With an architectural career spanning 45 years, Achyut Purushottam Kanvinde has been a key participant in the growth of modern Indian architecture. Born in a village near Bombay some 70 years ago, his early childhood was spent in the rural habitat. His father was a painter, and young Kanvinde became very fond of sketching and drawing. After school he naturally wanted to become a painter, but this was a period of economic depression, and he thought it wiser to enroll in the Department of Architecture at the J. J. School of Art, Bombay. From 1936 to 1941 he was trained here. His early apprenticeship was with the firm of Patki and Dadarkar in Bombay. This was a time, recollects Kanvinde, when opportunities for young architects were very limited. There were a few major architectural firms established during British rule in India, and these dominated the market.

Over his long architectural career – first with the government and then in private practice – Kanvinde has found time to devote himself to the promotion of young architectural talent in the country. He was on the advisory councils of several schools of architecture which were grappling with the problems of establishing a suitable academic framework to meet the needs of an expanding Indian economy. The Indian Institute of Architects was simultaneously making great efforts to stabilise the codes of practice for the profession, and Kanvinde made major contributions to this area, eventually serving as President of the Institute from 1974 to 1976. He was also, from 1974 to 1979, Member of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, the first such commission to be set up in India. Over the years Kanvinde’s architectural idiom acquired a strength and individuality which exerted a powerful influence on the emerging young professionals, especially from the Delhi School.

Achyut Kanvinde and Walter Gropius at Harvard
Achyut Kanvinde and Walter Gropius at Harvard

Q. You were probably one of the first Indian architects to study abroad, weren’t you?

A. Yes, in February 1946 I joined the architectural programme of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. As I remember it, Harvard was at this time a focus of intellectual and creative energies which had been suppressed during the second world war. Here, under the guidance of Walter Gropius, I encountered the thinking and teachings of the European masters of the Bauhaus – Albert Bayer, Moholy Nagy, Marcel Breuer, and the Swiss-American architectural historian Siegfried Giedion. Some of my fellow students here were Paul Rudolph, I. M. Pei and John Perkins.

Q. What was Harvard like in those days?

A. The school atmosphere was very liberal, with student activity going on continuously day and night, and a quiz being held every week. There were well organised reading lists given to the students. The classes in History of Architecture exposed me to mediaeval European architecture leading upto the development of Venice. Modern architecture was studied with particular emphasis on developments during the previous 100 years, including the great exhibitions which brought to light the major technological advances of that time. It took me almost six months to orient myself to this new atmosphere; I think that this period of training was for me an intense learning experience.

Q. When did you return to India?

A. I came back in the latter half of 1947, and joined the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, one of the Central Government organisations responsible for the development of science and technology in India. Here I was involved in the design and setting up of new research laboratories all over the country. I had to liaise between government departments and private architectural firms who were commissioned to design the National Physical Laboratory, the National Chemical Laboratory, and such others. It was during this period, that I had to tackle the problems of flexibility, growth and change, and the criticality of functional usage in planning and building design. My own architectural contribution came with the design of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research headquarters in New Delhi, the Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, and the Central Engineering Research Institute in Pilani.

Q. But you left government, didn’t you, to set up on your own?

A. Well, not on my own, but I established a private practice partnership with Shaukat Rai, a civil engineer and structural designer, in New Delhi in the 1950s. I think we were both charged with the ideas of the Bauhaus teachers, and fired by the vision which seems to have gripped the minds of powerful policymakers in India at that time – that science and technology held key to the growth of the nation. In the next few years our firm – Kanvinde and Rai – executed several important commissions. These buildings, it has been said, helped to establish the International Style in India.

Q. Did your ideas meet with any opposition?

A. Oh yes, they did. There was a strong lobby resisting the straightforward adoption of the International Style, with Claude Batley (who had established the Department of Architecture at the J. J. School of Art) as one of its leading protagonists. They held that traditional Indian character and motifs in building had to be expressed in contemporary work. I was faced with the task of resolving the divergent ideologies when I was asked to design the headquarters for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in new Delhi, some time in the mid-1950s. I had to try to reconcile several forms of expression – and I think the effort was successful. You see, the planning rationale for the building as well as its volumetric composition is derived from the Bauhaus tradition; yet in its treatment and finishing there is a blend of modern technology and traditional Indian motifs. Reinforced concrete shells were used to refer to domes and arches, while precast concrete sun-breakers echoed the stone jaalis of earlier periods.

