Friday, June 13, 2014

Indian contemporary architecture - a look at Raj Rewal's legacy


New Delhi
The contemporary architecture of India has remained obscure amid the hype over the country's historical built heritage that spans more than 3,000 years of aesthetic evolution - synonymous with the dawn of the modern civilisation in India.
A couple of odd names like Charles Correa and Le Corbusier, architects of western origin, have been the most visible faces of India's contemporary built landscape, giving the country its first wave of what can be best deacribed as the ultra-modern "air-space-light" and sandstone abstactions, post-Independence. The abstract buildings that sprawled across vast acreage with their open roofs, towering blocks and green houses carried a universal image of Indian modern architecture to the world that sustained on the power of natural elements like light and nature.
The new buildings that opened to natural light around the roof and overflowed with greenery in compatability with the large stone geometric architectural blocks - marked the transition from the gothic and art deco architecture of the pre-Independence era to one of minimal spartan utility of the post-Independence era.
The Indian national capital of New Delhi witnessed an archietctural deluge - in the five decades between 1950-2000 - when the government expanded the footprints of the Lutyen's Capital complex to build intsitutions, large offices and a chic diplomatic enclave at Chanakyapuri - a cluster of 153 foreign mission buildings that reflected the cultural signatures of the nations they represented both in architecture and decor. The result was a liberating and culturally vibrant architectural destination that brought the world to India with the framework of the Indian aesthetic, urban, cultural and environemnetal sensitivities.
The journey of India's architecture post Indepdence has been essentially one of freedom and an assembly of influences from the post-colonial repertoires of the west — especially the north America and Europe. It became a curious script of the old and the new, an assimilation from political and social histories and the glass-and-light edifices in America that stormed into public consciousness with their aspiring heights in the first decades of the 20th century. It was a haphazard fusion of styles that we still cannot define as Indian. 
Two expositions in the national capital — "Raj Rewal- Memory, Metaphors and Meaning in his Constructed Landscapes" - a retrospective show of built art by noted architect Raj Rewal at the National Gallery of Modern Art and "Delhi's Diplomatic Domains (a display and book about the Chanakyapuri diplomatic cluster) at the Alliance Francaise in New Delhi brought selected panoramas of Indian contemporary architectrure that are distinct in their architectural influences and yet homogenous in their global outlook - completely in sync with the greater modernist movements in built traditions around the world.
 Raj Rewal's retrospective at NGMA is a chronological presentation of his buildings and conceptual designs — of an odd range of instututional, private and comeptition models that are symbolic in their eclectic influences.
Rewal, who is known for conceiving the elegant Parliament Library building adjacent to the Indian Parliament, a national conclave pavilion at the Pragati Maidan, the capital's biggest exhibition ground, the Asian Olympic Village at Khel Gaon in New Delhi, the Indian Embassy in Beijing and several other vital education and research facilities around the country, contributed to the pioneering site-specific architecture in contemporary India that recalled the rich spiritual landscape of ancient India and the creative use of natural elements like stones in natural textures, greenery, glass and solar panelling to capture energy, light and the maximum space.
Raj Rewal's affinity to stones, geometry and juxtaposition of material like steel and stone lent his buildings a solid monotony that has stood the test of time - broken by pergola-style open domes on the roof or the glass topped Islamic or Buddhist cupolas that caught the sun to add sparkle to the stone blocks. The architect addresses the concerns of a modern India - where premium space, utility, multi-use, landscaping, site-specificity, economics, cultural relevance and aesthetics occupy creative space.The iconic Parliament Library is an example.
An intricate prototype of the library in wood and metal - the original plan - was the centre of attraction of the exhibition at NGMA. The library, as the architect explained to a group pf visitors during a curatorial walk (on June 7, 2104) last week,  was designed like an ancient mandala on a 10 acre plot. It took on the point of departures from the existing Parliment building with precedents such as Adinatha Temple in Raunakpur and the Datia Palace in Madhya Pradesh.The library is expressed as a central fold structure with surrounding courtyards that are enclosed by built structures on the perimeter. The low structure which clings to the plinth accommodates within its 50,000 square metre an auditorium, library stacks, reading rooms, exhibition space and media facilities. The sepulchral glass, steel and cement domes that punctuates the roof gardens are made of a combination of craft and high technology.
The architect, in the last five decades of his career has displayed a rare empathy with natural energy sources. Rewal uses solar panelling to a strange ornametal impact - woven like Islamic lattices on the roof of buildings as in the Visual Arts International campus in Rohtak and at the Coal India headquarters in Kolkata. His residential apartment plans, however, digresses from the innovative standalone institutions - to comment on community kinship, common use areas, cluster dwellings and green lungs where one inhabitant can connect to the other in homes that are intertwined into each other.      
"Light plays an important role in my buildings," Rewal explianed last week. In springs from the 18th century western concept of enlightenment - an idea he he came across during his academic years in Europe in the early 1960s. "The photovoltaic panels that I use in my buildings symbolise the arrival of clean energy," the architect said.
Curators of the exposition A.G. Krishna Menon and Rahoul B. Singh pointed out that Rewal's "work displayed neither a dogmatic adherence to the canons or the texts". They are modern while responding to local conditions. "Rewal's architecture is the product of a self-reflective considerations of both his foreign an indigenous roots that foreign critics have valorised as 'critical regionalism'- a critical adaptation of the principles of European modernsim, the curators pointed out. After his return from Europe in 1962, Rewal spent his formative years understanding the historical architecture of the country.  At the same time, he began to explore the emerging architecture of the Sixties "transferring memories through metaphors to provide meanings to constructed landscapes".  
"The ontological significance of the process of culture formation (through architecture) has seldom been vigorously examined  in India by either architects and the public for whom they provide services. Of course, the issues involved in such evaluations are complex - but the retrospective offers us an opportunity to evaluate how Rewal negotiated these issues," the curators said in their note.  
Rewal said "his architecture was expressed in motifs and symbols from another era transported into the present". "Architecture in the contemporary India should address the problems as they exist," the architect told this writer. Explaining his influences, the architect said "some aspects of the past were important to him". Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and the European enlightenment converged in him contouring the landscape of his architecture, Rewal said — highligting the necessity for "site-specific sustainable architecture in Indian cities and villages".
The architect straddles worlds across the barriers of class consciouness in architecture. The housing project for the British High Commission is an example Rewal's "European aesthetic sensibilities drawing on the Indian colonial traditions of tropical living". The cluster dwellings of 12 staff quarters (that he built in the 1990s) with three bedrooms units in two sizes combines the elegance of Lutyen's Old World heritage and the utility spartment blocks of contemporary India. Each dwelling has a private enclosed garden at the rear - an example of traditional British terrace housing. The roof of the second floor made a specofic concession to diplomatic living with gracious terrace "chhatris" for intimate parties. "I love designing homes and apartments," Rewal said.          


