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Designs for Power

Three Western visions on the Indian subcontinent

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By PAULA DEITZ
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In the final scene of My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary about discovering his father Louis I. Kahn (1901-74) through his architecture, Nathaniel stands in the National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, speaking to Shamsul Wares, a local architect who knew Kahn and claims that the building gave his country democracy. No one who watches as the camera pans over the massive concrete drums and cubes reflected in shimmering water can be left without an urgent desire to be there.

Louis Kahn’s National Assembly building, Dhaka

Louis Kahn’s National Assembly building, Dhaka

And so, years later, I traveled to Dhaka, including visits to two other capital cities on the subcontinent whose main structures I knew well, but only graphically, from exhibitions at London’s Hayward Gallery: New Delhi from “Lutyens”; and Chandigarh from “Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century.” Seeing these buildings today, in an urban context, with their accumulated history and cultural overtones, has revealed to me how, beyond style and grandeur, this architecture has become symbolically integrated into each community. Being there made all the difference.

In his effort to preserve the troubled union of East and West Pakistan that followed the 1947 partition of India, Ayub Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan, sought to create two equal capitals with alternating parliamentary sessions. Dhaka, the provincial capital of the east, was already fomenting under pressure to adopt Urdu as the official language and from military skirmishes aimed at crushing a growing nationalism. A projected National Assembly building gave them hope for independence.

After being turned down by Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, the Public Works Department contacted Louis Kahn, suggested by the Bengali architect Muzharul Islam, who had met Kahn during his studies at Yale and who was already one of Dhaka’s prominent Modernists with his College of Arts and Crafts. In 1962, Kahn accepted, and he came to Dhaka from Philadelphia for the first time the following year. While a more extensive plan was initially envisioned, the built elements consist of the octagonal concrete parliamentary citadel separated by calm waters from massive, fortress like brick hostels, originally intended for traveling MPs, and a hospital. The complex, which possesses the richness of ancient marble and sandstone monuments, was completed in 1983—but not without interruption. The 1971 civil war that created Bangladesh halted construction temporarily, and after Kahn’s death in 1974, his associates oversaw the completion of the work.

Dhaka, with a current population of 15 million, is teeming with markets in the old quarters along the Buriganga River. The streets, permanently congested, resound with a cacophony of horns and bells as thousands of green auto-rickshaws shoot in and out like threads weaving a jacquard pattern. At its calm center rises the National Assembly building at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (The Tiger of Bengal City), in a park Kahn designed with avenues of trees bordering the water and parterres of marigolds, the ubiquitous flower of the subcontinent.

The symmetrical array of round and cubic towers, with their vertical slits and triangular, circular, and square apertures that admit shaded light to the interiors, recalls the simplicity of forms Kahn collected in his 1950s travel sketches—of, say, the Acropolis walls—that served to suffuse his Modernism with classical humanism. The central cluster of four cylindrical forms containing the prayer hall is set slightly askew in order to face Mecca. On closer inspection, one can see how each five-foot segment of reinforced concrete (the predetermined limit) is separated from the next by a thin slab of white marble alternating between a flush edge and a narrow ledge to articulate a small shadow effect. 

This monumental structure was handmade by workers, including women, who carried baskets of concrete on their heads to pour into forms. As I walked through the building with Shamsul Wares, he told me that Kahn would find irregularities in the workmanship but accepted them in good spirit. 

As a master of layering light, Kahn draws it through seven layers of interior walls through additional circular and crescent openings bridged by Piranesi-style crisscrossing staircases. As the once crisp outside light is drawn through the building and its cavernous circular corridors 11-stories high, it becomes more diffuse at the same time that the eye adjusts to its new level. In the assembly hall itself, where the two major parties debate, natural light from clerestory windows above is modulated by a concrete parasol stretched over the octagonal oculus. 

A small group viewing the chamber with me was suddenly moved to sing the Bengali national anthem, written by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It was a sacred moment.

Soon after landing in Delhi, one experiences the effects of the plans laid down by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)—tree-lined streets shielding white bungalows set back in luxuriant grounds. George V proclaimed Delhi the new capital at his Indian coronation in 1911, in order to remove the government from escalating religious strife in Calcutta. In 1912, Lutyens arrived with a planning commission to design New Delhi, succeeding the seven sequential historic cities, now mostly ruins, that comprised Old Delhi. One is reminded that, in the earlier Mughal period, Shah Jahan gave up Agra for Delhi when he built the Red Fort (1638-48) as the centerpiece of his empire. He lost Shahjahanabad, as it was called, only 10 years later when his son imprisoned him. The British retained New Delhi for only 16 years after completing it in 1931.

By 1920, the story goes, the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau were looking up King’s Way (now Rajpath) to the dome of the Lutyens-designed Viceroy’s House when Chelmsford asked Clemenceau what he thought of the structure. “This will be the finest ruin of them all,” Clemenceau replied. But to the contrary, the house (as well as Herbert Baker’s twin Secretariat buildings and Parliament) are flourishing in use under the Indian government, even as they show their age. 

