Founded in 1960, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur was one of the five state-sponsored technical universities established under the leadership of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru whose vision for a modern India was based on techno-scientific and industrial development.
With India’s non aligned status, Nehru strategically sought technical and financial assistance from patrons across the ideological divide for building these institutions and the IITK was realised with a close collaboration with the United States. The Delhi-based architectural firm of Achyut Kanvinde and Rai was commissioned for the master planning of the campus spread over an 800 acre site and for the architectural design of academic buildings. For Kanvinde, a Walter Gropius student from Harvard who disseminated the values and aesthetic associated with Bauhaus modernism in the 1950s, the IITK became a milestone project of his career where he shifted from cubic forms, smooth surfaces and machine aesthetic of the ‘International Style’ towards a more regional approach.
Planning and ideology
The site for IIT was located on the outskirts of the industrial city of Kanpur. Envisioned as a self-contained residential campus capable of growth, it had to be planned as an integrated urban environment which would fulfil the needs of living and studying. In his master plan, Kanvinde superimposed a layer of major and minor roads along cardinal directions which subdivided the site into interlocking quadrangular segments. A separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic which was commonly accepted as a fundamental principle of urban design internationally underpinned the scheme with each quadrangle planned as a pedestrian precinct surrounded by a vehicular road. A 50 acre precinct for academic buildings was planned centrally surrounded by residential and recreational zones. Critical to the size and relation between precincts was the 20 minute walking radius that ensured a pedestrian scale – an idea based on the concept of a “neighbourhood unit”. Such a designated land use assured long-range reservation for need-based growth while retaining relationships to other parts of the campus – a principle which has continued to determine the character of campus today even after 50 years.
The range of academic buildings required by the program included laboratories, workshops, lecture halls, library administrative offices and an auditorium. Similar to ongoing educational experiments in the international context that emphasised an interdisciplinary approach, particularly initiated in the new British universities, the IITK management too envisaged an integrated and flexible academic setting. In response, Kanvinde grouped the activities as per functions rather than department. Clustered around informal open spaces, the buildings were modular (based on laboratory and non-laboratory requirements) which ensured flexibility and expansion and were constructed using reinforced concrete frame and exposed brick-skin walls. A dominant feature of the scheme was a series of double level-walkways that threaded through all the buildings. These linear pedestrian and bicyclefriendly linkages that functioned in climatic extremes of Kanpur (lower level shaded for summer and top level open for winter) were envisioned as vital street like settings where social interactions would occur in lush landscaped gardens. Additionally, service tunnels were planned underneath walkways. Kanvinde called the walkways “arteries and veins” thus reflecting their critical role in the effective functioning and vitality of campus life.
This ‘system’ of expandable modular buildings interlaced with human movement and services using the regional-brutalist vocabulary of exposed concrete and brick showed Kanvinde’s engagement with the key ideas of international discourse on campus design and post-war modernism. However their particular manifestation in the Indian context can be understood further by looking at Kanvinde’s book on campus design.
Kanvinde’s book on campus design in India
“Kanvinde’s Campus Design in India: Experience of a Developing Nation” published in 1969 ambitiously claimed to serve as an instructive guide for creating well-designed campuses in India. The book was co-authored by H. James Miller, American architect-academic and a member of the United States Agency for International Development Program (USAID) who acted as a campus design consultant for many ongoing agricultural universities in India from 1964 to 1969. Though the exact nature of Kanvinde and Miller’s individual contribution to the book is not clear, their partnership reflected the larger ethos of the Cold War context of the 1960s in which US-dominated international exchange and collaboration was seen crucial to India’s institutional and socio-economic development.
The book, Campus Design in India was structured in three sections: “Purpose and Prospect,” “Campus Design Process” and “Campus Design Product”. The first section outlined architectural pointers of campus design which were further articulated through local and international case-studies in the third section. The second section concentrated on explaining policies and procedures pertaining to various stages of campus planning specific to the Indian university sector.
Fairly dominant in this discussion was the emphasis on the architect’s role as a team leader who in the authors’ view was “uniquely prepared” to handle functional, structural and aesthetic requirements of a truly fine university campus. This view was sharply defined by an elaborate critique of the engineer dominated Public Works Department’s (PWD) methods that continued colonial practices resulting in “mediocre and poor quality buildings.”Mapping a larger role for architects in designing campuses was, in fact, a timely and astute argument by Kanvinde and Miller for procuring larger commissions for themselves as campus consultants and also for the architectural profession at large to capitalise on the growing market of institution building.
Above text is an excerpt from "Sane, Prajakta. “Negotiating the International and the Local: A Reading of Achyut Kanvinde’s Indian Institute of Technology Campus, Kanpur (1960-1967) and Campus Design in India (1969).” In Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand: 32, Architecture, Institutions and Change, edited by Paul Hogben and Judith O’Callaghan, 536-547. Sydney: SAHANZ, 2015.