The India International Centre: Building for Communication

by Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development Berlin

Buildings are more than mere stone and concrete; their design shapes the encounters taking place within and around them, while they, in turn, become infused with the memories of these encounters.  The India International Centre is one such space, and as so many other South Asia academics, Monica Juneja and I have spent many hours there, sipping tea in the lounge or sitting outside, exchanging the latest news, or planning new activities. Our conversations were always punctuated by friends and acquaintances passing by nodding their greetings or joining us, the rule limiting the number of chairs you are allowed to pull to your table gently enforced by the staff. We have shared many meals in the dining hall and the buffets that accompanied conferences and seminars there, and, of course, participated in the formal and informal discussions of these academic events.

The front entrance and driveway to the main building of the India International Centre in New Delhi. Author: Death Star Central, 2020. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The institutional history of the India International Centre (IIC) has been told several times.[i] Conceived initially in a conversation between Sarvepalli Radhakrishna and John Rockefeller III, the IIC translated the idea of an International House, as it already existed in Tokyo, and envisaged it not primarily as a space for encounters between businessmen, as suggested by the Japanese model, but for scholars and their international colleagues. Taking up the Nehruvian rhetoric with its belief in international cooperation and amity, it quickly gained the support of the Indian government, most notably of the Finance Member, C.D. Deshmukh, and of Nehru himself.[ii] Deshmukh appointed Joseph Allen Stein as the architect, and Nehru secured the premises adjacent to Lodhi Gardens. The building was inaugurated on January 22, 1962 in the presence of Rajendra Prasad, president of the Indian Republic, Nehru, and the US Secretary of State (in recognition of the financial support the Rockefeller Foundation had provided). The aim of the institution was no less than “helping the cause of understanding amongst people of different cultures.” India was in need of such an understanding, but also uniquely placed to further it, as it stood

at the crossroads of the East and West in more senses than one [and had been] the meeting place of various currents of thought – intellectual, cultural, political, social and economic and [shown] a remarkable capacity for the assimilation and synthesis of diverse cultures.[iii]

Who was Joseph Allen Stein, the architect responsible for the design of the IIC, and how did he conceive the contribution of architecture to these lofty goals? Stein (1912-2001), who had started his career in California, had moved to India in 1952 and taught at the Department for Architecture of the Bengal Engineering College. Unlike most modern Indian architects, who were influenced by the modernist projects of either Gropius and the Bauhaus, or Le Corbusier,[iv] Stein’s intellectual genealogy linked him to the environmentalist architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. What all of them shared was the belief in architecture’s power to contribute to the creation of a modern world, the belief that the designed surrounding shaped the way people not only acted and developed habits on an everyday basis, but also formed their character and subjectivity through what they saw, heard, and sensed. Neutra went as far as to suggest that architecture and design based on the results of biological and evolutionary research were central to the survival of humanity.[v] Characteristic of the environmental school of architecture was the quest to create buildings in harmony with nature, which opened up to and integrated with the landscape. For Stein’s architecture and planning, these ideas were as central to projects of affordable housing, industrial design, and neighborhoods, as they were for his institutional buildings.[vi]

Joseph Allen Stein. Source: www.the-sout-asian.com, 1986. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The IIC is a beautiful example of this garden architecture. The use of space is almost reminiscent of Mughal palaces, with their multiple and variable transitions between inside and outside. Its entrance, coming from Max Mueller Marg, leads through open lawns, enlivened by flowerpots changing through the seasons. It ends in what could be interpreted as a pardah diwar, a wall screening the more private area of a mansion from gazes through an open door. The wall is covered by an arched roof, allowing cars to pick up and drop off passengers, who can then proceed, protected from the elements to the guesthouse on their right or the auditorium complex on their left.[vii] At the same time, this screen provides the garden behind it with a certain privacy from gazes from the street – the boundary walls and bamboo fences seen today are a later addition.

The pardah diwar (detail from fig. 1). Author: Death Star Central, 2020. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The library opens towards this garden with wide windows. Bamboo chairs allow for flexible communication in the open air – on the lawn behind the guesthouse, in the early mornings and on sunny winter days, or under the shade of the walkway leading from the guesthouse to the lounge and restaurant. The lounge itself is situated partly inside, partly outside, next to a flower-covered pond, originally opening up directly into Lodhi Gardens, though once again, it is now divided by boundary walls.

Shisha Gumbad in front and Bara Gumbad with mosque at back (Sheesh Gumbad and Bara Gumbad). Author: Karthiknanda, 2018. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The integration with Lodhi Gardens occurs not only spatially, but architecturally and aesthetically as well. Many other contemporary efforts either went for an all-out modern style, seen as the only architecture reflecting present-day needs and aspirations,[viii] or attempted to reproduce an Indian style deemed timeless, reproducing ancient monuments either in their entirety or as quotations. Stein translated the idiom of the tombs in Lodhi Gardens into a modern language. We have already mentioned the re-interpretation of the Mughal palace-cum-garden architecture; it also shows in the hexagonal layout of the auditorium and the restaurant complex, mirroring the octagonal shape of Muhammad Shah Saiyyid’s tomb.[ix]

The tomb of Mohammad Shah, also known as Mubarak Khan ka Gumbad (Lodhi Garden), New Delhi. Author: Anita Mishra, 2013. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The use of jaalis (latticed screens) structured the façade of the guesthouse and provided shade to those inside, without, however, imitating the patterns used in the tombs, but rather re-interpreting them in a contemporary idiom.

