Architect Anant Raje was on a fellowship in France in 1960, when he grew curious about French cuisine. A walkthrough of the City University kitchen in Paris showed their sense of proportion, how the aromas guided their hands, and the many stages and processes for the perfect dish. It would affirm his faith in the innate order of things.
Raje, who worked with architects Piloo Mody, BV Doshi and Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), always believed that discovering the universal order within oneself was vital to design. So when in the south-west corner of Bhopal, on the hill that overlooks the Bhadbhada barrage, the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) was being built, it saw the integration of interior and exteriors spaces, the neat geometry the buildings afford, and the sense of repose that could only come from an innate centredness in the architect.
Bhatia recalls the first visit to the hilltop in 1984. The bare 65-acre site had nothing but wild grass. “The hill was the primary axis on which the entire building was sited. He worked out a series of open loggias that would connect through a waterbody. So, we see the buildings with two-storey-high porches coming up against a waterbody and the rest of the building falls into place based on that placement. With Raje, you don’t just begin with a random administration block and classrooms behind, you make an urban order, and then things fall into place,” says architect Gautam Bhatia, who worked with Raje on IIFM.
In an essay ‘What I learnt from Kahn’ (in Anant Raje, Architect. Selected works — 1971-2009, edited by Shubhra Raje and Amita Raj; Tulika Books, 2012), Raje talks about the potential of place-making rather than space-making, which reaffirmed his belief in “a strong order within the architectural plan”. The idea of connection to a particular function therefore doesn’t happen in just the allocated spaces, but in rather informal settings.
“There are echoes of Kahn’s IIM-A and Salk Institute (California) in IIFM, especially in relation to the large open areas. Kahn used to call them containers of light and shadow. Raje developed shadow pockets into the buildings such that they broke the sunlight into fragments. This would stop the glare from hitting the glass. So in IIFM, there are many layers before you get to glass of the building. In large, walled enclosures, light comes from above. In the dormitories, which faces the waterbodies, and the library, it’s recessed further,” says Bhatia.
“He ordered a vastly differing geometry on the inside. The four-storey library is the main focus of the site. The classrooms have their own private courtyards. And, this is where you see the larger picture, how each aspect gets graded into smaller parts. There’s also a seasonality to the buildings, how you use it in summer and winter. The attempt ultimately is for the architecture to create the landscape, in the way the building comes up to the waterbody, and on the other side, the planted forest rises up to meet the building,” says Bhatia. Unfortunately, today there is a parking lot next to the waterbody, which points to how bureaucratic convenience triumphs design thought.
What made Raje’s buildings different was also his sparse use of materials. The arched concrete skin of the structure seemed to beautifully hold the innards of the building, yet sitting ever so lightly one next to the other or above, almost embracing the interiors, and allowing for ample freedom to look out into the sky and water.
Raje would often use the analogy of the ruins. His buildings, too, Bhatia says, were seen as ruins that have been inhabited. “When you build decay into your construction, you don’t think of newness as adding value to your architecture, you want it to age.”