a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

Architecture enhancing nature

Joseph Allen Stein was a twentieth century American architect who spent much of his professional life in India. I have written before about his work at the India Habitat Centre, a late example of his blend of modernism and environmental care.

Stein argued that “reverence” guided the work of architects in previous centuries as they created “profoundly right structures, often on sites of great natural beauty” and that around the world “there are abundant examples of architecture enhancing nature.” In the face of twentieth century population pressures and mass industrialised production, he saw the role of architects as needing consciously to “seek not to spoil the earth.”

Today I joined a tour of one of his earliest buildings in New Delhi, and one of the few private houses that he designed.

Plan by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

Plan of High Commissioner’s Residence, New Delhi by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

The Australian High Commissioner’s Residence was built in the late 1950s in the Chanakyapuri district of New Delhi. It was one of a series of grand residences laid out for India’s burgeoning diplomatic community in the years following Independence. Unlike most countries, Australia chose an architect who was permanently based in India to design a home for its head of mission, and the wisdom of that choice is clear in the resulting building.

Stein’s design is beautifully simple. Using local materials and with a deep understanding of the harsh Delhi climate, he produced a house that related perfectly to the lush green landscape in which it sat. Local design details, such as open stone jalis or perforated screens, combined with large expanses of glass in a way that respected both traditional knowledge and modernist principles. The current High Commissioner’s wife confirmed to us that the house was a joy to inhabit, the space flowing around the splendid central hall and each room feeling airy and open, with ready access to the outside.

Less is more was one of the fundamental concepts of modernism and our guide for the tour, architectural historian Aman Nath, thought that it played out nowhere better than in Stein’s work in New Delhi, where it perfectly complements the Indian respect for simplicity. Nath was lucky enough to know Joseph Stein and his wife Margaret, and described them as self-effacing, almost – in Joseph’s case – to the point of hermitism. He did not care to publicise or proclaim his work and, perhaps as a result, it is not as well-known or documented as it might be. My explorations of his Delhi work continue and I plan to post soon on the India International Centre (1959-62), the American Embassy School (1960-70) and the Gandhi-King Memorial Plaza (1970).

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5 comments on “Architecture enhancing nature

  1. cathy
    November 26, 2013

    wow!
    do check out anangpur building centre and architects’ house by anil laul, india
    its close to nature, it completely looks surreal

    • simmy
      November 26, 2013

      Would love a post on this too! the house of architect Anil Laul is superb. It is a delight to see and study! I have been there in my last India trip

  2. simmy
    November 26, 2013

    I love stein’s building ‘India habitat centre’ in Delhi. its simply beautiful. Would love and appreciate a post on that.

  3. ramnath sharma
    November 26, 2013

    stein was an architect par excellence
    his detailing was brilliant
    but actually it was mrs. stein who used to do the landscape! incredible!

    • landscapelover
      November 26, 2013

      Thanks for the comments. It’s good to know there are other fans of this style of architecture out there!

      I have heard several times that it was Margaret Stein who did much of the work on the landscape elements in her husband’s work, but can’t find much detail. The book on Stein (Building in the Garden) is disappointingly vague on this point.

      There is an earlier post here on the India Habitat Centre, one of Stein’s great works.

      And thanks for the introduction to Anil Laul and the Anangpur Building Centre, which is not far from Delhi and certainly looks worth a visit.

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2013 by in India, Modern design, United States and tagged , .

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