Last month the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad put out an “Expression of Interest” for the design of new student housing at its main campus. In it was the assumption that 14 of its existing dormitories would be demolished and replaced with something new.
The problem with this assumption is that these dormitories were designed by one of America’s most noteworthy architects: Louis Kahn. And so there was immediate public outcry. Architectural historian William J.R. Curtis — who seems quite fond of real estate developers — had the following to say in this op-ed piece in The Architectural Review:
Such is the smash-and-grab approach of developers in a world of astronomical land values and real-estate profiteering, especially in Modiland, the heartland of the Gujurat economic ‘model’. The price of everything, the value of nothing, quick returns on loans and investment above anything: such is the virus of neoliberalism as it spreads so quickly, far and wide across the globe. Timeless architecture has no role to play, and preservation is a pesky nuisance that gets in the way of profiteering. The public interest, social values and any long-range sense of history are thrown to the winds.
The Architectural Review also started a petition to save Kahn’s IIMA’s dormitories. But just like that, the school came forward with an announcement that it had decided to pull its Expression of Interest and that it would go back and deliberate on what to do next. (The dorms were apparently built using “second class bricks” and are currently in a state of extreme disrepair.)
As a developer and fake architect, I think I have a fairly good appreciation for both perspectives. Restoring old buildings is both difficult and expensive (the two usually go together). But I also grew up studying the work of Kahn. He happened to teach at the University of Pennsylvania until his death, though this was well before my time there.
I’ve also visited a number of his projects including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California and the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Many credit Kahn with introducing modern architecture to Bangladesh with this project. It has unquestionable cultural significance.
Some things are worth saving.