04/10/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

An American's Beautiful Imprint on New Delhi

Many rulers and architects have left behind their imprint on the historic Indian city of Delhi over the centuries. While a Mughal king's artisans built an impressive Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi, the English architect Edward Lutyen's legacy is the sprawling 'Imperial' New Delhi at the height of British Raj. In 1952, the American architect Joseph Allen Stein arrived in the newly independent India from California and gave a refreshing, modern and international idiom to the capital city's architecture.

Born on this day (April 10) in Nebraska 100 years ago, Stein fell in love with India and lived here for nearly half a century. Among Stein's legendary architectural creations, adjacent to the famous Lodi Gardens, are the Ford Foundation headquarters, the India International Centre (IIC), the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India) and Gandhi-King Plaza, an open-air memorial in IIC.

In this Stein-inspired island of simplicity and elegance, now popularly known as 'Steinabad,' India's power elite loves to work, live, party, gossip and socialize. The buildings that dot this green exclusive area are the favourite haunts of the intelligentsia and the high and mighty of the land. They come here to relax, attend cultural and professional events, and savor the best tipple and cuisine.

Stein also designed Delhi's favourite cultural hub at Triveni Kala Sangam (Mandi House), the American International School and the Australian high commission in Chanakyapuri. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was keen to give Indian cities a modern and cosmopolitan touch.

In the first flush of freedom India witnessed many other foreign architects arrive in the country. The great Swiss architect Le Corbusier was entrusted the task of designing the new Punjab capital city at Chandigarh, while the Americans Louis Kahn and Charles Eames began their assignments at Ahmedabad.

Stein was excited by the idea of arriving in a newly independent country, comparing it to coming to the United States ''when Thomas Jefferson was alive.'' But he also became attracted by India itself, which he said offered ''the possibility of beauty with simplicity.''

The New York Times wrote when Stein died in 2001:

In the nearly half-century he spent in India, Mr. Stein won acclaim for marrying his structures to the natural landscape. He favored buildings that merged into the trees, lawns and ponds surrounding them, and later in life he became increasingly concerned with protecting the environment, particularly the Himalayas.

In 'Building in the Garden,' a study of his work, Stephen White, dean of the School of Architecture at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island wrote that Mr. Stein 'developed a vocabulary of carefully crafted building forms responsive to the subtleties of place and culture,' and combined it with 'a sense of responsibility for the total, both designed and natural.'

Stein foresaw what the juggernaut of progress would do to the delicate balance of ecosystems -- his designs sought to find harmony. In an interview in 1982, he said: "India has intense and sharply drawn environmental problems. There is probably no possibility of solutions here except along what may be called Gandhian lines, which means essentially seeking simple and ecologically gentle solutions."

Stein was born in Nebraska and got his training at the University of Illinois, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and at the forward-thinking Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. By 1938, he was working in Los Angeles with Richard Neutra, one of the founders of the Modern Movement, wrote Dave Weinstein in the San Francisco Chronicle:

During World War II, Stein designed housing for war workers that set the tone for his later residential work -- a house that is essentially a square but seems anything but, because the nonstructural interior walls are diagonals, and because angular, trellis-topped terraces are as intrinsic to the living space as the actual rooms...

When Bay Area architects of a certain age talk about their youthful ideals -- building for the common man, using design to create a better society -- the name Joseph Allen Stein keeps coming up. No one was as committed to designing for workers and the poor, nor as rigorous in his denunciations of injustice or his analysis of social ills.

Stein's buildings represent the best of post-independence construction in Delhi and they must be recognized as landmarks worthy of preservation, says Ratish Nanda, conservation architect with the Aga Khan Foundation.

I had the privilege of working from a spacious office space for five years at WWF-India, one of the finest buildings Stein had designed in Lodi Estate. My colleagues who worked there felt as if they were working amidst nature. Many of his buildings incorporated lapis lazuli tiles that could be seen in the old monuments in the nearby lush green Lodi Gardens.

It is a fitting tribute that the 'Joseph Stein Lane' is the only road in Delhi named after an architect.

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