a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

American modernism in Delhi

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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15 comments on “American modernism in Delhi

  1. Kerry Hand
    August 28, 2011

    Just WOW. And I get the comparison to the Barbican.
    Late 80s. I had assumed it would be older than that. I suppose because in Europe that whole urban redevelopment thing was sort of 50s. And I had assumed it as residential like the Barbican, but apparently not.

    • landscapelover
      August 28, 2011

      Kerry, thanks for the comment. It is indeed a splendid, confident building. I guess it is one of Stein’s late works – he must have been well into his seventies when he designed it, which may be why it has something of the feel of modernist design from earlier decades. And you’re right that some of the blocks could easily be residential: I think some parts may be run as hostels or serviced apartments for staff or guests of the member institutions. Not sure though that I’d categorise urban redevelopment as belonging principally to the fifties – either in Europe or, certainly, in India!

  2. College Gardener
    August 28, 2011

    Great post and wonderful pictures!

  3. Jill, What a fascinating post and a beautiful complex. Glad to see you are installed and back to blogging. Also happy that you like your daughter’s school because I know that was a concern. Carolyn

    • landscapelover
      August 29, 2011

      Carolyn, Thanks for calling by. We are still settling in of course, but trying to get out as much as we can and explore – and the school is great!

  4. Elephant's Eye
    August 29, 2011

    Glad to see Gifting trees is on your blogroll.

    • landscapelover
      August 29, 2011

      Thank you for the link. It is a fascinating site and I am trying to spot some of the native trees from its poetic descriptions and images.

  5. harshita
    September 7, 2011

    Well this is Indian Habitat World Spread over nine acres in the heart of New Delhi, IHC has a built up area of approximately one million square feet. It incorporates innovative new technologies in building management systems, conference systems, communication and energy conservation, creating probably the most intelligent building in the country.

    The India Habitat Centre logo, an amalgam of the divine archer Shiva, juxtaposed against the downward pointing triangle that represents his consort Shakti, symbolizes the archetypal marriage of energies projected in abstract form – a key to the secret of cosmic and universal harmony.

    Several leading corporate entities and non-profit organizations like Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), HUDCO, NHB, CII, ILO etc., sharing a common concern for the ‘Habitat’, have come together to participate in this exciting venture of institution building and have evolved a unique equation of synergy within the complex. India Habitat Centre is now home not only to these offices and research organizations but houses a club, India’s most comprehensive convention centre as well as several restaurants and performance venues for cultural activities. The design and operation of the hospitality facilities, ‘Habitat World’, has been entrusted to Old World Hospitality Pvt. Ltd.

  6. Jean
    September 7, 2011

    Jill, Thanks for sharing the work of this architect. I love it! (I, too, am glad to hear that you are settled in, getting out and about, and identifying research topics.) -Jean

  7. Cathy
    September 19, 2011

    Thanks so much for this incredibly informative post about a true visionary and humanitarian. The building is so inviting… it’s amazing, the effect of “green”. Wonderful post and pix!

  8. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    October 5, 2011

    Jill, I love this post, you know these are one of my favorite topics and thanks you very much for citing and linking to my blog. i am glad you are settled and back to blogging, I mssed your posts! Lula

  9. landscapelover
    October 13, 2011

    Thanks for all your favourable comments. I was back at the Habitat Centre for a conference last week and it seemed even more delightful: there are some interesting vertical rills using collected rainwater, and the light and the planting and the scale of the courtyards felt perfectly judged.

  10. Pingback: Lunch with the Galloping Gardener | Landscape Lover's Blog

  11. Pingback: Architecture enhancing nature | Landscape Lover's Blog

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2011 by in Gardens, India, Modern design, United States and tagged , , , .

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