December 09, 2019
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'Transcending The Boundaries Of Time'

Influenced by the ideals of Tagore and Gandhi, one of India's few internationally known architects will be long remembered beyond Steinabad.

'Transcending The Boundaries Of Time'
'Transcending The Boundaries Of Time'

Joseph Allen Stein, one of the few internationally known Indian architects, was an American by birth and nationality. He arrived in India in 1952 as a professor to head the nascent department of Architecture, Town and Regional Planning at the Bengal Engineering College, University of Calcutta.

He was overwhelmed by the opportunity in India to give full freedom to his ideas through teaching and practice. Stein never went back and spent the last fifty years of his life here making significant contribution to development of the profession.

The contribution of Stein to contemporary architecture of India needs to be viewed against the state of architectural education in India at the time of Independence. There was no course offering a degree in architecture at that time and when the University of Calcutta started the course, they were unable to find a professor. Stein, who was the first professor of architecture and town planning in many ways, set the tone of architectural education.

Stein always held that 'A proper course for a young architect was to be exposed to a number of different influences,' and he always believed in keeping the windows of the mind open. As a teacher he inculcated disciplined and reasoned thinking but never thrust his ideas on his students. As a student, he himself came into contact with several eminent persons like architect Eliell Saarinen, sculptor Paul Milles, and admitted to have been influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan, Richard Neutra, Elliel Saarinen. Stein drew inspiration without copying them.

Born in 1912 in Nebraska, Stein spent his early years in the wide landscape of the mid-West and California, establishing a close empathy with nature, which nurtured his thoughts and endeavour throughout his life. He joined the University of Illinois to study architecture in 1930 and was awarded the medal of the Societe de Architectes Francais as an outstanding student of beaux art in 1934. The award was also won by Eero Saarinen of Yale University in the same year, also one of the pioneers of modern architecture.

With the award Stein went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Fountainebleu. He returned to complete his Masters at the University of Illinois and joined Jacques Khan in 1935. He then moved to San Francisco to join Richard Neutra in 1938. By 1942 he had opened his office in San Francisco. In many ways these were the formative years of his philosophy, which was built around the relationship of man and nature, a strong feature of Neutra's work.

Stein was trained in pre-Bauhaus modernism which did not dismiss the past qualities of culture and region, a fruit of the international school of thought. Stein believed that 'Good modern architecture learns from the past, immediate and ancient, and perpetuates ideals that have stood the test of time and are still valid and vital.'

Even as a student Stein wrote 'The modern style will be universal in spirit for there will be an increasing number of local variations as the style develops and becomes perfectly adapted to varying geological and climatic, political and philosophic conditions.'

Stein arrived in India as a teacher on the recommendation of Neutra and was absorbed by the heritage, climate and ethos, which were superimposed by an impulse towards simple life. The ideals of Tagore as a poet-teacher and Gandhi as a philosopher-politician found consonance with Stein's own philosophy of life. He then attempted to balance the ideal of an industrialized modern India within the limits of economic and societal realities.

He took up research projects with students in developing prototypes for urban and rural housing which could be produced in great numbers by craftsmen using locally available materials. These were exhibited in the 'International Exhibition on Low Cost Housing' held in 1954 at New Delhi. His designs of housing for the steel towns of Durgapur and Rourkela during this period were elegant and unostentatious buildings, but very different from the traditional PWD house design.

This break from the stranglehold of civil engineer-designed structures was a major turning point in the architecture of the public works department, which was very ably taken forward by Habib Rehman, Benjamin Polk, et al. Stein really flowered in his partnership with Polk and Benoy Chatterjee in the early years, and later with J.R. Bhalla and subsequently with Bhalla and Balakrishna Doshi.

His arrival in Delhi -- commissions of the Triveni Kala Sangam and India International Centre -- allowed him to put into practice his philosophy of integrating built form with landscape as a total environmental concept. Delhi thus because the arena for the extensive concentration of Stein's work.

In fact, the half a kilometer stretch, in and around Lodi Garden, contains seven major buildings -- India International Centre, Ford Foundation, UNESCO, WWF, Peace Memorial, India Habitat Centre, etc. The area is nicknamed as Steinabad, not a mean achievement in the city of several empires. Stein's work, however, spread to various parts of India and in association with Doshi, he designed several projects outside Delhi including the Convention Centre in Srinagar and housing for ICRISAT, etc.

Stein's experiment with locally available materials, and construction with available technology and technical capabilities resulted in a fresh pattern. He was impressed by the ability of the craftsmen to produce very fine work which could be easily employed in building construction. As a result, he was able to use handcrafted jaalis, decorations and motifs, providing rich texture to the architecture.

He always felt 'The choice and use of materials is based on the architect's feeling for the poet and the significance for materials as expression of beauty and meaning are inherent in nature and man's relation with nature.' He made a serious study of traditional Indian architecture and analysed the basic ingredients which provided solidity, transparency and the value of delicately curved surfaces to provide relief to huge wall surfaces.

The harsh light was always tempered by a series of screens to light the interiors and Stein used this very facet by providing a variety of jaalis. The luminous shade, filtered light creating a sense of enclosure without total separation from outdoor spaces through screens of curved stones or jaalis, was extensively used by him. He used geometric forms built around courts, a traditional feature in Indian architecture, to articulate space and volume.

While designing the Triveni Kala Sangam he subjected his design to the following:

  • Respect for natural forms and natural laws as expressed in structural functionalism.
  • Respect for cultural values as expressed in the sensitive and intuitive responses of people.
  • Respect for modern democratic, social and economic relationships as expressed in rationality and appropriately organised space.
  • Respect for regional appropriateness in adjustment to climate and materials.

This philosophy of design continued throughout Stein's life, and all his buildings reflect this particular trait. Stein developed a very strong empathy with the ecology of northern India, particularly with the mountains and their relationship with the plains.

Stein participated in the UNESCO-sponsored conference on the conditions of mountain environment in 1970, held in Munich. His work on the restoration of the Mughal Gardens in Kashmir, resource conserving modern architecture in Bhutan and his larger concept of preservation of mountain ecology as part of the concept of total landscape planning and for creating sustainable democratic society beyond cities were major projects of those times, but were not talked about much despite Stein's best efforts to highlight them.

Stein was a very reserved and reticent person. He rarely spoke without a deep thought and then completely associated with what he said. This reflected in his work. Balakrishna Doshi, who was associated with him as a partner in various projects, commented that his buildings were like his children, and architecture was his first priority. 'He was like a karmayogi, a man who believed in his duty, a man who just did work and worked very hard.'

The Memorial Plaza, built in 1970, to commemorate 20th century's two foremost champions of non-violence -- Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, a simple structure in a grove of trees, reflects Stein's ultimate appreciation of nature's relationship with culture, tradition and philosophy.

In his own words 'I never think of my work as being either modern or conventional or any label like that. I would like to think that we do good architecture that is appropriate to its time and place.'

A good architect, and architecture, transcends the boundaries of time. So will Joseph Allen Stein.

Professor Asesh Maitra is Director, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

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