Monday, December 23, 2019

Uncommon partnership which stood the test of time of the modernist duo

The original article appeared in The Hindu, you can read it here

Achyut Kanvinde: The man behind sustainable ... - The Hindu

Read the unedited version here....

Call it a quirk of fate or destiny, two men from diverse backgrounds met when they were chosen to go to the US for a study tour by CSIR (Centre for Scientific & Industrial Research) in 1945. The mission, to study modern research laboratories in the US so that it could be replicated in India post- independence. It was an era where a young emerging nation was about to take birth. There was this abundance of energy and enthusiasm which came with the spirit to build a new world.   One had studied at J J School, the other was an engineer trained at Roorkee. The former was the son of an artist from a humble background, the latter the grandson of Sir Ganga Ram. Life took them to the US, where they wanted to pursue their education to study design and architecture. The former, Achyut P Kanvinde, who studied Architecture and the latter Shaukat Rai who studied Civil Engineering. The duo came back and fulfilled their commitment by working with CSIR. The friendship which began then, resulted in a partnership – Kanvinde & Rai which survived over decades amicably. Where other partnerships floundered this flourished. It must have been pre-ordained as the two men complimented each other. Achyut Kanvinde’s (1916-2002) brilliance in designing and architecture was matched to perfection by Shaukat Rai (1922-2003), the Engineer who handled the project execution, management and business aspects. This gave Kanvinde an undisturbed environment to design. His son Sanjay Kanvinde who now manages Kanvinde, Rai  & Chowdhury with his wife Tanuja says, “they complimented each other beautifully. Each recognised and valued the contribution of the other to pave for an egoless work environment. When Morad Chowdhury joined, it was twenty years after the partnership had begun. He was fresh air and blood for the firm. The same thing happened when I joined.”  Morad Chowdhury joined the firm and became a partner in 1969. In the book Achyut Kanvinde – Akar, Chowdhury writes, “The two complemented each other perfectly. Charles Correa refers to Kanvinde Saheb’s sensitivity, the unique position he occupies in the history of contemporary architecture in India, and the partnership between him and Shaukat as that of high-ethical professional standards unparalleled in our times.”

It will not be an understatement to say that anything conceivable in brick and mortar was designed and built by the low profile soft spoken duo. There are no absolute numbers, but it could be easily above 500 projects covering schools, colleges, hostels, campuses, hospitals, temples, residences, office complexes, high rise, low rise…. The projects include – IIT Kanpur, Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, IRMA Campus, GCMMF while those in Delhi – Ashoka Estate, St. Xavier’s School, National Science Centre, Cooperation Office, Embassy of Switzerland, Azad Bhawan, NDDB, ISKCON Temple, CCRT. Of these, Gandhi Memorial Hall, Azad Bhawan, NDDB office, National Science Centre and ISKCON temple make it to the list of modern heritage buildings of Delhi.

If one sees the wide spectrum of work spanning over five decades it gives interesting insights into the design vocabulary and how it evolved. Kanvinde Sahab, as he was popularly called was the quintessential modernist. The buildings he initially designed were typically straight faced geometrical ones. This geometry was in stark contrast to the ornate and carved Indian architecture which he trained in but later disdained. Though Kanvinde was a modernist since his days at J J, it was his study under Walter Gropius at Harvard which completely altered his core of thinking. As Kanvinde says in his writings, “it was Gropius who really exposed me to the power of technology on the one hand and the psychological dimensions of spatial concerns and realizations on the other.”  There are stories of how Kanvinde’s passionate argument, rooting for modernistic structure in Delhi in keeping with the futuristic growth vision as opposed to the traditional ornate Indian architecture, at the conference on Indian Architecture held at The Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi led to Pandit Nehru endorsing Kanvinde’s view on modern architecture.  

