Influence of Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier on Architecture in India


Louis Kahn, the American architect known for combining Modernism with the weight and dignity of ancient monuments, was born 113 years ago today. Kahn might be categorized as a late Modernist, and a hugely influential one at that.(1)

In a nutshell the work of Louis Isadore Kahn (born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky) was widely known as one of the most influential architects in the world. There was something starkly original and intellectually stimulating about his work. His buildings were like mathematical theorems, well-realised to the last brick but came with a great emotional sweep. Linear perfection. Monastic lines. Reductionist volumes. Unadorned surfaces. Geometric harmony.

Kahn believed architecture was not just about function but intention, not just purpose but inspiration and emotional connection.

Yes, he wanted to build modern buildings with evolved techniques but he wanted to make spaces breathe, and he wanted them to communicate with the shifting light of night and day, and to be relevant and timeless. (2)

For Kahn, form did not necessarily follow function; nor did his projects celebrate all the new possibilities of industrial materials. Created from monolithic masonry, and drawing on primary geometries with great circles, semi-circles and triangles sliced out of their weighty walls, his buildings exude a timeless and sometimes sinister presence. They look like the hastily vacated remnants of a future cosmic civilisation.

Louis Kahn used to tell his students: if you are ever stuck for inspiration, ask your materials for advice. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.’ He was known as Louis Kahn: the brick whisperer. (3)

At first glance, Kahn’s work appears simplistic in its form and program. Upon closer investigation, however, layers of incredible programmatic complexity and design innovation become apparent.

He believed strongly that architecture should appeal not only to practical and aesthetic needs but also to the humanistic needs of the people and communities it serves. He was continually striving to create spaces that evoked a sense of spirituality, a sense he felt was lacking in the built environment of that time. With every project, Kahn’s starting place was the same. Whether he was designing a place of worship, a school, a private residence, or an art museum, he always asked himself questions, trying to define and articulate the unique qualities embodied by that institution.

Kahn was inspired by the work of many modern architects, including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and was equally drawn to classical and ancient forms of building. He synthesized old and new building styles by designing monumental forms that spoke of the past but employed current construction and design solutions. (4)

Figure1: India knows him for his work on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.


While Louis Kahn was designing the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh in 1962, he was approached by an admiring Indian architect, Balkrishna Doshi, to design the 60 acre campus for the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India.  Much like his project in Bangladesh, he was faced with a culture enamored in tradition, as well as an arid desert climate.  For Kahn, the design of the institute was more than just efficient spatial planning of the classrooms; he began to question the design of the educational infrastructure where the classroom was just the first phase of learning for the students.

It was Balkrishna Doshi that believed Louis Kahn would be able to envision a new, modern school for India’s best and brightest.  Kahn’s inquisitive and even critical view at the methods of the educational system influenced his design to no longer singularly focus on the classroom as the center of academic thought.  The classroom was just the formal setting for the beginning of learning; the hallways and Kahn’s Plaza became new centers for learning.  The conceptual rethinking of the educational practice transformed a school into an institute, where education was a collaborative, cross-disciplinary effort occurring in and out of the classroom.

Le Corbusier’s work at Chandigarh (1951-63) must have been in Kahn’s mind. He had visited the new capital during his first trip to India in November 1962, when he began work on IIM, and later he urged his students to study it as they began their individual designs for Dhaka. Yet however much he admired Le Corbusier, he also harbored doubts about Chandigarh. Earlier he had praised his buildings but he had also claimed that they were “out of context and had no position”. (5)

In much of the same ways that he approached the design of the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh, he implemented the same techniques in the Indian Institute of Management such that he incorporated local materials (brick and concrete) and large geometrical façade extractions as homage to Indian vernacular architecture.  It was Kahn’s method of blending modern architecture and Indian tradition into an architecture that could only be applied for the Indian Institute of Management.  The large façade omissions are abstracted patterns found within the Indian culture that were positioned to act as light wells and a natural cooling system protecting the interior from India’s harsh desert climate.  Even though the porous, geometric façade acts as filters for sunlight and ventilation, the porosity

allowed for the creation of new spaces of gathering for the students and faculty to come together. (6)

Figure2: local materials, large geometrical façade


Always Le Corbusier was deeply involved in pictorialism of Kahn’s time. For him Le Corbusier was a man recording what he saw in order to put it in use. Le Corbusier’s line drawings made around the Mediterranean, visually available to kahn, atleast from 1923 onwards (7)

Le Corbusier, French citizen was influential in urban planning, and was a founding member of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Le Corbusier is one of the most prominent architects in the history of Modern architecture. His impact on the conceptual, functional, and artistic sides of architecture, as well as on the art world, are still lasting today.

 five points of architecture that he had elucidated in L’Esprit Nouveau and the book Vers une architecture,

  • lifted the bulk of the structure off the ground supporting it by pilotis, reinforced concrete stilts,
  • a free facade, meaning non-supporting walls that could be designed as the architect wished,
  • an open floor plan, meaning that the floor space was free to be configured into rooms without concern for supporting walls,
  • long strips of ribbon windows that allow views of the large surrounding yard,
  • the roof garden to compensate for the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof.(8)

