There is something extremely unforgettable about the IIM-A campus. It has a certain solidity, a certain heaviness. As your eye moves through the heavy brick walls, course by course, brick by brick, one observes how some of the bricks shine with pride under the strong Ahmedabad sun, while some shy away in dark, in the shadows cast by the niches. Each of these bricks have a story to tell. While some of the bricks tell a story of how their corners got chipped with overuse, some tell a story of how beautifully they have weathered. As you stand there, piecing each of these stories together, you suddenly feel like this building has been here forever. And as you step back, in wonder, you suddenly see the entire building as pixels of various shades of the color red. Every attempt made at trying to fit the expanse of the campus in your vision fails miserably and that’s when you are completely thrown off by the scale of it which is so monumental.
Louis Kahn believed that it was in monumentality, solidity, and timelessness, laid the true meaning of architecture. He often said, “Architecture was reaching out for the truth.” For him, the truth was in something that had stood the test of time. That which existed sometime in the past and continues to exist to date was the truth for him. He did not believe in any version of truth other than the one that was told by time. The truth was important to him. The factor of time, to tell the truth, was important to him. Hence, to be able to depict timelessness in his work became very important to him.
He found the architecture of Rome and Greece to be timeless. He found that to have stood the test of time. Hence, he found that to be true. He got highly inspired by it. He liked how it was proclaiming its existence with its solidity, which otherwise seemed to be missing in the lightweight architecture, that of metal and glass, of the Modern era. He was overwhelmed over how simple materials like stone and brick could make architecture feel timeless.
It was in his time at the American Academy of Rome (AAR) in 1950-51, that he traveled in and around Rome and Greece extensively. It was then that he got highly inspired by its architecture. His travels were intense. They involved not just traveling but sketching and studying the old European architecture. His sketches were not only real-time observations of what he saw but abstractions of that. He often omitted elements like a door, window, and people to dissolve a sense of time and scale. His sketches depict all the buildings he saw as solid and monumental. These observations appeared very frequently in his work post the 50’s.
Kahn’s pastel drawings of the pyramids were pure geometries in earth-tone colors. He saw the pyramids as enormous tetrahedral mass, reflecting the sun’s rays. The Yale Art Gallery, Kahn’s first project after his travels, saw his sketches come alive in his building. The ceiling of the gallery was designed as a slab of braced beams, creating tetrahedrons that carried light. The pyramids later appeared as a form with other basic shapes like a circle and a square in the Jewish Community Centre.
It was while designing the Salk Institute, Kahn began using the images of the ruins of Rome. It was through these images he saw Roman architecture as architecture of poetry, water, and light. In his first schemes, Kahn drew a plan consisting of a square with a fanning pattern opening outward-a pattern he had seen in the garden court of the Domus Augustana of the Flavian Palace. The fanning pattern coming out of each square bay gave the sense of forces running through matter, which was well found in the baroque architecture, which certainly affected Kahn. This was the first time he overtly tried to use a Roman form. Many people describe the Salk Institute in terms of the Acropolis because the concrete is so beautifully made, it looks like marble.
Carrying the idea of the ruins of Rome to India, he designed the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Here, he made the building look like a conscious misreading of a Roman ruin. Borrowing inspiration of Roman brick with a concrete barrel vault from the Trajan’s Market, Kahn recreated the Indian Institute of Management. He reduced it to a simple structure that he could build rationally and felt primitive.
With every new building, he tried to revive the architecture by going back and starting with the primitive reality of architecture. He delayed the architecture of Rome and Greece in terms of materials, structure, light, and organization. As he delayed this architecture with more understanding than before, every new building of his looked more ancient than modern. Thus, through relooking at the buildings of the past, he was able to build an architecture that was relevant in the present and will continue being relevant in the future.