There was scarcely a more prestigious new building commission put out to tender in India in the last 15 years than the one for a site near the parliamentary buildings from the colonial past. Just like the client, the government, the competition winner, Raj Rewal, was aware of undertaking a historical commission that demanded to be addressed in a way that was up-to-date and could live up to its dominant neighbours. It was essential not to waste the opportunity to present a modern India in this building still aware of its mighty history. The particular difficulty was now to develop an architecture whose credibility hung on a harmonious synthesis of tradition and modernism, that had to be neither historical, nor uncompromisingly modern. The kind of approach that Nehru had intended 50 years ago as a “slap in the face” for India, would not have worked here. Urban development, genius loci and complete respect for the parliament buildings demanded a high degree of subtlety in the treatment of the new building stock. The imperial breath of a not so distant past could still be felt in the place the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had shaped as New Delhi in the early 20th century with their large-scale planning and impressive buildings. Derived from European cities planned under monarchies, but also influenced by the American design of the capital of Washington, Lutyens and Baker developed geometrical strategies for an urban street plan based on ceremonies and grandeur, the climax presenting the former viceroy’s palace, two symmetrical administrative wings and the actual parliament building as a gigantic circle. An important element of the planning was that large areas were to remain free, so that the width and magnificence of the axes should not be impaired.
Lutyens tried to harmonise Western classicism and historical Indian features in his buildings, while Herbert Baker’s parliament remained in its structure a purely classical import. An enormous pedestal storey, colossal columns with bases and capitals and a projecting roof level evoke European classical-ancient models. But the building itself, in its sheer size and monumental stereometry turned out to be definitely “modern.”
One of the important questions for both the jury and the architect was how to cope with the close proximity to the immense breadth of this colossus. The library site is a triangle adjacent to the parliament, which also has a triangular ground plan, so that it was impossible not to respond to the parliament and indeed to include it in the new plans. Raj Rewal solved this difficult problem magnificently. He did not try to outdo the parliament or confront it with a boastful competitor. He was concerned not to detract from the dominance of the historical and highly esteemed ensemble of buildings, but to retain that dominance, indeed to enhance it if possible in order to create a new weighting. So Rewal transfers the parliament’s monumental gesture only in the form of a strictly axial quality running through both centre points and creating the first main link. He further chooses the square as a basic geometry, which equals the circle as an archaic element, and also contains its concentricity, with the diagonal of the library square corresponding to the diameter of the parliament’s circle. The figures of both buildings draw life from this centre, where the most important things happen. The architect shows self-confidence by choosing a geometrical figure with a double axis allowing the new building to assert itself emphatically vis-à-vis its neighbour. But one quality in particular concerns him that the parliament does not have, and that is the typological feature of a typically Indian continuity.
In contrast with the mass of the parliament as a unit and an entirety, illustrated in the building’s exterior by the infinite curve of the circle, the mass of the library is a multiple, consisting of curved individual building sections, but tied together in a rigidly fixed ordering structure. The parts of the library are assembled like satellites around an interior that is also structured. By choosing this motif of an “active” concentricity, by allowing exterior and interior to communicate like this, Rewal is trying to derive his design directly from the historical context of India’s most important buildings. Millennia- old Hindu temples vary this motif in a multitude of ways, Mogul architecture like the Taj Mahal, the city of Jaipur in north Rajasthan or also the ideal cities in south India are all based on this concentric structure. The form is seen as a spiritual motif alluding to a cosmological dimension, a “cosmogram.” Largely divided into nine parts which indicate seven existing and one imaginary planet of the solar ecliptic, the centre as the axis mundi, the axis of the universe, the source of all creation. Architecture as an image of the cosmos is a primeval motif of Indian building, and is interpreted here in a new context as a “house of growing knowledge.”This is a simple but highly abstract motif, and with its pure geometry it contains a timeless dimension. Yet its very real differentiation also suggests the complexity of the secular element of the building commission. In this way the library design emancipates itself completely from the predominance of the parliament and retains its own identity.
