Preserving modern architectural heritage in India: Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City of Ahmedabad, 1955

Preserving modern architectural heritage in India: Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City of Ahmedabad, 1955

World Architecture Festival

Image: The museum under construction, 1954. Photo courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier

William Curtis makes a plea for renovation and retention of a major Le Corbusier work.

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‘In my view, this working tool of modern times is called upon to develop in different regions ... I believe in all simplicity that you will find the invention of 'Museums of Knowledge' useful to your country and, if so, I will be delighted. ‘ Letter Le Corbusier to Jawaharlal Nehru, 27th December 1954 on the project for the Museum of the City of Ahmedabad.

Preserving and protecting outstanding works of modern architecture

Once upon a time, the city leaders in Ahmedabad constructed institutions for the public good. Today they demolish great buildings for real estate speculation and private profit. As it happens, Ahmedabad is home to architecture of universal value, both ancient and modern. Not just superb creations of the distant past such as the Hindu Adalaj Stepped Well (Vaghela Dynasty 1498) and the superb Sidi Saiyyed Mosque (1573), but also a string of modern masterpieces including four buildings by Le Corbusier constructed in the 1950s (the Millowner’s Association Building; the Shodhan and Sarabhai Houses; and the Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City of Ahmedabad); the Indian Institute of Management by Louis Kahn (1963); and works of a later generation such as the Gandhi Ashram Museum (1962) and Sardar Vallabhbha Patel Cricket Pavilion by Charles Correa (1963); or the School of Architecture (1966), and Sangath studio (1980) by Balkrishna Doshi.

This is to name but a few. But all these buildings have established themselves as references in global histories of architecture. In effect Ahmedabad is a living museum of outstanding modern architecture adjusted to the climatic and cultural conditions of the place: truly a fusion of the local and the universal, the traditional and the modern. These buildings reflect the progressive social ethos of post-colonial India and the aim of using architecture to construct institutions and improve social life. As such, Ahmedabad is a unique city in the world. But whereas the buildings in India predating the 20th century enjoy the title and protection of ‘heritage’, the modern ones do not, and this leaves them vulnerable to demolition, especially in an era of smash-and-grab real estate capitalism and ideological extremism, which tags them as products of the Nehru era so dreaded by Hindu nationalist zealots.

Three years ago almost to the day, in mid-December 2020, the Director and Governing Board of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad announced that they intended to tear down most of the magisterial student residences designed by Louis Kahn in the early 1960s. I issued a ’red alert’, published strong objections in the Architectural Record (NY), the Architectural Review (London) and the Indian press, and others took up the cause on a world- wide front. So the IIMA Board soon stepped down and retracted. For the moment though, the future of the complex is unclear and clothed in secrecy. It is not in use and it is closed off from the outside world. Raj Rewal’s magisterial Hall of Nations (1973) in New Delhi was not so lucky, being demolished six years ago in dubious legal circumstances to make way for a vulgar ‘state of the art’ commercial exhibition centre.

In September of this year the news emerged that the Ahmedabad Municipal Council (AMC) is intending to knock down the Sardar Valabhbhai Patel Cricket Stadium by Charles Correa of 1963 (the subject of another article) and is seriously considering knocking down Le Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City of Ahmedabad (1955), but without giving good reasons for doing so and without proposing an alternative project for this key urban site at Paldi, close to the River Sabarmati. There is loose talk of replacing the building with a ‘state of the art’ facility and of ‘building Ahmedabad’s brand image and transforming the city into a modern metropolis while preserving its heritage’.

There is really no need for flashy projects of uncertain long-term quality and value. Buildings which fit short-term agendas soon go out of date; timeless works mark a moment in history but then go on to add to the stock of collective memories. They transcend time and enrich future generations. Le Corbusier’s Museum in Ahmedabad falls into this category, so should be preserved and restored. The outstanding modern buildings are part of the city’s history and heritage and these need to be recognized officially, nationally and internationally. It is time to modify heritage laws in India so that they apply to buildings built in the last one hundred years.

