Rising from a quiet reflecting pool, a delicate white building glistens in the sun. The building, named Gandhi Bhawan, has a form that is both tectonic and organic, like partially folded origami paper at the moment where it could become anything.
SLIDESHOW: Aerial view of Gandhi Bhawan at Panjab University, Chandigarh, India, ca. 1963. Fonds Pierre Jeanneret, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret. ©CCA
Photograph of the model for Gandhi Bhawan at Panjab University in sector 14 in Chandigarh, India, ca. 1963. Fonds Pierre Jeanneret, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret.
View of Gandhi Bhawan at Punjab University, Chandigarh, India, ca. 1963. Fonds Pierre Jeanneret, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal; Gift of Jacqueline Jeanneret. © CCA
Gandhi Bhawan hosts an international center dedicated to the study of the philosophy and teaching of Mahatma Gandhi at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India. Its smooth sequence of curvilinear forms contrast the geometric volumes on the roof. At the time of its construction in the 1960s following the design of Swiss-French architect Pierre Jeanneret, Gandhi Bhawan was a site of architectural innovation in both material and design.
“I believe Gandhi Bhawan is incomparable to other buildings on campus because it is so unique in its architectural conception and its construction process,” explains Maristella Casciato, an architectural historian, leading scholar on Jeanneret, and senior curator of architecture at the Getty Research Institute.
A modest building with symbolic weight, Gandhi Bhawan represents a period in India’s recent history of dynamic innovation, growth, and achievement of freedom.
India recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence from the British Empire—and the modern buildings built during this pivotal time are starting to show their age. Saving India’s modern heritage requires an understanding of history, culture, and science, and experts around the world are coming together to plan for the future of Gandhi Bhawan.
SLIDESHOW: Antoine Wilmering, Getty Foundation senior program officer. He leads Keeping It Modern, a grant initiative dedicated to conservation of significant twentieth-century architecture around the world. The Getty Foundation created Keeping It Modern to complement the Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI).
Maristella Casciato, architectural historian and senior architecture curator at the Getty Research Institute. She specializes in 20th-century European architecture and has recently pursued in-depth research into the architecture of postcolonial India and non-Western contributions to city planning.
Since 2014, the Getty Foundation has provided Keeping It Modern grants dedicated to the conservation of significant 20th-century architecture around the world.
Gandhi Bhawan was awarded one of these grants in 2015 and like the majority of projects supported through this initiative, funding is used to study, research, and make plans for the conservation work to begin.
As Getty Foundation senior program officer Antoine Wilmering, a conservator by training and modern architecture enthusiast, explains, “thorough conservation planning like we’ve seen at Gandhi Bhawan brings conservation practice together with the understanding of the building’s significance—this lays a solid foundation for prioritizing conservation actions and caring for it in the future.”
“The Getty is one of the very few organizations that focuses on and funds research work for conservation planning,” says Shikha Jain, director of DRONAH and lead on the conservation planning of Gandhi Bhawan. “The extensive research work encouraged by the Getty provides a sound basis for future intervention. It ensures a strong approach.”
But when it comes to preparing for treatment, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In many cases, the path scientists and conservators take to get to intervention is more important than the repairs. And with modern buildings especially, considering the intent of the architect is crucial.
For Gandhi Bhawan, this means knowing about Pierre Jeanneret’s close collaboration with his cousin, world-renowned modernist architect Le Corbusier, on a key project in post-colonial India: they were commissioned by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for a major city-planning project.
The mission? Design and build the foundations for a new modern capital of post-independence India.
This new capital, called Chandigarh, is one of a handful of capital cities built from scratch in the 20th century. India’s independence didn’t come easily—and the nation, amidst decolonization, was struggling with the tragedy and trauma of war and violent border disputes.
Pressure to modernize India was immense, and Nehru knew that change had to happen quickly. Chandigarh represented the first chapter for this new nation and its impact went far beyond India. The capital needed to look totally different from the colonial past and had to herald a modern future.
“In the mid-1900s India had many skilled engineers working in public works departments all over the country, but was still lacking an educational infrastructure where young professionals could learn about modern architecture and support Nehru’s search for modernity. He didn’t have 50 years to train the next generation—the country needed a shock. Chandigarh became the laboratory for bringing this vision to life,” says Maristella.
For any lover of modern architecture, Chandigarh is a place to behold.
At the time of India’s independence, modern architecture and the use of concrete had gained in popularity. Avant-garde designers and architects were responding to social and philosophical discussions about the way humans lived in and used the built environment.
Big glass windows, open floor plans, and reinforced concrete are all hallmarks of modernist buildings, but in the early 20th century these were totally new design features, meant to make living and working easier, more comfortable, and brighter—quite literally.
The potential of reinforced concrete was enthusiastically embraced by modern architects in the early 20th century. However, it was not until the post–World War II era that this potential was fully realized, and concrete became a dominant material in the rapid expansion of cities around the world.
Architects around the globe in the early- to mid-20th century were drawn to concrete because of its structural and architectural potential, explains Antoine. “Concrete was an easily cast material that could be prepared on-site at a building project or could be prefabricated and then brought to the site for full assembly.”
But many modern buildings made of reinforced concrete are suffering issues as time goes on, and Gandhi Bhawan is no different.
