The year 1935 was remarkable for revolutionary ideas in India when colonial imperialism was being questioned and the national movement was getting stronger by the day. It was also around this time that many Indian educational institutions were established in response to Mahatma Gandhi's call for boycott of all British institutions.
It was also the year in which Jamia Millia Islamia, until then functioning out of temporary quarters in Delhi's Karol Bagh area, managed to cough up funds for a new school building at its current Jamia Nagar location.
“German architect Karl Heinz was commissioned for this project with clear-cut instructions that he could not in any manner imbibe any elements of British or Mughal architecture in keeping with the anti-imperialistic stand that the founders of Jamia stood for,” says Jamia Millia's Dean of Architecture Prof. S. M. Akhtar today. “Also, the Jamia founders wanted to clearly break away from the prototype image of Muslims architecture in keeping with their liberal and revolutionary ideas.” The result: “A building that cannot be categorised into any particular school of architecture. It can be called ‘modern style of architecture' as it resembles today's buildings that is usually something that stems from the architect's imagination, like a gate I designed for the Faculty of Education which is in the form of a pen and writing pad.”
The red sandstone buildings, with white domes that have no particular pattern and big courtyards and windows that serve no particular purpose than to look pretty, came close to being completely destroyed as the high cost of conservation turned out to present a higher budget than that of a new building. An entire dome had fallen off completely; the tiles on the floor were broken and the walls were chipped. “I convinced the University authorities to give me a chance at conservation. You see, severe seepage because of restrooms located in the building was the main culprit and once this was removed, the rest of the work became easier.”
Heinz had used local materials like red sandstone and lime which were easy to source but the floor-work was shoddy and had to be replaced with new sets of Kota sandstones. “The dome was easier to restore, hollow and made up of lime and water. The casing made up of wood or metal grills that hold it together was also easily restorable.”
The Jamia Millia Islamia school now houses children from nursery to Class XII, with one building still under renovation.
Sadly, a few blocks away stands another building built in the 1940s, the Faculty of Education, which also follows no particular style. The several narrow entrance-ways with zigzag designs are the only eye-catching features of the off-white building. Prof. Akhtar says the building will probably be bulldozed as he is finding it difficult to restore it. “While the school buildings were revolutionary in design, the materials used were simple and sustainable. However, even though the Faculty of Education building was constructed around ten years later, the same architect used materials which were fashionable at that time.”
Pre-cast concrete was used instead of the traditional lime and water, which is more fragile and difficult to restore, the costs are also exceptionally high. “Cement is a relatively new invention and does not match the solid stones of the past. That is why buildings in the past 100 years crumble more easily than 600-year-old buildings that have stood the test of time,” he says.