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Delhiwale: The poolside Stein

On the 20th death anniversary of modern Delhi’s iconic architect
With Stein’s 20th death anniversary falling next week (October 6), it is time to pay homage to his legacy by surveying all his creations.
Published on Sep 28, 2021 12:34 AM IST
By Mayank Austen Soofi

It’s a sunny evening, here in the members-only India International Centre (IIC). The Lounge by the poolside is teeming with softly-chatting tea-drinking ladies in handloom saris. The only loud sounds are of the twittering birds, and of the pool water spraying up from the fountain jet, and sprinkling back into the pool. Meanwhile, the Lounge and the Dining Hall on the floor above are being reflected into the pool’s sparkling wavelets. As you stare longer at the reflection, the building seems to unravel itself gradually, each of its segments timorously trembling in the glassy liquid.

Composed of light and shade, gardens and galleries, jaalis and pools, the IIC is among the most iconic buildings of contemporary Delhi. It was designed by Joseph Stein, the American architect who made the Capital his home and gave it a series of distinctive buildings that are admired for resting so gently on the earth. A typical Stein consists of a two-to four-storey edifice effortlessly fusing with the air, water, trees, and gardens, while flowers and vines spill about the walls. Delhi’s other Stein landmarks include the offices of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Triveni Kala Sangam, the American International School, the Australian High Commission, and the India Habitat Centre. The landscaping of Lodhi Garden, as we know it today, was done under his guidance.

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With Stein’s 20th death anniversary falling next week (October 6), it is time to pay homage to his legacy by surveying all his creations.

One convenient alternative is to simply loiter by this pool in the IIC, and observe the aforementioned reflection, and surroundings, from various vantage points. Here all the elements that make up Stein’s aesthetics come together to stage a satisfying show. Bougainvillea is crawling up the walls, mynas are nibbling on the grass, lotus leaves are floating in the water, daylight is leaking into shaded porticos, and humans are babbling on with tranquillity.

Indeed, one might easily imagine Stein among these poolside sophisticates. An IIC regular, he was often sighted enjoying his favourite meal of naan with seekh kebabs. One is envious of those earlier generation of Delhiites who frequented the IIC when its legendary architect was alive and was seen ensconced amid his buildings. Today, he appears more like a myth.

Stein was cremated following his death, aged 89. His ashes lie in the US, in the custody of his younger son, who cared for him in his final years. Even so, New Delhi’s great architect does have a tomb in his karma bhoomi, the land containing his life’s principal works. It is this watery grave, here in his IIC.

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