Drawing up the capital: Nehru’s impact on modern Indian architecture

Raj rewal’s hall of nations
Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations

On Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary year, photographer Ram Rahman weaves an architectural narrative around Delhi, a city rooted in tradition but one that looked to the future.

Chandigarh became a powerful symbol of the new India and its aspiration for a forward-looking modern architecture and planning in the aftermath of Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru famously wrote in 1959: “Now I have welcomed one great experiment in India, which you know very well, Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial, whether you like it or not; it is the biggest job of its kind in India. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest because it hits you on the head, because it makes you think”.

Nehru believed that architecture was important in building a cultural vision of a new, democratic and egalitarian society and a new citizen, and that the radical modern movement in Europe with its socialist roots was a model of inspiration. He encouraged young Indian architects to move to Delhi, many of whom joined government institutions which were being set up then. Delhi also had a lot of open land between its medieval ruins on which to build. Chandigarh was conceived, planned and designed by European and British architects led by the visionary Le Corbusier, but Delhi’s buildings after Independence were all designed by young Indian designers.

Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Durga Bajpai, Charles Correa were all American trained and unusually, Delhi became the site where both European and American modernisms took root and created a unique mix of style and approach to materials. Architects trained under Corbusier also moved to Delhi in the early 1960s bringing that influence and use of bold concrete (for instance, JK Chowdhury in the IIT). Under that early impulse, Delhi became the site of some very important experiments in modern architecture over three generations in public buildings, factories and housing, home to one of the most important collections of this tradition in the world. Unfortunately, this has not been regarded as heritage and worthy of recognition and also preservation and conservation. […]

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