As the National Gallery of Modern Art hosts an exhibition of Raj Rewal’s works, the legendary architect talks about smart cities and similarities between Indian food and architecture

He is as imposing as his structures and as modest as the values they emanate. Like sandstone, the construction material he is fond of, he has weathered well. Architect Raj Rewal lives his work ethic. For the first time NGMA is hosting an exhibition of works of modern architecture and Raj Rewal is the obvious choice for a retrospective. We meet at Le Meriden’s Monsoon’s restaurant and Rewal concedes that in a country where architecture is not on the top of the mind of the people and the rulers, the exhibition is a welcome change. “It has a contemporary value. Architecture, particularly modern architecture is an amalgamation of art and science. I have always believed that architecture is not just art for the rulers. It should be able to serve the housing needs of the humanity in a sustainable fashion. In the past rulers understood the need for creating a standard in aesthetics and it reflects in planned cities liked Jaipur and Jodhpur. This year political parties have talked about creating smart cities in their election manifestos. I have attempted low cost social housing in the past like the CIDCO housing in New Mumbai. It will be on show during the exhibition and it can be attempted on a mass scale,” says Rewal, opting for lamb morsels in aromatic gravy to start his food.

This is an exception, for he is usually vegetarian during lunch. Across the table he has plenty of greens to pick and choose. He starts with tandoori broccoli and moves on to salad of aspargus and bell pepper in mint chutney.

In between, the Chairman of Delhi Urban Art Commission, lays emphasis on low rise housing solutions with common meeting spaces where neighbours can interact. “The courtyard is intrinsic to Indian architecture and it should be preserved. The high rise buildings and lifts require lot of maintenance cost which the middle class can’t afford. Sandstone is being ignored as a building material. It is little expensive but in the long run it turns to be cheaper than other options because it weathers well, is easy to sustain and reduces the cost of air conditioning. Also, the government has to play a role. You can’t leave housing completely to the private sector.”

Rewal is concerned about the rumours that the government is planning to bring down one of his iconic creations, the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan. “I hope it remains a rumour. A minister also made a statement about replacing Nehru Pavilion with something more remunerative. Removing it will be like a self goal because it resembles what Jawaharlal Nehru stood for.” Remind him of the talk of Sardar Patel’s statue in Gujarat and Rewal says he doesn’t believe in such pomposity. “The architecture is not left wing or right wing. It has to reflect human concerns and architecture, urbanism and landscape have to be fused into one whole.”

Like architecture, Rewal says, Indian food is also an amalgamation of elements from regional cultures, “If you look closely Moghul architecture is different from the Persian architecture. It has elements of Buddhist architecture. There is very little use of ceramics which is common in West Asia,” says the veteran architect whose design of Ismaili Centre in Lisbon has withstood the test of time. “Similarly you can found Indian elements in colonial architecture. (Edward) Lutyens talked of supremacy of western arts, science and culture but when he designed Rasthtrapati Bhawan he ended up drawing from Sanchi’s Stupa. When it comes to cuisines there are multiple elements at play according to climate and local concerns,” notes Rewal and gets busy with lamb and naan.

He has made a pact with his French wife that at lunch they will have Indian cuisine and at night they will indulge in French cuisine. “There is no fusion. We have decided to retain the purity of both the cuisines.” His projects take him to different parts of the world, and Rewal likes to try local food but the experience is not always palatable. “I was prepared to taste authentic Chinese in Beijing but despite my taste for the spicy food I could not bear the spices in their food,” says Rewal, who designed the Indian Embassy in Beijing

His critics might find his works dated, but Rewal swears by modernity. “I always tell my students you cannot marry your grandfather. It depends how you bring different elements together. I emphasise on the use of the photovoltaic panels to harness solar energy.” Time for coffee and Rewal leaves us with hope brewing in us.

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