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Habib Rahman

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Habib Rahman with the model of The New Secretariat, Calcutta.

Habib Rahman, born 1915 in Calcutta, studied architecture at MIT under Lawrence Anderson, William Wurster and developed a friendship and professional tie with Walter Gropius, who taught next door at Harvard University. Gropius got Rahman his first job after graduation in his firm where Rahman worked until he returned to India in 1946.

Below is his son Ram Rahman's account of his father's legacy and his contribution to modernist Indian architecture, presented for Bauhaus Imaginista article series.

Early years and architecture education

My father Habib Rahman started out with a degree in mechanical engineering from Calcutta University in 1939. He had designed his father's house in Calcutta in the mid-1930s, but was not an architect. He first travelled to Delhi in 1939 to sit for an exam to work for the railway service, failing to qualify. He recalled Delhi as "a city of tonga's (horse carriages) and monuments." The British had built their imperial capital by then. Southwards, Delhi was a barren landscape, littered with the ruins of earlier medieval cities. The same year as his failed railway service examination, he was awarded a Bengal government scholarship directed at Muslim students to further his studies in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was a degree of irony in this award, as my father was an atheist and greatly suspicious of all organized religions. Once at MIT, he switched to architecture, becoming the first Indian to complete both undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture at an American university. His teachers at MIT were Lawrence Anderson, William Wurster and Walter Gropius, who taught next door at Harvard University. Rahman completed his bachelor's in architecture in 1943, finishing his master's the following year. Though Gropius was at Harvard, Rahman attended his lectures and crits, becoming a personal friend. He would sometimes perform a so-called "Indian sword dance" at gatherings in Gropius's home outside Cambridge. Gropius exerted a particular influence on Rahman's nascent interest in mass housing.

Lessons from American and European modernism

Gropius fled Nazi Germany the year after the Gestapo closed the Bauhaus in 1933, bringing with him to the United States-after a brief sojourn in England-the design philosophy he had evolved there in the 1920s. The Bauhaus school of modernism was characterized by a belief in the necessity for modern design to provide a better living environment for the average person, particularly the working class. It emphasized the importance of mass production techniques to design and manufacture high-quality affordable goods, accessible to the masses. In architecture, the Bauhaus strongly emphasized the functional aspect of design, espousing a philosophy of designing buildings of simple and clear structure, using modern materials like steel and glass. At MIT, Rahman's understanding of modern architecture was shaped by the exciting cross-fertilization then taking place in the United States between American and European modernist movements. As a young student coming from Bengal, a witness to the poverty and social stresses of India, which at that time was fighting for independence from British colonial rule, the social ideals inherent in the architecture he was exposed to were both exciting and formative.

Walter Gropius got Rahman his first job after graduation in the firm he had set up with fellow German architect Konrad Wachsmann, who had a history of working on pre-fabricated housing in Germany before he, too, fled Nazi Germany. Gropius himself possessed a lively interest in pre-fab industrialized housing systems, setting up the General Panel Corporation in 1942. Between 1945 and 1946, Rahman worked on pre-fab housing projects, first in Boston and then New York. He spoke to me of how he worked on a complex joining hinge system- developed to connect pre-fabricated insulated plywood sections-for over six-months! His earlier degree in mechanical engineering came in handy on this project, as it would in his later design work in India. Rahman also interned briefly with Marcel Breuer.

Return to India

When he returned home in 1946 to join the West Bengal Public Works Department (PWD) as a senior architect, he felt isolated and over-awed by the enormous responsibilities he was compelled to shoulder at the tender age of 32. As it did not recognize American degrees, the Indian Institute of Architects, then dominated by British-trained professionals, denied him membership.

When India gained independence in 1947, the country possessed only three schools of architecture. The building profession, set up by the British, was dominated by engineers. Rahman was lucky in that he was assigned the project of designing the first memorial to Gandhi after his assassination in 1948. Gandhi Ghat (ghat meaning a stepped riverside landing) was built on the bank of the Hooghly River north of Calcutta, and was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. The structure was a modernist memorial built in concrete, incorporating abstract, stylized references to Hindu, Muslim and Christian religious buildings. The structure, with a large cantilevered overhang supported by a single delicate column, was a challenge for the project engineers, who were unaccustomed to such delicate work being done in reinforced concrete. Stylistically, this first project was a conceptual challenge. Rahman had to try and evolve a design which would evoke the culture and simplicity of Gandhian ideals while also being clearly modern, without resorting to a pastiche of classic cultural tropes. Gandhi Ghat immediately became a site and symbol of that striving to build a modern India whose roots were anchored in a living cultural context.

