The early sixties and seventies saw a rise in a new architectural language in India, where many architects sought to bring in modernism that blended with traditional contextual architecture. This style was unique to the country and stood the test of time. Raj Rewal was a distinguished genius architect at the forefront of this revolution. His structures and philosophies are a testament to the importance of respecting traditional architecture while embracing the functionality of modernism to create sustainable spaces on all fronts for its users.
Early life and the inception of his ideologies.
Raj Rewal got his degree in architecture from the Delhi School of Architecture and eventually went on to study in London. This and his experience working with Michel Ecochard in Paris proved to be an instigator for his design ideologies. His understanding of traditional contextual Indian architecture and the ideas of modernism in the sixties that he was exposed to set the base for him to start his firm in 1962 in Delhi. Through this strong base, Raj Rewal created incredible intricate structures that sensitively weaved different facets of architecture, creating a balance between traditional, contextual, and modern ideologies. His works span several decades and across many scales, including residential, institutional, housing, and public buildings. He respected the climate of a place and the people the building catered to and represented, often through the appropriate use of geometries, openings, bulk, and scale. There were several common and specific elements that Raj Rewal ensured to maintain to create a sense of identity between his buildings.
Raj Rewal’s skilful grasp of materiality–National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.
One of the main core design ideologies of Raj Rewal was understanding climate and utilising the full potential of context in his works through materiality. The National Institute of Immunology is an iconic project showing his incredible usage of sandstone, which is a recurring theme among many of his projects. Sandstone is generally porous, adaptable, durable, and long-lasting, with its vibrant colours lasting for several decades. It is also a locally sourced material commonly found in the region, thus resulting in low embodied energy and carbon emissions. It was not just the use of sandstone that made this project iconic, it was the blend of different gradients of sandstone and brick, coupled with the openings he created and the pockets of spaces both narrow and tight spread throughout the design.
Symbolism reflecting culture – The Asian Games Village, New Delhi.
With over 500 units between 2BHK and 4BHK, Raj Rewal’s idea was to create a posh housing complex in one of the most desirable areas of New Delhi. The design reflected the narrow, dense, and low-rise streetscape of typical Indian streets that was envisioned efficiently through the principles of modernism. The concepts of street, bulk, and scale were explored, creating several pockets of space within the design where most housing units were around courtyards. Shaded passageways defined and connected the units allowing the buildings to open into the “street” Raj Rewal created. The buildings were clustered, and the units were all unique, with interconnected terraces and scattered open spaces. The pedestrian and vehicular access were separated yet linked efficiently. This posh housing complex is one of the most iconic projects that best reflects the principles of Raj Rewal.
Raj Rewal’s dictation of bulk and scale – Nehru Memorial Pavilion, New Delhi.
Raj Rewal’s understanding of bulk and scale to emphasise symbolism is best displayed in this project located in the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. The project was meant to celebrate the life of Nehru through different levels that unravelled as the visitor went through it. Light pierced through pitched brutalist roof structures that went underground, creating a unique visual experience. Community staircases lined the major pathways creating pockets of interaction along with the pyramid roof and the grassy slopes in the periphery for children to play. The project was ambitious and overwhelming to some, but it encapsulated the emotions that needed to be conveyed through a built form. His command of materiality was on full display here, contrasting the materials used through extremely intricate details. Unfortunately, this project was demolished by the India Trade Promotion Organization. A true tragedy for a project that was a testament to his incredible career.
Geometries and openings symbolic of his work – Hall of Nations, New Delhi.
Raj Rewal once said that one of the greatest architectural tragedies ever was the demolition of the Hall of Nations, and most of the architectural world would agree as well. It was arguably his best work encapsulating all his principles and ideologies. It was one of the world’s first concrete-spanned space frame structures. The building itself was a statement, with pyramidal concrete space frames of different geometrical shapes, including tetrahedrons, hexagons, and polygons that enclosed a great hall. Several ramps from across the Pragati Maidan came together at this structure. The Hall of Nations is the outcome of time constraints, budget issues, and lack of labour, among many other complications that helped eventually mould one of the greatest modernist structures in India. The openings helped diffuse the harsh Delhi sunlight making the entire structure a massive sun breaker that helped maintain visual and thermal comfort. The structure itself was built on symbolism from ancient Indian monuments, tombs, and the traditional Indian ‘jali’ all envisioned in a functional modernist flavour. The structure symbolised achievement for young Indian Architects in a newly independent India.
A pioneer that brought about a major cultural shift in Indian architecture
Raj Rewal practised at a time when Indian Architecture was going through a major cultural shift through several architects bringing in the idea of traditional, modern architecture. Raj Rewal’s designs were unique in modernism as he was sensitive to culture, to the people he represented through his structures, the climates he built, and the respect he always gave to his exposed raw materials. His love for sandstone and his expert grasp of symbolism was characteristic of many of his works. A man once inspired by the likes of Corbusier, Kahn, and Correa is now an inspiration to millions of aspiring architects. Raj Rewal set the standard for what can be achieved through simplicity and contextual understanding of all the different layers of architecture. He was also one of the first architects to experiment boldly with new building techniques and introduce technology into built forms in India. A pioneer, a visionary, and a master craftsman, Raj Rewal will go down as one of the greatest and most important Indian architects to ever live.
Honours and awards
- Gold medal in 1989 by the Indian Institute of Architects.
- Robert Matthew Award 1989.
- Mexican Association of Architects Award 1993.
- Great Master’s Award 1995.
- Lifetime Achievement Award 2001 by Institute of Engineers (India)
- IBC Award 2002 by the Indian Building Congress for Excellence in Built Environment for Parliament Library building, New Delhi.
- Knight of the Legion of Honour.
- John Michael Kohler Lifetime Achievement Award
- First Indian architect to enter the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The difficulty of being Raj Rewal (2018) Mintlounge. Available at: https://lifestyle.livemint.com/news/talking-point/the-difficulty-of-being-raj-rewal-111645375743381.html (Accessed: May 4, 2023).
Raj Rewal – architecture style, projects, and philosophy (2023) WTN. Available at: https://whereisthenorth.com/raj-rewal-architects-perspective-series/ (Accessed: May 4, 2023).
About Raj Rewal (no date) Raj Rewal Associates. Available at: https://rajrewal.in/about-us/ (Accessed: May 4, 2023).
Rewal, R. (no date) Nehru Memorial Pavilion. Available at: https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/58407 (Accessed: May 4, 2023).
Fall of the hall: Losing a part of India’s history (2016) Hindustan Times. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/real-estate/fall-of-the-hall-losing-a-part-of-india-s-history/story-LaAIO0ZvE0o7lOj3xOsv0K.html (Accessed: May 4, 2023).