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Archive for August, 2011

The US architect Joseph Allen Stein (1912 – 2001) spent the last forty years of his professional life in India. A man driven by humanitarian and environmental passions, he worked on cooperative and low-cost social housing in California and then, troubled by McCarthyism, he took up work in Calcutta and later Delhi, exhilarating in the idealism and socialist enthusiasm of India as it emerged from almost a century of colonial British rule.

Inspired by the work of modernist architect Richard Neutra and others, Stein has been described as “building in the garden” – using the wider natural landscape to inspire appropriate structures made from local materials. He characterised his approach as “modern regionalism” and it can perhaps be seen as a precursor of today’s achingly trendy landscape urbanism movement.

Yesterday we visited one of Stein’s major buildings, the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Designed in the late 1980s, this is a place that provides office, conference and exhibition space for organisations working on habitat- and environment-related issues.

The design reminded me forcibly of London’s Barbican. It is monumental in scale, with concrete structures arranged in vast horizontal and vertical slabs, laid out around large airy courtyards, linked together by stairs and walkways. Given the heat of the Indian summer, many of the exterior spaces are shaded by delicate blue patio covers, casting intricate shadows and further blurring the distinction between inside and out. The courtyards are planted with a pleasing array of greenery – large pots and beds of evergreen shrubs and tall trees, providing a more human feel and scale amongst the concrete monumentality. Although rarely credited, Stein’s wife Margaret was responsible for much of the interior and planting design in his work, and the successful combination of their two styles is well illustrated at the Habitat Centre.

It was Stein who brought Garrett Eckbo to Delhi to work on Lodi Gardens (about which I blogged below), and who also designed the splendid American Embassy school attended by my daughter. Joe and Margaret Stein are a couple whose work I intend to research further.

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We are ten days into our three-year Indian sojourn and finding much to enjoy, and much that has us floundering.

Yesterday, in soul-sapping heat, we visited one of our local parks in New Delhi, the Lodi Gardens. At first, it looks simply like a lush green area amid the chaos of the city. There are venerable old trees, whose names we are just learning – the ashoka, with brilliant orange flowers, the fragrant neem, and the banyan, with its fat aerial roots. Among the lawns at Lodi are beds of cannas and other exotic plants, and some clipped little shrubs that look to me rather stumpy and mean in the great sweep of grass.

Trees in grass

And then suddenly, as we turned a corner, we found the heart of the Lodi Gardens. Among the greenery are a number of unutterably beautiful stone monuments. The names and history of these ancient garden tombs, mosques, walls, gateways and bridges mean little to us as yet, but helpful signs told us that some were constructed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties, and that some are later, Mughal structures.

Garden tomb

View through archLodi is in the midst of a major programme of preservation. But nothing is being made shiny and new. Instead the work is retaining the ancient character of the monuments by just carefully conserving what is left.

Blue ceramics

The 90-acre gardens themselves were a much later creation, added by the British during the Raj. Lady Willingdon, wife of the British Viceroy, decided that parkland would be nice around these ancient monuments, and in in 1936 had the two surrounding villages removed, and the undulating lawn and pathways of a typical English park installed in their place. Apparently in the 1960s the gardens were re-landscaped with help from American designer Garrett Eckbo.

View through archway

And so Lodi reflects many of the dynasties and cultural influences that have shaped this great city; today it is one of the most popular parks in New Delhi, and one  that I am sure we shall grow to love.

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