Habib Rahman, born 1915 in Calcutta, studied architecture at MIT under Lawrence Anderson, William Wurster and Walter Gropius, who taught next door at Harvard University. Gropius got Rahman his first job after graduation in his firm where Rahman worked until he returned to India in 1946. Ram Rahman’s account of his father’s legacy and his contribution to modernist Indian architecture.
My father Habib Rahman started out with a degree in mechanical engineering from Calcutta University in 1939. He had designed his father’s house in Calcutta in the mid-1930s, but was not an architect. He first travelled to Delhi in 1939 to sit for an exam to work for the railway service, failing to qualify. He recalled Delhi as “a city of tonga’s (horse carriages) and monuments.” The British had built their imperial capital by then. Southwards, Delhi was a barren landscape, littered with the ruins of earlier medieval cities. The same year as his failed railway service examination, he was awarded a Bengal government scholarship directed at Muslim students to further his studies in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was a degree of irony in this award, as my father was an atheist and greatly suspicious of all organized religions. Once at MIT, he switched to architecture, becoming the first Indian to complete both undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at an American university. His teachers at MIT were Lawrence Anderson, William Wurster and Walter Gropius, who taught next door at Harvard University. Rahman completed his bachelor’s in architecture in 1943, finishing his master’s the following year. Though Gropius was at Harvard, Rahman attended his lectures and crits, becoming a personal friend. He would sometimes perform a so-called “Indian sword dance” at gatherings in Gropius’s home outside Cambridge. Gropius exerted a particular influence on Rahman’s nascent interest in mass housing.
Rahman always bemoaned the fact that the first generation of post-independence planners to which he belonged—many trained in the United States and Britain—lacked sufficient practical experience in their professions. Delhi ended up being a large cantonment-like city, without a mixed commercial and living urban structure. He also wrote about how engineers continued to hold senior positions to architects in government service, hampering good design as the two professions were in constant conflict. As an associate architect he designed the Sheila Cinema (whose demolition is imminent), the Hindustan Times House and the American Centre.
Unlike some architects who entered private practice, Rahman remained in government service throughout his entire career. He believed he could have the greatest social and cultural impact as a government architect, and would be able to design on a scale that otherwise would be difficult. After suffering a debilitating spinal injury in 1970, he became chief architect, retiring in 1974. That year he was appointed Secretary of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), with architect Achyut Kanvinde and theater director Ebrahim Alkazi as members and the politician Bhagwan Sahay as chairman. Indira Gandhi had formed the commission to control design and development in Delhi, which many professionals felt was out of control and in imminent danger of destroying the character of the city.
That same year Rahman was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India; as with the Padma Shree, he was the first architect to receive this honor.1
- 1. Though the DUAC was established with the best of intentions, it soon became apparent that it was no match for the powerful political and bureaucratic structures that controlled building activity in the capital. It was almost immediately undermined by the building demolitions authorized by Jagmohan (Malhorta, commonly known by a mononym) and Sanjay Gandhi during “the Emergency” (a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977). Rahman was abruptly removed from the DUAC in 1977 on account of his opposition to a proposal to place a statue of Gandhi under King George’s canopy at India Gate, and for resisting Imam Bukhari’s (the Imam of the central Delhi mosque) determination to construct public urinals blocking the southern entrance to the Jama Masjid mosque, built in the seventeenth century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. In his later years he designed two more tombs for the Presidents Zakir Husain (1972) and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1976) both referencing Islamic sources.