Nehru loved the memorial and asked to meet the architect. He felt Rahman had succeeded in creating a structure that evoked the broader project of creating a new, modern nation also steeped in ancient tradition. On learning his background, Nehru said he would arrange for Rahman's transfer to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) in Delhi, as architects were desperately needed in the capital. He eventually moved there in 1953.

Before he left for Delhi, Rahman completed nearly 80 projects in Bengal-a staggering number for a rookie architect. These included student housing and several training academies for the police services, the huge new campus of the Bengal Engineering College (1952) and, most importantly, the West Bengal Government's New Secretariat Building-India's first steel frame skyscraper (1949-54). The New Secretariat, the biggest Indian office complex built in this period, became a source of great pride in Bengal, which had suffered terrible violence during Britain's partitioning of India at independence. The freedom struggle led by inspirational giants like Rabindranath Tagore (who died in 1941), Gandhi and Nehru had infused the Indian people with an energy and drive to develop a democratic, secular, modern and egalitarian society. A new constitution was being written, which sought to define the aspirations of a young nation still striving to enshrine the values of the freedom struggle, and there was enormous hope in the populace that India would lead other colonized nations around the world out of colonial repression.

At the time, the Indian government was the largest builder in India, and had embarked on a large scale program to construct the institutions for justice, governance, education, research and culture. It was Rahman in Calcutta and Achyut Kanvinde (also a protege of Gropius, who graduated from Harvard a couple years after Rahman) in Delhi and Ahmedabad who in the late 1940s had begun the modernist architecture tradition in India on a large public scale, several years before Corbusier came to India to begin designing the planned city of Chandigarh.Rahman's institutional buildings in Bengal clearly show the influence of the Bauhaus. In his buildings, clean lines and offset block volumes provide rhythm and scale; the detailing of window fenestration, sun louvers and his play with proportions were unusual for Calcutta, which had been built by British engineers and architects in a Neoclassical style. Modernism really stood for the break with colonial rule.

The Move to Delhi, 1953

After becoming prime minister in 1947, Nehru embarked on a massive building spree in Delhi in order to construct the infrastructure necessary for governing the nation, housing new government employees who were flocking to the capital, and providing for the huge influx of refugees from Punjab who had fled their homes at partition. Previously, the British Raj had built two grand office blocks, north and south, and sprawling bungalows for senior government officials. The Indian government had to build housing colonies, markets and cultural centers almost on a wartime footing, with very low budgets and tight deadlines. This is where Rahman's Bauhaus-inspired training became a key factor in the housing and institutional buildings he began designing.

After a few months living in war barracks on Curzon Road, Rahman moved to an apartment building in Sujan Singh Park, designed by Walter George in 1945-then the tallest apartment complex in Delhi. The practical design of his flat influenced the apartment buildings he would design years later. One of the first projects he was asked to undertake was organizing the International Exhibition on Low Cost Housing, held in Delhi in 1954. The exhibition brought together architects and engineers from across India, who built actual sample structures and published details of plans, materials and costs. Nehru had realized that housing was going to be crucial in the new nation and it was up to the government to take the initiative. As mentioned previously, Delhi had been swamped by hundreds of thousands of partition refugees from Punjab: it was crucial to house them quickly.

His first major buildings were all in the ITO (Income Tax Office) area in New Delhi: the University Grants Commission Building, the Auditor General Building, the Accountant General Building-all built between 1954 and 1955, with window "chajjas" (louvers) adapted to India's climactic conditions of strong sun and heavy monsoon rain. Their design contrasted sharply with the buildings then being designed by Bombay-trained architects senior to Rahman in the CPWD-the National Museum, Shastri Bhavan and the Supreme Court (a structure deeply disliked by Nehru)- stylistically weak pastiches of the "Delhi Order" Edwin Lutyens and his fellow English architects had developed for New Delhi's imperial buildings as a twentieth century finale to the Palladian tradition. Rahman's Post and Telegraph Building (Dak Tar Bhavan) was built in 1955, the same year he was awarded the Padma Shree (the fourth-highest civilian award in the Republic of India), the first architect to be so recognized: the Indian Institute of Architects finally granted him membership after this.

