History & Culture

Achyut Kanvinde: The man behind sustainable designs

ISKCON temple in New Delhi designed by Achyut Kanvinde  

Call it a quirk of fate or destiny, two men, Achyut P Kanvinde and Shaukat Rai, from diverse backgrounds met when they were chosen to go to the U.S. for a study tour by CSIR (Centre for Scientific & Industrial Research) in 1945. The mission, to study modern research laboratories in the U.S. so that it could be replicated in India post-Independence. It was an era when India was an young emerging nation. Achyut studied architecture at the Sir J J School of Art, Mumbai, while Shaukat was a civil engineer trained in Roorkee.

The former was the son of an artist from a humble background, the latter the grandson of Sir Ganga Ram. Life took them to the U.S., where they wanted to study design and architecture. The duo came back and fulfilled their commitment by working with CSIR. The friendship which began then, resulted in a partnership that flourished over decades.

Achyut Kanvinde’s (1916-2002) brilliance in designing and architecture was matched to perfection by Shaukat Rai (1922-2003), who handled project execution, management and business aspects.

Achyut Kanvinde with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru looking at the model of Lalit Kala Akademi

Achyut Kanvinde with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru looking at the model of Lalit Kala Akademi   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

His son Sanjay Kanvinde, who now manages Kanvinde, Rai & Chowdhury with his wife Tanuja says, “they complemented each other. Each recognised and valued the contribution of the other to pave for an egoless work environment. When Morad Chowdhury joined them, it was 20 years after the partnership was started. He brought some fresh blood into the the firm.”

Morad Chowdhury became a partner in 1969. In the book Achyut Kanvinde – Akar, Chowdhury writes, “Charles Correa refers to Kanvinde saheb’s design sensitivity, the unique position he occupies in the history of contemporary architecture in India, and the partnership between him and Shaukat as that of high-ethical professional standards unparalleled in our times.”

It will not be an understatement to say that anything conceivable in brick and mortar was designed and built by the low profile and soft spoken duo. It is not easy to arrive at the correct number, but it could be easily above 500 projects that covered a wide range — schools, colleges, hostels, hospitals, temples, residences, office complexes and high rise. The projects include, IIT Kanpur, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, IRMA Campus and GCMMF. In Delhi, Ashoka Estate, St. Xavier’s School, National Science Centre, Cooperation Office, Embassy of Switzerland, Azad Bhavan, NDDB, ISKCON Temple and CCRT. Of these, Gandhi Memorial Hall, Azad Bhavan, NDDB office, National Science Centre and ISKCON temple make it to the list of modern heritage buildings in the National Capital.

Bharat Soka Gakkai building designed by Achyut Kanvinde

Bharat Soka Gakkai building designed by Achyut Kanvinde  

If one sees the wide spectrum of work, spanning over five decades, it gives interesting insights into their design vocabulary and how it evolved. Kanvinde Sahab, as he was popularly called was the quintessential modernist. The buildings he initially designed were typically straight-faced geometrical ones. This geometry was in stark contrast to the ornate Indian architecture which he trained in. Though Kanvinde was a modernist since his days at J J, it was his study under Walter Gropius at Harvard which completely altered his thinking. As Kanvinde says in his writings, “It was Gropius who really exposed me to the power of technology on the one hand and the psychological dimensions of spatial concerns and realisations on the other.” There are stories of how Kanvinde’s passionate argument, rooting for modernistic structure in Delhi, in keeping with the futuristic growth vision at the conference on Indian Architecture held at The Lalit Kala Academi, New Delhi led to Pandit Nehru endorsing Kanvinde’s view.

This romance with geometrical architecture lasted through his lifetime. Over the years, the geometrical shapes imbibed a certain fluidity, which made them almost speak. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular genre he was comfortable in, since he has covered a wide spectrum of buildings.

Sanjay says, “the design would emerge from the site, topography of the land, the objectives in context of the area. It was a sum of everything.” Another feature which stands out is that Kanvinde Sahab discerned the taste of the inhabitants of the space, then created the structure for them, so that they blended in well. Sanjay adds, “he would go to great lengths to understand his clients. In 1962, for Balkrishna Harivallabhdas residence in Ahmedabad, he often stayed with the family to understand them and their lifestyle so that the home would complement them. Similarly when he was asked to design the ISKCON temple, New Delhi, a pro bono project, he wanted to understand the philosophy of the organisation. They in turn presented him with 16 volumes of the Bhagavad Gita and he meticulously went through them,” Sanjay laughs saying, “For an architect who designed temples, he did not believe in Vaastu.”

Two other features, which Sanjay points out, is the emphasis on staircase in the buildings. Similarly, the front or porch was designed in such a way that it would add drama to the building. It also allowed natural light to enter the building. Apart from staircases, covered verandahs and walkways connected various buildings allowing for light and ventilation. This is aptly reflected in the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru where the design allows for natural ventilation and light everywhere.

Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad designed by Achyut Kanvinde

Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad designed by Achyut Kanvinde  

Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad celebrates the dancer, her ethos and the arts of India. The building, intimately modern, encompassing views of the Sabarmati river, with exposed concrete frame structure with exposed brick infill walls, fulfils the role to promote and preserve Indian art.

According to Sanjay, Sustainability and environment-friendly materials were a part of Kanvinde’s approach to buildings even before they became buzzwords. His own house, ‘Akar’, built in the 1960s used local bricks and exposed concrete. The concept of using skylights, allowing for natural light to enter the building at all time of the day and using fly ash concrete was part of the project.

Kanvinde also developed a deep friendship with his clients, who trusted him implicitly. Dr. Kurien of Amul was one such. Another was Balkrishna Doshi. Interactions with Dr. Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Corbusier and Louis Kahn enriched the journey.

The Mother Dairy booth, symbolic of India’s milk revolution, that one sees across the country was designed by him. Ahmedabad can be called his karma bhoomi as several of his projects find a place of pride there.

If one takes a look at some of the prominent architects whose work enhanced the skyline of Delhi, one notices that they were all a close-knit group of professionals. From Madan Mahatta, who photographed the projects, Mahendra Raj, who was the structural consultant for several of the projects to fellow architects. The group was not exclusive, but inclusive. It embraced young promising architects and sought to nurture talent.

More importantly, the group wanted well-designed buildings to dot the country, especially its capital’s landscape.

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 12:57:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/achyut-kanvinde-the-man-behind-sustainable-designs/article26875092.ece

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