Museum Unlimited

rutam vora | Updated on May 22, 2014

Professor Neelkanth Chhaya with the architect fraternity at Sanskar Kendra when they brought out a petition   -  Snehal Gandhi

The Louis Khan Plaza at IIM-A   -  IIM-A

louis_evening.jpg   -  IIM-A

It is a victory for architects and Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad

On the morning of May 7, a bitter stand-off between the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and the city’s architect fraternity came to an end. The AMC, which had planned to construct a two-storey control room adjacent to the Sanskar Kendra, was forced to abandon its plan. The construction had threatened to eclipse the Le Corbusier-designed museum, the first of three such museums in the world, the other two being in Tokyo and Chandigarh.

In his 1925 book The Decorative Arts of Today, Le Corbusier writes, “Let us imagine a true museum, one that contains everything, one that could present a complete picture after the passage of time…” The Swiss-French architect, considered a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed this form of a new museum for three projects — the World Museum of the Mundaneum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Unlimited Growth.

Built in 1954, the Sanskar Kendra is based on the architect’s idea of a true museum or the Museum of Unlimited Growth. “Corbusier called it the cultural centre of Ahmedabad, hence the name Sanskar Kendra,” says Professor Neelkanth Chhaya, architect and former faculty member at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT). “All (the museums of unlimited growth) are different in structure, but have the seminal idea of modernism and culture.”

Yet, for decades the cultural centre, located in the tree-lined and posh neighbourhood of Paldi along the Sabarmati, has remained a static place for exhibitions. Originally conceived as a complex that would house separate pavilions for different subjects such as anthropology, natural history, archaeology and folklore, the Sanskar Kendra currently only houses a museum.

In the 1950s, at the invitation of the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Le Corbusier undertook the project of building Chandigarh, the new capital for Punjab. The architect was also commissioned to build four other buildings in Ahmedabad, including the Sanskar Kendra. The building realises some of the ideas of Corbusier’s museum. Deborah Gans in the Le Corbusier Guide describes some of these: “Standard bays of linear galleries wrap around a square court. The museums are ‘buildings without façade, entered from below, in other words, from inside’. The museums are siteless as well as unlimited.”

Most of the architect’s signature elements — pilotis (columns), a roof garden and ribbon windows — find a place in the Sanskar Kendra. Its roof is left wide open for a terrace garden, unlike the museum in Tokyo. “Forty-five open water tanks were to cool the galleries below. The continuous trough at the top of the pilotis was to hold vines that would climb the brick façades,” reads the Corbusier Guide. “Unlimited growth”, as envisioned by Corbusier, was to be shown through nature. And Ahmedabad, besides Paris and Chandigarh, was one of the few cities in the world to have inherited such a Corbusier legacy.

The AMC’s move to build the weather control room was seen not only as an attempt to deface an architectural landmark, but also one that would hurt Ahmedabad’s chances to become a UNESCO heritage site. According to architects, the new construction was violating the very idea of modern architecture, that is, to have a foreground. Foregrounds are kept so that the building can be viewed from a distance. “There was no plan for new construction in the original design by Corbusier,” says Yatin Pandya, an Ahmedabad-based architect and activist. Most of the architect fraternity, including people from CEPT, architect associations and international groups joined in to protest against AMC’s proposed construction.

Two days before the AMC decided to shift the location of the control room, Fondation Le Corbusier’s president, Antoine Picon, sent an appeal to the AMC chief Guruprasad Mohapatra. To the Paris-based foundation, which archives the architect’s works, the building is one of Corbusier’s major realisations.

In the letter, a copy of which is with BLink, Picon writes, “I would like the city of Ahmedabad to make its best effort to find a solution that would permit the new development further away from the museum façade… I would be very pleased if you could take into consideration the violent impact on the integrity of the museum on one side and the awful consequences of the current project on the reputation of the city and of the Foundation, on the other side”.

AMC chief Mohapatra, however, says that the architects assigned on the project didn’t inform the corporation about the key features of the original plan. “In the plan by Corbusier, there was a kind of grid that was to come up surrounding the main building, but that was not shared with us. As soon as this came to our knowledge, we decided to shift the new project,” he explains.

According to experts, the law needs to be amended to protect such sites that do not fall under the ASI criteria of protecting monuments that have existed for at least 100 years. “It is sad to find that there is no law to protect such contemporary but world-renowned architectural sites. This (Sanskar Kendra) is synonymous with the fabric of the city,” says Karan Grover, a Vadodara-based conservation architect who helped restore the heritage site of Champaner in central Gujarat.

For architects, Corbusier’s futuristic designs were the main draw. Author Jon T Lang writes in A Concise History of Modern Architecture that many young architects wanted to work with Corbusier in India, such as BV Doshi, who worked with the architect in Paris and later as his site-architect in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. Lang says that Corbusier’s impact on the architects was at many levels — as an employer, as a theorist, a form-giver and an educator.

More than a decade later in 1962, when the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad was completed, Louis Kahn held out a similar, Corbusier-like appeal for the architects here. Kahn, a US-based architect, was commissioned to design the IIM-A. The Louis Kahn Plaza, considered an architectural marvel and which features in the film 2 States, has aged fast after the 2001 earthquake. The complex has sustained damages over the past 50 years. In a boost for the architect fraternity in the city, the IIM-A management will undertake the first-ever conservation exercise since 1962. For the next three to five years, the institute will spend an estimated ₹15 crore per year in restoration efforts.

With Corbusier’s legacy intact and Kahn’s getting a much-needed facelift, the architects of the city have prevailed.

Published on May 16, 2014

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