Joseph Allen Stein at 109, and the garden of his heart that lives on

On the late architect's 109th birth anniversary, STIR pays tribute to his legacy through his documentary, Garden of the Heart, and a conversation with its director, Shaleen Sharma.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Apr 10, 2021

Among the seven constituent sub-cities of the Indian capital, told through layers and layers of history; amongst Shahjahanabad, Tughlaqabad, Mehrauli, and Firozabad, a new one, defined more so by its uniquely ‘modern’ architectural statement than its geographical boundaries, had sprung up through the 1960s and 70s. Steinabad, as this tiny, definitive pocket near Lodhi Estate came to be popularly known, was the creation of American architect Joseph Allen Stein. Fusing his now widely recognised, signature style of architecture: that of a "building in the garden", with the spearhead of a renewed sense of modernism and of a critical regionality within the Indian context, his buildings, and the Steinabad they comprise, have widely been acknowledged to be the bridge between “tradition and modernity”.

  • The shaded court of the India Habitat Centre | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    The shaded court of the India Habitat Centre Image: Anmol Ahuja
  • The complex shading assembly involves joinery at two angles to provide shade during summer and winter months | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    The complex shading assembly involves joinery at two angles to provide shade during summer and winter months Image: Anmol Ahuja
  • The Stein Auditorium inside the IHC complex is named so in his honour | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    The Stein Auditorium inside the IHC complex is named so in his honour Image: Anmol Ahuja

Stein’s buildings through the national capital, New Delhi, became inadvertent meccas for architectural students and professionals, both for the obvious, more pressing academic purpose of studying the detail of his hand in his designs, as well as for just simply being in the shade, under Stein’s spiritual refuge with like-minded individuals. Even apart from the architectural fraternity, hundreds of city’s intellectuals gathered for socialising in the lush courts of Stein’s structures, and found oblivious sanctuary on a notoriously hot summer afternoon. Within Delhi, whose primordial image was still defined by Lutyens’ pre and post colonial structures, he sought to create a softer, greener, more humanly responsive Delhi of his own. For his 109th birth anniversary, STIR interacts with Professor Shaleen Sharma, currently the Dean of studies at School of Architecture, World University of Design, about his 2001 film, Garden of the Heart . The acclaimed documentary, shot in 1999 and showcased in 2001, happens to be Stein’s last known recorded visual interview before the architect’s passing away later that year. Sharma talks about his experience of shooting the film, and Stein’s “style” and influence in an exclusive conversation with STIR.

  • The India International Centre, another signature Stein building near Lodhi Estate, Steinabad | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    The India International Centre, another signature Stein building near Lodhi Estate, Steinabad Image: Anmol Ahuja
  • Rear view of the IIC, Delhi, showing play of material and masses | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    Rear view of the IIC, Delhi, showing play of material and masses Image: Sanober Khan

"In the year 1999 when I started recording my conversations with Mr Stein, I didn't realise that they would still be relevant in the year 2021,” states Sharma. “Well, it was my attempt as a young documentary filmmaker to start my career with a tribute to the architect who I had admired all through my education. Mr Stein obliged me by allowing me to record the conversations while he sat in his garden during the mild winters of October that year," he continues on how the film came about. Recounting fond memories of his interaction with Stein, he continues, “Like a young enthusiast, I would do my homework and prepare myself with a detailed questionnaire, but he never gave me a chance to ask him a second question. He wandered through his narration, from his childhood, to his early years of practice, to the (then) present state of urban affairs, and somehow managed to sum it all up at the end".  

  • Lattice wall overlooking the inner court of Triveni Kala Sangam | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    Lattice wall overlooking the inner court of Triveni Kala Sangam Image: Sanober Khan
  • The landscaped terraces of the Triveni Kala Sangam are a favourite spot for students and art enthusiasts alike | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
    The landscaped terraces of the Triveni Kala Sangam are a favourite spot for students and art enthusiasts alike Image: Sanober Khan

Stein’s fond propensity for the greens in his own garden was brought forth beautifully by this visual memory Sharma recounts from the shoot. “Every evening I watched the rushes of the shoot and observed that throughout the conversation, Mr Stein never took his eyes off the green trees of his garden; only occasionally, his head would turn to follow the sparrows in his garden. Likewise, you visit any of his buildings and it would be difficult to say where 'nature' ends and the building begins. The play of greens and open, convivial spaces in his building breaks the grandness of the built form; India Habitat Centre is the best example of that. Nowhere inside the IHC does one feel intimidated by the built form or its scale. Such was his personality as well”.

Shaleen Sharma, director, Garden of the Heart, in conversation with Joseph Stein during the shoot of the film | Tribute to Joseph Allen Stein | Joseph Allen Stein | STIRworld
Shaleen Sharma, director, Garden of the Heart, in conversation with Joseph Stein during the shoot of the film Image: Courtesy of Shaleen Sharma

On being asked about Stein’s distinctive pedagogy in architecture, Sharma opines, stating: “Mr Stein's work since the 1950s when he came to India, till the late 90s, symbolises the image of a free India at that time, or at least the pursuit of that image; but more than that, its unlimited architectural potential for times to come. It is very difficult for me to categorise his architecture in a particular "style". Some of his apprentices (who were my teachers in college) told me that he himself would find it difficult to categorise himself as the follower of a style. I would say that his work expressed the simplicity of being that Mr Stein was. That’s also the reason why I felt the title 'Garden of the Heart' to be apt for the film". Expressing his heartfelt thanks and deep reverence for Stein, Sharma closed with a note of indebtedness to the master architect, “I will always be indebted to Mr Stein for sharing his thoughts with me”.

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