How Bauhaus built India
Birthing any new art form is about clearing ground, and building from zero. And German teacher-architect and visionary Walter Gropius did so in the Europe of the 1920s, with the teaching programme he introduced in the Staatliches Bauhaus, a new design school founded just after World War I, in 1919.
Due to its efforts, the house style of the rich – the highly ornamental Art Nouveau wrought-iron railings, smiling cherubs on the ceilings, elaborate stairways – was no longer high style or even aspirational for the street. The new look was greys and whites for interiors, simple industrial fixtures and concrete flat-roofed houses that let in light and air. Bauhaus also insisted on the unity between art and technology, and the cooperation among the different disciplines of painting, industrial design, typography, and, of course, architecture.
Not architecture or engineering. According to Gropius, architecture begins “where engineering ends” but they feed off one another. In short, Bauhaus is the name of that enterprise through which Gropius tried to bring under one umbrella, the art of everything.
The Bauhaus takeover of Europe, then the Americas, and its spread in India from the ’40s to the ’80s, however, happened for a reason. Bauhaus’ battles, points out American critic Paul Goldberger, in an essay in The New York Times, were won not simply “for aesthetic reasons, but for economic ones”. After the two world wars, modern houses were cheaper to build. The reason they are still with us is that any architect can fall back on the basic Bauhaus design philosophy – form must follow function – and build a striking, sturdy house.
A house is determined, said the Bauhaus teachers, by who would move into the building and what was going on inside.
Expressionist masters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and other important artists of the European avant-garde, were some of the teachers associated with the Bauhaus school. Public and workers’ housing was also a key focus.
And all this made perfect sense to two young Indians sent by the British Indian government in the ’40s to the US. They were assigned to bring back new design thoughts suited to a country with limited resources and a huge population, and which, they knew would soon be an independent nation in search of a new design language.
Achyut Kanvinde of Delhi and Habib Rahman of Bengal were both taught by Gropius at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where the German and other Bauhaus teachers had fled, to escape Hitler’s Germany.
At least a thousand buildings such as the The Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Delhi, and Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, were built by Kanvinde, inspired by the Bauhaus philosophy. Rahman’s Bauhaus-inspired housing models were replicated in India’s cities in lakhs; his other projects, numbering around 150, included Rabindra Bhawan with the three National Akademis; the Calcutta Secretariat and the University Grants Commission of India in Delhi.
Kanvinde and Rahman brought Bauhaus, one of the most influential design movements of the 20th century, to India. They also brought “architectural modernism to India in the mainstream and public institutions, before Corbusier”, says architect Sanjay Kanvinde, the late Achyut Kanvinde’s son. “Rahman made Gandhi Ghat in 1949, Kanvinde’s first Bauhaus building, the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association was conceived in 1950. Chandigarh, whose master plan was developed by Corbusier, had its main components completed in the ’60s.”
Kanvinde and Rahman: India’s early architecture modernists
In 1949, a curious structure on the banks of the Ganga near Calcutta awaited Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s nod. It had the profile of a temple tower, was topped with an Islamicate dome and a horizontal slab jutted out from both its sides, giving it the appearance of a cross. This was the Gandhi Ghat memorial in Barrackpore and the brief for the building had been to evoke Gandhi’s ideals in a modernist way.
“Who is the architect?” asked Nehru, a new question at that time when most projects were engineer-driven.
When Habib Rahman stepped up, Nehru asked him to join the Central Public Works Department in Delhi, as architects were desperately needed in the Capital; the refugee influx in Delhi after Partition was at its peak, besides the imperative of literally building the nation.
The Gandhi Ghat was one of the first Bauhaus signatures on India’s official buildings. It became the memorial style for India; the essence of a man’s life captured in a conceptual idea.
Before he arrived in Delhi in 1953, Rahman had completed nearly 80 projects – from an engineering college to housing for the police to the secretariat, India’s first skyscraper built with a steel frame – in Bengal.
“Calcutta had been built by British engineers and architects in the neo-classical style. Rahman’s clean lines, the arrangement of windows, the vertical sun shades, show a clear Bauhaus influence,” says photographer Ram Rahman, the late Habib Rahman’s son.
Attending Gropius’ Harvard lectures, next door to the MIT where he was a student, Rahman’s designs had the imprint of his modernist training. Rahman and Gropius had also become friends, with Rahman doing an occasional “Indian sword-dance” at Gropius’ house when he had guests.
Rahman had gone to the US as a mechanical engineer on a government scholarship; he returned home an architect. He was, in fact, the government architect, designing some of the earliest housing for Delhi’s bureaucrats in the thousands, the General Post Office, the buildings for the Auditor General in Madras and Bombay.
“He believed that it was as a government architect he could have the greatest social and cultural impact and would be able to design on a scale which would be difficult otherwise. He did not opt for private practice,” says Ram.
Achyut Kanvinde, trained by Gropius at Harvard’s architecture school, imbibed the Bauhaus regimen of thinking about design, and saw no reason to tinker with it. For the tomb of Maulana Azad, India’s first education minister, Rahman added a slim jaali (stone or latticed screen) to his otherwise modernist structure in Delhi; Kanvinde would always be hesitant to add ‘Indian elements’ to his buildings.
In a conversation between fellow architect Narendra Dengle and Kanvinde published in the Marg magazine, the latter had made his position amply clear: “Taking on grandfather’s clothes in the name of culture...that I am not agreeable to. Architecture must have its own clarity and purity.”
But when it came to government commissions, Kanvinde occasionally had to come up against a strong lobby resisting the straightforward adoption of the International Style, as Bauhaus was called in the countries that adopted it. Adding domes, chhatris and jaalis to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in Delhi, as he had to, when he built it, went against his grain, says his son.
Bauhaus’ heyday in India in official architecture was roughly till about 40-50 years after Independence, but Achyut Kanvinde adhered to the principles of modernism all through his life, says his son, Sanjay, also an architect.
“Both Kanvinde and my father influenced the next generation of architects, so their influence lasted until the ’80s. These were men operating in an age when industrial-scale production of steel had not even begun, no large glass sheets were available, there were few cranes, buildings were built by artisans by hand,” says Ram. “And they still didn’t use ‘world-class’ or ‘iconic’ on the hoardings next to any building they put up, so common these days when architects draw attention to their own work in the hoardings.”
From Bauhaus, Kanvinde learnt to use space to express human values. “He rejected symmetry at the cost of function. He stayed on the side of modernism even when he built a temple,” says Sanjay Kanvinde.
And it was the same principle he adhered to when he designed the master plan of a city (Dronagiri Node, Navi Mumbai), or built dairies (such as the National Dairy Development Board Campus, Anand; Dudhsagar Dairy, Mehsana), campuses (University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore), a Jesuit school (St Xavier’s, Delhi), a stadium (Sher-e-Kashmir, Srinagar), the residence of a textile baron (Balkrishna Harivallabhdas), or his own. What he lived by, he had built.