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75 names to know in Indian design: The Nation Builders

By Prerna Makhija
12 min read
Aug 16, 2022
75 Designers in India

Our 75th Independence Day Special: These architectural giants helped build a new India after Independence

In the early years following India’s independence, architecture and design were an obvious means to make a clean break from our colonial past. While a number of European and American architects were invited to plan new cities and erect monuments to reflect a newly formed democratic republic; it also set the stage for native architects and civil engineers who had been patiently waiting in the shadows. In this first part of our special, get to know the famous luminaries who laid the foundation for a new India.

Le Corbusier

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret Gris, lovingly known as Le Corbusier, was a self-taught Swiss-French architect and urban planner who came to transform Indian urban cities into the future at the request of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Chandigarh, the city that still holds the title of the most planned city in India was brought to life almost exclusively by Le Corbusier. Geometrical streets, lush green spaces, exposed surfaces, solid bold colours, high ceilings,  large windows, ramps and open spaces were all made common by his love of Purist and Brutalist architecture, previously unseen and unheard of in India.

He paved the way for building organised cities that were entrapped by harsh climatic conditions and poverty by bringing in order through natural light, ventilation, large streets, water bodies and greenery. Apart from his obvious architectural legacy, his sleek furniture designs including several steel-and-leather chairs and loungers are still produced and retailed today.

Le Corbusier

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

 

 

IIM Bangalore by B.V. Doshi

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

B.V. Doshi

At 94, B.V. Doshi’s accolades just keep coming in – earlier this May, he was awarded the UK’s Royal Gold Medal conferred by Queen Elizabeth. With a career spanning nearly seven decades with over a 100 projects, he’s also the first and only Indian recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, an Aga Khan award, the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan and the French OAL (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

 

Doshi began his career working with Le Corbusier in Paris and Chandigarh and also worked alongside Louis Kahn during the construction of IIM, Ahmedabad. 

While most other celebrated architects are known for modern marvels like opera houses and tall skyscrapers, Doshi has spent much of his life building government, educational and commercial institutions and low-cost housing solutions that defined the architecture of a newly independent India. His unique brand of Indian modernism can be identified through his choice of local materials, indigenous crafts and techniques and a deep regard for functionality above all else.

 

Charles Correa

Charles Correa was a true visionary who changed the way we constructed and inhabited buildings as we started to carve out an independent India. Across all his projects one can see the use of traditional materials and methods in sync with the site’s natural surroundings. He despised glass-and-steel structures and preferred to build low-rise settlements with shared spaces and courtyards to promote a sense of community. This approach can be seen in his work through the decades from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad (late 1950s) to National Crafts Museum, New Delhi (late 1970s) and the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur (late 1980s).

Cidade de Goa by Charles Correa

As an urban planner, he was the chief architect for Navi Mumbai as well as several industrial townships and low-income housing projects across the length and breadth of the country. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appointed him as the Chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation.

 

Naturally, all top awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Vibhushan and Aga Khan Award for Architecture were bestowed on this beloved architect who fashioned many of his magical creations out of Indian mud and clay! To experience his artistic genius for yourself, you could visit one of his many hotel projects including Cidade De Goa in Dona Paula, Goa.

 

Darpana Academy of Performing Arts by Achyut Kanvinde

Image courtesy, Kanvinde Rai & Chowdhury

Achyut Kanvinde

Amongst the most famous of post-Independent Indian architects is Padma Shri recipient Achyut Kanvinde. The Harvard graduate began his career by designing laboratories around the country under the directive of the Science and Technology arm of the Central Government. The true minimalist and functionalist, trained under the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius no less, is responsible for over 500 buildings including several national institutions such as IIT Kanpur, Mumbai’s Nehru Science Centre, Delhi’s National Science Centre and Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad.

His imaginative designs matched the local vernacular sentiment and site specifications even as he used simple geometrical shapes almost obsessively. His projects cleverly flaunted building materials and structures borrowed from the Brutalism movement of the time. He designed the buildings of the future by standing on the shoulders of modernist giants like Corbusier and Louis Kahn.

