Architect of change

THE HINDU April 26, 2011

Excerpts from an INTERVIEW To C. N. Raghavendran, architecture is about preserving that critical link between the built and the natural environment. T. KRITHIKA REDDY talks to the Padma Shri awardee.
Design-wise The Ebene Cyber Tower, Kalakshetra auditorium and Tidel Park (below) Architect C. N. Raghavendran PHOTO: R. Ravindran
Unlike his towering structures that stand out against Chennai’s jagged skyline, a diminutive C. N. Raghavendran is almost lost behind the stacks of drawing sheets on his table. The architect, who has navigated the complexities of massive urban projects for over four decades, speaks in short bursts and punctuates the conversation with a genial smile, at his office in Mylapore. 
“I’m happy to receive the Padma Shri. Architects are usually not on the radar for such awards,” he says. But the choice is not surprising, given Raghavendran’s rich body of work that ranges from educational institutions and IT parks to sports stadiums and auditoriums through which he has pushed his agenda of introducing innovative building technology and climate responsive designs.
“How architecture can make cities more sustainable is a critical question we have to address today. The chunk of our population is moving towards the urban areas, so we have to see how new settlements can be woven into the existing fabric. Building materials have environmental implications; therefore, judicious choices have to be made. With design having a direct impact on energy use, architects need to orient their buildings so that they make optimum use of natural resources such as daylight. Sustainable urbanisation is the need of the hour,” says Raghavendran, whose firm CRN figures on the list of top 100 architectural practices in the world.
Essence of design
A student of IIT-Kharagpur, Raghavendran went to Berkeley for his Masters. Later, he worked in Boston, before returning to India. “My dad C. R. Narayana Rao had already established a good clientele, so it wasn’t difficult for me to get a break. During my Berkeley days, I was encouraged to think differently; so I specialised in urban design and the demographics of housing. To me, architecture is about integration.”
This accent on the topographical integration of architecture is evident in Raghavendran’s inventive work for the Kalakshetra auditorium. Built in the early 1980s, this 450-seater auditorium had no electro-mechanical interventions, except for the audio-visual system and stage lighting. The climate responsive design is a fine example of a sustainable, energy-saving building.
Another major milestone was Raghavendran’s pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete solution for the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. “The first of its kind in India to comply with the then newly brought-out FIFA regulations, the stadium which has a capacity to seat 40,000, had a tight timeline. Our innovation in building technology not only enabled us to complete the project in 270 days; it also helped reduce building weight, construction waste and save structural materials.”

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