I stood in the parliamentary chamber where, at midnight on August 15, 1947, Lord Mountbatten handed over the government of India to Jawaharlal Nehru. Then, as I walked up Rajpath to the Viceroy’s House, as if in celebration, two military marching bands passed by in preparation for Republic Day.

Having already visited several ancient ruins in India—many of which, like Fatehpur Sikri, had been seen by Lutyens himself—I found the two-tone sandstone exterior of the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) a tailored and not-too-exuberant mixture of motifs of the embellished Palladian style. Not obvious from photographs is the shadow effect of the chajja, a thin, projecting stone cornice that overhangs the entire structure. I had just noted one on the small, elegant 16th-century tomb of Imam Zamin at the Qutb Complex in Delhi; the Mughal pavilions or chattris at either end of the roof were in perfect harmony with the dome based on the Great Stupa at Sanchi. The stone Hindu bells decorating the Corinthian-inspired capitals of the central colonnade drew on yet another culture.

Inside, the reception rooms for dining and entertaining had conserved all their refinements with marble patterned floors and long windows and mirrors. And then there are surprises, such as the staircase that takes visitors suddenly outside to a high loggia under an open sky. The best surprise of all, however, is the 10-acre Mughal garden beautifully maintained behind the house. Designed in the traditional four-rivers style, the garden’s rectangular greenswards, including floral parterres and rose gardens, appear to float on the waterways. With fountains of tiered, sandstone lotus leaves, pergolas, and clipped maulsari trees, the structures bring a fantasy element to abundant seasonal plantings. 

Following partition, the northern Indian state of Punjab lost its capital, the great cultural center Lahore, to Pakistan and subsequently founded at the foothills of the Himalayas the first new city in India since Jaipur in 1728. Where once only scattered villages existed is now the thriving garden city of Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, 180 miles north of Delhi. While some preliminary plans had existed, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was finally selected as the chief designer on a team that included his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who brought an eclectic Modernism to the city’s residential and public buildings. 

Shiv Datt Sharma, now 82, was a young architect when he was engaged to work locally with Le Corbusier, and he recalls how he would transpose the metric drawings into inches: “Le Corbusier taught us that architecture serves society,” he reminisced, “and he sought, through his mathematical Modular system, to maintain the human scale everywhere in creating Chandigarh as a city that enhanced the quality of life even for the poorest of the poor.” 

The new city was divided into a grid of sectors, each one providing local services and amenities to the neighborhood: markets, schools, health facilities, and parks. Sector 17 is the town center, including hotels and other commercial buildings of limited height, facing north to profit from the cross breezes. In a walk through the streets of Sector 22, the two-room terrace houses with linked façades and walled front gardens may have been modest, but they provided homes near open parks in a neighborly environment—not unlike the villages where some of these families might have lived. 

Built in the 1950s and ’60s, Sector One is the Capitol Complex, and nothing could be developed between it and the mountain ranges to the north. In creating a tropical architecture, Le Corbusier’s dramatic reinforced concrete forms are calculated to protect the interiors from heat and sunlight. In every case, the grandeur of the buildings is enlivened with accents from his personal palette and his mural-sized tapestries, woven in Kashmir and with scattered symbols that lend a magnificence along with acoustical qualities to the legislative chambers and courtrooms.

The Capitol Complex is composed of three buildings on a vast plaza with reflecting pools. A planned fourth, the Governor’s Palace, was originally sited at midpoint but was forbidden by Nehru, who was against the glorification practices of previous regimes. Although there are plans to re-create this building in a slightly altered form as a Museum of Knowledge, nothing has yet materialized. But rising from a square contemplation pit at the edge of the complex is the famous symbol of Chandigarh, the welcome Open Hand revolving in the wind.

What a privilege to live every day in Chandigarh—if only to view in various gradations of light that massive curved porch over the Palace of Assembly, advancing like the horns of the taureau in Le Corbusier’s iconography. With the cooling, tower-like, hyperbolic drum—and the glass-sided pyramid intended to bring shafts of light from the roof to the assembly rooms—this building possesses the soaring forms that instantly uplift the spirit. The High Court’s parasol roof, supported by colorful pylons, soars as well, and the syncopated pattern of brises soleils on the Secretariat façade delineates interior functions, from ministerial offices to those of general workers. Inside, systems of colorful ramps lead to the rooftops, where once there were planted terraces.  

Looking back on experiencing all these structures within their particular societies, I thought again of the Kahn building that prompted this pilgrimage. I had asked Shamsul Wares whether, as a frequent visitor to the National Assembly building, he had become accustomed to its innovative forms. “Actually,” he responded, “it is like attending a Shakespeare play; each time you leave with a new message.” 

Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review

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