Tag Archives: Architecture

Mission accomplished

An American architect in Delhi ♦

scan0004Some of Delhi’s most beautiful buildings sit on foreign soil. In Chanakyapuri, the American Embassy’s Chancery and Ambassador’s residence are two of independent India’s oldest diplomatic buildings – and arguably the most successful at blending modern minimalism with motifs from Mughal and British architecture. Architect Edward Durell Stone, who had already co-designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, completed the Chancery in 1959. The Ambassador’s residence, called Roosevelt House, opened in 1963.

The complex was much admired in the West, garnering a Time magazine feature and the praise of Frank Lloyd Wright, who called it “a perfectly beautiful building”. The Delhi buildings were especially celebrated because they were the first to implement a new American diplomatic policy of building foreign missions in a culturally sensitive manner. After a trip to Agra, Stone was inspired by the Taj Mahal, and drew on Indian elements to design a climate-sensitive building. A roof canopy above the top-floor ceiling dissipates the heat, and there was extensive jali-work in the residence, which became climbing walls for Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and his sons in the ’60s. It became a tradition for guests, including Jackie Onassis Kennedy, to step across the water garden in the Chancery’s central courtyard. Once, a visiting US Colonel marched straight into the pond.

The building contracts went to Mohan Singh and his sons, who would later extend American influence in Delhi by partnering with Coca Cola when it arrived here. Stone formed long-lasting friendships with the Singh family: Stone’s son Hicks told us that the Singhs nicknamed the building the “Taj Maria”, after Edward’s new wife, who had helped him through a low point in his career just before the Embassy project. Besides being the backdrop for 50 years of diplomacy between Delhi and Washington, DC, the Embassy buildings had a far-reaching architectural impact. Stone took the same ideas and spun them into landmark buildings in the US, notably the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, back in the American capital.

Watch a newsreel of the inauguration of the US Embassy in New Delhi:

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 5, 2011

Eco chambers

Are green buildings just ivory towers in disguise? ♦

raise the roofAs a changing climate and growing population stretch Delhi’s reserves of energy and water, the importance of buildings that work with the environment, rather than against it, grows as well. Some buildings already do – if you go by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings system, then the gleaming new towers of the NCR are apparently leading the way. “Where environmental sustainability is concerned, I have to get a rating,” the architect AG Krishna Menon confessed. “It’s become very routine; my client will insist on it.” But as architect Anil Laul more brusquely put it: “Sustainability is a practice of monkey see, monkey do.”

Laul’s cyncism about sustainability ratings strikes a chord with many Delhi architects, who believe that “green” scores could turn environmentally conscious design into a game of clever numbers. LEED is criticised for pandering to ecologically costly whims, and then adding financially costly fixes. “It is a totally irresponsible stylistic indulgence when you first build solar cookers and then try to refrigerate them,” said architect Ashok B Lall, a leading designer of eco-conscious buildings. “No matter which way you look at it, it’s just bad architecture.” Corporate towers with platinum LEED ratings may be more easily marketable to foreign investors, but they’re also more reliant on imported materials; one reason Madhav Raman, a partner at Anagram Architects, calls it “a mini-economy, feeding off the paranoia of climate change.”

In contrast, architects like Lall think the way to build green in India is to turn to traditional techniques and local materials. His offices for Development Alternatives – which calls itself Delhi’s greenest building – uses 90 per cent local and recycled materials, such as mud and fly ash brick. It maximises natural light and ventilation, and has “hybrid” air-conditioning that adapts to different seasons.

Not that there’s anything new about this logic. “Barring the last 20 years, all our buildings have been sustainable,” said Manit Rastogi, founding partner of Morphogenesis. “Step into any fort and there will be evaporative cooling and solar controls. The reforms of 1991 made us think that we could detach ourselves from our climate because we have the mechanical and electrical power to do it.” Several architects do use local materials – and some go further than others. Revathi and Vasant Kamath sculpted their house from stone and mud dug right out of the foundation. The earthen structure, with its living green roof, acts like a part of the landscape. Building locally also emphasises natural cooling and ventilation: hollow walls, shading jails and courtyards that release hot air. Lall believes that up to 70 per cent of the materials we need for urban development could potentially be recycled from construction waste.

In small ways, recycling material can give a building its own personality. For the Jaishankar Memorial Centre in Sarita Vihar, the architect KT Ravindran purchased all the doors and windows second-hand from a “big broken-down-things market” on the nearby Yamuna bank. “Normally, poorer people buy from there,” he said, adding that the pieces had their advantages: “They’re already well-cured, they’re termite resistant, they’re inexpensive, and they have a certain character because they come from the ’50s and ’60s.”

