What makes Architect Raj Rewal’s work enter the avante-grade corridors of the Pompidou Centre in Paris?

Memory and geometry,industry and craft,tradition and modernity —these are oft-repeated phrases when one speaks of Raj Rewal’s architecture. Known for many iconic buildings in Delhi and abroad,he has five decades of architectural practice that span residences,housing programmes,institutions,exhibition complexes,offices and cultural centres. Predominant in each of Rewal’s canvases are earthy red sandstone structures layered with blue skies and green courtyards. But this is not the only reason the Pompidou Centre in Paris chose his work for their permanent collection. He is also the first Indian architect/ artist whose work will be exhibited.

The Pompidou Centre,known for its avant garde modern art,has,in its collection,works by Pablo Picasso,Salvatore Dali,Georges Braque and Mark Rothko among others. From October 21 this year,the museum,which is the most visited after the Louvre,will host an entire monographic room of Rewal’s work for the next nine months. The curator,Aurelien Lemonier,in his note writes: “The search for a synthesis —this crossroad linking memory,tradition and modernity is yet to be fully assimilated into architectural theory in Europe — was indeed addressed head-on by Rewal.” The exhibition,“Modernite’s Plurielles” will showcase Rewal’s work through models,drawings and films.

Rewal in not new to France,which awarded him the “Chevalier des Art des Lettres” award in 2005. Born in Punjab in 1934 and living in Delhi near Humayun’s Tomb,Rewal imbibed a fascination for architecture early in life. When he returned from Europe after his studies,he began his practice in Delhi in 1962. It was also the time he taught history at the School of Planning and Architecture. Study trips included places such as Fatehpuri Sikri,Jaisalmer,and Nepal. From these trips would come the inspiration for his Indian bazaar like Bhikaji Cama Place,grass mound in the Nehru Memorial Pavilion,and the gateway entries of the Asian Games Olympic Village.

His projects honour the vernacular even as it boasts of its technology-rich technique. In building the world’s first large-span space frame (108 ft tall) in reinforced concrete,in the Hall of Nations,Rewal proved that modernity can be achieved without a surfeit of glass and steel. “We were ahead of Europe and America,” says Rewal. “We were brave to use concrete. At that time for such large space frames,outside India,it was only steel. We couldn’t have used such quantities in India. Our structural engineer Mahendra Raj discussed the idea with Joseph Durai Raj an engineer who had a pre-fab concrete factory. He made a sample for us before we got started,” says the 79-year-old. In India’s 25th year of Independence,the building stood as a symbol of the country’s engineering and industrial strength.

With the Parliament Library and its horizontally spaced,low-lying domes,came cutting-edge technology and local craft. Lightweight fibre cement,steel lattice,tensile cables and glass tiles brought light into the spaces below. “I was conscious of the imperial feel of being next to (Edwin) Lutyen and (Herbert) Baker yet knowing the complex had to exude Indian values. The Ranakpur Adinatha temple,with its connotations of enlightenment was a major inspiration,” says Rewal,in his amply-lit Sheikh Sarai office. Critic and writer Giordano Tironi calls it a building not made with steel or stone but “light and history”.

“Architecture is a neglected art. People are familiar with the writings of VS Naipaul or who’s won the Booker Prize,but that’s not the case with architecture. This has done more damage to the state of architecture in the country. In India today,architecture is largely the dominion of real estate builders who are architecturally illiterate,” says Rewal,who is also Chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission. The Pompidou Centre will see how Rewal “revisited India’s architectural past in order to shape the identity of modern Indian projects”,says Lemonier.

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