Alamy

The city offers a wealth of visual treasures: you just have to know where to look.

August 11, 2015

Occupying the peninsula of Saurashtra, which protrudes like a turtle’s head into the Arabian Sea, and a swath of inland territory that includes the coastal port city of Surat (famous for its diamond merchants) and the vast salt desert of Kutch (famous for textiles), the west Indian state of Gujarat has been one of the country’s most cosmopolitan regions for centuries. The state’s largest city is Ahmedabad, which morphed from a 15th century walled city to a 19th century center of textile production before evolving into its present-day role as a hub for modern architecture.

The city’s surge in modern design began in the mid-1950s, following India’s independence. As India emerged as a new nation, Ahmedabad, along with the Le Corbusier-designed city of Chandigarh, became laboratories for what modern India might look like. In Ahmedabad, the city’s textile barons (think of them as modern India’s Vanderbilts and Carnegies), led the charge, bringing modernism—and Le Corbusier—to India, and founding the institutions of higher education that continue to train many of the country’s most ambitious designers and architects.

Though Le Corbusier’s most famous contributions to the Indian landscape stand in Chandigarh, the only city that the French master planned in its entirety, he built four buildings within the city of Ahmedabad. Two of them remain open to the public: the airy and secluded Mill Owner’s Association Building and the boldly geometric City Museum (Sanskar Kendra). Le Corbusier also trained the first of India’s great modern architects, BV Doshi, who opened his own firm in Ahmedabad in 1955 directly after returning from his apprenticeship in the master designer’s Paris atelier.

Doshi went on to design the campus for India’s foremost architecture school, the Centre for Environment and Planning Technology, an elegant series of low-slung brick-and-concrete structures built around open, shaded courtyards. He also played a key role in bringing the great American architect Louis Kahn to Ahmedabad to design the campus for the Indian Institute of Management. With its massive volumes of red brick punctuated by immense circles and narrow crescents, and the interplay of shadow and light along its semi-open halls, the campus bears all the marks of Kahn’s singular genius. (Both campuses are open to the public and within a short drive of one another).

A short distance south, the store at the National Institute of Design, India’s premier design school since its founding in 1962, sells items created by alumni and current students. To the north, along the banks of Sabarmati River, the Charles Correa–designed Gandhi Ashram stands on the site from which the Mahatma ran India’s Independence movement.

Though Ahmedabad came into its own as a center for design in the 20th century, the old city and the surrounding villages exemplify an older tradition, one deeply informed by Gujarat’s rich mercantile history, its great wealth, and its profound connections to the outside world. Beyond the village of Adalaj—famous for the lovely carvings on its stepwell—the sleepy village of Uvarsad is an entirely overlooked repository of carved wooden balconies and crumbling havelis built by wealthy merchants in the 18th century. Farther north, past the characterless grid of Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s 1960s-planned capital (a good example of a place with too much design and too little life), the village of Pethapur is famous for its long tradition of block printing. (The Calico Museum in Ahmedabad itself, open by appointment only, houses the most comprehensive collection of textiles anywhere in India.)

The maze of lanes and semi-gated neighborhoods—called pols—that form the old city of Ahmedabad secret away stunning temples and mosques (don’t miss the Jama Masjid, a mosque that dates back to 1424). Visitors can also wander past countless old, dilapidated mansions, some of which have been renovated and turned into bed and breakfasts, like the French Haveli.

Ahmedabad does not wear its wealth of modern design on its sleeve. At first glance, the largest city in Gujarat looks like practically any other large Indian city: sprawling and low-rise and crowded. But a day or two split between its dusty old lanes and its great monuments to modern design offers a new perspective on both the city’s impressive design history and its role in nurturing a 21st-century vision for Indian design.

Michael Snyder is based in Mumbai, and covers the India beat for Travel + Leisure.

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