Sanjeev Kotnala: IIMA Heritage Dorms: Restore, Redevelop or Demolish Debate

14 Apr,2021

Sanjeev KotnalaBy Sanjeev Kotnala

 

The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) brick and mortar heritage dorms are in danger. It concerns you if you are an alumnus of IIMA. It should interest you if you ever gave CAT or dreamt of studying at the famous campus designed by Louis Khan. If the name IIMA and the alumni ever inspired or mentored you.  It is all about heritage, all about the brand value of the iconic flagship institute of management education in India.

 

THE MANAGEMENT SEE NO HARM IN DEMOLISHING THE HERITAGE DORMS, AND THE ALUMNI WANT TO PROTECT THEM.

Frankly, I give a damn! What an institution does with its buildings. It  is their call. But when the Institute in question is IIMA, my alma mater, my expectations and engagement are entirely different. Naturally, my otherwise sedated logical thoughts take a polarised view.

BACKGROUND.

The IIMA director and management were recently under the spotlight for not the right reasons. In December 2020, they decided to demolish the heritage Dorm 1-14 and leave spare Dorm 15-18. All in the name  of balancing heritage with safety with evolving needs. Decisions which many stakeholders find fault with.

Honestly, the heritage part of the campus is in a mess. Something needs to happen. These dorms need to be redeveloped, restored, rehabilitated or demolished to make way for new structures.

THE CASE ANALYSIS

If it was a case study at IIMA, one would have given more time, effort and debate to arrive at a conclusion. At first, it seems a simple management decision. Restore /Demolish /Rehabilitate /Redevelop heritage dormitories. The current management has taken a completely emotionless decision without thinking of culture, memories and brand values.

BRAND VISUALISATION.

When you think of IIMA, it is the red bricks and mortar structure that comes to mind. The most photographed spaces at IIMA are Harvard steps, Louis khan Plaza, 2019 UNESCO award-winning Vikram Sarabhai Library and the dorms with their large circular open spaces. All the selfies, institute own literature and profile pictures have the well-recognised red brick structures as a background. Nowhere do you see the new campus. That is how strong the brand IIMA is identified with the bricks at Ahmedabad.

 

THE CASE POINTS.

The campus preservation and rehabilitation journey started in 2014.  The need for  large scale restoration reflects the delayed maintenance and inadequate repairs of the dorms. The dorms only occupy some 4% of the total 104-acre campus. Can this be left as such?

The management decided to  restore one of the worst dorms, Dorm 15, as a pilot to learn lessons The restoration of the Vikram Sarabhai library, in fact, won an award post-restoration.

THE SEEDING OF THE DEBATE.

In a letter to alumni on December 23, 2020, the director of IIMA shared the news of planned demolishing dorm 1-14. He said, after the 2001 earthquake, IIMA hired the best conservation architects SNK (Somaya & Kalappa Consultants), to address the issues.

Later IIMA hired international restoration consultants Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee. Based on their suggestion, a pilot restoration of the worst-hit dorm, Dorm-15 and the library were undertaken.

Post that un-named structural consultant suggested there was not enough compressive strength in the arches and the structure. It is different that this was as per the new norms and not the one in place when the buildings were considered.

The structural consultant of the architect, in fact, opined that both Dorn 15 and the library could resist moderate earthquake with minor damage.

The director, in the same letter thinking aloud, raised a question. He said, ‘We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonise future perceptions of living spaces. As we try to preserve the past to prevent loss, how much are we creating our own imagination of the past’. That is some dilemma to live by.

THE DEBATE GETS FUELED BY PASSIONATE ALUMNI.

December 29, 2020, Together with IIM, a virtual platform of concerned alumni, wrote to Mr Kumarmangalam Birla, Chairperson of Governing Council IIM, Ahmedabad, and to prof d’Souza, director IIMA pointing out, “the current series of decisions, that will indelibly impact the future of this great institution, appears to have been taken without meaningful consultation with the alumni that, you will appreciate, is the largest stakeholder body and is the key to promote the institution globally. We have been provided with limited context, have many questions and not enough answers“.

They added, “The iconic buildings have played an important role in inspiring “awe and wonder” to the generations of outstanding management students, and it would be a great service to our nation to find ways to maintain that legacy”.

Personally believe it is not just the IIMA alumni but a host of other management students who have been inspired and look up to the simple brick and mortar structure. The Institute could check with the brand consultants and realise how important these structures are.

DIFFERENCE OF OPINION.

The IIMA management agrees that there is a difference of opinion between their assigned consultants on the longevity of restored dorms in the Ahmedabad seismic zone.

Note, the dorms underwent repairs post-2001 earthquake and were then assessed as strong by the structural engineers.

The first tender in 2014 acknowledges that “The structural strength and stability of the buildings can be gauged from the fact that no major structural damage occurred to these buildings during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake”.

NET NET.

The whole issue is simple and straight forward. A case of feasibility and safety for the future occupants. A case for  upgrading with the evolving student’s needs. And the cost vs the longevity of the solution.

FEASIBILITY

The management decided to demolish dorm 1-14 because dorm 15 was unsafe. However, left Dorm 16-18 because they are external facing- visible from the road. They would want the imagery to remain the same. Where is the solution approach? Why can’t the best of the restoration techniques and exerts used to do the best possible job?

STUDENT PREFERENCE

IIMA would want all to believe the students want a bigger room with an attached loo. On the contrary, ‘Together for IIMA’, an alumni group against demolition, researched and found that the current students want safety and comfort but through renovation and not necessarily demolition.

There is excellent  vibes and feelings for the iconic buildings. There is a legacy and emotional touch. And many students who dislike the concretised new campus.

MIGRATORY BIRDS CALLED STUDENTS.

