Stories from our past have been full of kings and gurus. But how do qualities of enlightenment and knowledge become concrete, become translated into architecture? Architect Raj Rewal’s Parliament Library answers those questions. It couldn’t have been easy to have the weight of the colonial edifices of Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker — the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the South Block, the North Block and the Parliament House – surround you as you speak of modernity in post-Independent India. And yet, from the entrance hall to the reading rooms, the scholar’s library to the cafeteria, one cannot ignore the way Rewal has developed his own vocabulary in what was once a disused garden.
The result of a limited competition, Rewal was declared winner for the new building in 1991, which is spread across 10 acres. Over the years, till it was complete in 2003, he had worked with multiple governments and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). While he draws from multiple references including the 16th century Jain temple of Ranakpur, with its four entrances and natural light in the open spaces, people have drawn their own interpretations for the plan of the building. Respecting the Parliament House, the height of the red-and-white sandstone library building is restricted to the podium level, which basically ensures that much of the two-storey library sits embedded in the earth.
With a central core, Rewal creates three courtyards that link the interior and exterior spaces. “I wanted to represent the symbols of Indian democracy here – of freedom of speech with an amphitheatre; the idea of justice with a tree; and equality, with water that treats everyone equal,” says Rewal. The 12 domes that cover various areas in the building are differently designed, made from lightweight fibre cement and steel lattice and tensile cables, to structural glass. All the domes are lifted up by glass bricks, almost suspended on rings of light. It, therefore, affords ample natural light into the basement areas of the building. Rewal, who had visited libraries in France and Britain, ensured every functional requirement of the space was fulfilled. From shelving and stacking systems to book access and special sections for Gandhian and Nehruvian books, the entire interiors was done by his firm.
Art and cultural historian Jyotindra Jain, in a monograph on the Parliament Library by the Architecture Research Cell, Delhi, writes: “Light is the defining theme of this building, symbolically representing the spirit of wisdom, enlightenment and democracy…The main Assembly Hall of the Parliament and the focal centre of the new Library lie on the same axis, and as one steps out of the Parliament towards the Library, a series of alternating spaces unfold — intimate to grand, and vibrant to serene — granting a pleasant visual experience.”
What would have added to the ambience is the roof garden that was located as a diagonal passage between the focal centre dome and the bubble domes of the research and archives block. Landscaped by architect Satish Khanna, these were used frequently by the staff, until security shut it nearly five years after the inauguration. Looking towards the central hall of the Parliament, the roof garden was a welcome barrier in summer and warm comfort in the winters.
This article appeared in print with the headline: Building Blocks: A look at public spaces built after 1947