Living in a Louis Kahn

A tribute to the architect on his birthday (Louis Kahn: Born 20 Feb, 1901)

When did it really strike me that I was living somewhere very special? Well, when one of my architect colleagues introduced me to his sister—another architect—as follows:

‘Meet Meena. She lives in a Louis Kahn.’

Wow! That’s the nearest I ever got to being a brand person! No one is going to ever accuse me of ‘wearing a Satya Paul’ or ‘carrying a Prada’. But this felt good!

I lived on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad, as a faculty-spouse for over 15 years. On an everyday basis, living in the IIM houses was/is about: ‘Oh God! The wall is seeping again’. Or ‘Why are these rooms so cold?’ or ‘This red brick is completely impractical for Ahmadabad. Look how they pit’.  I suppose it needs an outsider’s perspective and a bit of distance to help us appreciate things we take for granted or actively crib about!

Living on the IIM-A campus is something special—it’s being part of history and a special vision. A vision forged by the founders of the institution, and given physical shape primarily by the architect (because, frankly, there is no landscaping to talk about!!).

Some things about the campus never cease to surprise, for instance: How is that there are so many students around, but it’s still such a quiet and serene place? How is it that the lives of the families living on campus and the lives of students almost never intersect? The only time you see students is if you go to the bank or decide to walk the path going between the dorms to reach the main gate. The only time you hear students is when they do a particularly loud ‘Tempo’ shout. Considering it’s not a very large campus, how does this work?

The arrangement of houses is again something special. There is such a respect for personal space. At an everyday level, that translates to ‘You simply don’t have to ever see your neighbours unless you want to!’ But at the same time, there is the comforting feeling that the community is there when you need them!

IIM houses, are to say the least, quirky! Anyone who has lived in different ‘regular’ houses (and believe me, we have!) would know that it is not possible to take it for granted that door and window curtains are transferrable from one house to another. Why do measurements differ from house to house? No one I know has an answer! And the door from the drawing room to the rest of the house! Some houses have wooden doors, some glass; the position is a bit different in each house. That ‘below the staircase’ storage space bang opposite that door and how to screen it visually has perplexed one and all!

And the completely non-uniform lawns! We’ve lived in a house with the most luxurious 3-sided lawn; one which had decent-sized lawns on both the back and front; and one which had a shamefully tiny odd-sized strip in the front, and a lovely one at the back!

Nature is very much a part of life on campus! Butterflies, dragonflies, birds nesting in the bushes, bats mucking up the verandahs! On and off, monkeys were an active presence in our lives—they would jump on the cars, topple over the scooters and kick over the dustbins. It was as if all these had been set up as a gym for them to use! And the famous campus crow, which has been much studied by Prof. Venkat Rao, and which took a malevolent pleasure in messing up his scooter. We always had lots of vultures. But what with the general decline of the species, they almost disappeared from the campus. Hopefully now, with the banning of the drug implicated in the decline, the campus too is seeing a revival.

I’ve written only about the physical aspects of the campus. But I believe that this actually governs to a large extent the other aspects, and is what makes the IIM campus what it is, and defines the community. Detached but supportive. Making one feel a part of something larger, a grand vision. Quirky and individualistic. And just a bit impractical!

–Meena

This is about the old campus only. I don’t relate to the new campus, having left the campus by the mid-naughts.

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