This romance with geometrical architecture lasted all through his lifetime. Over the years, the geometrical shapes imbibed a certain fluidity, which made them almost speak. The structure using geometry simply fitted with the next like a huge lattice work piece or a maze to emerge as one holistic body. It is difficult to pinpoint a particular genre in which he was comfortable for he has covered the entire spectrum of buildings. Sanjay says, “the design would emerge from the site, topography of the land, the objectives in context of the area. It was a sum of everything.” Another feature which stands out is that Kanvinde Sahab had discerned the taste of the inhabitants of the space, then created the structure for them, so that they blended in well. Sanjay adds, “he would to great lengths to understand his clients. For the Balkrishna Harivallabhdas Residence 1962 in Ahmedabad, he often stayed with the family to understand them and their lifestyle so that the home would complement them. Similarly when he was asked to design the ISKCON temple, New Delhi, a pro bono project, he wanted to understand the philosophy of the organisation. They in turn presented him with 16 volumes of the Bhagwat Gita and he meticulously went through them,” Sanjay laughs saying, “For an architect who designed temples, he did not believe in Vaastu.”

Two other features which Sanjay points out is the emphasis on staircase in the buildings, it was given much preference. Similarly, the front or porch was designed such that it would add drama to the building. It also allowed for natural light to enter the buildings. Apart from staircases, covered verandahs & walk-ways connected various buildings allowing for light and ventilation. This is aptly reflected in the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru where the design allows for natural ventilation and light everywhere. The Darpana Academy of Performing Arts – Ahmedabad for dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai celebrates the dancer, her ethos and the arts of India. The building contemporary, intimately modern encompassing views of the Sabarmati river, with exposed concrete frame structure with exposed brick infill walls, fulfils the role to promote and preserve Indian art brilliantly without use of the ornate, carved architectural style.

Sanjay adds, “sustainability and environment friendly materials were a part of Kanvinde”s approach to buildings even before they became buzzwords. His own house – Akar built 1965-67  used local bricks and exposed concrete. The concept of using skylights, allowing for natural light to enter the building at all time of the day and using fly ash concrete was a part of the project.”

Another trait which can be seen when sees the spectrum of work was the deep friendship that he nourished with his clients who trusted him implicitly. Dr. Kurien of Amul was one such with whom he developed a keen friendship another was Balkrishna Doshi. Interactions with Dr. Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Corbusier, Louis Kahn enrichened the journey. The Mother Dairy booth that one sees omnipresent across the country was designed by him. The unique signature piece symbolic of India’s milk revolution. Ahmedabad as a city can be called his Karma Bhoomi as several of his projects find a place of pride.

As one takes a look at some of the prominent architects whose work enhanced the skyline of Delhi, one notices a link that they were all a close knit group of professionals. From Madan Mahatta who photographed the projects, Mahendra Raj who was the structural consultant for several of the projects to fellow architects…the group was not exclusive but inclusive to embrace young promising architects and sought to nurture talent and more importantly wanted good buildings and projects to dot the landscape of the country especially the capital.

Box 1
NDDB  Office at Safdarjung Enclave was built from 1978-83. It turns the idea of a conventional office building on its head. It is a very unusual office structure. Roof and terrace gardens which are a part of today’s sustainable world were incorporated four decades ago. The structure in itself with its stepped profile adds a very interesting visual drama. It also creates room for green patches and terraces along the way. A complex web of geometrical shapes has been incorporated into one cohesive building.

Box 2

CCRT – The Centre for Cultural Resources & Training, Dwarka, Delhi was built 1993-96 for Ministry of Culture. The purpose of the space was it to function as a training centre for teachers emphasising art and culture. It has been conceived as a school with additional space for workshops in different cultural fields, a 500 seater auditorium and 250 seater puppet theatre. The clever use of ramp capped by a steel trellis, terraces and stilted areas give the building an institutional yet intimate feel. The purpose of culture and art is accentuated without the environs being forbidding or intimidating. Dholpur stone jaalis bring in light to the corridor while Molela clay tiles add the indigenous element. The presence of greenery along the building and open terraces, gives the structure a very modern contemporary feel and not that of a stifled old fashioned building.

