Bauhaus in India: Stimulating the Modern Landscape

From Ahmedabad to Calcutta, Bombay to Delhi

National Dairy Development Board (Early Eighties) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Charged with new vision and hope of building a new India - the The First Generation of Modernist Architecture began around 1940's with a host of prominent buildings.

Strong monolithic shapes, exposed concrete, use new materials like steel, fenestrations, open plan structures, inclusion of light and space, all began to proliferate the landscape of modern Indian architecture.

The influence of Bauhaus came through the Indian Architects, who had travelled to study in the US, and returned with exposure to International Modernism and the teachings of Bauhaus masters like Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe.

The Bauhaus paradigms can more specifically be seen through the works of Achyut Kanvinde who trained under Gropius at Harvard and Habib Rahman who studied at MIT.

Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (Early Fifties) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Bauhaus in Ahmedabad

Building a new world required not only Designers and Architects but also Clients and Patrons. The progressive and wealthy textile and trader families of Ahmedabad, perhaps gave the nation unparalleled exposure and a head start on modernization by giving due emphasis to education, art and architecture. It is no wonder that NID (National Institute of Design) was established here. The Bauhaus’ fuss-free, simple approach to living, thinking and doing seems to have found great resonance here – and is evident in some landmark Bauhuas style buildings, in addition to other Modern architecture.

Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (Early Fifties) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Ahmedabad Textile Industry's Research Association Building (ATIRA)

Kavinde’s designs for the building constructed (1949-1953) shows a clear imprint of the Bauhaus influence. Built with an open plan and zones for activity, the rectangular form of the building has the entire length of its Northern wall, flush with fenestrations.

With this building he introduced flexible concrete columns and beam grids to India, his usage of exposed brickwork for both aesthetic and economical reasons.

Image courtesy Kanvinde Rai and Chowdhry

Mehsana Dairy (Early Seventies) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Aga Khan Visual Archive

The Mehsana Dairy

Situated 75 kms from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, the Dairy is a seminal interpretation of the Bauhaus influence in Indian Architecture.

Kanvinde is also credited with pioneering the use of the waffle slab structure like that seen in the Bank of India building in Ahmedabad in 1961.

Image Source – Aga Khan Visual Archive, 1974

Rahman at Calcutta Studio by UnknownOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

Bauhaus in Calcutta

Although the ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’ exhibition of art and abstracts by Bauhaus masters and the Bengal School in 1922, is considered an entry point of modernism in India - it is the work of architect Habib Rahman that helped alter and impact the cityscape. The Bauhaus reductionist approach, the use of geometric lines, large overhanging roofs, use of steel to create high-rise structures, focus on the experiential value of light, were all embraced and manifested themselves in several prominent buildings.

Gandhi Ghat (Late Forties) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

Gandhi Ghat Memorial, Barrackpore

The Mahatma’s love and tolerance for all religions inspired Rahman to conceive a structure that harmoniously and aesthetically symbolised the prevalent religions in India - Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

The resultant product was a tower - a simplified profile of a temple shikhara, capped with an Islamic dome. A horizontal cantilevered slab projecting from either side of the tower appeared to form a cross-like silhouette. So impressed was Nehru upon seeing the structure, that he appointed Habib Rahman a post at the CPWD in Delhi.

Working as a Government Architect allowed him to build several public projects in the capital, widening the influence of his language on society and culture.

New Secretariat (Early Fifties) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

The New Secretariat

Following independence, the increase in administrative activity generated in an enormous demand for office spaces.

The Secretariat is a fifteen storey building showing the clarity sought by the Bauhaus style while exploring the juxtaposition of geometric forms, and vertical and horizontal lines.

The building consists of three blocks that have been arranged in a manner that allows for maximum ventilation and the passage of natural light.

Nehru Science Centre (Late Seventies) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Bauhaus in Bombay

While architects across the urban cities of India were well informed of international practices, Bombay was at the heart of locally developed architecture, as it was home to architectural institutes and because it was the center for industrial growth. Indian companies such as Tata and Godrej took the lead for economic regeneration and industrialization. Although Art Deco may have enjoyed greater proliferation, it was rationalist architecture that allowed Bombay tall buildings, point skyscrapers and slab blocks all harnessing modern technology. 

Nehru Science Centre (Late Seventies) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Nehru Science Centre

by Achyut Kanvinde. (Built 1978-1980)

Amongst the iconic Bauhaus public buildings of the city, completed as late as 1980, was the Nehru Science Centre, by Achyut Kanvinde.

Godrej CH4 Chair (Mid Thirties) by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Design-The India Story

Godrej was commissioned for India’s first modernist workspace – the offices of Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board.

Amongst the chairs, tables and partitions, the CH-4 chair became iconic. This chair could be credited with transforming India’s old offices into modern spaces, which had been using only heavy wooden furniture.

