Home to one of the world’s largest collection of manuscripts on modern India, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) sits on the lawns of Delhi’s Teen Murti House, surrounded by trees and birds. Late Mansinh M Rana, who designed the two-storey building in 1968, had worked with American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His square plan for the 52,000 sq. ft area of NMML came with chamfered corners. So, as one steps up the raised podium to enter the building, it’s at an angle. Built around three main hubs — library, seminar room and auditorium — Rana planned the air-conditioned building such that every user could feed off the generous views of the Teen Murti lawns, and benefit from the well-accommodated reading spaces.
Rana had returned to India in 1951 after working with Wright on numerous projects, including New York’s Guggenheim Museum. He was quickly put to work by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru . Some of Rana’s illustrious projects were Bal Bhawan (1953); the Buddha Jayanti Commemoration Park (1956); Shanti Van (1964); the first India pavilion at the New York World Fair (1964) and the Nehru Planetarium (1980).
Architect Kshitij Rana reveals how the NMML holds elements of post-Corbusian and Wrightian influences. “The building was done in rugged raw concrete, but was given a ribbed hammer-textured exterior. The concrete casting was done by hand, and then chipped off to get the desired effect. Even the trapezoid lights in wood and metal, seen everywhere on the ceiling, is how Wright would detail his work. The open shelves in the library, which every researcher loves, were specially designed by my father,” says Kshitij. He points to the changes in the building, from the sporadic ramps to the glass divider in the lobby that separates the auditorium from the library area, and one can’t help notice how these additions stick out. The space that has retained much of the original design, though, is the seminar hall on the first floor, which offers a more intimate gathering area than the auditorium. With its wood-panelled interiors and lavish windows that look out onto the green landscape, the hall is a busy hub for scholars, both Indian and international.
Founder dean of the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Rana who described his own work as “organic, always evolving, never copying from the past, yet drawing from it” wrote about NMML in the Design magazine: “An interesting aspect of the building is the way it relates to the old Teen Murti House, barely a hundred yards away. The proposition that a new building must relate to the environment in which it is built and still retain its own personality is rarely understood, leave alone practised…”
As the project for a museum for the prime ministers of India on the lawns of the Teen Murti House is underway, hope lies in the fact that the NMML building, which came up on a vegetable patch, might provide food for thought.