Missed Chances and Government Bureaucracy: Louis Kahn and Gandhinagar

Government intervention and babudom are nothing new to India. It has thrived for generations and continues to do so even today. Soon after Independance there was a massive movement to bring the country on par with the Westernised world. New cities and towns was part of that scheme and Nehru, India’s first prime minister took the initiative to invite Le Corbusier to plan Chandigarh. The rest, as they say is history.

Corbusier was not the only architectural giant to leave his stamp on India. Louis Kahn, his contemporary also worked in India around the same time and would design and influence future generations of architects in India.

While Corbusier got the opportunity to design the masterplan and the important architectural pieces of Chandigarh, Kahn, did not get to do it in India. He did design the capital complex of Bangladesh, which then was a new country taking birth.

Paul John writes a very interesting article “With Kahn magic Gandhinagar would have  rivalled Chandigarh” that speaks about the missed opportunity for India and Kahn to design Gandhinagar, the new capital of the new state of Guarat.

If Chandigarh is Le Corbusier’s city, Bhubaneswar bears the German Otto Koenigsberger’s signature, Gujarat’s capital Gandhinagar could have had American yogi Louis Kahn’s imprint — a strong rival to Corbusier’s Chandigarh — had the Indian and Gujarat governments allowed Kahn to design the capitol buildings.

Kahn wanted Gandhinagar to be vibrant, symbolising the integration of village and industry, unlike the dull status it suffers today. The stage was all set in August 1964, when Kahn agreed to the honorarium fees to be paid in rupees after being persuaded by architect BV Doshi and industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai. Kahn had principally accepted the proposal to design the master plan for Gandhinagar. But he got a rude shock when the chief engineer for roads and buildings KM Kantawala wrote to Kahn that he would not be allowed to design the secretariat, the legislative assembly, the governor’s palace, high court and other related buildings.

There was tremendous political pressure to make Gandhinagar a stoic symbol of Gandhi’s principles of ‘India’s enterprise’. This would have been defeated if the city was designed by a foreign hand.

Kahn declined the offer instantly by writing back an emotionally charged letter stating, “City planning and building planning are one unified art. A city of good buildings reflecting design principles that are understood and followed in subsequent construction grows in beauty and importance.”

For Gandhinagar, Kahn had ambitious plans, something he had not tried elsewhere in the world. Kahn desired that Gandhinagar symbolise integration of land, civic services and buildings as one architecture. Finally in January 1965, the Cornell-educated HK Mewada who worked as a trainee under Le Corbusier on the Chandigarh project and a staunch Gandhian clinched the job.

The mill owners in Ahmedabad led by Kasturbhai Lalbhai and supported by architects like BV Doshi, Anant Raje, Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa and AR Prabhawalker wanted Kahn to build Gandhinagar to rival Chandigarh. This episode in history is vividly mentioned in Ravi Kalia’s book ‘Gandhinagar-building national identity in post colonial India.’

2 thoughts on “Missed Chances and Government Bureaucracy: Louis Kahn and Gandhinagar

  1. Mr. Mewada was Chief Town Planner of Rajsthan for several years, before coming to Gujarat. Saurashtra has great influence of Rajput architecture. Take example of Morvi, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Wankaner and several cities. Mr. Mewada could have, at least taken, great inspiration from these cities and from manificient Islamic architecture of Ahmedabad. Jaipur was planned on grid so was Gandhinagar – But we see no effect of Jaipur on G’nagar. The government buildings are, as rightly said, PWD symbols. The courtyards of Secretariat ate out of proportion, scale. There is no AXIS as seen in Jaipur, new Delhi and even old cities of saurashtra.

  2. Even from regional planning point of view, the location of Gandhinagar is unscientific. It is isolated but to bring that in center, national Highway No 8C was constructed. It could have acted as a counter magnet to Ahmedabad. Most of the successful kings, rulers, during their regyme, established some architectural style. SherShah Suri remained sultan for only five years but could create his own style. G’nagar miserably failed in making a new style of architecture.

    G’nagar site was decided by politicians. Mr. Mewada entered in arena when most of the land acquisition work was completed by government. He had little time. Political intervention and Bureaucracy were impedements. Mr. kantawala’s intervention and interference was too much – as I am told by a senior planner. One day Govenor of Gujarat H H Srimannarayan asked Mr. Mewada after seeing residential quarters – where will you keep your goat, cows etc. Mr. Mewada could not understand the question. The governor thought that In Gandhinagar all government servants will be given domisticated animals.

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