Written by Keshav Varma
February 26 was the foundation day of Ahmedabad, a city that has an important place in the architectural history of contemporary India.
Post-Independence, India experienced a blossoming of architecture by both Indian architects and foreign ones, in which modernity was embraced with interpretations of what was suited for India. The democratic, socialist approach to governance seen was in major spending on public works. An emphasis on “physically building” a new India provided an impetus to architecture in India. This was coupled with a search for an Indian identity. The marrying of these two large forces- at times at odds with one another- produced a rich architectural dialogue that affected the course of architecture globally.
The adoption of modernity by non-western countries was a significant juncture in the history of architecture. It marked a moment when architecture and its most basic principles were questioned, modernity was decolonised and pride in the regional was established. The search for an Indian modernity concerned itself with issues pertaining to the country’s frugal means, the need for flexibility and plurality and sensitivity to the ways of living of people in different parts of the country. Ahmedabad, due to the environment it provided, served as a platform for this growth and evolution of architecture.
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Ahmedabad had a rich history of vernacular architecture. It was a city of enterprising people, who had been associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom struggle. This provided Ahmedabad with the necessary patronage and forward thinking to present a culturally rich, politically diverse and socially aware group of patrons and users, creating a conducive environment for architectural thought to flourish.
The founding of the School of Architecture, which eventually grew into CEPT University, was a significant milestone in this development. The foresight of the Ahmedabad Education Society to foster this institution, founded and led by BV Doshi, played a sterling role in the development of Ahmedabad’s architectural excellence. CEPT led by its subsequent directors and deans carried on this tradition of engagement with the city.
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Innovation played a significant role in planning housing, institutions, public works and planning in Ahmedabad. These pieces of architecture are extremely important and significant to the Indian as well as global discourse. Questions about equity and what makes the public realm were addressed. By posing these questions, and responding to them, a discourse on architecture and its place in shaping society was brought to the fore.
The projects in Ahmedabad demonstrate the ideals of what the profession could aspire to, as it navigates itself. In several ways, the projects expanded the scope of what architecture as a profession can be. That is why one must consider contemporary and modern Indian architecture in Ahmedabad as heritage.
For most students of architecture, Ahmedabad is an important site of education. The city’s architecture also attracts International tourists. Protecting the listed public buildings and institutions is a must as they are part of our collective memory as a society; they also reflect our values. This demands that the best practice in any project related to heritage architecture rests on two core dimensions: First, recognising that heritage is a matter of public cultural memory. Procedures and decisions that constitute the project must be transparent to the highest degree possible.
Second, the entire project must rest on a prior analysis of the value offered by the heritage project, examining both its tangible and intangible value. It must document the recommendations on what aspects of this heritage should be considered precious and non-negotiable.
I feel personally concerned when our city’s treasures are trifled with. IIM-Ahmedabad is a case in point. We have to ensure that its exceptional design and architecture, which have been appreciated across the globe, are preserved. On its foundation day, the city and its fathers must come together for the purpose.
The writer is chairman, High Level Committee (HLC) on Urban Planning, MoHUA