To C. N. Raghavendran, architecture is about preserving that critical link between the built and the natural environment. T. Krithika Reddy talks to the Padma Shri awardee

Unlike his towering structures that stand out against Chennai's jagged skyline, a diminutive C. N. Raghavendran is almost lost behind the stacks of drawing sheets on his table. The architect, who has navigated the complexities of massive urban projects for over four decades, speaks in short bursts and punctuates the conversation with a genial smile, at his office in Mylapore.

“I'm happy to receive the Padma Shri. Architects are usually not on the radar for such awards,” he says. But the choice is not surprising, given Raghavendran's rich body of work that ranges from educational institutions and IT parks to sports stadiums and auditoriums through which he has pushed his agenda of introducing innovative building technology and climate responsive designs.

“How architecture can make cities more sustainable is a critical question we have to address today. The chunk of our population is moving towards the urban areas, so we have to see how new settlements can be woven into the existing fabric. Building materials have environmental implications; therefore, judicious choices have to be made. With design having a direct impact on energy use, architects need to orient their buildings so that they make optimum use of natural resources such as daylight. Sustainable urbanisation is the need of the hour,” says Raghavendran, whose firm CRN figures on the list of top 100 architectural practices in the world.

Essence of design

A student of IIT-Kharagpur, Raghavendran went to Berkeley for his Masters. Later, he worked in Boston, before returning to India. “My dad C. R. Narayana Rao had already established a good clientele, so it wasn't difficult for me to get a break. During my Berkeley days, I was encouraged to think differently; so I specialised in urban design and the demographics of housing. To me, architecture is about integration.”

This accent on the topographical integration of architecture is evident in Raghavendran's inventive work for the Kalakshetra auditorium. Built in the early 1980s, this 450-seater auditorium had no electro-mechanical interventions, except for the audio-visual system and stage lighting. The climate responsive design is a fine example of a sustainable, energy-saving building.

Another major milestone was Raghavendran's pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete solution for the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. “The first of its kind in India to comply with the then newly brought-out FIFA regulations, the stadium which has a capacity to seat 40,000, had a tight timeline. Our innovation in building technology not only enabled us to complete the project in 270 days; it also helped reduce building weight, construction waste and save structural materials.”

Environment-conscious approach

As someone who believes good architecture can satisfy the aesthetic and functional needs of a building, without compromising the needs of the future generation, Raghavendran has been following an environment-conscious approach to design when it comes to high-performance buildings such as IT parks. “For the first time in the country, a thermal energy storage system for air-conditioning was used in the multi-storeyed Tidel Park. And we also incorporated an integrated building management system to take care of safety and security.” The success of such key innovative features led to more projects in the IT sector — Tata Consultancy Services (Sholinganallur and Siruseri), Cognizant Technology Solutions (Thoraipakkam and Siruseri), Infosys Technologies (Sholinganallur and Mahindra World City), Ascendas Phase 2 at Taramani, Wipro (Sholinganallur and Mahindra World City), etc.

A multi-disciplinary global design firm, CRN (of which he is a partner), has accomplished several projects in the UAE, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Guyana. “Though there is an influx of foreign architects into India, it's not easy for us to get assignments abroad. There are hurdles when it comes to getting registration and recognition. Besides, the codes of design and construction, as accepted and practised in India (formulated by the Bureau of Indian Standards), are not accepted elsewhere. Familiarity with the international codes is vital when you think global,” says the man who's made a mark in Mauritius. His Ebene Cyber Tower won him the Intelligent Building of the Year – 2005 award from 200 international entries evaluated by the Intelligent Communities Forum, an independent think tank based in New York. “It's become a landmark in Mauritius. It figures on the stamp as well.”

Challenges ahead

Actively involved with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (green buildings rating system) and Bureau of Energy Efficiency, which has initiated the Energy Conservation in Building Code, Raghavendran says, “The coming decades will challenge the way we study and practise architecture. Architects can help strike a balance between built and sustainable environment. It's a red alert that must not just be confined to the consciousness of a few. We must build nationwide awareness about eco-sensitive designs in buildings — commencing from site sustainable conditions to other factors such as water and energy efficiency, zero discharge by way of pollutants and improvement of indoor air quality. Urban planning calls for out-of-the-box thinking. It involves great vision and commitment on the part of the political and administrative powers, backed by advocacy, a participatory approach and inclusive development.”

The latest landmark

The 4. 5 lakh sq. ft. Anna Centenary Library in Kotturpuram was designed to house 1. 2 million books and journals. It has a special section for Braille, children's books and manuscripts etc. Because of the design, the reading area receives good daylight. The service areas flank the Western end to prevent solar radiation. The seven storey atrium brings in abundant natural light and the entire space is designed in a way that it's stimulating.

FUTURE STOCK

The dangers of Ozone Depletion are being debated globally. Net zero energy buildings, zero discharge developments, new technologies for solar power generations, power from tidal waves, geo thermal heating and cooling, solar air-conditioning are the pointers to the future In Abu Dhabi, a Zero Carbon City - Masdar - a futuristic experiment is underway. In Malaysia, Ken Yeong, a path breaking architect is innovating bio-climatic architecture.