 

Raj Rewal

Raj Rewal founded Raj Rewal Associates in 1962 after completing his Masters’ in the UK and working with the famous French architect Michel Ecochard in Paris. Rewal is best known for his easy blend of the old and the new. Simple geometrical shapes, grids in all shapes and sizes, sandstones in red, pink and white and spaces with central courtyards are key elements in Rewal’s designs that are often inspired by ancient Indian townships like Fatehpur Sikri. Some of his iconic works include the Hall of Nations and Halls of Industries which opened in 1972 as part of the Pragati Maidan exhibition complex in New Delhi (both of which were unfortunately demolished in 2018) and the 1982 Asian Games Village, also in New Delhi.

Hall of nations

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

 

 

Spiral Staircase by Laurie Baker

Image courtesy, Vineet Radhakrishnan

Laurie Baker

Laurie Baker, an architect trained at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, came to India to build hospitals for lepers in 1945 and never left—in fact, he became an Indian citizen in 1989. Also known as the Gandhi of architecture and the architect of the poor, he crafted ingenious structures after spending time learning how ordinary Indians built their homes across the country.

He had to unlearn everything he was taught in school to be able to build with what was available at hand. He used locally available materials and techniques for cost-conscious projects. 

The Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum is emblematic of his practice featuring energy-conserving curved double walls, traditional sloping roofs, skylights and jaalis fashioned from exposed bricks and Mangalore tiles to optimise natural light and ventilation.

 

He penned his own architectural code for building in India which included being unique, focusing on the potential and energy of the site itself, evading lavishness and the one that stands out the most—the use of common sense!

 

Urmila Eulie Chowdhury

It’s impossible to narrate the history of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh without mentioning Urmila Eulie Chowdhury now but there was once a time when she didn’t feature on top of the list of the Swiss-French architect’s Indian protégés. The daughter of a diplomat, Chowdhury studied architecture, music and ceramics in Japan, Australia and the United States and she was one of the first women architects in Asia. Chowdhury was one of Corbusier’s closest aides, even handling his communication with the Prime Minister since she spoke French fluently.

Government Home Science College by Urmila Eulie Chowdhury

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Long after the foreign architects returned to their home countries, Urmila continued building townships, colleges, administrative buildings and city centres; eventually taking on the role of the Chief State Architect of Haryana and Punjab. Her modernist buildings with exposed bricks, plastered white walls and sculptural staircases including the Government Home Science College were meticulously planned and always on budget. Apart from her contribution to architecture she was also awarded a gold medal from the President of India for her low-cost, ergonomic and gender-sensitive wooden furniture.

 

Pravina Mehta

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Pravina Mehta

When Pravina Mehta was studying at the Sir J. J. College of Architecture and at the Illinois Institute of Design in Chicago, shortly after in the 1940s and 1950s, construction and urban planning was very much “a man’s world”. As one of the earliest women to enter the field, she paved the way for many others including her partner Hema Sankalia at her firm Associated Architects.

 

Amongst her many accomplishments is her collaboration on the proposal and planning of New Bombay with Charles Correa and Shirish Patel. 

As an active rebel during the freedom struggle, Mehta was particularly sensitive to class disparities and dedicated much of her practice to building low-cost housing and rehabilitation of victims of natural disasters along with her peers Yasmeen Lari and Minnette de Silva, amongst the first women architects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka respectively.

 

M.F. Hussain

A founding member of Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. M.F. Hussain is synonymous with Indian modernism of the 1940s. While the underground art gallery Amdavad ni Gufa that he created with B.V. Doshi in early 1990s is his most note-worthy contribution to public architecture (and the now demolished Cinema Ghar museum in Hyderabad), his artistic stylings have left an indelible mark in modern Indian interior design.

 

Even as his originals tend to be in the realm of “unaffordable” by most, his prints featuring flowing lines, contemporary style and vibrant tones have been replicated endlessly to adorn walls in homes, hotel rooms and restaurants. Amongst the lucky few hospitality giants to flaunt originals are the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and the ITC Maurya in New Delhi. 

Works of MF Hussain inside Amdavad ni gufa

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Our favourite however remains the iconic Khyber restaurant in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda art precinct where Husain’s murals adorn the mud-caked walls that are now preserved behind plexiglass.

