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Architect Kuldip Singh worked with ground realities to push for change

Kuldip Singh (extreme left) with structural engineer Mahendra Raj, art collector Kiran Nadar, architect Raj Rewal and his wife, Helene, and curator Ram Rahman. Courtesy Ram Rahman  

Pragmatic and rational, he always looked straight in your eye and chuckled before explaining any planning interventions. The ‘gentleman’ crowned by colourful turbans never offered instant solutions. And before dismissing anything, he would suggest a simple alternative to achieve the same goal. This was almost always followed by a swift movement of the neck, a clapping of his hands, and a burst of laughter.

Architect Kuldip Singh who passed away this month at the age of 86 will be sorely missed at a time when the national capital needs his wise counsel the most. Born in Shimla and raised in New Delhi, he knew the intricacies of his city well. His sharp mind and intellect supported voices to protect the city.

Singh argued against both the tunnelling under the Humayun Tomb complex and the elevated Barapullah Road that cut across the skyline. He spoke against the elevated Metro that divided neighbourhoods and burdened the existing arterial road network. He was dismayed at the losses suffered by the capital in the name of last-mile connectivity and warned of the consequences of denying connectivity to the city’s interiors. Singh had earlier also worked with groups that resisted the government’s plan to build a mall over Safdarjung Airport.

Of late, he had been busy preparing a charge against the mindless building activity proposed for the Central Vista, which has been designed to hover above the city’s tree line and create a canyon-like environment that can eventually be cordoned off in parts to deny people the public space that belongs to them. He constantly raised an alarm against proposals that might deface buildings or the commercial instincts that compromised the civic realm. Singh had a fine eye for detail.

Reason with ease

Forever the voice of reason, Singh saw value in engaging with people’s imaginations and creating opportunities for civic sensibilities to find space in well-defined urban envelopes. He worked with ease across the north and the south. Singh studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, where he later taught, and at University College London. He briefly worked on Howard Robertson’s Library building at the University of Keele that used innovative structural design.

The National Cooperative Development Corporation office that Singh designed. Courtesy Peter Serenyi/ MIT

The National Cooperative Development Corporation office that Singh designed. Courtesy Peter Serenyi/ MIT  

Singh designed landmark buildings, including the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) headquarters on Parliament Street, and the office buildings of the National Cooperative Development Corporation. His works define a new and modern urban spatial structure. Singh adapted, employing unique techniques to create a different construction language.

Singh was one of the last of the professionals who prescribed architectural specifications that required an understanding of the grain of materials. He would check the wood mandi and stone quarries to be assured of quality.

Brutalist, minimal, and functional, his designs created civic arenas and flexible spaces with concrete to be economical. Within these, he provided a human touch at eye-level employing fine details. He introduced large glass panels, bronze accessories, and a humane articulation using a controlled vocabulary.

Singh also designed a DDA (Delhi Development Authority) housing complex in Saket, for which a small prototype was tested as Usha Niketan in Hauz Khas, Delhi. The urban typology provided for a network of open spaces and flexibility. Singh also designed the M Pavilion at Pragati Maidan.

In the early 70s, Singh set up an independent practice that resulted in the development of the Marine Drive waterfront in Kochi and the wholesale markets on the outskirts of Chennai. Singh also provided inputs for the Vision-2030 plan in Kochi. His later works included housing designs for Delhi Metro Rail Corporation at Shastri Park and a master plan for the malls in Delhi’s Saket. He was able to infuse practicality in any design, making the projects feasible.

An open mind

Singh had an open mind, informed by his diverse readings and wide interests. This quality extended into his personal life as well. Over 40 years, Singh acquired a vast collection of objects and glass paintings from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. Having familiarised himself with the provenance of every single piece, Singh supervised their restoration with painstaking detail.

A part of the collection was once on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum. Over 350 of them are now at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.

His home, now redeveloped, in Delhi’s Bhogal area provides an almost Alice in Wonderland-like feel, with its solid wood Chettinad doors, pillars and carvings in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the cityscape outside with its car repair garages and rooting pigs. This was his home and office, and he always smiled at any comment on this reminder of reality.

As a planner and architect, Singh will be always revered as a part of the original group that promoted a modernist agenda based on ambition and hope. He worked with ground realities to push for change and improvement in the lives of the people and to create new opportunities in promoting civic environments. His legacy as one among the few who were able to articulate new beginnings for a developing nation and show the path for change will be an inspiration and a reminder to get back on track.

The writer is an architect, urban designer, and planner based in New Delhi.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 7:37:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/architect-kuldip-singh-worked-with-ground-realities-to-push-for-change/article33191674.ece

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