This old world of Lutyen's colonial Delhi meets the new official architectural guidelines of the Chanakyapuri's Diplomatic Complex, home to at least 153 foreign missions spread in precision files along the landscaped green corridors of Chanakyapuri in the heart of the capital. The area is an architectural kaleidoscope - flaunting archetypes and building traditions from all corners of the globe after India opened diplomatic engagements with the world post-Independence in 1947 as a sovereign republic.
A showcase at the Alliance Francaise, "Delhi's Diplomatic Domains", which opened  last month (May 2014) brought more than 50 frames from the missions - from England to Ghana — capturing their architectural and cultural doversities in colourful shots by gallerist and lensman from Puducherry Lalit Varma, when spent three months in the national capital photographing the missions. He collaborated with  Gladys Abankwa-Meher-Klodt, wife of the former German ambassador to Delhi, in compiling a pictorial volume of the buildings and their histories. 
"I was struck by the rich diveristy and the eclectic architecural styles that  various countries' representaional edifices embody. The Polish mebassy residence - which was unexpected in its granduer — was the beginning of my wonderment to know more about the buildings. I looked through the shelves of the bookshops for literature that would reveal the stories of the diplomatic  communities' unique and historic buildings, Gladys Klodt said. Her quest drew a blank - firing her with zeal to rummage through the archives in India and at the missions to unearth the architectural history of the Chanakyapuri Diplomatic Enclave.
The photographs elevate the missions to works of built-art with complex play of light, shadows and architectural oddities that become symbols rather than living necessities. "I wanted to get the essence of the places like the way the light came on the table, casting reflections of the trees outside.It created a new image," Varma explained to this writer. The Hungarian embassy plays majestically with the interiors - creating divine presence in the living rooms, Varma said.
Every mission has a history of engagement with India some which spans more than 400 years when the European made their first landfall in India in the 15th century. The French Embassy is one such mission that walks through time - its diplomatic history beginning with its colonisation in the 16th century. The country opened its formal diplomatic relations with modern India in 1947 with the arrival of envoy Alexander Daniel Levi. The first embassy was established on 2, Aurangzeb Road. "As result of property requisitioning, the residence of the Maharaja of Balrampur on 16, Hardinge Road served as the ambassadorial residence for 35 years. A new U-shaped building in pan sandstone was built on Chanakyapuri in the mid-eighties for the mission. Varma's lens moves through the stones, histories  built facades and decors of 153 such buildings," narrator Galdys Klodt said.
 The embassy of Argentina plays on the theme of India's historic ties with the Latin American nation - immortalised by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Argentina in 1923 at the behest of his muse Victoria Ocampo, an Argentinian intellectual of noble lineage. She inspired Tagore to paint as he composed his "Purabi" poems at her residence. Scholars say Tagore had christened Ocampo "Purabi" — the whiff of the east in a a new interpretation of east-west confluence of cultures. The embassy, which was originally located in Kolkata before moving to New Delhi, draws on this heritage to make itself relevant to India.            
Several of Varma's frames are studies of stairways suspended in surreal motions of ascent inside the misison quarters. "I love the stairway. They remind me of climbing systematically — step by step. Some are shaped like a question mark while others are like crescent to the truth," the photographer said. His photographs do not address surficial surface of the architecture, he looks for deeper meaning, strademarks, peculiarities and complexity of designs.
"Most embassies definitely represent the country, but at the same time remain universal," Varma said.

-Madhusree Chatterjee           



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  2. beautiful Rewal