July 23, 2014
Form(al) Relations: The Swiss Embassy in Delhi
For over a year the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi has initiated a series of events and exhibitions that draw attention to the unique role architecture plays in fostering political and cultural relations between these two countries. These events, as well as the commemorative release of A Tropical House (gta Verlag publishers, 2014), celebrate the fiftieth anniversary […]
For over a year the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi has initiated a series of events and exhibitions that draw attention to the unique role architecture plays in fostering political and cultural relations between these two countries. These events, as well as the commemorative release of A Tropical House (gta Verlag publishers, 2014), celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Swiss Embassy, an unknown gem of Modernist architecture.
In 1947 the newly appointed Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, launched a formal diplomatic initiative with Switzerland. The historically neutral country became the first to sign a friendship treaty with independent India and one of the first to establish a foreign presence in the capital of New Delhi.
Like much post-WWII diplomacy, architecture was the chosen medium for concretizing bilateral relations. Designed by Hans Hofmann and realized by Walter Rüegg after his predecessor’s untimely death, the Swiss Embassy is a remarkable example of postwar modern architecture and an attestation to the precarious process of manifesting abstract concepts of nationhood into the built form. “If it wishes to have a presence in underdeveloped countries and to exert a certain degree of influence,” the Swiss Federal Political Department wrote in 1959, “A concern for effectiveness must prevail over a concern for modesty.” Max Petitpierre, then President of the Swiss Confederation reiterated the above sentiment, stating that a simple building would be interpreted by India as a lack of interest in the country.
Designing a Swiss Embassy
The Swiss government purchased a plot of 24,000m2 and chose Hans Hofmann, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, as the embassy architect. This decision was primarily based on Hofmann’s previous work developing a modern Swiss exhibition style, reflected in the numerous structures created for the World’s Fairs of the time. Hofmann, however, had no knowledge of building in tropical climates, which was part of the Swiss government’s original criteria for selection.
Historical notes suggest that while Hofmann graciously accepted the project, he rather begrudgingly agreed to visit India, believing his “synthesis between functionality and beauty and a meaningful formal language that emerges from the distinctiveness of the architectural task,” would evolve through written correspondence with those already in Delhi. It quickly became apparent that aspects of his original plan would need reworking: the desire for an aluminum roof, a steel frame, and the vision for the Residence, Chancery, and staff apartments to be housed in a single structure.
Hofmann made a 10-day trip to India in October of 1957, incorporating a brief visit to Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. He returned to Switzerland enthusiastic, working on the embassy project until his unexpected death two months later. His young assistant, Walter Rüegg, inherited the project and moved to India until the embassy’s completion in 1963. Prime Minister Nehru, who after more than a decade of leadership, was now fittingly referred to as “the architect of modern India,” attended the opening of the embassy and praised the building both for its form and its symbolic power.
International Style in Delhi
Unlike most of the 60 some embassies in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, the Swiss Embassy is completely visible from the street. The walk to the entrance gate is friendly, casual. One can observe a handful of parked cars and two-wheelers at the end of the entrance path, a marine blue emanating from the bottom of a pool, and the inviting shade of ashoka trees. Aside from the small, white emblem of the Swiss cross, nothing about the building suggests nationalism, nationhood, or political ideology. The result however is truly a transcendence of place. One is no longer in New Delhi, nor in an embassy for that matter. One is just standing before a remarkable convergence of angles and materials.
This initial, pedestrian-scale experience gives way to the full breadth of the 7,800-square-meter main building, which, following Hofmann’s original wishes, houses both Residence and Chancery. Massive in size, the main building becomes monumental in feeling. It is at this vantage point that the Swiss Federal Political Department’s concern for swaggering showmanship over modesty is glaringly apparent. The Switzerland represented in this part of the building is not one of small geographical size but rather one of “moral and financial power.”
Similar to Jean Pouvé’s buildings in West Africa, which were lifted off the ground in recognition of the local climate, Hofmann’s concrete building has a pilotis structure; slender, angular columns and thick slabs of black granite raise the base of the building above ground level. These forms are imposing and rigid but keep the building open and transparent. The metal geometric forms that encase the rectangular sliver of a reflecting pool and fountain feel both Moghul and Saarinan-esque. Initial impressions of a cool, rational formalism associated with the Swiss mentality take on a tactile sensuality when combined with regional elements such as kota stone from Rajasthan, marble, granite, and teak wood. The building enhances our awareness of the surrounding elements, the tropical light, sounds, and smells and the embassy complex ultimately fulfills its original diplomatic intention. “It stands,” current Ambassador Dr. Linus von Castemur explains, “whether explicitly or implicitly for values and idea; it represents one country within another.”
Switzerland in India
What started as an example of Swiss modernism has morphed into bilateral relations of ideas and forms. The reflecting pool, for example, is not just a pool, but also a cooling device, as is the high, inward slanting roof that provides natural ventilation from both below and above. Openness of form was a distinct trait of Western mid-century modern architecture but has always been a traditional element within the Indian vernacular. Yet the ground-level veranda and open meeting areas of the balcony areas cannot be captured by any trite ‘East-meets-West’ description.
The collaborative process that initially caused many delays in the completion of the Swiss Embassy has ultimately allowed the complex to age with grace. Apart from energy-related improvements, very few alterations to the building have been made. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary, new furniture, lighting, and artwork was installed. These updates, such as a stone installation from Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai, a bronze sculpture from Otto Müller, and paper works by graphic artist Urs Fischer allude to a second bilateral relation—art and State. Once again however, the overall effect in bringing together the cultural and the political is that of neutrality, and beauty in form.