“The work of a structural engineer is to anticipate eventualities and possibilities, analyse the design in that perspective, suggest changes or alternate designs, incorporate new elements to make the building a reality. This comes with experience, intuition and learning,” says Mahendra Raj, structural engineer. He has been associated with architects, Le Corbusier, Achyut Kanvinde, J.A. Stein, B.V. Doshi, Louis Kahn, Charles Correa, Ranjit Sabikhi, Ajoy Choudhury, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, who shaped several iconic buildings of post-Independence India in New Delhi. Now in his 90s, Raj as Mahendra Raj is referred to, is full of beans with a razor sharp memory, but rather reticent. When he finally opens up, we see a sense of humour and pride in his work. “Read up on the role of structural engineers,” he responds in an admonishing tone when faced with the rhetorical question — are structural engineers worth writing about? Recalling the charm of the heady days, he says, “We were all young and willing to take risks. So that is how all these bold structures were made”.
Raj graduated in engineering from the Punjab College of Engineering and Technology in 1946. The story, as they say, begins in Lahore. “My father was a civil engineer and he wanted all his children to follow suit,” says Raj. He joined the Punjab Public Works Department and was on one of the last trains to reach India safely — arriving at this side of the border on August 12, 1947. “I was posted at Shimla, which was a buzz of activity in 1948-49,” says Raj picking up the thread. “There was an urgent need of rehabilitation of large number of refugees who had to be given some shelters. There was a shortage of everything, we were using stabilised mud blocks, brick tiles and treated wood for building. It was in this situation that work began on Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab,” he reminisces. The initial task was to collect and stock scarce material for construction. It was here that Raj was exposed to structural engineering while working with Le Corbusier.1
Raj acquired a Master’s degree in Structures from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, the U.S., in 1956. In structure, Raj got the opportunity to work with concrete. “Concrete was the medium when I worked with Le Corbusier. In the U.S., it was again concrete.”
- 1. The relationship had its ups and downs. He would get annoyed, be critical of our suggestions but then come around and accept them. I worked on two projects – The High Court and The Secretariat. Two design suggestions made by our engineering team — the roof parasol of the High Court and of the façade system of sun breakers in Block 4 of the Secretariat at Chandigarh — were accepted by Le Corbusier. By the time, the buildings were finished, I realised I enjoyed working as a structural engineer. So that was what I pursued.” Pursue he did and still does with passion.