Modern Architecture Pioneer: Panch Mahal, India

Panch Mahal at Fatehpur Sikri In India was built in the sixteenth century by Emperor Akbar.  It is the earliest known example of a multistory frame structure akin to Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino designed in 1914–1915.  Architect Le Corbusier is known for developing the principles of modern architecture –  including the idea of a free standing structural frame consisting of floor slabs and columns.  However, Panch Mahal explored this idea several centuries earlier and must be recognized as a precursor to modern architecture.    

Panch Mahal

Panch Mahal is a part of the City of Victory (Fatehpur Sikri) built by Emperor Akbar in late sixteenth century.  Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire and is a World Heritage site in India.  Panch Mahal means “five-story high royal pavilion”.   As the name suggests, it consists of a five-story frame pavilion made of red sandstone.  The open floor plan allows it to serve as a transition building between the traditional masonry structure on one side and an open plaza on the other. 

A view on a rainy day
A view on a rainy day 2

Panch Mahal‘s frame structure and open plan became a part of Le Corbusier’s architectural grammar, and truly served as precursor to modern architecture several centuries before Le Corbusier’s writings and projects.

Maison Dom-Ino by Le Corbusier

Maison Dom-Ino was a conceptual platform for post-war reconstruction in France.  It envisioned a structural framework of columns and concrete floor slabs connected by a stairway.  The entire system would be constructed of prefabricated components.  “The contractor would deliver the frames marked and grouped upon the order of the architect-planner or, more simply, upon the order of the client.  Another contractor would furnish all the additional elements, which could be mass-produced: the windows, doors, etc.”[i]

The frame structure at Panch Mahal
The frame structure at Panch Mahal 3

The resulting architecture would allow open floor plans separated from both the structure as well as the façade.  The walls were no longer needed to support the structure and elimination of walls would allow floor to ceiling openings with plenty of natural light.  In addition, these openings would provide a sense of transparency between the exterior and the interior. 

Modern architecture

The structural frame consisting of reinforced concrete slabs and steel columns, open floor plan, free flowing façade independent of the structural frame and large horizontal openings between floor and ceiling became the essential elements of modern architecture.  The fifth element was the roof top garden to compensate for the damage to the natural landscape, and to provide an additional setting to experience architecture. 

The Glass House by Philip Johnson in Connecticut utilizes many of these elements.  The Glass House is recognized as the marvelous example of modern architecture in North America.

Side View of Panch Mahal
Side View of Panch Mahal 4

Precursor to Modern architecture

Panch Mahal’s contribution as a precursor to modern architecture is not often recognized in the History of Architecture.  However, it must be recognized as a pioneer of modernism in architecture. 

[i] Extract from Le Corbusier et Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complète, volume1, 1910-1929

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