INDIA AND THE LIFE OF AN ARCHITECT
A review of the recently published book on a key figure in Modern architecture in India, A.P Kanvinde, dwells upon what we can learn about architecture and India through the biography of an architect
The book AKAR documents and records the work and life of Achyut Kanvinde. a key figure in India’s history as a modern nation and society. The book, through elaborate visuals, sketches, archival photographs, drawings, and analyses, brings into public space the work of a prolific and important architect. This is accompanied by a series of interesting and perceptive essays by a range of scholars and thinkers and some who had the chance to closely observe him or be around him. Finally the book also contains some writing by Kanvinde himself. What the book would have surely, and further benefitted from, is an overarching set of themes or ideas that would have contextualised the man and his work in a much broader cultural framework than simply the historical moment of India’s modernity and experiments in nation-building. What does a life such as this help us reflect upon — vis-a-vis architecture, or India, in general? Biographies such as this one are special moments where the book has to engage with much broader questions than the documentation of a life in all its multifarious forms and experiences.
We have now developed a set of frameworks through which we have been looking at the history of architects and their roles in a modern and newly independent nation. These frameworks are indeed necessary and have helped us much in understanding the profession and the role it can play in a large project such as nation-building. However, the overuse of certain frameworks can slowly result in blinding us from seeing variations, nuances, and particularities. It is necessary that research and writing on architecture investigate
the frameworks of reference and study we have used until now, and continue to use, without much change; and in fact, explore the nuances in biographies, lives, and bodies of work that may actually shift our frames of reference and give us a newer or better understanding of certain cultural questions or the idea of architecture and its practice. A book like this one on Kanvinde is at the threshold where documentation and preliminary analysis can actually pave way for deeper thinking in the future.
In India, where often archives are difficult to access, a book that so generously presents and shares an archive is very important. The essays presented in the book also give a good set of entry points in understanding this compilation and collation of architectural works. It is in many ways a wonderfully presented archive and a set of thoughts on a body of work. The buildings are presented always through a detailed set of drawings besides photos of models and images of the project. However, understandably, for the sake of consistency, the drawings are redrawn to a contemporary logic. So visiting the section on Chronology and being able to see some of the original drawings makes it quite useful. Drawings are never simply the mode of representation, but they are indicative of how an architect thinks. Besides sketches, which have a personal flair and language, architecture drawings can also indicate different ways in which an architect was thinking about a design or a project. The book is filled with beautiful drawings and sketches, as authored by Kanvinde, but more original drawings would surely have helped the book. I close this brief note with a chance visit I had to the agriculture university that Kanvinde designed in Rahuri — a building that sits so beautiful in a nearrural landscape. Modern and bold, yet responding to the land and nature around that building makes for a very beautiful set of interwoven walkways and inside-outside experiences. The building is not very well maintained and appears dilapidated in some parts, or overused, or misused in certain corners, but none of this really takes away from the structural logic and aesthetic composition of the original idea and form. In that sense it is truly a wonderful work of architecture. Then I realised that the book had this project featured, with a wonderful set of impressionist sketches of the entire campus, and early images during as well as after construction. Such projects which otherwise do not feature on the usual lists of projects we associate with iconic architects (or any artist or author) are crucial in opening up for us the broader landscape a life that would have engaged with, and wondering what influences and ideas crossed this landscape. Buildings are never standalone projects; they always have hangovers from other projects (of the same architect, and maybe some others as well), and buildings sometimes also hold the nascent ideas for newer projects to later emerge and see fruition. This journeys of architecture interest me, and a book like this one on Kanvinde provides a great quantum of content to take further as we develop newer ‘ways of seeing’ things, and architecture.
This page: a sketch of the High Court and Legislative Assembly Building in Srinagar. The design concept has the four primary functions fronting a landscaped plaza. With the existing secretariat located on one side, the assembly and council hall are located in the centre, while the high court is sited at the other end Opposite page, from top: the Nehru Science Centre in Mumbai; an image of the cover of the book; Kanvinde presenting the scheme for NCAER to Jawaharlal Nehru; Kanvinde flanked by Shaukat Rai and James Miller, presenting the UAS Bengaluru concept