One external dimensional aspect in particular underlines this intention: Rewal does not allow his building to rise any
higher than the base floor of the parliament, it retains a pointedly humble horizontal quality, with only the internal
roof superstructures attaining any greater height. Two additional storeys are buried underground, thus creating a low, pavilion-like group of buildings. With this basic concept, the architect achieves a successfully subtle solution to the parliament building and the need to integrate his work into the prominent urban structure. The main entrance is thus placed on the parliament side, and its hall leads visitors and users into the centre or the wings that form the ring. The administrative section is placed on the outside, and departmental functions like press centre, digital library and large auditorium are at the nodal points. The centre is made up of the parliamentarians’ reading room, research area and archive, and the committee room. But the junction point in the centre remains empty, the axis mundi becomes a multi-storey hall, with a glass dome and flooded with light as it is the only hall, symbolising growing knowledge and consciousness to the point of “enlightenment.” Because of the presence of an existing grove of trees, one corner of the powerfully symbolic square remains empty, the essentially rigid and austere figure of the library is broken up and changes into an asymmetrical, incomplete fractal geometry. Here Rewal is following an entirely modern structural idea of axiality, symmetry and the disturbance of symmetry as a component of our thinking today. The whole that is entirely complete as such, absolute and fixed, in equilibrium, does not exist as an ideal, the break suggests change, development, growth, it symbolises the relative and includes the unpredictable. Courtyards are created between centre and ring, also a classically Indian motif from a hot climate, offering protection from heat, dust and noise, but also making spiritualisation and concentration possible. This produces charged, changing spatial sequences as one moves through the building: halls as centres of sectional areas with vertical connections, corridors with adjacent horizontal outer spaces that open up, and introverted zones for reading and work.
Rewal’s choice of materials for his wall claddings emphasises come close to the atmospheric quality of a historic spatial
sequence: all the façades are covered with red and beige sandstone, left rough outside and polished inside. Of course this seems like a reference to the building’s neighbour, as the parliament is also built in this particular stone combination, but the link with Indian history is more in the forefront of Rewal’s mind. He contrasts massive piers with slender columns, articulates the exterior walls with a decorative structure and grades the building in transitions from circle to square to create deep areas of shadow. And yet concrete and other modern materials remain visible everywhere, and the honesty of the structure adds to its enduring presence. But the architect goes further, stepping up his structural design elements in an unusual way. The halls at the junction points inside the structure and the special spaces like the great reading rooms, the central research and archive areas, but also the cafeteria, are given dome structures made of prefabricated lightweight concrete segments fitted together in a hexagonal and octagonal honeycomb structure. Rewal braces these domes with tubular steel systems that are also hexagonal and octagonal, acting as a substructure. The forces are dispersed via enormous tubular circles on piers. Here the architect employs classical Indian elements from Mogul architecture in particular, as domes were important features of Muslim rulers’ buildings. These great models are quoted in the hatlike protrusions of these domes, but above all in the almost full openings in the circular hearing zones which indirectly control the light. Thus light is admitted to the space below the dome, which is then reflected by the dome as a kind of light trap, and the dome itself is placed “in the right light.” But Rewal emphasises the interpretative character by his choice of construction method, thus wishing to see the historical model transported into our day. It is only the steel connections of contemporary technology that make this multiform material symbiosis possible. At the same time they evoke European models that Rewal must have got to know on his working visit to France, Henry Labrouste and Viollet-le-Duc.
Seen from the Western European point of view, the new library building for the Indian parliament perhaps slightly
overemphasises the classical-historical interpretation. But for Indians the library seems to have the right expressive quality at the right point. Its form symbolises an implicit and diverse democracy, integrating the spiritual dimension that is rooted so deeply in the Indian soul and thus showing the neighbouring government buildings from a different era in a new light: the government quarter has become truly Indian.
Klaus-Peter Gast Contemporary Architecture in India Modern Traditions