January – February 2016
A SPECIAL REPORT
TEXT and IMAGES by BIANCA SFORNI
(All the photographs: © Bianca Sforni)
As soon as the British stopped playing games in the Indian subcontinent Le Corbusier clocks started to turn at the Mill Owners Association Building in Ahmedabad, it is 1954.
The Mill Owners Building is the first of four completed commissions by Le Corbusier in the city. Ahmedabad? You may dream about Arabian Nights but it is the sixth largest city in India and a wealthy one. The Sabarmati river no longer kisses the Gandhi Ashram and concrete walls separate the water from the ghats.* No longer the precarious encampments made by nomadic tribes out of mud and clay occupying the riverbed in the dry season are to be seen here. Just as if they had been washed away forever: modernization is a very powerful monsoon. As well, no more spinning wheels’ subtle noise, no more bleating from the herds and no more discussions between Gandhi and his wife Kasturba, but the carefully designed Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Museum, planned by the master architect Charles Correa in 1963, stands in for them. Home of the ideology that set India free, a very moving place.
* steps leading to the water.
An iconic image of Gandhi found at the Mill Owners Association. Background, Morak stone paneling:
The decade following 1947 independence is punctuated by the will of a nation to represent the new democratic state in fieri, and modern structures are conceived. Thanks to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Louis Khan is consulted and he conceives the domicile of IIM (Indian Institute of Management).
‘’In Absolute Glory, as the order is respected.” Walls of red bricks folding the space around a symbolic central piazza. An arched ceiling covering an elevated corridor makes you think you are ambling through a city of the Renaissance: not far from Milano, Vigevano, where Leonardo da Vinci was designing under the Sforza.
Classic and immaculate. Louis Kahn, detail from IIM, 1962
The aim was to enable future generations to operate in the new born India: it is still happening, as the IIM is considered today India’s best business school. IIM, a modern construction looking old, bricks eaten away by humidity and sun. The sand of Gujarat used for the bricks contains salt, the same salt covering the soil of the nearby Kutch region, through which Gandhi marched with his followers. Salt makes it a challenge to preserve and maintain this magic place, simple in its design, classic and monumental.
Louis Khan’s architecture is about light. In his own words : “Material is spent light: The mountain, the earth, the stream, the air and the wind are spent light.” Matter is burned light, fire. “A wild dance of flames that settles is felt as material.”
You talk about fire and here it is. All over India. The rays burning our pale skin are worshipped by the Hindus as Surya, the God sun. Many temples have been erected in his honor for thousands of years. A very ancient practice. The sun that gives us light and life. After that, the atomic bomb.
A mysterious shrine or symbolic offering to the gods found on a pic of the Aravalli mountains:
Banjara : Fragment of Gala Head Covers, circa 1900- 1930. Abstract geometric patterns reflect landscape and nature.
Banjara or Vanjai means trader in Sanskrit. They were merchants and carriers of grain and salt and traveled the lands of Central India, the Deccan and Western India. From the dry plateau of Northwestern India these ancient traders of grain, dates, salt and coconuts went as far as Spain. It was around one thousand years ago when the migration started … the Roma … wanderers, not easily compatible with European order and laws in the present day.
The Roma are the descendant of those Indian traders and share the same language. Their language is also like the one spoken by the people who settled in the valleys of the Swiss Alps: Romaji. Their life in today’s India, indeed, is not easier: in the state of Rajasthan and Maharashtra they are in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. It all started during the 18th Century: the British colonial authorities placed the community under the bounds of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. This act restrained the movements of the Banjara people.
While the history of human beings is defined by migrations and wanderings, borders designate countries. Visas and permissions where required, during this trip, to continue the exploration of the sub-Indian continent and to visit high security and ritual places. Our destination was Shere-bangla-nagar, the masterfully designed home with gardens built like a fortress by Louis Khan as a miracle on a lake. What a grand one. While the Assembly building is created in concrete, the residential buildings are conceived in exposed red brick.
Shere-bangla-nagar by Louis Kahn:
The miracle started in 1963, the first time Louis Khan landed in Dhaka, on the delta of the Ganga river. It was the first of his numerous exhausting and exciting visits to the site, as those years where marked by turmoil, military coups, ethnic and linguistic discrimination and by civil disobedience. Dhaka will become the capital of Bangladesh in 1971.
Shere-bangla-nagar was realized, thanks to the will of Khan’s first trained Bengali pupil, an architect and a powerful nature, Muzharul Islam, the son of a mathematician. But only in 1992 were the sessions of the parliament held in the new building.
What took an American architect there? The answer is Art. This what I think. Maybe also politics, but Shere-bangla-nagar, the capital complex of the Bangladesh National Assembly, with its Assembly Building, a Prayer Hall (facing west) and the living quarters for the administration people, is fiercely standing under the tropical sun as evidence of an heroic deed of a nation and of an architect. A Rare thing.
Louis Kahn worked on it from 1963 to 1974. Built like a fortified citadel, this is also his last, grand project. On March 17, 1974, Louis Kahn was found dead in Penn Station, New York City, on his way back from India.