Q. What would you say are the main elements of your architectural philosophy?

A. Over the years I have come to believe it is imperative that an architect develop a sensitivity to human nature and a respect for human values. This, after all, is at the very core of his work. In India the search for a new architectural expression must continue – and this must go beyond the satisfaction of matter of fact functional needs. I think the designer’s sensibility here must become aware of the accumulated wisdom of generations, but this should go together with the idea of progress reflected in the evolution of technology. In my own case, I must acknowledge my tremendous debt to Gropius – it was he who really exposed me to the power of technology on the one hand and the psychological dimensions of spatial organisation on the other. Actually my present concerns and realisations are all reflections of my earlier preoccupations: as a student at the J. J. School in Bombay my thesis was on “Architectural Composition and its Application to Indian Architecture”.

Q. Have there been any marked departures in style during your long career?

A. I think the decade of the 1960s brought a new phase of self-discovery. I see now that the large slab blocks and clean lines emerging out of a strict orthogonal geometry – characteristic of Gropius and the Inter– national Style – began to break down and I was searching for a more human scale. Take my design for the residence of Jaykrishan Harivallabdas, the Ahmedabad textile magnate. My overriding intention here was to generate a spatial organisation responsive to climate. So I created a cluster of modules in relation to the garden in which the house is placed.

The idea was to avoid the use of mechanical air-conditioning by skilful use of cross-ventilation currents through the interior of the house, and by ensuring that all the rooms were related directly to the garden outside.

Q. What are your observations of vernacular architectural styles here?

A. I have travelled all over the country and observed the variety of settlements in different parts of the land. And I am always struck by the purposefulness of the building design, the extremely simple means used to express a richness of experience. I remember especially the plasticity of mud buildings in the Punjab and other inland plains; and the coastal areas like Kerala where there are large overhanging eaves to keep rain off the walls. All these are examples of a technology known to man, and the expressiveness of a vocabulary which had stood the test of time.

Q. I would like to ask you about the decade of the 70s, when the firm of Kanvinde and Rai received major commissions, many for large institutional campuses?

A. Yes, during this period our projects were certainly increasing in size and complexity. I had to work with specialist engineers to resolve the needs of sophisticated structuring and services which came with the spread of the industrial culture in India. One of my most challenging assignments was the Dudhsagar dairy plant at Mehsana in Gujarat, which was completed in 1974. Here I worked with the engineer V. H. Shah, a dairy specialist, now the managing director of a major milk cooperative in India. I used the slope of the site to evolve a multi-level design which ensured the principle of gravity feed for the plant operation. Another critical problem here was the dissipation of excessive heat generated in the plant area. I had to resolve the requirements of movement, structure, and mechanical servicing and I did this by composing clusters of vertical ventilation ducts rising above the plant area. The milk receiving section of the building became a reinforced concrete deck for the movement of trucks at a higher ground level, from which it could be gravity-fed to the processing areas at lower levels. My aim was to synthesise a fairly complex industrial process into a powerful building form, with the minimum use of mechanical aids.

Another major project was the office of the National Dairy Development Board in New Delhi. For this I developed a design vocabulary which responds more directly to the needs of the interior spaces of the building. The external form becomes an assemblage of rooms, balconies and other parts of the building, composed around the structural frame and the vertical circulation elements. There is greater use of colour, and there is variety in the external finish with the aid of plantation features on the balconies at upper levels of the building.

Q. What contribution do you think modern Indian architects have made towards solving the twin problems of mass housing and urban development?

A. I don’t believe that a full expression has yet emerged in this arena. While tackling urban problems the major benefits have been acquired by the industrial/commercial interests, and by the middle men along with white collar bureaucrats, who have ignored the role being played by the real contributors to the urban system – the mass of the people. The process of urbanisation is a major opportunity of, on one hand, generating economic benefits for the industrial and commercial sectors; while on the other hand, the real potential benefit – which is not being effectively recognised by the leadership – is of using the urban resources to effectively help develop man in terms of education, culture, recreation and leisure, which essentially contribute to overall human development.

We have in our country a large section of the population living and working below the poverty line. I feel that the real challenge of our time is to synthesise urban strategies in a way that both the well-to-do elite and affluent class of population, as well as the downtrodden, have common sharing of urban social structures. This would ensure a realistic future for the emerging new citizen. Equally important is to cherish the past and recognise the importance of conservation in relating the new urbanisation with inspiration drawn from our ancient heritage. The third important concern is to keep the situation open-ended for providing all-round contribution and development for posterity.