A New Nation | The Buildings of Delhi
Brutalism, Modernism and Mughal architecture
Photo: Peter Serenyi
It’s been 70 years since India gained independence from colonial rule: a change that brought about a series of bold architectural commissions from the government in a bid to create a new visual identity for the nation.
Marrying Indian cultural heritage with contemporary schools of design thinking, the resultant structures were striking and unlike anything seen in India before. Despite having to work within the social and economic parameters of the day, they didn’t compromise on expressing a new, modernist aesthetic. These experiments in architecture – particularly from the 1960s and 1980s, a time when New Delhi was rapidly expanding – became landmarks of the capital of post-Independence India. Here are ten of its most innovative experiments:
The curving facade of this cultural centre yields to a poetic integration of interior and exterior space. Visitors find themselves quietly immersed in a meaningful mix of India’s rich heritage (shown in architect Habib Rahman’s use of architectural features such as jaalis – ornamental latticed stone work, often seen in Mughal architecture) and modern Western geometries: a fluid functionalist representation of the lifelong dream of Rabindrinath Tagore – India’s most famous philosopher and poet, after whom the building is named.
The Ford Foundation
At the invitation of the Indian government, The Ford Foundation established its first international office in New Delhi in 1952 – and it needed a building to fit its global ideals. Enter Joseph Allen Stein, the American architect who left such a distinctive impression on the city that the surrounding area is now often referred to as “Steinabad”. This low-level complex sits demurely in the surrounding nature of the nearby Lodhi Gardens; the rustic stonework in simple block units reflects Stein’s philosophy of integrating manmade construction with nature’s expressiveness – a vision of unity and collaboration which mirrors the mission of the Ford Foundation itself.
National Cooperative Development Corporation
Nicknamed the “Pajama Building” due to its bi-winged structure (parting not unlike a pair of wide-leg pants), the building housing the National Cooperative Development Corporation (Kuldip Singh, 1978-80) is one of the city’s most iconic brutalist constructions. A polygonal concrete facade steps skyward to create a straddling effect, supported by two central pillars within an open atrium, which loom in massive stolidity – reminding those who enter of the tradition and histories that underpin even the most radical innovation.
Take off your shoes and hot-foot it (literally) down the path into the Lotus Temple (1986), one of the most distinctive places of worship in a land with over 300 million gods. Emulating India’s national flower, this ethereal marble construction evokes delicacy and lightness in the precision with which its nine overlapping walls enclose a single cavernous undivided interior space, fully in keeping with the Bahá’í Temple’s practice of being open to all, regardless of religion or any other distinction.
The Shri Ram Centre
The Shri Ram Centre architect Shiv Nath Prasad was famously innovative and uncompromising in his modern ideals, as can be seen in this experiment in reinforced concrete (built 1972). The unconventional composition of architectural forms, stacked like toy building blocks – intended to reflect the variety of cultural functions that the building serves: dance, drama, music – is evocative of a lookout, or an aviary, with the heavy east-facing shade structures providing a striking interpretation of Le Corbusier’s philosophy of sun-responsive architecture.
National Dairy Development Board
The office of the National Dairy Development Board (1985) is a modernist tribute to India’s emerging architectural vernacular. Clean planes mingle with sloping exterior balconies, from which spring lush pockets of green, reminiscent of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Stacked cantilevered compartments create a feeling of dynamic spontaneous growth. The NDDB is a monument to architect Achyut Kanvinde’s vision of a carefully constructed India that combines historical aesthetics with the needs of a rapidly industrialising society: a veritable temple to the sacred cow to which it is devoted.
Palika Kendra Building
The sloping sides of Palika Kendra (1984) – also designed by Kuldip Singh – appear as though emerging from the ground, like tectonic plates forced from the earth’s mantle by tremendous force. Within the building sits the New Delhi Municipal Council, which originated from the Imperial Delhi Committee – formed to oversee the construction of Delhi as the new capital of India. The Palika Kendra Building is an expression of power, will, and strength, representing the urgency of Prime Minister Nehru’s desire to challenge received wisdom and entrenched design practice in order to forge a new vision of India. So it’s little wonder that this building was the tallest on Delhi’s skyline at that time.
Belgian Embassy and the Ambassador’s Residence
Designed by the modern Indian artist Satish Gujral, the Belgian Embassy (built 1980-83) seems more like an Expressionist statement than a diplomatic residence. Constructed from the distinctive red brick used in many history monuments, this sprawling post-modern edifice hunkers like a series of rocky outcrops in lush Chanakyapuri, bringing visiting guests and dignitaries back to the Mughals, the Mauryas, the very Indus Valley civilisations – in short, to an age of royalty that existed long before the Raj.
Planted in the centre of Connaught Place and designed by Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, Statesman House is a far cry from the classic bungalow style with which its architects are so often associated. It captures the grandeur of India’s transformational age with receding tiers – invoking the feeling of tantalising incompletion and classic ruins. The central open-air atrium seems to draw directly from the Roman Coliseum, but this is actually the home one of the India’s oldest national newspapers.
Curzon Road Hostel
A “hostel” doesn’t necessarily conjure the highest architectural expectations, but Habib Rahman’s complex – initially only built as temporary accommodation for international delegates to the UN Conference on Trade and Development of 1968 – created a modern light-filled backpackers’ paradise. Comprised of a matrix of polygonal compartments linked by suspended concrete staircases, this seemingly weightless honeycomb represents the joining of the many and the whole – aptly expressing topics at the heart of the conference – beneath an undulating wave of balconies that form the building’s distinctive facade.