Concrete framework of Indian architecture: The Tribune India

Rajnish Wattas

I first heard of Mahendra Raj as a structural engineer in 1972. As a young architect with prominent American architect Joseph Allen Stein, I could gaze upon the Purana Quila from his office in New Delhi. Not far away was the upcoming Pragati Maidan, where India’s prestigious international trade fair was to be held soon, and preparations were underway.

During lunch hours, we young architects would often go there to see the innovative work that was coming up. Stunning inspirational designs for pavilions were taking shape. The most famous was the Hall of Nations, designed by architect Raj Rewal. It had a unique structural system comprising a precast concrete space frame, a very first attempt in India. The huge clear-span room, shaped like a giant truncated pyramid, was designed by a brilliant engineer named Raj.

Space frames were generally constructed of steel internationally. “But since it couldn’t be offered in India at that time, the alternative was to do it in precast concrete,” Rewal recalls. It was bold and daring work made possible by the US-educated Raj. It went on to become the most defining image of modern post-independence Indian architecture – even though it was demolished in 2017!

Raj went on to collaborate with other leading Indian architects like Achyut Kanvinde, BV Doshi, Charles Correa, Joseph Allen Stein and Kuldip Singh.

Raj had a deep connection with Chandigarh. In the early 1950s when Chandigarh started, he worked as an assistant engineer under PL Varma, chief engineer of the Capitol project. ‘I worked on the structural design of the parasol roof of the high court building. The cantilevered roof from which conoidal shells would be suspended posed a challenge. But nothing could change that, warned our Indian teammates. Eventually, we were able to solve it and the building is today as it was designed by Le Corbusier,” recalls Raj.

However, a greater challenge awaited him. The Secretariat building design included six structural bays with expansion joints between them. While the other bays had uniform fronts, bay number four had a different pattern, where Corbusier had created a playful variation. Jumping columns challenged structural stability. Raj informed Varma accordingly. When Le Corbusier had the difficulty explained to him, he was livid! “I told you to ask my French engineers to do it, but you insisted on your Indian team, and now they can’t do it,” he told Varma. But Raj spoke up and showed Corbusier a slightly modified alternative.

He asked them to leave the drawing to study later. The next day, Raj is again summoned to Le Corbusier’s office. This time, Le Corbusier compliments him for his ingenuity and genius. The facade was modified by Le Corbusier and today bears witness to Raj’s genius.

Raj, who died on May 8, leaves behind him not only countless buildings, but also indelible marks on the “concrete” of Chandigarh.

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