Figure3:Five points towards new architecture


Three relatively autonomous categories – contexts, privacy and publicity and Built Art – single out key themes in le corbusier’s work: his fascination for the modern metropolis, his enthusiasm for the Mediterranean and the orient, his proclivity towards organic forms in the 1930s, as well as his interest in new technologies and the media. Only the context of these and further aspects provide a comprehensive understanding of an curve, which is expressed in an increasingly intense interaction between architecture, urbanism, painting, design, film and other disciplines. (9)

Le Corbusier was respectful of the geographical, climatic and cultural context of the subcontinent. Ahmedabad and Chandigarh has basically hot dry monsoon climate. Although the architect could sense, feel and identify the problems of climate almost intuitively, he approached the design in a very methodical and scientific way. Projects in India for which Le Corbusier is known:

  • Mill Owners’ Association Building – Ahmedabad, India
  • Villa Sarabhai – Ahmedabad, India
  • Villa Shodhan – Ahmedabad, India
  • Sanskar Kendra Museum – Ahmedabad, India
  • Palace of Justice – Chandigarh, India
  • Museum and Art Gallery – Chandigarh, India
  • Secretariat Building – Chandigarh, India
  • Governor’s Palace – Chandigarh, India
  • Palace of Assembly – Chandigarh, India

In the 1950s, after India gained independence from Britain, Le Corbusier was commissioned to design an entire city, from all the doorknobs in the High Court to the stools and desks at the College of Architecture. The capital of Punjab, Chandigarh is Le Corbusier’s masterpiece (7) He translated the Radiant City on a grand scale presented itself in the construction of the Union Territory Chandigarh, the new capital for the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana and the first planned city in India. Le Corbusier designed many administration buildings including a courthouse, parliament building and a university. He also designed the general layout of the city dividing it into sectors. Le Corbusier was brought on to develop the plan of Albert Mayer. (11)

Figure 4: Mill Owners’ Association Building – Ahmedabad, India


The building is a physical manifesto representing Le Corbusier’s proposal for a modern Indian architecture. Constructed in 1954, the Mill Owners’ Association Building is considered the first of four completed commissions in Ahmedabad. He took cues from India’s vernacular architecture, emulating the deep reveals, overhanging ledges, shade screens, and grand, pillared halls .He introduced brises-soleil, designed to prevent sun from penetrating the facade, and employed these in combination with thickened facades and unfinished concrete in many of his later projects. Surrounded by ample open space, the Mill Owners’ Association Building was not forced to contend with an existing urban fabric, allowing the architect to propose a distinctly modern aesthetic. (12)

Le Corbusier’s description of the building stresses the importance of view: “The situation of the building in a garden dominating the furnishes a picturesque spectacle of cloth dyers washing … such a panorama was an invitation… to frame views from each floor of the building…” the building façade is a screen to frame views within which a series of door frames are nested. (13)

Figure5: Villa Sarabhai – Ahmedabad, India


The Sarabhai Villa resembles very much to another Le Corbusier house from the fifties, Maisons Jaul in Neuilly, where the space is composed by a structural system made by series of vaults that support the terrace roof. Le Corbusier probably developed this idea from his early 1919 Maisons Monol, a project that he had presented in his first book “Vers Une Architecture”. In the Monol project the vaults were made in corrugated steel panels, in Jaul and Sarabhai they were covered by bricks.

The only thing that separates between the interiors and the exterior is bamboo blinds that allow the breeze to pass through the house and control the sunlight. This point is even more striking given the fact that all the walls were covered by one of the most impressive art collection I had ever seen (Chagalls, Lichtensteins, Le Corbusiers), and along the simple, rough flowing spaces were scattered nonchalantly precious and personal objects, and beautiful modernist and Indian furniture.

The main ideas from Le Corbusier:

From a new poetics of architecture, midway between classical harmony and functionality requiring modern times, Le Corbusier made form of his ideas and represent them on buildings, essays and paintings.Trends as functionalism of Adolf Loos, futurism, german and french masters and new materials gave to                Le Corbusier an industrial conception. As well as an adoption of simple shapes that do survive aesthetic values over time or unadorned forms, concept. (11)

It is one thing to design a ground breaking work of architecture. It is another to find somebody to build it. Certainly he was fortunate in his ability to find intrepid builders who were prepared to take the risk of working with his novel methods of construction. Indeed, it seems that many of the details of hids buildings evolved on-site in discussion with the contractor and his team. (12)

Both the architects had similar approach towards architecture. They had similar style of work, worked with geometry, experimented with materials, monumental look of building, and gave new style to architecture.

Le Corbusier’s Parliament building at Chandigarh (1953-630); Louis Kahn’s Parliament at Dacca(1962-70). Both buildings are rich in institutional and cosmological meanings, both possess archaic character, and both stem from a stage in modern architecture which had long since rejected a wholly mechanistic utopia. Both are works of maturity resting on clearly formulated architectural principles and languages, and both are stepped in Eastern and Western monumental tradition. (14)


  1. [Online]
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  5. David B. Brownlee, David G. De Long. Kahn.
  6. [Online]
  7. [Online]
  8. Le Corbusier-the art of architecture.
  9. [Online]
  10. [Online]
  11. [Online]
  13. Samuel, Flora. Le Corbusier in detail.
  14. j.r.curtis, william. perspecta. 1983.

Article Categories:
Architecture · Arts

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