After decades of neglect, institutional architecture in India has gradually come to embody an exemplary synthesis of form and ideals
For decades, an increasingly maligned, formulaic Modernism has been the norm for institutional architecture in India. Built by government construction agencies, municipal authorities and city Works Departments, public architecture became synonymous with bureaucratic citadels - inefficient, cumbersome and faceless.
It is only in recent years that Indian bureaucrats have acknowledged the need for a change. Today, a greater share of significant public buildings are designed by private architects. Charles Correa, A. D. Raje, Raj Rewal, B. V. Doshi, among others, have all benefited from this association.
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Though much public institutional work in the country is rooted in the self contained isolation of campus design, the isolation has distinct architectural benefits. It allows the architect a free hand in determining links between buildings and conferring his own sense of order to a particular place. Consequently, the idealised vision of spatial order is best demonstrated in architecture by institutional design. Its archetypal nature as a place of learning, living, meeting and recreating among a particular group of individuals, and the development of its form as an independent self-contained entity express a microcosm of the country’s social conditions- a place within a place.
In a developing country, institutes become the generic symbols of that development- suggesting an idea that is first realised in the selected experimental ground of a campus, before being unleashed on the larger world outside.
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While much of A. D. Raje’s work is associated with formal aspects of teaching, research and training, he has for much of his professional career searched for a suitable vocabulary that expresses the idea of a public institution. His recent work highlights a kind of historical monumentality unprecedented in recent India architecture.
Just as Louis Kahn had turned to Roman constructions for his inspirations for brick architecture, Raje maintains an undisguised veneration for the medieval ruins of central India. At his recently completed India Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal, the abandoned palace fortresses of Fatehpur Sikri and Mandu are interpreted in a contemporary idiom, through a vast assemblage of structural and spatial borrowings.
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Designed for the Central Government, the 65-hectare complex, set up explicitly to promote a more ecologically sound national programme in forestry, houses facilities for teaching, seminars, residence and recreation. Its rocky site overlooking the lakes of Bhopal creates a setting of building and landscape that highlights the terrain and the surrounding vistas.
Small rocky outcrops, hillocks and depressions on the crest of the undulating promontory have determined, to a large extent, the form of the complex. Administration, accounts and related offices form the main arrival court of the complex, while classrooms, seminars, library and auditorium are grouped around a more contained academic court in the rear. The sequence is closely linked to the adjacent cluster of student dormitories.
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The synthesis of Raje’s ideas is reflected in a building that is organized around monumental loggias, and creates a geometry of fusion and collision. The layers of double wall, the severe inflections of the plan or the subtler tilts and realignmets of walls, which are invariably perceived in moving through the complex, appear as if successive archaeological layers have been deposited on the same site.
‘India strives under the heavy, and often contradictory burdens of assimilating both progress and heritage’
The design complements existing features at the eastern edge of the complex. Here the building dissolves into pavilions sited along a promenade and a water channel – a reflective strip that acts as the datum for the complex and makes visual connections to the natural lakes beyond. Trees, shaded walkways and water bodies are used throughout to create continuous views from court to plaza, internal street to water garden. The manner in which the architecture is integrated with water and foliage creates small enclosures and monumental public vistas.
The overall scale is reminiscent of Mogul garden design, and also refers to the larger Deccan palace at Mandu in Central India. Such contrasts of intimacy and monumentality are intended to coalesce the various elements into a visually and physically coherent composition. References to historical ruins for a modern solution suggest that India strives under the heavy, and often contradictory burdens of assimilating both progress and heritage. Yet at the Institute of Forest Management, historicism is transformed to suit a contemporary programme.
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The particular concerns for an Indian language of building and an architecture oriented to regionally appropriate themes have been categorically endorsed in many new projects. The Entrepreneurship Development Institute outside Ahmedabad was set up with modest intentions- to provide a residential campus for the training of individuals interested in setting up marginal and small-scale business enterprises. Designed by Bimal Patel, the building utilises the local techniques of exposed brick construction, while the layout fragments the complex into its residual functions, bringing them together eventually in a sequence of linking terraces and courts.
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Yet the main feature of the composition is not so much the actual building, but the spaces in between. Individual components, such as the canteen and auditorium, gravitate around the main court; the three major departments of administration, research and training are organised around their own secondary courts. The housing, though secluded from the institute by a grove of trees, is kept in close proximity, allowing students easy access to workplaces.
The architecture was created to encourage a greater interaction between students and teachers, and to allow the potential for informal meeting and discussions by suggesting the memory of familiar buildings and friendly surroundings. The volumetric alignments and deflections of the plans within an orthogonal layout are meant to direct the attention to the special areas of the institute. At the same time, the simple brick forms, adorned only by recessed concrete lintels, achieve their complexity largely by organisation. By bringing into play varying qualities of light, and changing sequences of closure and openness, they suggest links to the surrounding landscape.
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Similar concerns for establishing a hierarchy of institutional functions are seen in B. V. Doshi’s complex for the Gandhi Labour Institute also in Ahmedabad. Though few architects ever achieve the desired synthesis between the original idea and its eventual execution, the Gandhi Labour Institute, like Sangath - the studio Doshi built for himself- expresses all the architect’s memories, associations and desires in a single form.
Located on the western outskirts of the city, the peculiar shape of this site determined, to a large extent, the layout of the buildings. The three major blocks - the institute, the rector’s residence and the hostels- are manipulated, like Patel and in skilful deflections. But here the changes from the orthogonal are used to suggest both the irregular periphery of the site and the potential for open-air links between buildings. While the main institute conforms to the orthogonal grid of the road, the minor complexes move away in a studied, but informal manner, creating among themselves three courts: an arrival apron that staggers along the street front to suggest entrance, a formal institutional court adjacent to the classrooms, and beyond, a landscaped court and amphitheatre. The main spaces of the institute disperse along a corridor, conceived with the extra width of a potential exhibition gallery that also links the teaching and seminar rooms. The terraced and stepped building further allows activities to extend outdoors, in genial manipulation of the existing terrain into grassy knolls and amphitheatre. The intention was to create a setting conducive to discourse, meeting and exchange of ideas.
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Doshi, Raje, Bimal Patel - three architects of different generations, experience and background but with the common heritage of practising in the same city. Yet it would be unreasonable to draw conclusive statements of shared influences. Perhaps an interpretative similarity lies only in their sacrosanct treatment of space, in their regard for enclosure, the geometric delineation of inside and outside, of room and court, and the eventual trace of Louis Khan’s Indian legacy.
Evaluation of institutional architecture has a singular timeliness. It comes at a time when a nation burdened by financial debt and an uncertain public legacy is seeking less expensive indigenous options. Despite such attitudes, it is obvious that a demonstration of technique, idea and craft skills can be best applied to buildings of a public nature in which the architect’s role becomes that of an aesthetic lobbyist, inculcating a new set of public values in the design. In this respect, recent institutional buildings sponsored by State and Central Government and built by private architects establish a standard unmatched in the country. Moreover, it is only these structures that can effectively reverse the public attitude of indifference to architecture and instead promote a larger appreciation of the man-made environment.
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