As dismay fills the architectural community, Mahendra Raj, the man behind Pragati Maidan, Salarjung Museum, Municipal Stadium and Sports Complex, Tagore Memorial Auditorium and many more unique structures. We all know the architects behind these famous structures, but very few people are aware of the brains that made these structures possible. Mahendra Raj is the finest example when it comes to the merger of architecture and Engineering.
Born in 1924, Mahendra Raj studied civil engineering in Lahore in 1946. He joined the Punjab Works Department Buildings and Roads and steadily rose to the position of executive engineer. Upon the partition of Pakistan and India, Mahendra Raj moved to India, which allowed him to collaborate with greats like Le Corbusier, Achyut Kanvinde, J.A. Stein, B.V. Doshi, Louis Kahn, Charles Correa, Ranjit Sabikhi, Ajoy Choudhury, Raj Rewal, Kuldip Singh, along with whom he shaped the modern Indian Architecture that we study today.
His first work in India was with Le Corbusier and his journey to construct Chandigarh, India’s Planned City. As there was not much awareness about structural engineering and architecture back then, Mahendra Raj considered himself a lucky person to land an opportunity to work with Le Corbusier.
Later, after learning that India lacked education related to structural design, he moved to America to pursue a master’s degree in Minnesota and then to Columbia University for a postgraduate degree. After seeking the degrees, he moved to New York and joined Ammann & Whitney Consulting Engineers till 1959. Moving to New York was heavily based on the experiences he gained in Chandigarh. With Ammann & Whitney Consulting Engineers, he worked in the Special Structures Division and International Space which was instrumental in shaping his attitude towards Structural Design as an art form. Here he was able to work on famous structures like Eero Saarinen’s TWA Building.
In 1960, Mahendra Raj, decided to move back to India and start his practice, known as Mahendra Raj Consultants Pvt Ltd. With his collaboration with famous architects that shaped the Architectural history of India, his efforts have left a strong imprint on the young minds toward, with his impressive eye for details he helped define the Nehru’s modern India we all know today.
After returning to India, his first project was a temporary structure designed for the 1961 Industrial Fair in Delhi, the Hindustan Lever Pavilion. The inspiration behind the construction came from a simple piece of crumpled paper. Each crumble bent was a definite geometric shape, such as a triangle or quadrangle. The structure was solely based on the detailed analysis conducted from observing a scaled model as the structure on the paper of only an architectural plan and a few tentative sections.
Later, he collaborated with Charles Correa on his project Ahmedabad Stadium; the stadium demanded folded plate cantilever frames, which was difficult to achieve and was also one of a kind when it came to Architectural explorations. Mahendra Raj says, “we were all very nervous in those days; there was no proof checking, so we double-checked within our office.”
Over time, his skills allowed him to work with Raj Rewal on the exhibition space we recognize today as Pragati Maiden; it was a part of a competition announced by the Indian Government. During the design development, the structure demanded a lot of steel frames, but with the market where steel was scarce, Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj took the opportunity to explore precast concrete elements. As the exploration worked well with the form of structure, the other difficulty was finding a contractor willing to construct the structure.
As India was still behind time compared to other countries in Architectural development, contractors were hesitant as they had not explored anything in precast concrete before. As time was running out and the structure needed to be built before Asia’s third International Trade Fair and the first major international trade fair of India was hosted. The structure was executed by overcoming many difficulties and was inaugurated in 1972.
Mahendra Raj’s career was defined by the great period of India’s post-independence modernization, which saw vast construction opportunities that changed the face of the young country. The buildings like the National Cooperative Development Corporation building in Hauz Khas, Chandigarh High Court, Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, and Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad are a few of the notable works the world studies today.
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.”
“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.
In his later years, at the age of 95, Mahendra Raj still credits Le Corbusier for introducing him to the world of concrete and how he embraced the material. He recalled his time working with the Pragati Maiden structure as the most stressful period of his career as it was the first in–situ concrete space frame; he continued to add, “It’s a game where there will be compression and tension, and, sometimes, both, and one needs to cater for them.”
With his humble behavior he won the hearts of many architects and designers over the years. He was always critical of the fact that structural engineering as a field has never been explored to its full potential.
He adds, “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.
8th May,’2022, Mahendra Raj took his last breath at the age of 97 in his Delhi house, leaving behind a legacy of works that helped shape Indian Architecture and gave India a place on the world map of architecture.