As the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris prepares to showcase Raj Rewal’s works later this month, the seasoned architect tells Anuj Kumar India doesn’t have to look shabby
His office in New Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai makes one realise what Raj Rewal means when he says architecture has its own vocabulary. Like any other creative form, it also has rasa, his lines in the latest book (“Raj Rewal: Innovative Architecture and Tradition”) on him by Om Books International come alive as the village ushers us into the city.
Be it the Library for the Indian Parliament or the Visual Arts Institutional Campus in Rohtak, serenity oozes from his humane expression of architecture. But then in Metro Bhawan and GrapeCity, he shows how he can put the functional aspect first.
“You can do a good functional building, you can also do a building which is structurally innovative but finally what it expresses is also important. In public buildings symbolism is an important aspect while a factory has to be functional,” Rewal simplifies his craft for us.
For now, Paris, where he once worked in Michel Ecohard’s office, is calling him for his elaborate body of work will be the centre of attraction at the prestigious Centre Pompidou for the next 10 months. “It is an important centre which exhibits modern works of art and architecture. In its permanent collection, it has works of artists like Picasso and Matisse. To be invited to be a part of their permanent collection is an honour and the recognition for original work should also make Indian authorities understand what is good about modern architecture in India.”
Rewal says he always tells his students that they cannot live in the past. *You cannot marry your grandmother. You have to find creative solutions for today. I mean the past is an inspiration but not a solution.* Not to be flattered by statements like Rewal*s school of architecture, he emphasises there are many other architects who are doing original work. *We are communicating certain values through our architectural design. It is based on our climate and culture, way of living and at the same time keep in mind the need of so many people to be housed.*
He gives the example of jaali which comes from Mughal architecture but he developed it into a piece of modern architecture when he turned it into a three dimensional space structure in Hall of Exhibitions at Pragati Maidan. The Asian Games Village is an example of low rise large-scale housing solution while The Parliament Library draws its ethos from Mandala diagrams. Aurelien Lemonier, the curator of exhibition, speaks highly of this large diversity of architectural typologies that Rewal developed (see box).
However, the urban design that we are getting from private sector in large swathes of Delhi-NCR reminds of only one rasa and that is commerce. *Unfortunately, what you are saying is true. The commercial aspect of architecture is taking over and a kind of consumer fundamentalism is setting in. Many of our builders are very good at making money but architecturally, many of them are illiterate. I am an optimist, though.* One reminds of the nomenclature like Acropolis and Orange County, and Rewal calls it ridiculous and laughable. *They are trying to pamper the wishes of a kind of clientele by using such names,* he lets the smile slip.
He reminds that form follows finance is often mentioned by people in the globalised, market friendly economy. *In such cases all that matters is how much money this building can make. I think it becomes a sad affair for architecture. To me, form and finance are merged together.* Historically, he says, people in power influenced the architecture but we have a past where there was a harmony between the way the raja and the subjects lived. *Take the great building of the Mughal period. My favourite is of course Fatehpur Sikri. The cities of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur are examples of this architectural harmony so are the temple towns of Madurai and Tanjore. *The city itself was a work of art and the city should be a work of art,* says the man who grew up watching Humayun Tomb every morning.
Rewal is in a position to liven up the Capital as he is the Chairman of Delhi Urban Arts Commission. *Five lakh people come to the city every year. Authorities have not been able to keep up with this sort of avalanche. Half of Delhi is living in unauthorised colonies and slums. The general situation seems grim but I don*t think Indian cities need to look shabby. At Urban Arts Commission, we have created a central hub to look into urban design and how we can improve unauthorised colonies and slums. This is the most important and unfortunately, the most neglected part not only for Delhi but every city of India.*The solutions have to be region specific, he elucidates.
*One cap doesn*t fit all. Site specific studies are being done. Let*s say in one situation we can send people to a nearby transit camp while we redesign the slum. It could also be a 7 to 8 storey building. Another important aspect is to put proper drainage and organise electricity wires. These are simple things which can go a long way in improving the look of the city. We are also looking at improving the gardens and the landscape by introducing art galleries, cafés and small amphitheatres to liven up the ambience,* says Rewal, adding, the idea is to improve the neighbourhood.
*The problem of Delhi is, we don*t have one agency which is clearly responsible for its maintenance. Design, implementation and maintenance have to be clearly integrated. And citizens should also show some responsibility. Poverty or ignorance can*t be an argument for spitting paan on a building. It should be fined. Certain parameters have to be adhered to.* Talking about the constraints, Rewal says the kind of brief the Commission has, it is to do theoretical research and how it can lead to some practical solutions. He says there is a need to look into how the funds allocated to Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are being utilised.
*Also, there has to be some sync between bureaucratic orders and the ground reality. Now, floor-area ratio (FAR) is made 4 but do we know what it entails. Is there enough infrastructure to handle it? There has to be some kind of vision,* he argues.In love with sandstone, Rewal says it is still much cheaper than glass and steel and weathers very well. *I am not against the modern material like glass and concrete and I have used them extensively in Metro Bhawan but they have to be carefully fused with the structure to suit our climate. Glass is easy to clean but the transition of heat is also quick with glass, so it is much more suitable in cold climates.
* In his buildings light mostly comes from top and it often becomes a symbol of enlightenment like in The Parliament Library. Rewal reminds he also faces questions like how so much sunlight will increase the cost of air conditioning but he maintains that one has to work around the constraints to make the idea sustainable. *Like in The Parliament Library we made the garden on the top to reduce the heat.
* Rewal is excited about his latest project, the University of Creative Arts in Rohtak. Now in popular imagination, Haryana has little to do with aesthetics but Rewal is seeing the bigger picture through this ambitious project of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda in his constituency. Here, the way he has integrated solar energy panels into the library building it reminds of the chakra.
*People are interpreting it in their own way. To me, it is a way to harness solar energy and as it is above the library it is a symbol of enlightenment. The institute is a blend of different stream of arts like film, fashion and architecture. I have given them separate entry and exit but then, there are common areas where the exchange of ideas could happen.* Quoting Naipul, Rewal says we are part of a wounded civilisation.
*Artistically speaking, it is true in North India. As there is very little architecture that belongs to the era before the Mughals. Archaeologists say 120 temples were destroyed. I am not an authority on the subject but when I started I thought of filling some sort of gap. It is a sort of renaissance for me of art and creativity in North India.*