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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The engineer who showed that walls can be finger-thin, and roofs can fly

With his genius for manipulating brick and concrete, Mahendra Raj has been the man behind much of India’s modern architecture. A retrospective examines his engineering legacy.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: December 8, 2019 11:42:43 am
Mahendra Raj, Managing Director of MRC at his office in Jangpura. (Express photo by Oinam Anand)

The Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan never seemed to impose its weight on the ground; its structure was lifted by a lightness that contradicts the very nature of concrete. The ziggurat-like National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) building in New Delhi, doesn’t reveal that its zigzagging columns are a lesson in interdependence of elements. In the Municipal Stadium in Ahmedabad, the folded inclining legs support a cantilevered roof, probably the first-of-its-kind in the country. Structural engineer Mahendra Raj has, in six decades of engineering mastery, shown how materials can lie, how walls can be finger-thin and how roofs can stretch, fly and fold. A retrospective of his work, “Structuring Form: Innovative Rigour of Mahendra Raj” is showing at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi, till December 25, curated by Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, KNMA.

A timeline of Raj’s oeuvre shows over 180 structures he helped build across the country. It maps his life, from his birth in 1924 to his days at the New York-based, avant-garde engineering firm, Ammann & Whitney, his days with Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and his current projects in New Delhi. Of these, seven projects — in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Srinagar — have been showcased with drawings, sketches, calculations and photographs. His son Rohit Raj Mehndiratta and daughter-in-law Vandini Mehta, who initiated the idea of the exhibition, brought it together with the team at Mahendra Raj Consultants and their own Delhi-based firm, Studio VanRO. Of the seven projects showcased, the Hall of Nations, Delhi, and Hindon River Mills, Ghaziabad, have been demolished recently.

“When we did the exhibition ‘Delhi: Building the Modern’ in 2017, the works of all the architects that Raj had worked with were showcased. Usually, when it comes to buildings, architects are glorified. But here was a person who collaborated with leading architects across the country, in building structures that were landmarks. And when you see the drawings, his handwritten annotations, meticulous calculations, it’s the work of a master artist,” says Karode.

Take the work he did in the Tagore Memorial Theatre in Ahmedabad in the early ’60s. The BV Doshi was anxious at the time about this building that would come up opposite his mentor Corbusier’s Sanskar Kendra on the banks of the Sabarmati river. Raj developed tapering trapezoidal folded plates, nearly 17m tall, on the south facade. “(Raj) had more than 10 alternatives for Doshi’s project. These drawings and models helped us see how his process moved from wall, roof and beam to integrate the whole structure. Raj was always innovating and finding ways to resolve the dilemmas of architects in each project,” says Rohit.

The construction sequencing in every project is the best testament to Raj’s genius. “At different stages of construction, a building behaves differently. Each component has to be, therefore, planned to know how it will withstand the forces, including that of wind and temperature. And with each added floor or layer, the structure itself becomes different,” says Raj.

In the exhibition, a quote by Raj Rewal reads: “Mahendra Raj has carried the whole modern Indian architecture on his shoulders. My interaction with him was like a jugalbandi that has helped me enhance and execute my vision.” It was the same with other architects: the story goes that when architect Kuldip Singh won the design competition to build the NCDC building, the jury didn’t believe it could be built. He got them to meet Raj, who convinced them.

As Raj explains, the zig-zag twisted columns of the building were possible because of the shear walls (vertical structural elements that resist lateral sway of a building) and the connecting corridors. As the columns incline, and move in and out, they create tension and compression on alternate floors and could only stay supported because of the corridors that take the load.

“Mahendra Raj’s impact is very visible on the modern canvas of Indian architecture. He brought a new professionalism into engineering. And to the profession that’s largely conservative when it comes to design, he injected new ideas and ways of expression,” says architect-urban designer KT Ravindran.

At 95, Raj continues to recall stories from a long career, of how he stood up to Corbusier in changing some of his designs and why concrete became the material he embraced. He talks about how, when he was building the Hall of Nations, the world’s first in-situ concrete space frame structure, with Rewal, there were many anxious moments, especially when the concrete fingers had to cross each other and had to stay balanced through the joints. He says, “It’s a game where there will be compression and tension, and, sometimes, both, and one needs to cater for them.”

Known for his gentle demeanour and humility, Raj has numerous friends in the industry, to whom he is both mentor and provocateur. He is critical about the lack of research in the field.

“Having grown up and worked in times of frugality, I have always believed that self-reliance will help you deal with uncertainties. Imagination also propels us to bigger and better things. I tell youngsters, we should not be borrowing anymore but should be giving out our technology to the world. It’s a different mental attitude that makes it possible,” he says.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘His light materials’

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