He also designed simple two-story, two room flats- practical living quarters with lots of light and cross ventilation-for government employees in R.K. Puram, a residential colony in New Delhi. These were built in the thousands in 1959, becoming known as "Rahman Type" flats. Several generations of government workers resided in them before they were demolished recently-a controversial move to build high rise flats and sell public land to private corporate entities. In the mid-1950s, the Delhi CPWD design office resembled a factory-charged with designing infrastructure buildings across India-the Auditor General Buildings in Madras, the CBR building in Ranchi, the Auditor General Building in Bombay. All were designed by Rahman.

Before passing away in 1958, Maulana Azad, India's first education minister, had conceived of and set up three academies for art, performing arts and literature. Rahman was asked to design his tomb in front of Shahjahan's Jama Masjid, built in the seventeenth century. Finished in 1959-1960, the tomb's design was a modern thin-shelled concrete cross-vault structure derived from the arch of the mosque, set in a charbagh, a quadrilateral garden layout of Persian origin favored by the Mughals (based on the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Qur'an). It was designed to fit harmoniously within the great Mughal city structures from the seventeenth century. Nehru also loved this memorial.The publisher Patwant Singh started Design magazine in 1957 after the idea was suggested by Rahman, being that Singh was already publishing a magazine for the building and construction industry. The magazine became an important journal for critiquing and publicizing what had become a lively modern architecture and art scene in India. Rahman helped recruit Gropius and Breuer to serve on the editorial board: both actively contributed to the journal in the 1960s.

Meanwhile Rahman was designing the Rabindra Bhavan-an arts complex housing the three academies of literature, dance and fine arts founded by Maulana Azad before his death, which was slated to be finished by 1961, on the occasion of Rabindranath Tagore's centenary. Rahman's initial design resembled his 1950s Bauhaus-style structures. Nehru hated it, telling Rahman in no uncertain terms it had nothing to do with the spirit of Tagore. Since he had designed the Gandhi and Azad memorials in a modern Indian spirit, Nehru said, he could do the same with Rabindra Bhavan. Rahman answered that those were single structures rather than a large building complex, and that he had never designed an institutional structure using that language:

"Nehru gave me several opportunities to interact with him and the cabinet on various projects. In fact, Nehru helped me design Rabindra Bhavan by rejecting my first proposal, which featured extensive louvres. I was very disheartened. Then Barada Ukil, the Secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademy, encouraged me to try hard again. Nehru was very pleased with the result."

The resulting design, with its abstracted arches (jalis) and use of Delhi quartzite inspired by buildings of the Tughlaq dynasty (1320-1413), turned out, thanks to Nehru, to be a turning point in Rahman's design vocabulary. Its layout-two buildings separated by a central garden, joined by an arched walkway-also influenced his close friend Joseph Stein in planning the India International Centre. The lessons from Rabindra Bhavan shaped much of Rahman's subsequent modernist building work across Delhi, helping him evolve his "Delhi Modern" formal language. The 1960s were a busy time-the External Affairs and Curzon Road Hostels, the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters (razed late in June 2019 to make way for a new development), the Indraprastha Bhavan and the DDA building (designed many years before-Rahman complained that the Delhi Development Authority engineers ruined his original facade design).

A modernist language with an Indian angle

All of these projects employed a locally inspired detail vocabulary deriving from his Rabindra Bhavan experience-a modernist language inflected by Indian references. The first tall apartment buildings in R.K. Puram went up in 1965. Here Rahman used his experience of Walter George's Sujan Singh flats to design flats open on three sides, with double height balconies where families could sleep during the warm Indian summer months. In all his buildings, his Bauhaus-derived training was put to use: central lift shafts; shafts for water and power risers; common water tanks. These practical design ideas picked up by Rahman during his modernist training appear today like simple ideas, but many had never been utilized before in Delhi.