Plan and section, 1952. Images courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier

Institution building: Le Corbusier’s idea of a museum of knowledge

When Le Corbusier first came to India in the spring of 1951, it was to plan the new city of Chandigarh as state capital of the Punjab as part of Nehru’s vision of a new post-colonial, democratic and secular India. This led to the creation of a low-rise ‘green city’, crowned by the democratic institutions of the capital, including those magisterial monuments the Assembly Building and the High Court. The Ahmedabad Millowners’ Association, formed by wealthy Indian textile industrialists, contacted Le Corbusier in March 1951 for the design of a cultural centre. They commissioned from him a museum of painting, sculpture and archaeology with a view to building it in the Paldi district.

The Museum programme was written by Gautham Sarabhai and developed by Jean- Jean-Louis Véret, Le Corbusier’s collaborator in Ahmedabad. It quickly evolved into a more ambitious project, a cultural center which Le Corbusier called a ‘Museum of Knowledge’. The idea was to present archaeology, local ethnography, and science as well as art. Le Corbusier was well stocked with ideas and types concerning museums, such as his notion of a ‘Museum of Unlimited Growth’ of 1939 with a square nucleus of top-lit bays, expanding as a square spiral as growth was required. His project for Ahmedabad followed this principle by establishing a square plan with 50-metre sides, supported by a reinforced concrete structure lifting the exhibition chambers off the ground on pilotis, allowing public space to continue underneath.

Le Corbusier foresaw the possibility of enlargement up to a total of 84 metres for each side, thus potentially increasing the exhibition surface from 2,500 to 7,000 square metres. The museum reiterates several of Le Corbusier’s basic principles, such as the free plan, the grid of pilotis, the architectural promenade, the ramp, and the roof garden, here transformed into a thick parasol hovering over the building to protect it from sun, rain and heat. Most of Le Corbusier’s works in India rely upon the parasol principle, but here it was also his intention (never carried out) to treat the roof as a water garden of several channels, replete with greenery. In effect this was his answer to the Mogul and Rajput gardens that he had seen in India. As for the façades, Le Corbusier chose a red brick infill. Light was introduced to the galleries through skylights penetrating the roof, a principle also employed in the museum in Chandigarh.

The museum in Ahmedabad has sober exterior façades of fine proportions, without pretension or show. It resembles a casket lifted above the ground. You enter the precinct off the road and cross an ill-defined public space before passing under the building to the inner courtyard, where a ramp leads to the upper level and a handsome main room. Le Corbusier stated: ‘We enter upstairs in a square spiral nave formed of a double span of seven metres between posts also spaced seven metres apart: total fourteen metres.’ There are galleries of painting, sculpture, contemporary art, rooms of local archaeology, Indian anthropology, traditional Indian art, applied arts, natural history, a space showcasing the natural resources of Gujurat, a library and a restaurant. Throughout the building, the concrete is left naked and visible. Cast from a formwork of steel rather than wood (as in the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles) it is almost smooth and reacts to changing daylight.

Stair detail and the museum interior. Images courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier

Preserving and modernising simultaneously: a cultural landscape.

Le Corbusier’s museum was never completed as intended. For example, the water garden on top was not carried out. The original proposal also included a social landscape or plaza around the building with an open-air theatre, an auditorium and all-purpose space which the architect referred to as a ‘boîte à miracles’: a ‘miracle box’. This was for multiple and changing purposes, cultural events, lectures etc. while the open-air theatre could have been used for traditional Indian dance and music performances. Le Corbusier even imagined an open-air platform in front of the building for itinerant markets of handicrafts and textiles, all important features of the culture of Ahmedabad and its surrounding rural areas.

The Museum of the City was intended to be more than just an elevated box floating above the ground; it was supposed to be one of several interrelated objects in an active field of indoor and outdoor social spaces. Le Corbusier evolved a landscape vocabulary of interconnected free-form curved shapes, channeling movement across the site, like the free plan forms that he normally used on interiors, but here distributed as a sort of collage of sculptural volumes on the exterior. I doubt that it is possible to build these ancillary structures, but it should be possible to improve the public spaces around the museum so that they have some distinctive character through paving, planting, water and steps. It could combine features of a park and a plaza available for temporary fairs, dance performance and the like. In India all is in flux: a fashion show in tents one day, a music concert the next. And people sit on the ground.

