A Second Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad by Prem Chandavarkar

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Posted on: January 1st, 2021

A Second Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad by Prem Chandavarkar

This is the text of second open letter written by Prem Chandavarkar in response to letter written by Mr Errol D’Sauza, director of IIM-Ahmedabad. You can find the original article on Prem Chandavarkar’s blog here.

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On 26 December 2020, I wrote an open letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) sharing concerns regarding the plan to demolish most of the dormitories designed by Louis Kahn. To my pleasant surprise, the same day, I received an immediate, detailed and courteous reply from the Director of IIMA. However, the positivity of tone did not dispel concerns on substance, and therefore my reply constitutes a second open letter. I share below the reply received from IIMA and my response.

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

Thank you so much for your prompt, detailed and courteous response that shows you have carefully read my letter. I truly appreciate this, particularly the speed of the response during the Christmas weekend.

It is heartening to see from your response that we are on the same page in acknowledging that what Louis Kahn built is a legacy for all of humankind, that IIMA bears the mantle of being the custodian of a significant component of this legacy, and recognition of this should be in the foreground of any evaluation of the future of IIMA’s built environment. To this, I would add that the obligation to a global legacy of this significance demands not only deep consideration and care, but also commitment to the highest standards of public transparency in any decision on the future of the legacy. My remarks below are shaped by this recognition, constituting a second open letter to you.

After reading your reply, I must confess that the thrust of the concerns articulated in my earlier letter still remain. I note:

  • There is still insufficient clarity on the extent to which Somaya & Kalappa (SNK) were involved in this decision on the future of the dormitory blocks. They have been rigorously engaged for the last six years on the conservation of the Kahn buildings, have won international recognition in these efforts, and will know the challenges and possibilities of restoration in far greater depth than anyone else. It would be axiomatic that any call on the future of the dormitory blocks involves them as a key player in the decision. If they have not been able to effectively participate in this decision, this is far too serious a matter to be dismissed as a “communication glitch” and is an absence that demands public explanation; else it is likely to be interpreted as a deliberate exclusion intended to free the final decision from the weight of heritage concerns. I suggest that before taking a final decision, IIMA is duty bound to publicly reveal SNK’s role in this decision to demolish fourteen dormitory blocks and what their specific recommendations are on all of the dormitory blocks. Given the seminal role SNK has played in the conservation effort till date, I would go so far as to say that a decision by IIMA on the demolition of 14 Kahn dormitories, if taken without the agreement of SNK, is an indefensible decision that must be rescinded.
  • I draw your attention to Brinda Somaya’s lecture of 28 November 2020 (referred to in my earlier letter) where she does not raise any irresolvable problems in preserving all the dormitory blocks, mentions that Dorm 15 (along with Dorms 1 and 2) was one of the blocks in worst condition, and Dorm 15 was chosen as a first prototype since a successful restoration here would define the path for restoration of all the other dormitory blocks. I must also point out that the successful restoration of Dorm 15 is acknowledged on the IIMA website. All this adds further weight to the need for full disclosure on SNK’s role in the decision making and the specifics of their recommendations.
  • In the same spirit of full disclosure, it will carry a great deal of weight if you openly reveal which structural engineer’s advice has prevailed in deciding the fate of these fourteen dorm blocks, and also place on the table for public review Dr. Arun Menon’s specific recommendations on the dormitory blocks, given he has been a contributor to the IIMA restoration project with a stature and expertise that would be hard to equal.
  • You correctly observe that “the problems mentioned for the dorm is not one that the expert points out for the Library”. This is not the relevant comparison to be made. IIMA has publicly committed to the preservation and restoration of Dorms 15, 16, 17 and 18, implicitly confirming by this declaration that restoration is feasible in dormitory structures in order to make them safe and usable. The Kahn dormitories 1 to 14 substantively follow the same repetitive design found in Dorm 15 and use the same materials. If Dorms 1 to 14 are claimed to be inherently unsafe and unusable, why did this not apply to Dorm 15?  If seismic and other concerns in Dorm 15 (one of the dorms that was in the worst condition) can be addressed to make the structure safe and usable, why can’t this be done for Dorms 1 to 14? In the interests of transparency demanded by the imperatives of public cultural heritage, these questions must be specifically and openly addressed.
  • I am afraid I must vehemently disagree with your assertion, “I would hesitate to call a set of buildings that are just about half a century old heritage.”  Earlier in your reply, you have agreed with my positing that heritage centres on looking at the past and carefully choosing what is worth remembering as that memory will serve the future as well. The significance of that remembering, with the memory it produces, should be the determining factors, whether what we examine springs from centuries ago or a few years ago. There are precedents on the recognition of recent artistic production as heritage. I draw your attention to the declaration in the late 1970’s, by the Department of Culture, Government of India, that the work of nine artists (Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Raja Ravi Varma, Gaganendranath Tagore, Sailoz Mookherjea and Nicholas Roerich) as “not being antiquities, to be art treasures, having regard to their artistic and aesthetic value.” It is forbidden to destroy any of their work or export work that is within the country. Eight, out of these nine, produced all or a substantive portion of their work within the 20thcentury, and this Government of India declaration was made when over two decades of the 20th century were still to come. I must also point out the Japanese practice of declaring “Living National Treasures”, identifying, during their lifetime, artists who are “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties,” thereby explicitly recognising their work as possessing cultural value worth conserving. We cannot reduce heritage to a number expressed in years. If we followed such a claim to its logical conclusion, we would be demeaning both culture and heritage as it would lead to the indefensible conclusion that what future generations could call heritage would be restricted to what escaped demolition before reaching a qualifying age.
  • You mention that you are not seeking to assign a lesser value to what lies behind a public façade. But this is not reflected in your letter to alumni where you claim something is achieved by preserving Dorms 16 to 18 because these are the first dorms seen on entering the campus, along with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza, and this would somehow serve to preserve some aspect of Kahn’s legacy. I repeat my words from my earlier letter, “Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.”This is not a matter that is only perceived by architects.  An IIMA alumnus saw my open letter to you and posted a comment. An excerpt from this comment is extremely revealing, “Some of my best years in IIMA have been spent in the dorms. They were not just entities that housed us but spaces that provided a sense of comfort, balance and community without in any way encroaching on our private spaces. The equilibrium of light and shade and openness is hard to find anywhere let alone a campus.” It is significant that a management student is able to so intuitively, spontaneously and perceptively connect with Kahn’s vision, and demonstrates that the seeds of Kahn’s legacy have borne fruit that far transcend the individual. This “equilibrium of light and shade and openness” that encapsulates a community of learners is sustained by the entire network of built and open spaces that constitute the dormitory complex. This network of dormitory courtyards forms a continuum with the main buildings around Louis Kahn Plaza in the way the diagonal views across dorm courtyards entice the eye and body toward the main buildings, and the way this is echoed in the diagonal walls along the edge of the dorm stairs and the diagonal of the main entrance stairs of the academic complex. The integrity of this continuum would be shattered if the Kahn dormitory complex is reduced to four peripheral blocks.