Cutting and pasting local materials and techniques isn’t sufficient for a practical, scalable and yet sustainable architecture. “The vocabulary of an architect must range from the highest to the lowest technology,” said Revathi Kamath, whose uses everything from bamboo and mud to steel and glass. In 2008, the Energy and Resources Institute devised guidelines for genuine, locally-responsive design, which considers orientation and site, touches on labour rights and only certifies buildings after they have been occupied for a year. The Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment, or GRIHA, is less marketable than the LEED rating, but it’s more stringent, and it’s backed by the government.

Currently, only a handful of buildings in the NCR are registered for or certified by GRIHA. One is the Commonwealth Games Village, which achieved two out of five stars, but would appear in any environmentalist’s Most Wanted poster for ecologically liable buildings, thanks to its site in the middle of the Yamuna floodplain. The Games Village illustrates the ultimate limitations of ratings: They treat buildings as islands.

To be truly sustainable, construction must respond to wider environmental challenges, structures around it, and the people who interact with it directly and indirectly. Kamath summed up the problem of holistic sustainability in Delhi: “The land in Delhi is not free – it’s not available for innovation at the moment.” Trussed up in bylaws that perpetuate a fear of density, Delhi plots are more often mini-fortresses than symbiotic parts of a whole. Stephane Paumier, the architect of the Alliance Française, believes this began with the “urban failure” of British New Delhi. “It was designed to keep people at bay. What the British did was then Indianised in the colonies that were planned later, but in a similar pattern: taking land, making divisons. Delhi is a city of boundary walls.”

Green-rated buildings on the city’s outskirts, though more numerous, are prey to market forces that associate sustainability with an “international” aesthetic. The higher costs of this aesthetic make these buildings green bunkers, deepening the perception of eco-friendly design as a kind of jacuzzi – a luxury for those who can afford it. But sustainability doesn’t need to go hand-in-hand with expense, especially if urban planning becomes a larger part of constructing buildings.

The government has a critical role to play in combating the impression of greenness as an expensive import. Its backing of GRIHA is a step in the right direction, as are a few projects like Laul’s low-income slum resettlement colony in Jaunapur. (Although progress on that particular project became mired in court when neighbouring farmhouse owners claimed that the colony would use too much water.) “The rich man is also looking for a low-cost solution,” Laul pointed out. “Common sense is applicable to the poor as well as the rich – only then will you get sustainability.”

Whether this change trickles up from the example of landmark green buildings, or down from progressive urban policy, it will need to be accompanied by a rejection of the “city of boundary walls.” No building is an island. No road should be a no-man’s land between colonies that are tiny nations unto themselves. But until we get over our tendency to shut out, rather than open onto the city, sustainable architecture will remain just green cladding above a grey cornerstone.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011, as part of a larger cover package on Delhi’s new architecture.

Published: September 2, 2011

Building blokes

The Modern Architecture of New Delhi ♦


Palika Kendra (1965-1983)
Khanna: Kuldip Singh is known for making buildings that sit there like a sculpture – a piece of work that you look at, whereas other buildings are more inward-looking. Like NIFT [Balkrishna Doshi]. You look at it from the outside and it doesn’t look like much. It’s not a set-piece building, like Palika Kendra.
(Photo: Madan Mahatta)

Rahul Khanna, owner of Below8 bar, and Manav Parhawk, a fashion photographer, teamed up to explore Delhi’s modern architecture. Their book, The Modern Architecture of New Delhi: 1928-2007, reads like a series of monographs. Sonal Shah spoke to Khanna and Parhawk about how they came to see their city in a new light – and why they hate palm trees so much.

How long have you been working on this?
Khanna: Manav and I got in touch in April of 2006. We did one building per weekend. Then there were issues with getting  permission to shoot. Ironically, most of the embassies were the easiest to get into. Because they have architecture culture in their  homelands, they understand what you want to do. But the Indian government buildings – it was all “are you guys on drugs or  something?”

Did you ever get chased out?
Parhawk: Well, yes. That’s part of the reason I didn’t really appreciate the architecture of the city before the project, because  you’re simply not allowed to go into buildings. Like the STC – the Cottage Emporium building – we had to lie our way in. The  number of buildings we had to bluff our way into…


Apollo Tyres’ Corporate Office (1997)
Parhawk: Those architects – the Morphogenesis guys – what’s interesting is the way they approach every project. They don’t have a particular style.
Khanna: Considering they are young architects, their approach is very refreshing.
Parhawk: The why and how of it all is the most refreshing part. Their approach is… evolutionary, [like] from an amoeba to a cell to an organism.
Khanna: For a residence they built in Vasant Vihar, there’s a whole analogy of dissecting the building into a human body, in which the lungs are the basement where the air comes through. They researched weather patterns in Delhi for two years. (Photo: Manav Parhawk)

What inspired you to continue?
Khanna: There are so many great stories behind each building. We have living architects who’ve studied under the twentieth century’s greatest architects. If you go to buy a book – it’s almost as if after the British left, architecture died, which is very untrue.  It’s not in our culture to debate architecture, though it’s very much a part of Indian art and its past. Somewhere along the line, that got lost and it’s not considered an art form anymore. Last year, when all these shows went on about 60 years of  Independence, there was not a single mention of architecture. But there are these hidden gems – because Delhi’s not exactly the  most superbly planned city.

