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Kanvinde: Function With Feeling

Achyut Kanvinde passed away in 2002. He was in his time one of the giants of Indian architecture. As the principal architect of CISR he designed a vast body of institutional work over the decades.

Kanvinde studies under Walter Gropius at Harvard in the Functionalist style of design.

Himanshu Burte writes an interesting overview of Kanvinde’s work and thought philosophy in this article title “ Function with Feeling ”.

Function with feeling

Himanshu Burte / Business Standard.

Schooled in the dry Functionalist approach to architecture, Achyut Kanvinde created spaces that were ‘humane’, buildings where you felt welcome and comfortable.Achyut Kanvinde (1916-2002) was among the earliest Functionalist architects in modern India. He was a self-effacing person, but his work helped shape some of the things we automatically expect in buildings today — that they should function efficiently, should not waste space, and be elegant too.

 

Kanvinde himself achieved this by seeking sculptural ideas in the functional needs of a building. For instance, at a dairy in Mehsana near Ahmedabad, he arranged ventilation shafts into an elegant arrangement of towers that make this industrial facility look elegant. By the end of his career he had managed to show that a Functionalist approach could also lead to humane spaces — that is, spaces where you felt welcome and comfortable.

The lightness of logic

Rationalist that he was, Kanvinde liked to reveal the internal functions in a building (for example, office block, walkway, auditorium) as separate masses. These were then arranged in ways that were functional from inside and elegant from outside. This analytical approach is evident in the buildings at IIT Kanpur that he designed in the 1950s. Here he clearly separates parts of buildings according to their material, and also achieves a delicacy of effect. The library, for instance, is a Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) frame with infill walls in exposed brick. By inserting gaps and shadows between the concrete and brick components, Kanvinde was able to make rough and heavy materials look light.

That lightness spoke of the primacy of ideas over matter, of logic over contingency. It was a theme that never really left his architecture. It appears at the National Insurance Academy at Pune late in his career. On the one hand, the elevated walkways speak of a desire to float above the irregularity of the ground condition. On the other, they speak of efficient movement almost like on a conveyor belt. Either way, it is possible to detect a persistent reluctance to embrace a site or a context wholeheartedly in much of Kanvinde’s work. Yet, his work is often responsive to subtle needs of dwellers even if within the terms of a given problem.

Rational yet humane

Kanvinde ’s desire to create warm and engaging spaces without letting go of Functionalist ideas is evident at the National Institute of Bank Management (NIBM), Pune, built in 1985. As Narendra Dengle, a senior architect and academician who had worked with him says, “Kanvinde’s work is remarkable for the way it was rigorously logical and also humane.”

At one level, the humaneness is about size and scale. Even in more technologically-oriented projects, Kanvinde always tried to bring buildings down to a human scale. At IIT Kanpur, it was the slenderness of concrete members and the lightness of brick forms that helped. At the NDDB offices in New Delhi, it was the way the building block was broken down into small office spaces opening into private terraces.

Sense of place

At another level, humaneness can be about a sense of place, and a connection to the built heritage in a locality. Both emerge together at NIBM, perhaps uniquely in Kanvinde’s body of work. There, Kanvinde chose to build in the local basalt stone (deccan trap), common in older architecture in Maharashtra. He also spread the low rhythmic buildings across a well landscaped site in such a way that walking from one set of spaces to another involves passing by (or through) gardens. From inside and out, the campus offers a series of comforting continuities across domains that are usually separated in urban life. The building thus redeems some of the promise of early modernism that had fired the young Kanvinde.

FUNCTIONLISM AND KANVINDE

FUNCTIONLISM was an approach to architecture associated with the Bauhaus, a school of design founded in 1919 in Germany by Walter Gropius. Functionalists believed that the shape and form of a building should emerge out of the logical arrangement of spaces inside and not from any predetermined idea like symmetry. They believed a building should only have features that were functionally necessary, and no non-functional decoration. They also advocated using the latest technologies and industrial products in construction such as RCC and industrial doors and windows. Their buildings were asymmetrical, white, cuboid forms, with repetitive arrangements of windows. And yet they were elegant.

By mid-20th century, Functionalism, and modernism in general, soon replaced the older European approach based on imitating the architecture of the past. Modernism was attractive to developing societies trying to break from the memories of European colonialism that the older styles still carried. It represented a new 20th century faith in democracy and technology as harbingers of a better world. By the 1970s, however, it was to be attacked for producing characterless environments that did not answer people’s need for stimulation, sociability and identity. Architects like Kanvinde worked in developing countries to help connect modernism to a more humane path.

Kanvinde was sent to Harvard University (where Walter Gropius headed the architecture department) by the Government of India in 1942, after graduating from Sir J J College of Architecture, Mumbai. Kanvinde returned to India in 1947 a Functionalist. He was soon appointed principal architect to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and built many government buildings from 1948-54 in this capacity. In 1955 he started his independent practice in Delhi in partnership with Shaukat Rai and was later joined by Morad Chowdhury. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1974.

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