Box 3

Sanjay explains, “it seemed  coming a full circle that my father who studied temples for his thesis at J J went back to his roots when he designed the ISKCON temple.” Sanjay explains, here in a departure from traditional temples which have heavy load bearing walls, Kanvinde used frame RCC construction. This allowed the Shikhara to be a hollow skeletal transparent framework, so that it could be lit at night to create a magical environment. The site topography was utilised to design the space which incorporates several buildings and utilities. The buildings flow upwards with the Shikhara at the pinnacle. Several symbolic details of temple architecture have been incorporated.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Architects shaping Architecture of Delhi - The Design Group

This article appeared of mine appeared in The Hindu, 

Architects who were ahead of their times - The Hindu

Read the unedited version here...

Modernists ahead of their times

“For Ajoy and me the open spaces between buildings and open spaces around buildings was as important as the built up area,” says Ranjit Sabikhi,  partner of The Design Group (1961-1991). The other partner Ajoy Choudhury passed away in 2017.  This philosophy of urban design which balanced open spaces so integral to India, with the built up area through buildings which bordered around geometric minimalism created their unique design style. The partnership which spanned three decades saw several beautiful buildings – in Delhi these were Shakuntalam Theatre, YMCA Staff Quarters, Yamuna Apartments,  The Syrian Christian Church at Hauz Khas, August Kranti Bhavan at Bhikaji Cama Place, Janakpuri District Centre, DLF Centre at Sansad Marg… while those outside Delhi included the Mughal Sheraton (now ITC Mughal) - Agra, Taj Bengal at Kolkata, ITDC Hotel at Varanasi, NDDB – Regional Training Centre at Jalandhar, NDDB staff housing at Noida, Indian Embassy Kuwait, Hostel for School of Paper Technology at Saharanpur and many more. Of these YMCA Staff Quarters and Yamuna Apartments make it to the list of 62 modern heritage buildings brought out by INTACH. However, the YMCA Staff Quarters was demolished a few years back. It was for the Hotel Mughal Sheraton that was done in association with Arcop which won them the first Aga Khan Award. Ashish Choudhury son of late Ajoy Choudhury says, “The Design Group had designed numerous private residences and an even larger number of projects, many of which were built.”

Sabikhi says, “Ajoy and I met at School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi, which was then called Delhi Polytechnic. We were all 1952 batchmates along with Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma… Kuldeep Singh and Morad Choudhury were a batch senior. I studied there for two years and then went on to Liverpool to do B.Arch. I worked in England for a few years before moving back to Delhi. Ajoy finished his studies and worked in Milan, Italy before moving back.” It is uncanny how each of these architects then went on to leave an indelible mark on the architectural landscape of Delhi. Choudhury adds, “my father did not set out to be an architect. He had done his Physics Hons at Delhi University and wanted to do a Masters in English Literature, but was convinced to take up  architecture. Dejected with the slow pace of instruction after his first year of studies, he wanted to give up architecture. A meeting with Achyut Kanvinde, convinced him to take up an apprenticeship under him while pursuing his B.Arch.”

The Design Group began around 1961, Shiban Ganju was a part of the group initially and then went abroad. Morad Choudhury was a part for a few years and then joined Achyut Kanvinde.

Tracing their work Sabikhi says, “our first project was the YMCA Staff Quarters. We had a clear idea about what we wanted. It was built on a minimal budget. The choice of material was very limited in those days, it was brick and plaster. Because the cost was so low we could not do traditional things like verandahs and balconies.”  The next project through the same satisfied clients was the bigger YMCA Institute of Engineering at Faridabad, set on 20 acres of land. The Institute curriculum based on the German system included training at the workshop and theoretical classes. The design was done to include this pedagogy. It  included the academic centre, the staff quarters, hostel, the auditorium. The central structure was conceived as a pinwheel to allow for expansion later on. The academic centre, the staff quarters and hostels were built as separate units but connected through a system of covered corridors and verandahs. Sabikhi adds, “the design element of interlinking façade which was begun then was perfected at Yamuna Apartments.” The interlinking façade created a visual deception of open space thus could hide density. It also created a vast imagery of unstructured open space.  