As for the main building, sensitive restoration of the main fabric is urgently required including areas of fracturing concrete. One of the problems with modern buildings in India is the lack of proper maintenance. When I first visited the Museum in 1983 it was already showing signs of fatigue. But in the last few years the building has been virtually abandoned and there are cracks and leaks in places in the concrete. The interior installations and permanent exhibitions badly need an overhaul as well. The courtyard needs greenery, textiles, or light sculptures at night, and the curved water basin should once again be filled with water lilies and other plants. The interiors supply handsome loft spaces and one can imagine a huge improvement in displays. These are not extravagant improvements.

Even the contents and displays need updating to better present the history of the city and the region, from the earliest days of settlement, through the Hindu dynasties, to the Sultanates, to the British colonial period, the phase of industrialization of textiles, and beyond. And yes, why not a museum of modern architectural heritage? Education is part of the problem and the general public need to learn about the richness of the architectural heritage of all periods. The museum can fulfill a far more prominent educational function. As Le Corbusier suggested, it can be a ‘museum of knowledge’.

When the Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City opened in 1955, even in its incomplete state, it stood pretty much on its own on this site, a place that was scarcely urbanized on the edge of Ahmedabad. But in the 1960s it was accompanied by the National Institute of Design across the road (designed by Gira and Gautham Sarabhai) and the adjacent Tagore Memorial Hall of the same period (designed by Balkrishna Doshi). In effect the three institutions supply a pole of culture and education for the city. In India social interchange for much of the year occurs informally in outdoor spaces. So the revitalization of Le Corbusier’s building is partly a matter of rethinking the spaces between. Busy cities like Ahmedabad need places where one can pause and think.

The administrators of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation now use the marketing vocabulary of promotion and ‘rebranding’. Another idea for the open-air spaces around the museum would be to have an internationally known architect design an inventive pavilion every year, as happens in London with the annual Serpentine Pavilions, or the temporary signature pavilions in the Royal Park in Melbourne. It is through interventions like these that Ahmedabad may begin to become a tourist as well as a mercantile city. Contemporary structures coming and going against the sober backdrop of Le Corbusier’s restrained brick façades: the idea is quite appealing and worth thinking about.

The members of the AMC need to realise that one of the main reasons that Ahmedabad is on the international map is the presence of masterpieces by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Some argue that IIMA’s threat to knock down Kahn’s buildings may have contributed to a loss in its international ratings as an institution. It certainly did not do well for its prestige. There was the accusation of ‘cultural vandalism’. Rather than demolishing works of this calibre and undeniable international importance, it would be far better to concentrate on restoring them and giving them a new life and purpose; also protecting them in the long term with more adequate heritage laws and with commitment to constant upkeep. They actually deserve designation by UNESCO as World Heritage.

It is true that the Le Corbusier Museum of the City in Ahmedabad is now in a deplorable state, but the fabric can be repaired and updated while the contents and installations can be brought up to international standards. The fabric needs restoration according to the intentions of the architect, while the contents and displays can undergo radical transformation to chime with modern-day requirements of security, education and tourism. This remarkable building needs to become the shop window which the history of this great city deserves, rather than a casualty of short-term thinking. To demolish it and replace it with a lesser building will not reflect well on the reputation of Ahmedabad internationally. In fact, it would be a sure sign of provincialism, a lack of long-term vision and I regret to say, of cultural vandalism.

Copyright: William J R Curtis, December 2023

Repairs were already urgently needed of gutters in 2018. Image courtesy of Rabindra Vasavada

Petition to save and restore the Sanskar Kendra Museum of the City of Ahmedabad

I urge the relevant authorities to carry out necessary repair, maintenance and upgrading works in respect of this important building.


The museum in the late 1950s and the early 2000s. Images courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier

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