Kahn Dormitories Threatened with Demolition

John Hill
29. December 2021
Circulation between dormitories at IIM (Photo from special issue of L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui devoted to Louis I. Kahn, February/March 1969)

The Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA) has announced plans to raze 14 of the 18 dormitory buildings designed by Louis I. Kahn. The buildings are an integral part of the campus designed by Kahn and completed in 1974.

January 5 update: The Times of India reports that IIMA is withdrawing its expression of interest for new dormitories, in response to the international outcry over demolishing the Kahn buildings. The school wrote in a letter: "We will deliberate on the feedback received, re-evaluate the options, consult the best global conservation and structural experts, and chart out a course of action, which the institute will communicate in due course."

News of the demolition happened right before Christmas Day, with an article by historian William J.R. Curtis in Architectural Record on December 23 coinciding with a letter from IIMA announcing its intentions. Three days later, Curtis penned an article in the Architectural Review, in which he is understandably irate about the prospect of demolishing a key component of one of Kahn's late masterpieces. He refers to the planned act as "'necronomics': making money off dead architectural bodies," since IIMA is inviting architects to design replacement dormitories that would be built upon the foundations of the Kahn buildings. Immediately following the second article came a petition started by Architectural Review, which has quickly gained nearly 5,000 signatures as of today.

The December 23 letter, addressed from IIMA Director Errol D’Souza to alumni, attributes the 2001 Bhuj earthquake and water seepage through the exposed brick walls as the cause for the "unsafe" conditions of the dorms. "We have been blessed with an architectural heritage that is ethereal," the letter says, as quoted at The Print. "Our hearts have been ripped open," it continues, "whilst taking the call of doing all it takes to preserve the plaza of the library, the faculty wings, and the classrooms, and the dorms on the edges of the complex so that we do not lose a gift bestowed on us. For a few of the dorms, however, there will be a new history that we will strive to have in a relationship of continuity with the surrounding buildings of Kahn rather than otherwise."

Louis Kahn Plaza in IIMA (Photo: Perspectives - The Photography Club, IIM Ahmedabad / Wikimedia Commons)

Put another way, the IIMA is elevating the importance of the classroom, library, and administration buildings that face a large court (photo above), plus a few of the adjoining dorms, over the whole assemblage designed by Kahn. The former elements were restored by Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) between 2014 and 2017, with the dormitories intended to follow — until, that is, the December 23 announcement. Now the cohesion of the whole is under threat. Curtis describes the complex — the restored block and court, and the "diagonal flotilla" of the dorms in need of attention — as "an ensemble that cannot be excised without total damage to the whole." The brickwork ties the buildings together, but so do the network of passages between buildings, which reflect how Kan was inspired by historical complexes, such as cloisters in Europe and the courts of Indian palaces.

D’Souza was able to propose the demolition and replacement of most of the dorms because heritage laws in India only apply to structures more than 100 years old. That leaves the majority of the modern masterpieces in the country vulnerable. Safe is Le Corbusier's Chandigarh complex, though, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. Ironically, SNK's restoration of the IIMA buildings garnered them a UNESCO preservation award. Given the chance, the firm's continued efforts on the dorms could result in the whole Kahn-designed IIMA campus gaining similar recognition and, more importantly, perhaps being added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. But first the cries for saving by Curtis and others have to be heard.

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