-class bricks” to be used when originally constructing the structures.

Today, IIMA offers the potential for structural failure as its main reason to rebuild: “Most structural elements have insignificant residual life,” a statement from IIMA’s Board of Governors claimed. As a result, “rebuilding in such sections of the old campus is unavoidable.” While safety concerns are legitimate and serious, the situation seems to close off any potential for an inventive seismic retrofit, expanded ranges of thermal comfort, or, even, the leasing or sale of Kahn’s structures to owners who might be able to solve the issue in a more creative manner than what the demands of the nation’s premiere business school allow.

In an era where carbon footprints are of utmost concern and the hand-wringing acknowledgement that the built environment generates nearly 50 percent of annual global CO2 emissions is repeated ad nauseam, the careful, even painstaking, reuse of existing buildings is important work. Numerous precedents of how to proceed exist. Additionally, it’s an unfortunate circumstance that the arrival of managerial concepts from Kahn’s adopted home country—the United States—now threaten his architecture, which was, towards the end of his career, devised in an attempt to make works timeless through their geometries and materials.

Curtis advised that, “as temporary residents of a universal masterpiece, the administrators have long term responsibilities as custodians of a heritage that should be handed on with pride to future generations.” His hope is that they “should continue to restore the buildings while adapting them intelligently and sensitively to present and future needs. An IIMA thus restored should acquire the status of Universal Patrimony of Humanity, UNESCO Protection.  And the administrators could take pride in that, instead of coming across as wreckers of a masterpiece that stands equal with other great buildings in India’s heritage.” In his estimation, “nothing less will do.”

AN has reached out to IIMA for comment and will keep readers updated as this preservation battle continues.