We have stepped into the new year on precarious footing with the farmers’ agitation intensifying, the new COVID-19 strain knocking on our doors, and confusion around the effectiveness of vaccines. But if you’re an architect, there is one issue that supersedes all others; the issue of the recently announced demolition of 14 hostels blocks of IIM-Ahmedabad designed by the American architect Louis Kahn.
Nothing breaks an Indian architect’s heart more than a building designed by a white male ‘starchitect’ being demolished. If you went to an architecture school in India, you would know how much of the course is dedicated to glorifying the works of ‘master’ architects whose individual legacies have to be protected at any cost – even when they no longer serve their purpose. Because the purpose of any building, as understood by its inhabitants, is different from how we architects interpret it. In an 11-page letter to the alumni, IIM-A Director Errol D’Souza has said clearly that the dorm buildings were not safe for living.
With the uproar against the move, it now appears the dormitory’s purpose is more to preserve the legacy of the person who designed it than to be usable for those who inhabit it. All the architecture groups, collectives and forums I am part of are filled with impassioned letters, opinion pieces, and petitions to save the hostel buildings. I have never seen the fraternity come together with such force before, except maybe with regard to the Central Vista project – which is about saving democracy as much as architecture.
Even the horrors that have occurred over the past few years at various eminent institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, and Aligarh Muslim University – where students have been brutally attacked, vilified and even jailed for speaking up against the divisive politics of the government – did not stir such a frenzy. None of it enraged the architecture community as much as saving Kahn’s legacy, which as one Indian architect put it recently, “Kahn has left a heritage that carries value to all of humankind.”
Also read: Dilli and Its Fragile Buildings
I want to ask – why is it that this piece of heritage is only available to be revered and experienced by the elites and privileged?
I am not against conserving heritage in any way, but we need to be very careful about what we call heritage. In the present day, when the government is on a spree to erase our lived histories and culture by replacing the names of cities, parks and streets with their own nationalised versions, the reaction to the demolition of hostel blocks of IIM-Ahmedabad is completely misplaced. In Varanasi, more than 250 structures that have been there for more than 300 years were destroyed as part of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project. People lost their homes and shops for a meagre amount of compensation. We all watched in silence.
The purpose of the hostel blocks at IIM-Ahmedabad was to serve the students who lived there. Now when that purpose is no longer being fulfilled, the buildings must go. Of course, attempts to restore the building can be made. But what are we saving by restoration? IIM-Ahmedabad is at the end of the day, an elitist, classist and casteist institution that churns out management graduates for whom the hostels are a rite of passage on the path to earning more money and occupying high positions. By calling the hostel blocks ‘heritage’, are we setting a dangerous precedent that looks at architecture in a vacuum where the ‘bricks’ and ‘play of light falling through the arches’ can overtake the exclusionary politics of the institution it represents?
About 300 former students have created a WhatsApp group called ‘Save Louis Kahn’s IIMA’ to discuss the matter and save the buildings. I find the choice of name of the group intriguing. Is it Louis Kahn’s IIM-A? Who does it belong to and why must we save broken-down buildings only because they were designed by him?
In a vast country like ours with even wider inequalities, what constitutes and qualifies as heritage is often the prerogative of the elite. Whether it is the arts, culture, craft or architecture, if it’s not consumed by the rich, it is not heritage. No one is concerned about the irreplaceable loss of heritage of the subaltern. I am not saying this to indulge in whataboutery. We are well within our rights to fight for the conservation of architecture we value, but why is it that this cry for conservation is always evoked in reference to saving the legacy of the man who designed it? Remember the outrage over the demolition of the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi? And remember the deafening silence during the forceful relocation of 2,800 families at Kathputli colony who have been in transit camps for over six years now?
Whether the hostel blocks at IIM-Ahmedabad should stay or be demolished is a decision that needs to be taken by the stakeholders of the institution, which are its faculty and students. IIM-A is a powerful institution that can take care of its own affairs. Even if the buildings are demolished, no student will be rendered homeless. Sadly, that is not true for other demolitions that happen around us every day. We must think why it is that we are moved so deeply by the prospect of the demolition of a building designed by a starchitect, but we don’t flinch when the homes of the poor are demolished and forests are uprooted.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image: Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Photo: Wikimedia Commons