by Anmol AhujaApr 10, 2021
American architect Joseph Allen Stein (April 10, 1912 – October 6, 2001) was more than an architect – he was an expert at soulfully animating seemingly lifeless buildings. Stein’s structures seem to radiate with a triumphant soul, very much aware of their subtlety and beauty, often centered among resplendent greens. He is considered to be a central figure in establishing ‘regional modern architecture’ in India (primarily in its capital Delhi, in the Lodhi estate) and San Francisco, United States, where he practiced prior to moving to India in 1952.
On his birthday, STIR celebrates Padma Shri Stein (1992), remembering his modern buildings formed by their context and shaped by his modest vision.
Born in Nebraska, United States, Stein studied architecture at the University of Illinois, the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Before establishing his own practice in San Francisco, he worked with stellar architects Ely Jacques Kahn in New York and Richard Neutra in Los Angeles. He established his firm Joseph Allen Stein and Associates, in New Delhi, in 1955.
His buildings are not just modern in their choice of materials and design aesthetic; they sit in peaceful co-existence with their context, eluding the pervading sense of pride and brutalist imagery that modernist and post-modernist buildings seem to possess. Stein’s buildings are beings – beings of concrete and brick, intertwined with nature. His works (especially in India) follow a strict maxim, ‘buildings in the garden’ – where his structures dwell within the site’s context and the surrounding landscape – elevating it from just a concrete volume to a breathing, concise fabric of the built and elevated occupant comfort.
I’ve often thought that good architecture is more important than great architecture – Joseph Allen Stein
His most remarkable works can be seen in the Lodhi estate in central Delhi, India, also dubbed ‘Steinabad’ (‘Stein’ after the architect, ‘abad’, a suffix which means a ‘cultivated place’ and attached to the name of the city’s designer/ founder). The ‘Joseph Stein Lane’ is Delhi’s only road, which is named after an architect. Steinabad comprises architectural gems such as the India Habitat Centre, Ford Foundation Headquarters building, UNICEF and World Wide Fund for Nature buildings, India International Centre and the Triveni Kala Sangam, and the re-landscaping of Lodhi Gardens.
Apart from these stellar regional modern buildings, Stein also contributed prominent buildings to the architecture in India, such as the Indian Express Towers (Mumbai), the Indian Institute of Management campus (Kozhikode, Kerala), Kashmir Conference Centre (near Srinagar), and the Cultural Education Centre for Performing Arts, Kennedy House Complex of Aligarh Muslim University (Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh), and the American Embassy School (New Delhi).
Joseph Allen Stein’s works follow a straightforward approach, in their construction and detailing. They seem deceptively simple, yet one marvels at them – once you visit the space, you understand what Stein’s architecture is about, and how the building is not just a built structure, but a carefully curated, comfort-led planned space.
A common thread seen in Steinabad’s architecture is the use of pre-fabricated concrete, simple geometry, extensive jaalis (perforated screens/ stone lattices) and greens. Seldom will you find any Stein building that does not have a heavy foliage defining the building and its spaces. The India Habitat Centre and the India International Centre in particular, witness a natural and harmonious network of light, building and landscape.
Combating Delhi’s dominant weather conditions, Stein designed these spaces astutely – weaving corridors directed by the motion of the wind; facades letting in the bleak winter sun, and those blocking them on harsh summer days; greens planted in appropriate spaces to lower temperatures; solar panels attached to the roof, essaying the role of a design element and an energy harnesser; small pools of water with orange fish swimming around perky lotuses; multiple courtyards; a choreography of shaded and open areas; structures oriented according to the sun’s daily traverse, and directing the wind flow inside and outside the spaces.
Within these structures, Stein experimented with various structural systems such as shell structures, which accentuated the play of light and shadow and elevated user comfort. The perforated screens perfumed the buildings with visual breathers, becoming a signature of Stein.
Stein made possible structures that profess beauty and simplicity in design – a true modernist with a meticulous, humble sense of space. ‘Steinabad’ made the American architect heap praises for his brilliant approach to designing functional and aesthetic spaces, in simple geometry, and respecting the site and context the building rested within, to making architecture contextual and beloved.