Site Plan, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad: White, Projects by Louis Kahn, Shaded, Projects by Anant Raje and others. © Anant Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)

  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail publicly tabling a cost assessment of restoring the entire dormitory complex, and if further funds were needed, IIMA should reveal the attempts made or intended to raise such funds leveraging the institution’s standing, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global regard granted to Kahn’s work. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I had stated in my letter that demonstration of a commitment to make all possible attempts to preserve the Kahn dorms would entail benchmarking IIMA’s choices against many publicly known global best practices where universities with a long history have been able to balance changing needs with heritage conservation, and where the commitment to conservation has enhanced brand and culture. I had added that following this approach would entail a campus-wide master plan for IIMA by a reputed professional, identifying the best locations for physical change to meet new needs while holding heritage conservation as a core value, and openly disclosing this plan as the framework for addressing conservation of the Kahn legacy. This is not addressed in your response.
  • I am heartened to read your affirmation that IIMA believes physical meeting places are significant and “we do believe in serendipitous interaction and we would very much like such spaces to exist on our campus.” But this does not gel with your assertion in your letter to alumni, where you speak of facing the “difficult questions” around meeting being the core of Kahn’s designs, whereas students today have “gravitated toward virtual modes of interaction.” If you intend to encourage and facilitate physical serendipitous meeting, why is this “difficult question”? The spaces of the dormitory complex are far more than an abstract geometry that contain meetings to come; they are also a fabric soaked with memories of meetings past. When alumni visit, these spaces are the spark that makes those memories come to life once more. These stories get ingrained in an architecture that transforms over time into a mnemonic aid for retelling stories of even those who are absent. The weaving of stories past and present is how a culture takes root, and the preservation of architectural spaces that significantly facilitate this weave becomes crucial.

Model, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Academic Complex, Dormitories, with Student’s Dining Hall and Kitchen at bottom left, © Anand Raje Foundation (via Architexturez South Asia)

  • You have so rightly pointed out that there have been problematic selections of materials and construction techniques in the original construction, and the institution has not established maintenance protocols in its early days. To reject entire structures on this count would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely, the whole point of the restoration effort launched in 2014, and awarded to SNK to implement, is to offer corrective measures for problematic decisions of the past and lay out maintenance protocols for years to come.

Shortly after I wrote my earlier letter, a letter addressed to you, dated 22 December 2020, signed by Sue Anne Kahn, Alexandra Tyng and Nathaniel Kahn (the children of Louis Kahn), has come to my attention. The letter conveys their consternation on hearing of the plan to demolish the Kahn dormitories. It refers to the time they met you when you visited the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 2018 and toured the Richards Building so that you could “see firsthand how a great Kahn building could be reimagined to suit changing needs.” The letter goes on to state that during that visit you “indicated that you were committed to preserving, at the very least, the area designated by the conservation plan, which included the 18 dormitories.” At the time of your visit in 2018, the conservation effort at IIMA was four years old, the restoration of Vikram Sarabhai Library was close to completion, and most significantly, the successful restoration of Dorm 15 had been completed a year earlier in August 2017, so any challenges in dormitory restoration would have already come to light. It is not clear what has caused the abandonment of the commitment expressed to the Kahn family in 2018.

I urge IIMA to immediately place this project on hold. In the light of all that is stated above, there is much more disclosure and debate needed on the subject before a credible public perception can confidently place IIM Ahmedabad on the right side of history in granting due respect to the significance of built heritage that constitutes the Kahn legacy at IIMA.

Yours sincerely,

Prem Chandavarkar

 

The views expressed above are of the authors.
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