The office of architect and designer Rahul Khanna is ensconced within one of the many nondescript office buildings that populate the limbo-like middle circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place commercial district. Reaching it entails walking down a narrow alley, up two flights of stairs and then through a little warren of corridors. But there is no mistaking it once you reach his suite of offices. The walls, in sharp contrast to the grimy cream and whites around, are painted in bright parrot green.
“They were supposed to be a chic green apple-ish. But now it’s become…this!” he explains with a shrug.
Khanna’s office may not be located in an architectural marvel—in fact, the building used to house an old lodge before being mostly taken over by a bank and a travel agency—but it is just brisk walks away from at least two of the buildings showcased in Khanna’s recently-released book The Modern Architecture of New Delhi: 1928-2007.
A slim and elegantly produced book, it profiles a hand-picked list of buildings, each one a standout example of modernist architecture. The modernist movement in architecture emerged in the wake of World War I and, Khanna explains, “was functional and democratic, in keeping with the times”. So the buildings were “obsessively functional” and free of all ornamentation, sometimes brutally so, exposing concrete facades without a hint of paint.
Functional: Khanna and Parhawk punctuate their book with stunning pictures of buildings such as the students’ canteen at Jamia Millia Islamia (above), and the Maulana Azad Memorial pictured here with the Jama Masjid in the background. Photographs courtesy Manav Parhawk
Khanna and Manav Parhawk’s book is arranged chronologically, starting with the St Martin’s Garrison Church, a little-known gem in Delhi Cantonment completed in 1931, and ending with the offbeat but stunning choice of the students’ canteen at Jamia Millia Islamia, finished in 2007 and designed by 33-year-old Martand Khosla.
Both buildings are generations apart in time and in terms of materials used. The former is a brick behemoth, the latter an assembly of clean lines in aluminium, iron and waste marble. But they share a simple and functional approach to design and execution.
And between these, Khanna and Parhawk showcase 45 buildings, big and small, private and public, that bring out the architectural richness of Delhi.
“At first Manav and I wanted to call it ‘Looking Up’,” Khanna says as we discuss the genesis of the book in his office. Parhawk is Khanna’s collaborator on the book and provided all the custom-shot pictures in it (the duo were refused entry to some buildings and had to dig up archival images to support the profiles).
The name, which was eventually dropped after they got into discussions with publishers Random House, was meant to be a play on words. “One meaning was the physical action of looking up at buildings. People in Delhi spend all their time looking down as they walk. They are afraid they’ll step on a dog or in shit. So we wanted them to look up. Look at these buildings and see them as works of art,” Khanna explains.
The second meaning was more straightforward—the book was also meant to be a tribute to the architects, most of them Indian, who gave Delhi stunning works of art in the heady period after independence when buildings were seen as more than just concrete containers for people.
Khanna recounts a conversation he had with Mahendra Raj, an architect and structural engineer, in the course of researching the book. Raj, who features prominently throughout the book, told Khanna that in the 1950s and 1960s “form followed function”—buildings were designed keeping in mind the activities that took place within. Today, Raj claimed, “form followed finance”. And Khanna agrees wholeheartedly: “You look at places like Gurgaon and what do you see? There is no time for aesthetics. You build something quickly, stuff it with IBM or Air France, or whatever, and then you move on to the next project.”
“We want people to buy it, read it, stuff into their backpacks, hop on to a Metro train and then see the places for themselves,”says Khanna explaining the lay person- friendly design, jargon-free prose and guidebook-like layout of the book.
Khanna hopes the book will make more people conscious of the city they live in and the architects and engineers behind these landmarks. The book works well in an armchair, but is best enjoyed in a pair of sturdy walking shoes by the footpath, looking up.
The Modern Architecture of New Delhi,Random House India, 201 pages, Rs495.