IIC jaali (detail from fig. 1). Author: Death Star Central, 2020. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the rhythmic combination of raw stones and concrete not only borrowed some motifs from the Lodhi architecture, but also made the buildings blend with the given color scheme.[x]

This garden architecture made for an oasis: quiet, where Delhi was noisy, spacious, where it was congested, and slowing activities to a leisurely pace, distinct from the rush marking other spaces around it. It, provided not only the backdrop, but also the sensory foundation for the Centre’s main activities. The library and the seminar rooms enabled individual and joint research, linking to the original idea of the Centre as a space for intellectual encounters, mainly for the members of the universities of Delhi. The auditorium was used for academic events, but mostly for musical and dance performances. It was among the first venues to provide a public space for classical arts, as opposed to semi-private performances in the homes of patrons. It integrated the performers into the community forming at the Centre – a community that quickly transcended its original academic focus bringing together scholars, artists, journalists, and publishers, as well as some senior bureaucrats and politicians. This community was held together in a very practical sense by sharing drinks and meals. The fare was (and is) tasty but in no way fancy – not substantially different from what people would be served at a friend’s house. The menu did not follow culinary fashions but remained stable over the decades – still today, people might bond at a conference in Madison or Berlin over their nostalgia for the Centre’s fig and honey ice cream, and know that it would still be waiting for them next time they visit the Centre. These shared gustatory experiences are often underestimated when speaking about the creation of communities.

From its inception, the Centre has been loved but it has also faced criticisms. The integration with Lodhi Gardens led to protests against what some saw as an encroachment.[xi] It certainly was (and still is) an institution catering to an elite, unavoidable for a membership-based institution. At the same time, the architecture and design of the complex pointed to and created the kind of elite it was meant to foster. Compared to the five-star hotels coming up at the same time, which interpreted modernist architecture in a strikingly different manner, the Centre preserved an aesthetics of modesty and even austerity in tune with Nehruvian ideals. It was and is as distinct from Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, praised by Nehru for the way it “hits you on the head [and] makes you think,”[xii] as it is from the glitz and ostentation of contemporary hotels and shopping malls. The architecture and the community it aims to create go hand in hand: It is a community whose values are attuned to the style of building; the architecture, in turn, reproduces the emotions and practices stabilizing these values and contributing to their transmission over the generations.

Endnotes

[i] Stephen White, Building in the Garden: The Architecture of Joseph Allen Stein in India and California (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993); Joseph Allen Stein, N.H. Ramachandran, and Geeti Sen, “India International Centre: Concept and Design: Joseph Allen Stein in conversation with N.H. Ramachandran and Geeti Sen,” India International Centre Quarterly 22, no. 4 (1995): 118—128; Joseph Allen Stein, N.H. Ramachandra, and Geeti Sen, “The India International Centre: Concept and Design,” India International Centre Quarterly 31, no. 2/3 (2004): 232—243.

[ii] C.D. Deshmukh, The Course of My Life (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1974), 273—278.

[iii] India International Centre, Inauguration Souvenir, January 22, 1962. This seems to have been printed in a limited number for the attendants of the inauguration ceremony. A copy is available at the IIC library.

[iv] Jon T. Lang, A Concise History of Modern Architecture in India (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2002); Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, India: Modern Architecture in History (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).

[v] Richard Neutra, Survival through Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).

[vi] Joseph Allen Stein, “Homes for the Living,” Seminar 162 (February 1973), 31—34; Joseph Allen Stein, “The Crisis of Urbanism: Is There an Alternative?” India International Centre Quarterly 8, no. 2 (1980): 93—99; see also his lectures in White, Building, 357—367; and the interview Shalin Sharma conducted with him: “Garden of the Heart”, https://youtu.be/afs-E5tGVOM.

[vii] A huge thank you to my Facebook friends who came in to discuss the right word for this wall, and especially to Swapna Liddle, who came up with the concept of pardah diwar.

[viii] Anon. [Mulk Raj Anand?], “Architecture and You,” Marg 17, no. 1 (1963): 4—7.

[ix] For a plan and a photograph of the model of the IIC, see Marg 17, no. 1 (1963): 67.

[x] Stein never intended the concrete to be painted white, see “Garden of the Heart.”

[xi] Charles Fabri, “The India International Centre, New Delhi,” Design 6, no. 7 (1962): 102—107.

[xii] Jawaharlal Nehru, “Inaugural Address by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister,” in Seminar on Architecture, ed. by Achyut Kanvinde (New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1959), 5—10.

 

Margrit Pernau is a Historian and Senior Researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. She has published extensively on modern South Asian history and the history of emotions. Her monograph Emotions and Modernity in Colonial India: From Balance to Fervor came out with OUP in 2019. Her most recent work on Emotions and Temporality will come out later this year in the Elements series of Cambridge University Press.