garden tales from a Brit abroad
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.
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).