Achyut Purushottam Kanvinde (1916–28 December 2002) was one of the pioneers of Modern Architecture in India with a professional career spanning five decades. Kanvinde worked in functionalist approaches with elements of Brutalist architecture. His body of work contributes to the Modern heritage of post-independence India. He received the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in the Republic of India, in 1974.
Influences and education
He was born in Achra, in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, in 1916 in a large family. His mother died when he was two and his father was an arts teacher in Mumbai. Kanvinde, influenced by his father, a portrait and landscape painter, took up art and graduated in architecture from Sir J.J. School of Arts, Mumbai in 1942. He was then sent by the Government of India to study at Harvard where he worked under Walter Gropius and was influenced by his thinking and teaching. The European masters of the Bauhaus – Albert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, and the Swiss-American architectural historian Siegfried Giedion also had a great impact. Some of his famous batchmates were Paul Rudolph, I. M. Pei and John Perkins.
Early work for the new goverment
Kanvinde returned to India in the latter half of 1947, and joined the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, one of the Central Government organisations responsible for the development of science and technology in India. Here he was involved in the design and setting up of new research laboratories all over the country and liaising between government departments and private architectural firms who were commissioned to design the National Physical Laboratory, the National Chemical Laboratory, and such others. It was during this period, that he learnt to tackle the problems of flexibility, growth and change, and the criticality of functional usage in planning and building design. Kanvinde's own architectural contribution came with the design of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research headquarters in New Delhi, the Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, and the Central Engineering Research Institute in Pilani. In 1985, Kanvinde won the IIA "Baburao Mhatre Gold Medal".
Private practice and influences of the Bauhaus
Kanvinde established a private practice partnership with Shaukat Rai, a civil engineer and structural designer, in New Delhi in the 1950s. Both Kanvinde admits in an interview with Ashish Ganju for the Vistara ( Vistāra - The Architecture of India, Catalogue of the Exhibition, edited by MN Ashish Ganju and Carmen Kagal, 228-231. The Festival of India, 1986.) that both him and Rai were heavily influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus teachers, and fired by the vision which seems to have gripped the minds of powerful policymakers in India too at that time – that science and technology held the key to the growth of the newly independent nation. In the next few years the firm – Kanvinde and Rai – executed several important commissions. These buildings have helped the reputation of establishing the International Style in India. Along with his partner Shaukat Rai, he opened the firm Kanvinde and Rai in New Delhi, 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.” The firm is currently run by Sanjay Kanvinde, B.K. Tanuja and Murad Chowdhury). The firm has been responsible for Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, National Science Centre, Delhi, The National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, National Institute of Immunology Pune, numerous dairy buildings under NDDB (such as Dudhsagar Dairy plant in Mehsana) and many other buildings.
Kanvinde played with space and forms. A famous example is the ISKCON Temple at New Delhi. He gave great importance to natural light. The form of the building is such that the problem of ventilation as well as excessive heat is beautifully solved. He championed the cause of vernacular architecture. He believed that values and historical influences contributed towards good architecture. "Over the years I have come to believe it is imperative that an architect develop a sensitivity to human nature and a respect for human values. This, after all, is at the very core of his work. In India the search for a new architectural expression must continue – and this must go beyond the satisfaction of matter of fact functional needs. I think the designer’s sensibility here must become aware of the accumulated wisdom of generations, but this should go together with the idea of progress reflected in the evolution of technology. In my own case, I must acknowledge my tremendous debt to Gropius – it was he who really exposed me to the power of technology on the one hand and the psychological dimensions of spatial organisation on the other. Actually my present concerns and realisations are all reflections of my earlier preoccupations: as a student at the J. J. School in Bombay my thesis was on “Architectural Composition and its Application to Indian Architecture”."(Kanvinde, 1986)
60s and self discovery
The decade of the 1960s brought a new phase of self-discovery in Kanvinde's work. The large slab blocks and clean lines emerging out of a strict orthogonal geometry – characteristic of Gropius and the Inter– national Style – began to break down and he sought for a more human scale. This can be seen in his design for the residence of Jaykrishan Harivallabdas, in Ahmedabad textile magnate. The architect here intended to generate a spatial organisation which is climate responsive. He created a cluster of modules in relation to the garden in which the house is placed in such a way to ensure that all the rooms were related directly to the garden outside. This skilful use of cross-ventilation through the interior of the house helped in avoiding the use of mechanical air-conditioning.
Views on the problems of mass housing and urban development in modern India
"While tackling urban problems the major benefits have been acquired by the industrial/commercial interests, and by the middle men along with white collar bureaucrats, who have ignored the role being played by the real contributors to the urban system – the mass of the people. The process of urbanisation is a major opportunity of, on one hand, generating economic benefits for the industrial and commercial sectors; while on the other hand, the real potential benefit – which is not being effectively recognised by the leadership – is of using the urban resources to effectively help develop man in terms of education, culture, recreation and leisure, which essentially contribute to the overall human development.
We have in our country a large section of the population living and working below the poverty line. I feel that the real challenge of our time is to synthesise urban strategies in a way that both the well-to-do elite and affluent class of population, as well as the downtrodden, have common sharing of urban social structures. This would ensure a realistic future for the emerging new citizen. Equally important is to cherish the past and recognise the importance of conservation in relating the new urbanisation with inspiration drawn from our ancient heritage. The third important concern is to keep the situation open-ended for providing all-round contribution and development for posterity."
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