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Iconic Buildings of Delhi | In Conversation with Rahul Khanna

Suchita posted on 08 November

By Suchita S.

Driving the length and breadth of the city everyday has made me cognizant of a bunch of things. Foremost, petrol is really very expensive. Then, there are hidden and apparent contradictions; rich meets poor meets lost, glossy malls hide colonies of deprivation, and that the reality for a majority of our city's people is very different from the duck-feather padded bubble we live in. What I do consciously keep a look out for, mostly because I am fascinated by architecture, is the plethora of homes, buildings and addresses that stand out - some literally, others for remarkable design.

Now there's a run-of-the-mill building - with windows, daunting walls, glass facades, pillars et all - and then there are iconic buildings - those that are testament to the era in which they were built, are ingenious in their construction, and are architecturally riveting. It's not always easy for laypersons like you and I to declare a building iconic; I can only humbly appreciate a structure for what it is. But it does help when you can find a connect with people who've invested time in delving into the architecture of Delhi. Enter, Rahul Khanna, architect and co-author of The Modern Architecture of New Delhi {1928-2007}.

Flipping through his book is a reminder of how much there is to explore in our city if we chose to look, not just see. Him and Manav Parhawk have compiled a selection of buildings that are striking and have defined the architecture and design of the years they were built in. Some of them are familiar, and others we've probably passed countless times, but seldom noticed. Rahul's picked 8 Iconic Buildings that should be in every Delhiwaala's little black book.

But first, the basics.

What is an iconic building | "A building that captures the zeitgeist of its time, pushes architectural boundaries through its architectural vision or engineering prowess, or simply its clever use of material and functionality."

What makes a building iconic, and how does a layman decide and perceive a building as iconic | "For a layman it is difficult, as one can only be impressed by scale, hence most iconic buildings as far as collective memory is concerned are usually really tall {think the Chrysler building in New York} or "big" {think Foster's "Gerkin building"} or dramatic {like Gehry's Bilbao Museum} - the nuance of architectural brilliance is often lost on a layman."

Which architects should Delhiwaalas be well aware of, who are behind some of the most iconic buildings around town  | "There are a few great architects who have done major work in Delhi - Joseph Stein {IIC, Ford Foundation Building, Habitat Centre, American Embassy School), Raj Rewal {Parliament Library, Exhibition Complex, Asian Games Village, the Nehru Pavillion at Pragati Maidan}, Habib Rahman {Rabindra Bhawan}, Achyut Kanvinde {National Dairy Building}, Mansingh Rana {Nehru Memorial Library, Nehru Planetarium}, Kuldeep Singh {Palika Kendra}, Charles Correa {British Council and Jeevan Bharti}, Shiv Nath Prasad {Sri Ram Centre, Akbar Bhawan Tibet House} - there are many others done by foreigners as well."

What is the importance of having iconic buildings in a city, especially like Delhi, which has heritage and historical sites scattered in possibly every neighbourhood in town | "History is never absolute, and a city must continue to evolve and represent the times it's living in and hence, architecture has an important function to serve changing social and living habits, changing weather etc and also changing technology. Iconic buildings allow the new generations to understand history and its architectural evolution."


8 Iconic Buildings of Delhi |

Maulana Azad Memorial by Habib Rahman |


Where | Before the eastern gateway of The Jama Masjid, near Meena Bazaar Street

Why | For Rahman's interpretation of the chattri {umbrella}. "Rahman has taken traditional forms {arches, jaali, use of white marble} and moulded them into a sleek, flowing, post-modernist structure that makes it a stand out."


Inter State bus terminus by Rajender Kumar |


Where | Kashmere Gate

Why | Forget the horrific paint job, think about the design. "Kumar's creation was yet another fine example of locally adapted Corbusian methods… The brise soleil treatment seen on the facade is similar to {Le} Corbusier's assembly hall in Chandigarh; The interior has a massive expanse of space to provide ventilation."

St. Martin Garrison Church by Arthur Gordon Shoosmith |


Where | Church Road, Delhi Cantt.

Why | The massive scale of the precise, well executed brick masonry construction {upto 3.5 million bricks were used to construct the main body, along with the parapets and buttresses!} "The exterior is a unique combination of bulk and minimalism with its pared down straight lines, exuding character & enormity."

Tomar Residence by Vasant and Revathi Kamath |


Where | Hauz Khas Village

Why | The post-modernist interpretation of minarets. While the site may be fairly narrow {only forty square yards} and fairly tall, the structure finds a way to "blend" in to the surroundings of Hauz Khas' many old Islamic monuments. "The treatment of the side wall of the house is also noteworthy - the architect treated the plaster in layers in a manner such that the water falling daily on the wall created a distinct effect. {pictured}"

Chakravarty Residence by Romi Khosla |


Why | The way Khosla has made optimum use of a relatively small plot size and a modest budget, and created a home reminiscent of a colonial bungalow with a triangular sloped roof and an exaggerated chimney is most endearing. "Khosla's design was not only a modest tribute to {Robert} Venturi's*, it was also the start of his own quest to interpret and design architecture that had no message beyond that of complete enjoyment for its intended user."


Sujan Singh Park Complex |


Where | Sujan Singh Park, Cornwallis Road

Why | "Two exact plans are placed on opposite sides of Cornwallis Road - a mirror of each other - and closely resemble the European model of identical styled houses built around garden squares in cities such as London. Look out for the large entrance arches, and the art deco style curved facade, particularly evident at the Ambassador Hotel."


Triveni Kala Sangam by Joseph Stein |


Where | 205 Tansen Marg

Why | The interplay and integration of nature and concrete is stunning. Stein, an ardent admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, has prolifically used local materials and textures in his design, and made a building that isn't only functional, but also simple in aesthetic. Especially noteworthy - "The open garden amphitheatre at the internal centre of the complex… {and} the half cut walls along with corridors with their sun breakers."

Azad Bhawan by Achyut Kanvinde | 


Where | IP Estate, Near Income Tax Office

Why |  Modernist meets Indian embellishments. "Kanvinde was inclined to structural order and stark forms of the Bauhaus school…  {On returning to India, others like him} began to implement their designs in the Indian context, meeting with substantial resistance from political quarters, which preferred the insertion of revivalist not western designs." One can see this in the use of jaalis in the structure.


*Extracts and images have been taken from 'The Modern Architecture of New Delhi {1928-2007}' by Rahul Khanna & Manav Parhawk. The book is available at bookstores around town.