It’s easy to spot the Nehru Centre in Worli, Mumbai. The white churning tower stands apart from the regular rectangular blocks that aim for the sky. But when you are in front of the tower, it exudes a compelling sense of wonder. The ascending slope of green meets the building at 42 feet. Three terraced levels at the base of the structure form a podium for the tower that’s nearly 260 ft high. “The challenge was in allowing the design to reflect the essence of man,” says architect IM Kadri, who designed it in 1981.
The dream project of politician and eminent lawyer, the late Rajni Patel, the structure took less than three years to build. Patel wanted the building to be a memorial to his friend and mentor, Jawaharlal Nehru. While the first phase of the project was the Nehru Planetarium across the road, the Nehru Centre would be emblematic of an independent India and its first prime minister.
“I come from an agricultural family and greenery means a lot to me. Our house in Ahmedabad, too, is full of gardens. In the Nehru Centre, the landscape front was meant to represent our agricultural past,” says Kadri, “When Nehru came to power, there were no industries, we only had agriculture. At the time, there were so many linguistic, regional and political tensions in the country but he grouped them together and took the country to great heights. That’s why you see the three bands in front of the tower, they are symbolic of that tension. And when you think of Nehru, his values and aspirations were worthy of a pedestal, and I’ve given the tower to signify the growth of a modern nation.”
While the tower has offices, the podium base houses an auditorium, a library, art galleries and exhibition rooms. Within the auditorium, too, Kadri played with space, placing the 1,000-seater below the sloping garden. While his peers cautioned him about managing acoustics with a sloping roof, Kadri detailed the hall with paintings by MF Husain that also act as sound absorbers. Placed at a slant along a wall, these large canvases, painted in the foyer of the centre, are themed on Nehru’s principles of science, heritage and peace.
The detailing in the 3,22,000 sq ft area of the Nehru Centre can be seen in the exterior jaali surface — inspired by the rose that Nehru wore often, in the stairs that climb along the landscaped slope and within the building, in the star-shaped columns of the 50-ft high foyer, and the multitude of staircase designs — from curved and spiral to circular and ceremonial.
In the book The Architecture of I.M. Kadri by Kaiwan Mehta (Niyogi Books; 2016), the author writes: “Kadri has been an architect who greatly cared about how buildings appear to people using them and seeing them, as objects of love and joy. The building plays multiple roles, defining a visual language for a street or neighbourhood, as it is a carrier of visual ideas in the form or ornaments and motifs, and it carries messages and strong impressions to be conveyed to its viewers.”