Ahmedebad: Brutalist City

The Rough Guide to India, clearly written mainly by fans of its monuments and beaches rather than its cities (and often, who can blame them?) describes Ahmedebad as a city of “appalling pollution, dreadful congestion and repeated outbreaks of communal violence”.  At the time I was there, that communal violence aspect (an oxymoron, surely?) was being much scrutinised in the international press in the run up to what turned out to be Modi’s resounding victory in the national elections.

But compared to Delhi, which was (from my brief experience) a hugely unequal disaster zone of a city, as well as an equally brief experience of Agra, Ahmedabad seemed refreshingly organised and businesslike. Also, even given that the Rough Guide makes no claim to be an arbiter of things architectural, it makes no mention of the numerous works by Le Corbusier and Doshi, Charles Correa’s design for Gandhi’s Ashram or Louis Kahn’s monumental campus for the Indian Institute of Management. Which is doubly surprising, given that randomly picked rickshaw drivers knew all of these and more.

After decades of heavy-handed British neoclassicism, the new nation of India acquired a taste for twentieth century modern, I’m guessing in part as a reaction against the fusty built imagery of British rule, but also because modernism represented a new world, and the progressive, independently socialist state that India aspired to be.

And is no longer. Wandering the centre of the old city at dusk, we came across this marvellous beast:

It’s a no-holds-barred fully paid up member of the brutalist club, and I like it. Sadly, the city authorities clearly don’t like it, or at least not enough to maintain it, and it’s now an abandoned hulk, used only as rough sleeper dormitories (I misuse the term here; most Indian city-dwellers sleep rough to some degree, sleeping in a building beats sleeping on the streets). Turns out it’s the Premabhai Hall by B V Doshi, an architect who worked on several of Le Corbusier’s projects and has built a huge number of projects in Ahmedebad and elsewhere. Someone rather more industrious than I am has uploaded an excellent Flickr set of his work.

Le Corbusier’s City Museum (Sanskar Kendra), has fared a little better, but only just. There are gaping holes in the concrete, and the whole place feels worn out, especially coming from the shiny interactive museum culture of European cities.

The trademark Le Corb water chutes at roof level have been sidelined in favour of a more prosaic solution. Lost then is the idea that water would cascade off the roof into the central courtyard pool (maybe better on paper, that one).


Next door is Doshi’s Tagore concert hall, in fine condition, but entirely deserted, and the whole location really only accessible by vehicle. It was rare to come across a well connected and busy cultural centre in an Indian city, that wasn’t a temple.

Low expectations then, for a visit to the Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s building. It’s still in the private ownership of the Textile Mill’s Association, and, it seems, all the better for it. I expected to get a couple of snaps from the gate, but me and the mrs were enthusiastically welcomed by Mr Abhinava Shukla, who couldn’t have been more helpful, and gave us the run of the place. He noted wryly that his budget for the maintenance of the building is a tenth of that for the Ahmedebad Museum, but as was clear, the Mills’ Association receives far more TLC. It also hosts a permanent exhibition about Le Corbusier’s work in India, plus they have some cool souvenirs:

I’ve been banging on for the last few years about how I’m much more into studying successful urbanism and places as opposed to one-off architectural statements, but visiting this building reminded me that there is such a thing as great architecture. The sequence of spaces is extraordinary; an entrance ramp rises to the first floor, a series of staircases and mezzanine levels then take you up through semi-open spaces, with the blinding Indian sunlight filtered through the concrete fins of the green-planted façade. Arrival at roof level is an experience in itself, with an extraordinary view out across the river and the city. Lots of my snaps, jumbled up with other Ahmedebad architecture here.

Ahmedebad has an extraordinary collection of modernist buildings from the ‘heroic age’, and I just wasn’t there long enough to do it justice. One of the places I would definitely return to, not least to witness how the city changes in that most fast-changing of nations. Rest of my snaps at… including a trip to Charles Correa’s Gandhi Ashram, and of course Louis Kahn’s Indian Management Institute (this last one for a separate blog post, I expect).


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