"An artist first, then an architect," says P. S. Govind Rao, creator of landmarks like Hotel Savera and Temple Towers. "Spaces that respect Nature nourish our soul and spirit," he declares
The traffic diversion on Anna Salai makes the short distance seem oh-so-long. But I’ve no complaints. There are so many gaudy distractions in the name of new construction that take me on a visual overdrive from teeming T. Nagar to bustling Nandanam. “Oh, Temple Towers-a,” my driver asks, when I signal him to slow down. I’m not surprised. Even after 23 years, the temple architecture-inspired building with its tiered terraces continues to be an important landmark on the arterial road.
In his sprawling space on the ninth floor, a soft-spoken P. S. Govind Rao sits on a beautifully-restored royal blue settee. While the Tower’s façade reflects his urge to look for fresh points of departure as an architect, the interior mirrors the mind of a passionate artist. As I examine the walls lined with several subtle-toned, intricate figurative works in mixed media, the perplexing chicken-or-egg question flashes across my mind. “An artist first, then an architect,” he responds with a genial vibe.
“I used to sit in the arts class and study architecture!” reminisces the grand old man, clasping his well-polished walking stick. A student of the College of Fine Arts and Architecture, Hyderabad, in the 1950s, Rao came to Madras in the early Sixties hoping to get practical training in architecture. Instead, he indulged his artistic side and some of his works even made it to the walls of the then popular store Chellarams. “The going got tough; so I decided to pack my bags and leave. At that time, someone I knew asked me to design his house. Slowly, more assignments followed. I unpacked and stayed on. And look! Five decades have sped by. But I’ve always cherished my first love — art. Even as an architect with frenetic deadlines, I never kept away from painting.”
The result shows on the walls. Paintings from the 1950s to recent times echo the artist’s prolificacy. His themes are rural and predominantly women-centric. They stand out for their expressive strokes and emotional honesty. The backdrop is usually detailed — gardens in full bloom, cool water bodies and delicate, elongated trees. Some works reflect an air of indolent sexuality with statuesque women and bulky men sharing intimate moments in an enchanting rural landscape. Though his palette is refined, the artist seems to favour line over colour. “This is going to be a permanent space for my works. I’m going to paint more…” beams the 76-year-old, sounding more thrilled about tomorrow’s artistic pursuits than yesterday’s architectural accomplishments. “Simple themes, sound technique.” That’s his idiom. “Unless people understand the paintings, how can they appreciate them?”
The same philosophy permeates his architectural designs as well. “An artist gives free rein to his thoughts. But as an architect you design buildings with the client’s requirements, topography, space, budget, etc. on your mind. Like in my paintings, I prefer to keep my designs simple. It’s a visual language that flows seamlessly from one discipline to the other. The minute a client discusses a project, I’m already drawing the plan — even on a tiny piece of paper. I’ve not touched a computer keyboard all my life!” says the veteran, who has designed a hundred landmarks. From the Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Hospital and the Madras Medical Mission to commercial complexes and high-profile residential spaces in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry, Rao has left his imprint on several structures.
Design around Nature
Like his paintings, you’ll seldom see his spaces devoid of soft textures, trees or water bodies. “From the beginning, I felt that need to design around Nature. So whether it is Hotel Savera or the residence of Dr. K.M. Cherian, you’ll find trees incorporated into the design.” A bio-pic of the artist-architect titled I Live Art by Katheeja Shireen, that’s being screened in his gallery, shows a cannonball tree occupying a prime place in Cherian’s house. The structure is sensitively built around it. “Spaces that respect Nature nourish our soul and spirit,” he declares.
When the topic swerves to the mind-numbing sameness of glass facades in new commercial structures and the modern monstrosity of residential condos, the artist who has tried to embrace pleasure and practicality, curves and angles, outdoors and indoors in his buildings says, “Like in art, expression is vital to architecture too. Good design creates a space that incorporates the physical and emotional needs of the user. I’m not for massive skyscrapers. Small spaces are a creative challenge. But I believe it is possible to build a comfortable home on even a tiny plot of land, provided the design strikes a balance between form and function. I’ve built beautiful homes on half-ground plots — that too with clutter-free verdant spaces. As far as greenery goes, I integrate it in my design. In many contemporary structures, green patches are fitted in as an afterthought or as an add-on statement!”
His next project involves 600 independent housing units on a 25-acre plot in Kelambakkam. How’s that possible, I wonder. With a can-do smile, he says, “The future is about nano homes that perform with greater efficiency and promise to sustain the environment.”
Some landmarks Rao built…
* Temple Towers (Nandanam), Temple Steps (Chinna Malai), Fagun Mansion, Shivalaya Buildings, Hotel Savera, Corporation Bank (Whites Road), Dr. K.M. Cherian’s — Frontier Lifeline — International Centre for Cardio Thoracic and Vascular Diseases, Madras Medical Mission, Andhra Mahila Sabha Hospital Complex, Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Hospital, Apollo Cancer Hospital, Apollo Hospital (Greams Road), Anna Arivalayam Mega Community Center, Anna Salai, Stella Maris College, Don Bosco Matriculation School (Egmore), New College, BPL Ltd and AVM Rajeswari Kalyana Mandapam. He was also instrumental in the design of the revolving globe with the AVM logo for the studio in Vadapalani.
*Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Sri Venkateswara University (Tirupati), Visvodaya University (Nellore),Vellore Engineering College, Arts and Science College (Rajasthan) and Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences and Intergraph India (Hyderabad)
Govind Rao has designed about 2,000 houses, farm houses and retreats across the country. Some of his high-profile clients include T. Subbarami Reddy, MP, ex CMs of Andhra Pradesh Brahmananda Reddy, Janardhan Reddy and N.T. Rama Rao, former President of India Dr. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Dr. Prathap C. Reddy, chairman, Apollo Hospitals, Dr. Anjii Reddy, chairman, Reddy Laboratories, Vishwanath Nambiar, chairman, BPL Power Projects (AP) Ltd and G.V.K. Reddy, chairman, GVK Group.
He is also the architect of a dozen theatres, temples, IT complexes, apartment blocks and townships. He continues to be a consultant in his firm P.S. Govind Rao-Praveen Govind Rao, Architects & Consultants. (His son Praveen, who is associated with the firm for the past 15 years, is a graduate from the College of Architecture and Sculpture, Mamallapuram.)
*Grandeur of glass
A huge space in his new gallery showcases Rao’s glass sculptures and installations. His glass art features collectibles and works created from scrap — think of a granite block with several scored lines coming alive with tiny pieces of colourful glass or a circular tube light with glass add-ons that make it sparkle.
The structural splendour of bonsai has always fascinated Rao. He has combined a great variety of plants — from cacti, crotons, grass and water plants to create his own Saikei collection (complete landscapes in a tray). While Ficus continues to be a favourite, he has also experimented with other plants since the Sixties. Some of his tree sculptures are over 40 years old, and he considers them his children! Some of his bonsais are on display at Temple Towers.