A structural engineer who redefined design

Solar Pavilion   | Photo Credit: Ariel Huber

“The work of a structural engineer is to anticipate eventualities and possibilities, analyse the design in that perspective, suggest changes or alternate designs, incorporate new elements to make the building a reality. This comes with experience, intuition and learning,” says Mahendra Raj, structural engineer. He has been associated with architects, Le Corbusier, Achyut Kanvinde, J.A. Stein, B.V. Doshi, Louis Kahn, Charles Correa, Ranjit Sabikhi, Ajoy Choudhury, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, who shaped several iconic buildings of post-Independence India in New Delhi. Now in his 90s, Raj as Mahendra Raj is referred to, is full of beans with a razor sharp memory, but rather reticent. When he finally opens up, we see a sense of humour and pride in his work. “Read up on the role of structural engineers,” he responds in an admonishing tone when faced with the rhetorical question — are structural engineers worth writing about? Recalling the charm of the heady days, he says, “We were all young and willing to take risks. So that is how all these bold structures were made”.

Raj graduated in engineering from the Punjab College of Engineering and Technology in 1946. The story, as they say, begins in Lahore. “My father was a civil engineer and he wanted all his children to follow suit,” says Raj. He joined the Punjab Public Works Department and was on one of the last trains to reach India safely — arriving at this side of the border on August 12, 1947. “I was posted at Shimla, which was a buzz of activity in 1948-49,” says Raj picking up the thread. “There was an urgent need of rehabilitation of large number of refugees who had to be given some shelters. There was a shortage of everything, we were using stabilised mud blocks, brick tiles and treated wood for building. It was in this situation that work began on Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab,” he reminisces. The initial task was to collect and stock scarce material for construction. It was here that Raj was exposed to structural engineering while working with Le Corbusier.

Mahendra Raj

Mahendra Raj  

“The relationship had its ups and downs. He would get annoyed, be critical of our suggestions but then come around and accept them. I worked on two projects – The High Court and The Secretariat. Two design suggestions made by our engineering team — the roof parasol of the High Court and of the façade system of sun breakers in Block 4 of the Secretariat at Chandigarh — were accepted by Le Corbusier. By the time, the buildings were finished, I realised I enjoyed working as a structural engineer. So that was what I pursued.” Pursue he did and still does with passion.

Raj acquired a Master’s degree in Structures from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, the U.S., in 1956. In structure, Raj got the opportunity to work with concrete. “Concrete was the medium when I worked with Le Corbusier. In the U.S., it was again concrete.”

After resigning from PWD, Raj moved to Bombay to set up practice, working closely with leading young architects — Charles Correa, B.V. Doshi, The Design Group, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, Murad Chowdhury and so on. “They were all struggling and I also struggled with them,” he remembers. Over time all of them became close friends. Charles was “the handsome young man,” who sowed in him the seeds of independent practice. Kanvinde was always open to ideas and a deep bond developed with Doshi.

Hall of Nations, New Delhi

Hall of Nations, New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Ariel Huber

The projects that he did with each were many — Shakuntalam Theatre, (The Design Group), Indian Embassy, Kuwait (The Design Group), NDMC Palika Kendra, NCDC (Kuldip Singh), Shri Ram Centre for Arts and Culture, Akbar Hotel (Shiv Nath Prasad) and IIM Bangalore (B.V. Doshi) to name a few. One of the famous works was The Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, which was designed with Raj Rewal as a space frame with reinforced concrete. It was left to Raj to innovate in the choice of material and technique which give a certain sense of uniqueness to his buildings.

How does he stay connected to his pet subject? Raj laughs. “At my age, people will think it is ridiculous that I am still working. But this is what I know. Of course, it is not the same. With age one becomes more cautious and is less bold. Faculties also fail and one is not swift...” But the flash of happiness that lights up his face belies his words.

(Photographs of buildings by Ariel Huber, Lausanne, and that of Mahendra Raj by son Rohit)

(A Mahendra Raj retrospective is on at KNMA, New Delhi, from November 17, 2019)

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 3:05:28 AM |

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