 

Vidhana Soudha by BR Manickram

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

B.R. Manickram

The Karnataka Vidhana Soudha at Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park is widely regarded as one of the most striking buildings of Independent India. Where Jawaharlal Nehru saw it as “temple dedicated to the nation”, Kannada poet Kuvempu described it as “poetry in stone”—indeed, the over-the-top Neo-Dravidian building made almost entirely out of granite is a grand feat with domes, pillars and arches chiselled and etched with temple art, floral and geometric patterns as well as sandalwood carvings.

 

While so much is known of the Vidhana Soudha’s construction—including the well-known fact that many of the unskilled labourers were in fact convicts who were set free after its completion—not much is known about its architect and civil engineer B.R. Manickram. 

Armed with an engineering degree from the Government Engineering College in Bengaluru (1930) and a MS in Architecture and Town Planning from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago (1948), Manickram devoted his entire career to his work as a government architect. Before his untimely death in 1965, he also worked on the famed Ravindra Kalakshetra and Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and the Institute of Medical Sciences in Hubballi.

 

C.P. Kukreja

When C.P. Kukreja passed away in 2018 at the age of 79, his firm was already a half-a-century old with over a thousand projects spanning government institutions, national universities as well as private commercial and residential projects. His meteoric rise began in his early thirties when he won the Jawaharlal Nehru University project in 1969.

His signature use of arched openings and exposed brick work made his buildings not only sustainable but also instantly recognisable through the decades—from the Finnish Embassy and the Gyan Bharati School in the 70s and ’80s to the Army College Of Medical Sciences in 2010. 

Gyan Bharti School by CP Kukreja

Image courtesy, CP Kukreja

 

He authored a book on environmentally sound practices called Tropical Architecture in 1978, and even launched some of the earliest Indian architectural and interior design magazines in the 1980s. By the 1990s, Kukreja was also among the first to popularise glass-and-steel buildings for IT firms as well as the striking commercial buildings such as Ambadeep Tower with its all-glass elevators and Persian-style tilework. At present, his son Dikshu Kukreja is driving some of the firm’s biggest projects including the India Pavilion at the recently concluded Dubai Expo.

 

Christopher Charles Benninger

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Christopher Charles Benninger

In 1971, Christopher Charles Benninger did the unthinkable—left a highly coveted, tenured position at Harvard University upon the insistence of B.V. Doshi. He moved to Ahmedabad to set up the School of Planning at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT). His fundamental approach to architecture and urban planning involves striking a balance of sustainability, scalability and affordability. Some of his most notable projects include the Mahindra United World College of India and the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies but perhaps his greatest contribution to India is mentoring the next generation of young Indian architects.

 

 

Shiv Nath Prasad

Shiv Nath Prasad has perhaps been the greatest proponent of Le Corbusier’s modernism, but what’s interesting is that he never got a chance to work alongside the Swiss-French architect. Charles Correa once remarked that Prasad is Eklavya (the most loyal student) to Corbusier’s Dronacharya (master of the arts).

 

After studying architecture and city planning in the UK, he returned to India in 1955 and joined the First Master Plan team for developing Delhi. By 1962, he started his private practice and his most  notable buildings include the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts and the Akbar Hotel in Delhi, both of which bear a striking resemblance to Le Corbusier’s Brutalist buildings with exposed concrete facades, ribbon windows and brise-soleil.

Akbar Hotel by Siv Nath Prasad

Image courtesy, Wikipedia

 

 

Anant Raje's MAFCO

Image courtesy, Rethink the future

Anant Raje

An alumnus of the Sir JJ School of Architecture, Anant Raje collaborated extensively with the Estonian-born American architect Louis Kahn while he worked at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. When Kahn passed away unexpectedly in 1974, Raje took on the completion of IIM-Ahmedabad. Amongst his most distinguished projects is the meticulously planned MAFCO Wholesale Market in Mumbai and The Indian Statistical Institute in New Delhi, both of which borrow heavily from Kahn’s signature monumental and brutalist style.



Here's the second part to our series, The Conservationists

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