by Anmol AhujaJul 15, 2022
It is no surprise that some of India's most remarkable construction and design talent, lauded on a global stage today, emerged during the nation’s post-independence phase. The late 1950s and early 60s proved to as exciting a time for young practitioners and professionals as it was tumultuous, while India engaged in a tryst with them in searching for its own modern identity - free from the travails of avowed but definitive colonial architecture. The 'isms' of the West surely influenced what was being built during this time, but what emerged as the most remarkable instances of Indian architecture then were at the same time a veritable fusion of those styles, and a reinterpretation of them owing to physical, cultural and climatic context. This renewed identity was primarily moulded by stalwarts including BV Doshi, Charles Correa, Raj Rewal, Achyut Kanvinde, Kuldip Singh, and even Le Corbusier, who, though not Indian, was recognised for his sizeable contribution in building Chandigarh. Reinforcing many of their missions and visions was structural engineer Mahendra Raj, whose truly visionary and pioneering engineering solutions were responsible for not only how some of their iconic structures were erected, but also how they ended up looking. Raj passed away at his Delhi home on May 8, 2022, aged 97, leaving the architectural community in the nation and elsewhere with a deep dismay, and an array of signatory works that provide a glimpse into his influence on the emancipated language of Indian architecture.
Born in Gujranwala in erstwhile Punjab, Raj came from a family of civil engineers, but his interest in the skeletal framework of a building was sparked no earlier than 1951, wherein he assisted in the structural design and construction of Chandigarh’s High Court by Corbusier. It was probably here that the man who came to be known for emoting through superfluous forms in their bare, essential state, first faced the dichotomy between structural constraints, essential functionality, and the aesthetic of the "architectural intent". Nonetheless, the structure's parasol-like roof propped by the trifecta of mammoth, multicoloured shear walls became the highlight of the structure. Following his training in US at the University of Minnesota and in New York, he returned to India to set up his eponymous firm in Bombay.
The firm’s first significant work, and a landmark by all means despite its mortal lifespan, was the Hindustan Lever Pavilion, designed in collaboration with Charles Correa in 1961. The structure was inspired by crumpled paper, and Raj’s idea of tesselating every fold and crumple into a geometric polygon lent the structure its serpentine, labyrinthine interior space, realised using cement-sprayed reinforced concrete. A hint of Raj’s expertise and structural genius shone through in this project, especially since the construction involved no drawings other than plans and approximate sections, and was realised completely through physical models and Raj’s inventive visualisation.
Shortly after moving his practice to New Delhi and residing in the capital city, his collaboration with another Raj in 1972 birthed what could arguably be termed the late engineer’s most famous, if not definitive structure. While the former of the two might have also been a result of the architecture community’s faux-cry on the structure’s misaligned and truly unfortunate demolition, the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan was a structure for the ages, and a true masterclass in how the structure, essentially an inner machination of how the building would stand, could alone define the building’s whole-soul identity. The beautiful truncated pyramid was remarked as the first-ever large span space frame structure, cast-in-situ using concrete. His peers would often remark his unconventional problem-solving methods and a constant sense of exploration driving his work, visible even in his later works, including the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation cricket stadium in 1965, and the Tagore Memorial Hall, both a manifestation of his love for folded-plate structures.
Interestingly, Mahendra Raj’s prowess with structural design and inventiveness also had him invited as counsel to Louis Kahn for the iconic IIM Campus in Ahmedabad. Raj’s suggestion of using concrete ties to restrain Kahn’s large-span arches, his edifices of light in a near poetic, rust-tinted brick composition, was responsible for the campus’ definitive design language and its most photographically contiguous avenue. In the conversation between Kahn and the brick, Raj proved a fruitful mediator.
Turning structural 'constraints' into beatific solutions that expanded the architectural imagination is what would later come to define his vast oeuvre of works. While Raj worked with a composite material palette including steel, precast and prestressed concrete for his structures, that were more often than not the building’s final appearance, reinforced concrete in its raw form was an obvious facia of choice for Raj. His designs and elegant solutions for supporting them complemented the brute visual force of concrete with a kind of urgent monumentalism, which he manifested in impressive, expansive spans, dramatic cantilevers, swirling foyers, and comprehensive space-frame structures. That most of these works were realised at a time when computer-aided drafting and structural analysis were unheard of bears testament to Raj's intrinsic (even superhuman by fantastical extension) connection with structure.
Raj's mastery with material and their strengths and weaknesses could also be termed as a catalyst for a measured shift in the paradigm and the rather symbiotic relationship between the architect and the engineer. Even while modern architectural and even journalistic practices tread the route of merchandising new constructions solely with the architect, Raj remains equally credited for some of post-independence India's most crucial and defining works, helping mould their architectural language - away from the ornate and inclining with the austere - rather than just infusing them with necessary pragmatism.
Academic attempts to study his vast body of work, comprising structural designs for more than 250 buildings, term Raj’s veritable style as intersecting with the brutalist movement, even deconstructivism, a late modernism, and interestingly, as an ingenious interpretation of Mies van der Rohe's skin-and-bones architecture. Raj, on the other hand, treated his structures as beings of animated character, dynamism, and life, with a rare passion.