If a quirk of fate hadn’t forced him to return to India, Ratan Tata would have arguably been one of America’s top architects. The literal proof of the pudding is that the signature flourish that defines Tata Hall, his generous gift to his alma mater, the Harvard Business School. The expansive seven-story, glass-and-limestone building that will provide residential and learning space for almost 9000 students of at HBS’s executive education programme has so impressed with its unique aesthetic utilitarianism that it has been recommended for LEED Platinum certification — the US Green Building Council’s highest rating.
Architect William Rawn who executed Tata’s brief for a “warm and welcoming” building incorporating several Ratan-esque functionalities including low-flow plumbing, glass exteriors to allow for maximum natural sunlight and a solar array to generate power for air-conditioning, could well have drawn inspiration from two American prairie style houses in Jamshedpur. Even 50 years after they were built, both buildings are still counted amongst the most elegant in the city. Ratan, who was barely 25 and fresh out of architecture school, had been eager to try his hand at designing a real building and the opportunity presented itself in 1962 when a friend’s father gave him a project to make his debut. A firm follower of the philosophy of “organic architecture” championed by America’s then leading architect Frank Lloyd Wright — “a sense of openness, uncluttered clean lines and natural lights” — both the buildings he erected showed distinct character with robustly sized rooms, low placement of switches and large glass windows for easy ventilation and plenty of sunlight.
It’s a style that also inspired his later buildings — we hear that while his suggestions helped company architects design better office buildings for the Tata Group, he never stopped building himself — whether it was a house for his mother or his own beach bungalow in Alibaug. In 1991 — a good 32 years after his Wright’s death — his genius was finally hailed by the American Institute of Architects who declared him the greatest American architect ever. It’s a striking coincidence that it was the same year Ratan took over from JRD Tata as chairman. In two weeks, he’ll be celebrating his 76th birthday — his first after his so-called retirement — but Ratan Tata can look back with some satisfaction that even the shape he gave to the massive conglomerate he headed for decades is also inspired by the same sturdy values that always defined his buildings.