What stands out as common thread in their design is the clean clear lines with a stark minimalism, more Western in its concept than the Indian ornate architecture. The monotony of the starkness of minimalism broken by using simple design elements adding a fair bit of drama to the buildings. What gives the design its distinct uniqueness is the ability to include  Indian cultural nuances and aspects which gave the modern contemporary architecture an Indian context. Such that the design was not alien to India but represented the modern or forward looking one. So far sighted that several of the designs could withstand the changes of time adapt itself well to it. Sabikhi says, “Since we were also teaching at SPA we undertook numerous field trips to Jaisalmer, Agra to understand and study traditional Indian architecture.” At ITC Mughal, three bridges connect the lobby to the rooms through a cluster of garden courts drawing from Mughal architecture yet modernistic. The Janakpuri District Centre though used colonial architectural elements. Sabikhi says, “our design was used to a large extent but then later, the land was parcelled and sold to developers who did not use our standard design control for the facades.”

Choudhury says, “My father shared with me that his favourite urban typology was 'low-rise, high-density'. It so happened that The Design Group did several projects that explored this typology."

Choudhury adds, " my father told me that design was, at one level, an exercise in problem solving and a response to the site and program. But there was always a strong underlying search for a design theme in their work."   In Yamuna Apartments, the topography of the land was incorporated into the design. Levelling the land would have cost heavily and budget was tight. Thus the design balanced the heights so well that a block with three floors is beautifully comfortably connected to another one with two floors through a club house. And through hanging balconies on another side. The fact that students would have to walk long distances within the campus in the heat or cold resulted in the corridors connecting all areas including auditorium being covered at the YMCA Institute. Sabikhi says, “At Yamuna Apartments, which came up at the same time with Tara Apartments, I am happy that the framework which we planned was strong enough to absorb changes of the modern way of life. The design has been able to absorb the changes.”

The choice of material though limited, has seen The Design Group use natural material for finish so that maintenance at a later stage is not a problem. Exposed brick has been used, grit finish to red sandstone. Red sandstone has been used on the exteriors of The Indian Embassy Kuwait.

As Sabikhi says, “the difference between what we were doing then and what people do today is that we were not concerned with making money. For us, it was a dedication, a way of doing things. In designing space or concepts, to be able to convince our clients, of how we want to build.” Choudhury says, "my father once said that he did not know, when he started out, that one day Architecture would become a friend."

So did they ever think that the buildings will be a part of modern heritage? Sabikhi laughs saying no. Wonder what Ajoy Choudhury would have said? But seeing the spectrum of their work, given a chance, they would have still built on absorbing all modern technologies still being the modernists.…


Yamuna Apartments
The Design Group
Structural Consultant T S Narayanaswamy
Contractors – Constructed departmentally under the control of the Cooperative Society in true cooperative spirit
Landscape – Ravinder Bhan
Approximate Cost – Rs. 1.3 crores – 1975 -1980
Approximate built up – 23,711 m2.

Yamuna Apartments, the first cooperative group housing society in Delhi can be said to be ahead of its time as it was conceived and planned more like a mini township, self contained apartments with plenty of open spaces and pedestrian streets. The design has four radial streets which converge at the central point – a modern day take off on the traditional courtyard concept. The central point is an open meeting space while the top is joined to form a community centre. The staircases to each flat is separate giving it a private entrance yet connected to the mainstream. As Sabikhi says, “when I look back I realise they were practical realistic people who did not want anything fancy. We managed to put in a few basements.”  The traffic was planned on the periphery and the inside area between the blocks was left for pedestrian traffic and for children to play. It still remains the same. Again a take off from a village concept with streets facing each other and closed to vehicular traffic.

Box 2

Janakpuri District Centre for DDA, 1984
The Design Group
Structural Consultant S V Damle
Landscape – Satish Khanna
Area of Site –34.13 acres, 13.8 ha
Total built up area – 2,74,100 m2

Taking its cue from Connaught Place, the only commercial cum shopping hub for citizens of Delhi with a snob value attached, the Janakpuri District Centre was designed to be a self-contained commercial and shopping complex with recreational facilities, restaurants and underground parking space. The Colonial architecture with which Connaught Place is so identifiable became a reference point. Sabikhi says, “the double-height colonnade defines and ties together all shopping spaces. This then visually extends and relates to the landscaped courts and gardens of the District Centre.”, pub-8283208273141084, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0

click here