The exposed red-brick student dormitories at Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIMA) are widely considered among Louis Kahn’s finest works, along with the Salk Institute, Kimbell Museum, and Phillips Exeter Academy Library and Dining Hall. The late American architect’s meticulously constructed buildings are at once monumental and monolithic, making use of simple geometric forms and unfinished materials that have nothing to hide. The dormitories, for example, feature “sober brick forms cut by deep shadows, primary geometries, and layers of space animated by the movement of light,” the critic William J.R. Curtis writes in The Architectural Review, further describing the complex as a “citadel of learning.”
Though the dormitories form the cornerstone of IIMA’s architectural identity and have been praised for their repetition, geometry, and manipulation of light and shadow, they suffered major structural damage over the years, especially after a 2001 earthquake. In a letter to alumni, IIMA director Errol D’Souza cited problems that made the existing structures unlivable, including “second-class bricks” and “concrete and slabs falling from the roofs with damaging consequences for the lives of the residents.” He then shared plans to demolish the buildings and replace them with a hostel complex that will house 300 additional student rooms.
The news sparked widespread outrage among the architecture and preservation communities, including the World Monuments Fund and a change.org petition with nearly 18,000 signees. In an open letter, more than 600 professionals, including Pritzker Prize laureates Balkrishna Doshi, Rafael Moneo, and Alejandro Aravena, urged IIMA to reconsider the demolition. “These buildings represent the finest examples of the late work of Louis Kahn and demolishing them amounts to an act of cultural vandalism. It seriously jeopardizes the legacy of Kahn and of modernist architecture, especially in the Indian subcontinent, where there’s a dire need for the conservation of modernist heritage.”
On January 1, the university scrapped the demolition and planned to reconvene its building committee to find an alternative path forward that honors the university’s architectural legacy while meeting its future needs. The buildings may be safe for now, but a recent letter from IIMA’s board of governors notes how an independent engineering survey determined that the dorms would still be unsafe for occupancy after restoration, though Kahn’s family isn’t buying it.
Detractors noted that IIMA recently embarked on a major restoration program for the Vikram Sarabhai Library, which was carried out by the Mumbai practice Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK). The firm’s work was widely praised, and even received a 2019 award from UNESCO, which suggested it should inform future modern architecture restoration in India. The 18 dormitories were part of the same contract, and SNK principal Brinda Somaya reportedly wasn’t aware of IIMA’s plans to replace the buildings and had already begun restoration work. “There are many successful examples across the world of modernist architectures being creatively repurposed, retrofitted, and in some cases rebuilt, while preserving their architectural ethos,” the open letter continues. “Doing so can allow for new uses, modern amenities, and structural compliance. Conservation entails skilled labor and is ultimately less extractive than new construction, which is why the most sustainable building is one that has already been built.”
William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, which manages Kahn’s archives, noted the “bitter irony” of seeing IIMA “turn their backs on their own accomplishments,” he said. “The school and the dorms are a unit. Remove one and the magic dissipates, never to return.” And after recently revisiting the great injustice that was the demolition of New York’s stately Penn Station (where Kahn famously died on the men’s room floor in 1974), the last thing we’d want is for history to repeat itself.