How did you decide on certain buildings?
Khanna: At first, we made a conscious effort not to do any research. We’d just drive around and look at what we liked. I was  surprised – out of ten of the buildings that we liked, eight were done by great architects like Charles Correa, Raj Rewal… Because we’re covering a big timespan, we didn’t want to make it a catalogue. We had to have a reason why the building stands out. In the end, we looked at buildings that were the best of their time, in Delhi.


Tomar Residence (1992)
Parhawk: In Delhi, only where places are free-standing can you break the walls of a house down. Otherwise, you can only modify.
Khanna: The Tomar house is an example of having to work within the confines of a plot in Hauz Khas Village. The narrow plan, pointed arches and modern minarets allow it to blend in with the historical surroundings. Architects Vasant and Revathi Kamath do work based on the idea of sensitive building – all mud and brick and very Indian.
(Photo: Vasant Kamath)

Are there definitive styles in Delhi today?
Khanna: Not really, and it’s good in a way. Post-Nehru, in the ’70s onwards, people started building skyscrapers, dealing with  cost-effective materials, mud brick and stuff… but nothing unified.
Parhawk: I think that’s also why we don’t have a definitive pattern that’s built into the city skyline.
Khanna: We just have an exhibition ground of stuff that’s coming out on its own…

You mention colony sprawl as the default development pattern. Can this change?
Khanna: It’s too late now for Delhi.
Parhawk: There can be cosmetic changes. There’s no place to do anything else. That can only happen in the NCR or certain parts of west Delhi.

Would you say development in the NCR very different?
Khanna: Mansingh Rana, who is about 92 and who built Nehru Park, Nehru Library… He studied under Frank Lloyd Wright  and he was there when Chandigarh was being planned. He says that it’s still the best-planned city in India. Years later, why can’t they do the same thing? You have the template, but look what they did in Gurgaon.
Parhawk: And in [the parts of] Noida that came up later.
Khanna: He said that because of this whole “India is rich and growing” thing, architects lose the plot. There are palm trees in the middle of town. It’s like Dubai. [Rana] said before Lutyens made all our neem tree-lined avenues, he went to Agra to see what was around and brought saplings of neem from there.
Parhawk: And jamun.
Khanna: That’s foresight. He planned not only wide roads, but trees that would shade. [Rana] asked why Gurgaon should have palm trees from Abu Dhabi… Why should Delhi have palm trees? It’s not Goa.


Poddar Residence (1990-1997)
Khanna: The Poddar house is a great case of the owner telling the architect, Inni Chatterjee, that you can do what you like. They’re very wealthy and could have hired a more experienced architect – Chatterjee was very young then. It just depends on the client-architect relationship. A lot of clients want the typical Punjabi home with marble and chandeliers – a showpiece, not a home as such. It is very much to do with keeping up with the Joneses. Having said that, if I was an architect, it would be great to get those projects because you can literally just start from scratch.
Parhawk: At least, in these projects, you have some space to plan and work with.
(Photo: Manav Parhawk)

But there’s so much talk of urban planning…
Khanna: Urban planning is just left to rhetoric. To be honest, Delhi is not a bad city. Parts of Delhi are beautiful. But parts have just been left to rot. They could have so easily had a heritage fund for Chandni Chowk, for example. Small things like that. Keep certain bylaws. Because of the red tape and the bad synchronisation between the Municipal Corporation Delhi and the government, people are left to their own devices. To say that it’s too late is very defeatist. But no city is perfect. Cities evolve and let it be like that. Whatever you can change, change – there’s no need to do anything radical. Bitching and moaning is just negative.

Still, any buildings you just don’t like?
Parhawk: The police memorial.
Khanna: Yes, though they’ve taken it down. All those tall buildings along Kasturba Gandhi Road. That new BSNL or  whatever it is building opposite Hotel Janpath.
Parhawk: The entire strip of Gurgaon.
Khanna: All of Gurgaon. Hafeez Contractor – we have a personal vendetta against him. His ideology of architecture is: churn it out, like its coming out of a money factory. There’s no soul to it. All these pastiche buildings… It’s like Spain meets India meets a palm tree.

The Modern Architecture of New Delhi, Random House India, ₹495

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2009.

Published: January 9, 2009