The truth is the students are treated as transitory customers. IIMA management has not informed students not asked for their preferences.

IIMA believes that Alumni (the migrated birds) are not stakeholders. Their hypothesis is that the  recent pass outs don’t care. Only, the batches passing out before 1995 are sentimental about the dorms and the structures.

The ‘Together for IIMA’ indicates that all alumni across batches want to preserve- restore the iconic dorms and structures.

LONGEVITY and COST

The IIMA management says that the restoration process is full of minefields. The architect is giving only a 10-year guarantee which IIMA management has taken to mean that every 10th year the dorms will need to be emptied and restoration done again. Actually, experts have pointed out the guarantee and the longevity are different concepts, IIMA would do well to avoid equating the two.

Logic would say that restoration be damned. The dorms should be demolished. IIMA management also points out the restoration of Dorm-15 was not an excellent example of the possibilities. This itself is debatable due to difference of opinion.

THE ALUMNI – NOT A BARRIER BUT FACILITATOR.

The collective alumni of IIMA (and possibly tall IIM’s) want transparency in the information and engagement with the Institute.

The faculty, students and alumni, all three parties must be part of the decision process.

The committee taking care must have experts in the field of building construction, renovation and estate management. It should also have alumni representation by people who are expert in infrastructure and construction.

COUNCIL OF ARCHITECTURE APPEALS.

As alumni of the Institute- I love when Habeeb khan, president council of architecture, writes to Director IIMA. In his letter dated 31 December, he says, “both in its spirit and in its “brick and mortar”. IIMA has always profoundly inspired us, with its exemplary learning environment and its respected faculty and illustrious student/alumni committed to excellence”. The same letter further says, “IIMA reconsidering its decision to re-initiating the restoration of the dormitories, it becomes impossible for any respected architectural firm to engage with the terms of IIMA’s present EOI to demolish these historic precincts to rebuild a fresh in this part of the campus precinct”.

ALUMNI TAKES A STEP FORWARD.

On 19-Jan 2021, the alumni body with over 222 signatories across batches from 1967 to 2020 wrote to the Board of Governors. They impressed upon withdrawing the Expression of Interest that was put out to reconstruct the dorms.

Basis an interaction on 10 February 2021, the alumni team reiterated that they were willing to provide pro-bono support. They want to support a solution to ensure that the dorms are not demolished but restored.

MAYBE THE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION WITH IIMA COULD LAUNCH A CASE STUDY CONTEST ON THIS HERITAGE DORMS ISSUE.

INSTITUTE TAKES A BREATHER.

Board of Governors on Campus Preservation, in their statement of February 2021, said that they have decided to conduct further consultations with international preservation and rehabilitation experts regarding feasibility. Safety and sustainability of restoration and rehabilitation as well as an initial and ongoing cost. Sounds good.

The rider seems polarised and indicates an almost pre-decided skew. “we will chart out a course of action based on our desire to preserve our heritage and bearing in mind that our responsibility is to firmly keep in sight the safety of those who utilise the building”. Basic hygiene. Was anything else expected?

Additionally, it says, “whilst recognising the building are part of an architectural milestone in modern India and an important element of the identity of the campus, we would like to be practical that the restoration is cost-effective over the long term‘. Read between the lines.

Leaving nothing to the imagination and a possible unilateral decision in the future, the IIMA management reiterates what they teach in classrooms. ‘we recognise that no uniformity can be expected from such a range of advice, expectations and opinion. Nor can any single decision be expected to fulfil all the expectations of those who have expressed their passionate concern’.

Almost a FO to the Alumina, which is not considered a part of stakeholder in this communication.

ALUMNI’S READS THE SITUATION BETTER.

March 2021, the alumni group ventured to help IIMA. It proposed, “We have aligned with highly respected experts in behaviour of masonry structures in earthquake-prone areas. They have individually agreed to undertake a preliminary study without charging any fees – a very generous offer – if IIMA invites them and takes care of their travel and hospitality. The findings of these top experts from respected Indian Institutions will carry weight with stakeholders and alleviate doubts and speculation. We request the Institute to extend an invitation to the individuals referenced in the annexure. We are more than happy to engage with experts and oversee the repair process.”

OTHER RELEVANT APPEALS.

A petition ‘SAVE LOUIS KAHN’S IIM AHMEDABAD DORMITORIES FROM DEMOLITION’ by the architectural review already has more than 19000 signatories. Another by Sarosh Anklesaria, Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University; Shubhra Raje, Shubhra Raje_built environments; Riyaz Tayyibji, architect, Heritage Conservation Plan for Ahmedabad led to over 1200 signatories, of which 3 were Pritzker Prize Winners, other signatories were from across 63 countries, 235 academic institutions, 71 Heads of institutions

ANY FIRM IN RESTORATION WOULD LOVE TO DO THE PROJECT.

PICTURE ABHI BAAKI HAI.

Now, the process is back to square one. IIMA management will most likely try creating an environment that will favour demolition and not restoration. There may things few could be a party to. Alumni wants nothing sort of restoration. There may be solutions that can remain true to both and, more importantly, to the brand IMA. The campus is never going to be the same, with these structures missing.

Personally, I would even agree to demolish and recreate the same façade of the dorms, re-engineer the inner space for whatever you want to do. And yes, keep the front dorm 16-18 as such. There has to be some give and take. Lessor fixed coordinates means more is the freedom and possibility of a solution.

JOIN THE BATTLE.

I have never been party to any of the signatures. But, I have affixed my name to the recent letter. Because I believe the structure is a brand image that can and should not be done away with. And, I think there are possible solutions.

Suppose you are an alumnus of IIMA and want to put your signature to the petition seeking to protect the dorms from being demolished. In that case, you could add your name to the list of signatory here.

 

 

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