Delhi in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s was the hub of a vibrant design and cultural scene, and architects were very much a part of it. The National School of Drama was set up, the IIT (Indian Institute of Techonolgy)-designed by JK Chowdhury-was constructed and Bahdur Shah Zafar Marg, with its newspaper offices, became Delhi's "Fleet Street." Mandi House circle became the hub for theater and culture. Design magazine carried on being an important, lively voice for articulating and publicizing design issues. The Cottage Industries Emporium was set up, Fabindia-started by the American business executive John Bissell-began exporting handloom textiles and home furnishings, Dilip Choudhary introduced visionary typography and graphic design, Riten Mozumdar began designing fabrics, Mini Boga and Ravi Sikri furniture ...These were the years Delhi Modern was formed, hugely inspired by the energy and vision of Nehru, who had encouraged an Indian style of modernism across the arts. It was also the period of a renaissance in dance and music, in which Rahman's wife, dancer Indrani Rahman was an important figure, bringing South Indian dance forms to Delhi and helping in the discovery and revival of Odissi and Kuchipudi dance styles. The Rabindra Bhavan's galleries hosted early exhibitions of the artists MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Satish Gujral, Swaminathan, Krishen Khanna and initiated an international triennial.

Rahman always bemoaned the fact that the first generation of post-independence planners to which he belonged-many trained in the United States and Britain-lacked sufficient practical experience in their professions. Delhi ended up being a large cantonment-like city, without a mixed commercial and living urban structure. He also wrote about how engineers continued to hold senior positions to architects in government service, hampering good design as the two professions were in constant conflict. As an associate architect he designed the Sheila Cinema (whose demolition is imminent), the Hindustan Times House and the American Centre.

Rahman and Public works

Unlike some architects who entered private practice, Rahman remained in government service throughout his entire career. He believed he could have the greatest social and cultural impact as a government architect, and would be able to design on a scale that otherwise would be difficult. After suffering a debilitating spinal injury in 1970, he became chief architect, retiring in 1974. That year he was appointed Secretary of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), with architect Achyut Kanvinde and theater director Ebrahim Alkazi as members and the politician Bhagwan Sahay as chairman. Indira Gandhi had formed the commission to control design and development in Delhi, which many professionals felt was out of control and in imminent danger of destroying the character of the city.That same year Rahman was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India; as with the Padma Shree, he was the first architect to receive this honor. Though the DUAC was established with the best of intentions, it soon became apparent that it was no match for the powerful political and bureaucratic structures that controlled building activity in the capital. It was almost immediately undermined by the building demolitions authorized by Jagmohan (Malhorta, commonly known by a mononym) and Sanjay Gandhi during "the Emergency" (a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977). Rahman was abruptly removed from the DUAC in 1977 on account of his opposition to a proposal to place a statue of Gandhi under King George's canopy at India Gate, and for resisting Imam Bukhari's (the Imam of the central Delhi mosque) determination to construct public urinals blocking the southern entrance to the Jama Masjid mosque, built in the seventeenth century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. In his later years he designed two more tombs for the Presidents Zakir Husain (1972) and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1976) both referencing Islamic sources.

State of Modern Heritage in India today

With the tragic demolition of Raj Rewal's iconic Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion, Joseph Stein's great exhibition hall in the Pragati Maidan exhibition complex, the demolition of Rahman's classic housing and his WHO headquarters, Delhi has lost some key buildings, only recently recognized globally as important examples of the regional modernist architecture that developed and thrived in New Delhi. Even while major museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi, Centre Pompidou in Paris and MoMA in New York have hosted or are planning exhibitions showcasing the important history of modernism in India, the country is in the process of destroying this architectural heritage, replacing modernist buildings with glass-fronted skyscrapers of shoddy pedigree, designed by unknown architects or firms, many of foreign origin.

From the mid-1950s through the 1980s, Delhi became the site of a huge body of fine modernist buildings built by three generations of architects, evincing a distinctly local flavor. Unfortunately, India has not developed an understanding of the value and cultural context of the architecture of the mid-to-late twentieth century and the country has no heritage laws for modernist buildings. We are losing them at a fast pace.