Commentary: To Be or Not To Be? Saving the Threatened Indian School of Management by Louis I. Kahn – Architectural Record

IIMA dormitories facing south. Photo © William Curtis
Entrance ramp with library to the right. Photo © William Curtis
Rear view of dormitories. Photo © William Curtis
In mid-December 2020, the Director and Board of Governors of Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA) suddenly announced that they intended to knock down all 18 dormitories on the campus designed by Louis I. Kahn in the early 1960s. The international outrage was immediate, propelled by articles, petitions, and letters from architects, historians, institutions and all those who care about preserving the highest calibre of modern architecture. By the beginning of the New Year 2021, IIMA backed down. But on November 3, 2022, the board came back again, this time declaring the intention of destroying Kahn’s entire campus, including the restored library (which merited a UNESCO award for quality work), the classroom blocks, the dormitories, as well as the fine dining halls designed later by Anant Raje. In short, the Governing Board ignored global opinion, recommendations, and reports from experts–some already financed and previously supported by IIMA itself.
In making this appalling declaration, the IIMA administration dusted off the same old arguments, claiming that the buildings were not structurally sound and no longer adequate for contemporary use and expectations of comfort. Reference was made to an engineer’s report by the Indian Institute of Technology at Roorkee, but this was not published, and other engineers had come to opposite conclusions. Supposedly,  “American architects” were also consulted but their study, conclusions and identity were kept secret. Transparency is not IIMA’s strong suit.  
All over India, ancient forts and palaces are turned successfully into comfortable hotels. Parts of the brick structure of Kahn’s fine buildings were already successfully restored. It would not be so difficult, once the masonry is shored up, to insert elegant and restrained interiors, adapted to the present and future needs of faculty and students. Kahn’s masterpiece is a key part of IIMA’s international attraction and status in the future: its prestigious “brand” in the global educational market. It is scarcely to the advantage of the institution to throw away this rich asset, nor to indulge in the ecological waste of destruction followed by all new construction. Sensitive adaptation and reuse are the right ways to go.
Photo © Klaus-Peter-Gast
To be or not to be? That is the question. To preserve, restore and give new life to a universal architectural masterpiece, or to destroy it and replace it with vastly inferior buildings? To stand tall, as an institution of world repute, committed to social, ecological and educational values, or to take the low road of short-term mercantile thinking, lack of vision, and cultural vandalism? To go down in history as guardians and custodians of great architecture for future generations, or to leave a blemished and irretrievable record of petty expediency, social irresponsibility, intellectual mediocrity and devastating provincialism? To add to the stock of universal cultural markers of the great Indian tradition— alongside the Taj Mahal, (17th century), the Elephanta Cave (5th century) and the Buddhist Stupa at Sanchi, (2nd century BC)— or to throw away the jewel in one’s own crown by replacing it with a fake glass bauble?
 That is what is at stake for the Board of Governors of the IIMA: nothing less. For it is on the brink of calling in the bulldozers and reducing Kahn’s masterpiece, that magnificent citadel of learning, to a pile of dust and rubble. Architecture of this high order is irreplaceable. It touches all the senses and elevates the mind, being itself a silent teacher, inspiring those who inhabit it or visit it. Kahn’s IIMA campus is in fact like a miniature city of interlocking spaces, brick volumes and shaded areas, and is one of the foundation stones of modern architecture in India. As a fusion of the local and the universal, it possesses even longer-range value and significance in the history of world architecture.
Photo © Klaus-Peter Gast
 One does not envy the position of the recently appointed Chairman of the Board, the eminent scientist, Pankaj R. Patel, at this historic juncture. Does he carry forth the shining torch of the founder of IIMA, Vikram Sarabhai, himself a great visionary, astrophysicist and creator of educational institutions in post-Independence India, or does he douse and extinguish it by following the dark path of ignorance, blindness and destruction? Does IIMA stand up for enlightenment values or does it throw away its international reputation by wrecking a timeless work which contributes to our collective cultural memory and the universal patrimony of humanity?
Surely IIMA does not want be associated with other major wreckers in our fragmented and wasteful world, such as the Taliban or Putin’s armies? If they destroy this wonderful and inspired work of architecture, they do so at their own risk and peril.

William J.R Curtis is an award- winning historian, critic, artist and photographer. His best known books are Modern Architecture Since 1900 and Le Corbusier Ideas and Forms. In 2015 there was a retrospective of his artistic work in the Palace of Carlos V in the Alhambra.

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