Though Gandhi Bhawan still stands as a beacon of hope in a new era, at 50 years old it is starting to experience some of the challenges typical of buildings of its time. The reflecting pool is leaking, the unique white concrete panels on the exterior of the buildings are dislodging, and the interior is facing issues with airflow and circulation.
This isn’t a problem with Jeanneret’s designs or the building’s maintenance. It’s a material issue.
SLIDESHOW: Now that Gandhi Bhawan is over 50 years old, pressing conservation issues have come to light. One of the biggest challenges is sustaining water in the reflecting pool.
The base of the building is deteriorating in some areas.
In some places, the river stones and cement have fallen away and revealed the rebar supports.
Ad hoc repairs have left discoloration on the walls.
Vegetation has snuck its way under the paneling on the exterior of the building and caused some disturbance to the concrete.
While concrete is common in our cities today, not all concrete is created equal—both the materials used and the ways concrete is cast have evolved over time. What we call “concrete” is a composite material, usually crushed rock, such as the beautiful white river pebbles in Gandhi Bhawan, and sand mixed with water and cement. Except for water, all other components can vary greatly due to their origin and variations in chemical composition, which gives concrete its unique texture and color.
“Today we have greater knowledge about making long-lasting concrete than we did in the 1960’s, and the field has been developing better conservation solutions.” says Antoine.
SLIDESHOW: The exterior of Gandhi Bhawan is grit-finished concrete paneling made with white river stone chips set in cement.
Gandhi Bhawan has a white textured surface akin to marble cladding. This was a rare experiment in its time, and Gandhi Bhawan is the only building in Chandigarh with this unique finish.
Panel mockup samples created by Shikha’s team.
The panels are composed of two layers—one is thick and supports the grit finish, while the second is applied as a finishing layer with the aggregate river stones set in cement.
IIT Madras team members involved in GPR and Infrared survey.
Architect Bhavya Ahuja works on condition mapping of the exterior of Gandhi Bhawan.
Concrete is reinforced with embedded steel skeletons to improve its strength, and for conservation professionals, understanding the date of construction and what exactly the concrete is made of is important.
“One particularly difficult thing about conserving concrete buildings from the modern era is the prevalence of exposed concrete. Architects were using it in such an expressive, honest, and organic way,” says Susan Macdonald, head of the Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture program. “The surface of the concrete is part of the building’s character and quality, and it can be difficult to repair in a way that preserves that aesthetic.”
SLIDESHOW: The Getty Foundation has supported 45 grants for buildings around the world. The sites in this slideshow are among many that focus on architectural concrete. Sydney Opera House, pictured here, received a 2014 grant. Photo by Jack Atley, courtesy of Sydney Opera House Trust
Centennial Hall received a Keeping It Modern grant in 2014. Photo: Miroslaw Lanowiecki (Museum of Architecture in Wroclaw)
The interior of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota. St. John’s Abbey received a Keeping It Modern grant in 2015. Photo: Paul Crosby
Sevan Writers’ Resort in Armenia received a Keeping It Modern grant in 2016. Photo: Jens Malling; Courtesy of Jens Malling archive
MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) in São Paulo, Brazil, was awarded a Keeping It Modern grant in 2017. Photo: Eduardo Ortega
The Dessau Bauhaus building was another 2017 Keeping It Modern grant awardee. Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, Photo: Nikolaus Brade
A major challenge for repairing aesthetically important concrete—like the shells that make up the roof of the Sydney Opera House or the white concrete exterior of the Gandhi Bhawan—is knowing what’s going on beneath the surface.
“The grit-wash concrete panels clad over the building envelope show signs of distress. It was important to establish the composition and material used in the panels for any future conservation works,” says Shikha.
Diagnosing the problem, then matching the existing materials carefully, is crucial. Good conservation work on concrete, like on any other material, aims to preserve as much of the original material as possible and be discrete. A bad repair job can not only look terrible, but also exacerbate the decay.
Like Gandhi Bhawan, modernist buildings all over the world are reaching a state where repair and intervention is inevitable, and knowledge is needed to save these iconic structures. Modern architecture is not always understood; sometimes structures are torn down because the custodians of the buildings aren’t sure what to do when these buildings age.
It has been two years since Gandhi Bhawan received its Keeping It Modern grant, and Shikha reflects that “preparing the plan really helped us understand the challenges of conserving concrete structures. Conservation of concrete is totally different than the conservation of other historic structures, often made in lime, brick, and stone.”
Another challenge: the recognition of modern architecture as important heritage in India is an ongoing conversation, as national legislation doesn’t protect buildings less than 100 years old.
Col. Chadha, Panjab University’s registrar, reflects that the “work of Shikha and her team has improved the level of awareness of Gandhi Bhawan and has built a sense of pride in all the stakeholders towards modern heritage buildings on the campus.”
And this change in attitude is happening for other 20th century structures in India, especially as the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh has now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Conservation planning is underway for the complex’s Government Museum and Art Gallery, which was recently awarded a Keeping It Modern grant. Shikha and her colleagues are among the consultants on the project, bringing with them the lessons learned at Gandhi Bhawan and other heritage sites.
The movement for the protection of modern architecture in India has just begun—and it is the historians, scientists, and conservators of the world that make sure the Gandhi Bhawans of the world keep standing.