Lounge Chair, Model no. B35 and Stool, Model no. B37The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Tubular Chairs

It was however, the success of steel in locks, safes and cupboards from early Nineteenth century that encouraged Godrej to use Steel in other items of furniture - enabling Pirojsha Godrej to seek inspiration from the tubular chairs first designed by Marcel Breur and Mies van der Rohe who pioneered the idiom of this style of furniture.

Breuer’s 1925 Wassily chair, which first used bent tubular steel and canvas, as well as his B-35 chair (featured here) for Thonet in 1928, fashioned from tubular metal and wood, followed by the B-32 with its cantilevered principle of support had the most widespread influence.

Godrej CH4 Chair (Mid Thirties) by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Design-The India Story

The CH-4 chair was similar but indigenously produced; the first models had teak trimmings along the arms and on the backrest. Later models (featured here) introduced the hand crafted process of weaving cane or plastic on the seats and backrests.

While the difference in its design was minimal, it revolutionised the office furniture industry, moving it away from the use of natural materials to the use of mass-produced industrial materials, minimalist styling and advanced manufacturing techniques.

Steel meant evolution, steel was modern and it was essential to the industrialisation of India. In design and function, the CH-4 epitomised the ‘less is more’ aesthetic and sold millions of units.

Three Useful Ideas (Late Thirties) by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Design-The India Story

In 1923, Godrej & Boyce launched Storwel steel cupboards.

These were fashioned to look like their wooden counterparts but were sturdier, rodent-proof and withstood the vagaries of tropical climate well.

By the 60s, Storwels were sought after to such a degree that the company noted waiting lists of two to three months for this product.

Home Savings Safe by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives

When Godrej & Boyce manufactured their first home savings safe around 1910, they made sure to use an incombustible intermediate compound, making the vault fire-resistant.

The safe sold at half the price of foreign ones, and the door frame, double-plated doors and lock-case were patented.

Godrej Safe with Combination Lock (Early Twentieth Century) by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Design-The India Story

Such was the brand’s distinction that when the Queen of England visited India in 1912, she requested a Godrej Safe for her precious belongings.

Metal safes soon began to replace wooden chests as they were tougher, more durable and fireproof. The needs of the trade economy in Europe fuelled this development wherein better security systems became crucial to store personal wealth.

National Dairy Development Board (Early Eighties) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Bauhaus in Delhi

While it would be accurate to say that Bauhaus ideologies influenced modern architecture in India, it would be equally appropriate to say India’s social, cultural and climatic demands informed Bauhaus expressions through the integration of local elements. New Delhi, as the capital of India, has some of the finest examples of this hybrid that charged the modern movement in India.

Maulana Azad Memorial (Late Fifties) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

Mazaar of Maulana Azad

Created in 1959, of particular note here, is Rahman’s interpretation of the traditional arch.

Of the three memorials he built in the Red Fort area, this memorial for Maulana Azad, who was a close associate and friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was a challenge as it demanded harmony with the several other historic monuments in close proximity,

Zakir Hussain Memorial (Early Seventies) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Aga Khan Visual Archive

Mazaar of Zakir Hussain

The mausoleum of former President of India, Zakir Hussain was designed by Habib Rahman in 1971-72.

The use of scale and volume, the use of jali’s, arches and curved walls, is a striking amalgamation of Rahman’s Bauhaus influence with Indian traditional forms.

The structure comprises eight imposing reinforced concrete walls that have been curved, tapered and arranged in a square plan to create an open structure that surrounds a shallow dome and tomb.

Zakir Hussain Memorial (Early Seventies) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Aga Khan Visual Archive

Close-up from the tomb of Zakir Hussain, that highlight its attention to detail and use of traditional indian architectural forms like jali's and arches.

Rabindra Bhavan (Early Sixties) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

Rabindra Bhavan

By Habib Rahman, built 1961 - 1963

Bauhaus, on Barakhamba (Early Seventies) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Ashoka Estate, Barakhamba Road

Achyut Kanvinde, built 1972 - 1974.

National Dairy Development Board (Early Eighties) by AP KanvindeOriginal Source: Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

National Dairy Development Board Office Building

Achyut Kanvinde, built 1978 - 1983.

Facade (Early Sixties) by Habib RahmanOriginal Source: Ram Rahman

Despite these variations from the central theme of International Modernism, it was the work of Gropius and the International Style that exerted the strongest influence on modern architecture in India until the impact of Le Corbusier began to be felt on a widespread basis in the 1960’s. Indeed Gropius’ tenets still continue to underlie much work worldwide. They were based on a clear logic that made, and still makes sense in its appropriate context.

Source - A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India - Jon Lang

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