DECODING THE LEGEND
A legend in the field of good design, sustainability and architecture. Raj Rewal is the force behind some of India’s most beautiful and iconic structures.
Architect Raj Rewal on his incredible journey, current projects and design philosophy.
There is something about a Raj Rewal design that keeps you riveted. Even if they are just models that surround his desk in his office in New Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai. You can spot the iconic Parliament Library, Ismaili Centre in Lisbon, the demolished Hall of Nations at the Pragati Maidan Exhibition Centre, office complex of Coal India in Kolkata and the Asian Games Village, to name a few. In a career that spans 36 years, 84-year-old Rewal has been instrumental in changing the Indian design landscape. Rewal like his designs can’t help but stand out from the crowd. A reservoir of information, an afternoon with him will leave you with a wealth of interesting anecdotes. It is easy to see why his architecture has been called poetry in stone. They are much more than bricks and mortar, they symbolise different facets of life. No wonder, his works have been widely exhibited and published, with monographs in English and French. Reinventing historical architectural forms and concepts for a contemporary world while paying heed to sustainability and technological advances makes Rewal well ahead of his time. India Today Home speaks to the stalwart about his views on design and architecture.
You believe in the rasa of architecture. What is that?
Rasa means the spirit embodied in performing arts such as comic, tragic or erotic. In architecture the rasa is slightly subdued. Some buildings are powerful and dynamic and some are gentle and quiet, but all need to be user friendly. It is a very important ingredient. The first job of an architect is to fulfil the functional aspects of a building. It can be a school, a library, housing or a campus. Once the requirements of the building, are met, the second part of the job is to do it very well so that people enjoy being there.
Tell us about the design of the iconic Parliament Library Creating the Parliament Library building which is next to the Parliament was a challenging task. The building had imperialist content and the surrounding spaces were all Lutyens and Baker designs. I considered the Indian idea of enlightenment as a basis for the design of the library. After all, a library is supposed to enlighten you. It has interior passages overlooking courtyards symbolising values of the Indian constitution like freedom of speech, social justice and equality. The glass dome designed like petals brings in the idea of enlightenment and it lights up all the books inside.
New projects that are close to your heart
I have just finished a campus (State University of Performing and Visual Arts) in Rohtak. It is a very interesting project. It has multiple disciplines such as a film, fashion, architecture, urbanism, and arts. The 20-acre plot is divided into four quadrangles, four courtyards for each discipline and a central courtyard where all of them meet. I think the main purpose of education is not only limited to what you are studying but also to ensure there are spaces to exchange knowledge. That is what we tried to do. The entire campus is unified around a library, auditorium and conference room, which is crowned with a circular emblem signifying the idea of righteous living, Dharna Chakra. We have also used a number of solar panels. The building is finished in sandstone because it is inexpensive and is durable. There’s also a small amphitheatre with a four-layered glass top to reflect heat and since it is open on all sides it is naturally ventilated. It took three to four years to complete. We have also just finished one of the most important projects that I have ever done; the Jang-e-Azadi memorial (in Punjab) to commemorate freedom fighters who laid down their lives for independence and struggle
for freedom in Punjab. It is a memorial and a museum. It is almost becoming a place of pilgrimage. This is a very large project—there is an amphitheatre, a minar and the domes on top are designed to look like a flower. The flowers are a homage to people who were martyred. When I was asked to do the minar I was a bit reluctant as minars in modern architecture are very rare. Here it is supposed to be a symbol of victory, so we have also added a flame. Many people come and pay their respects. Young couples come to seek blessings for a strong and courageous baby. This took about three years to complete.
How many projects do you work on at the same time?
I don’t like to do too many projects together. Ideally, I would like to do three projects at a time. One at the design and model stage, another at the working drawing phase (where you make drawings to decide how to make the building on site), and the third when it is on the site. Of course, sometimes there are more projects to juggle around.
What kind of projects do you like to design?
I would like to do larger projects. Life in architecture is a long journey. You start with smaller projects, then you graduate and people trust you. You have more confidence. Now I design large projects such as the Parliament Library building, which have a symbolic concern. This is far more fulfilling than simple functional concerns. The humanist content in a building is very important. There should be some poetry about the building.
Your thoughts on sustainability?
In our last few projects we have been very concerned about sustainability. Embracing the sun is important. We use a lot of photovoltaic panels. For example in Kolkata we have done the office building for COAL India Ltd. The building stands testament to how to use photovoltaic panels in a much more creative manner, rather than just putting them on the roof. We have also used glass as a sun breaker here. This is a different coloured glass that reduces heat and cuts down the glare.
Who inspires you?
When I started there were Le Corbusier and Louis I Kahn in India who greatly influenced me. However, over a period of time I realised that for me true inspiration comes from traditional Indian architecture. In this kind of architecture there was a lot of wisdom about how to conquer the heat and how to live well. Fatehpur Sikri in Agra is one of my favourites.
Architecture in India, then and now... There was a point of time when the senior architects judged the competition and professional fee was awarded as per guidelines set by the Council of Indian Architecture. Slowly this degenerated and the public sector, which was the major promoter of architecture, gave way to the private sector and even the government started giving works on quotations. In such cases the person or firm that gives the lowest quote is given the contract. This has been a disaster for us. It’s important that people who commission or judge a work of architecture, go and see the building.
Photograph by VIKRAM SHARMA
DESIGN WITH A DIFFERENCE Raj Rewal with the model of Jang-E-Azadi memorial complex in Kartarpur, Punjab
SPACE CRAFT Library for the Parliament in New Delhi (right); office complex for Coal India Ltd in Kolkata (below)