Inspiration from the East

Monday 09 May 2011

As WAN prepares to announce the winners of the inaugural 21 for 21 Awards, Apurva Bose Dutta takes a look at some of the inspirational architects, both past and present, that have shaped the architectural language of India. From the hushed tones of Swiss-born Le Corbusier, who is said to have declared ‘I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies’, to the inclusive approach adopted by local architect Hafeez Contractor, what binds these visionary minds is humility. The following five designers have motivated a wealth of aspiring new architects, yet their humble natures have enabled a reciprocal relationship to develop between creator and user. Apurva Bose Dutta examines why this is…

Le Corbusier - Revolutionary Ideas
Master architect Le Corbusier gave India it’s first and only planned city through Chandigarh. The recent news of an international intervention to halt the sale of items from Corbusier’s architecture in Chandigarh was invited with great applause. The battle continues, and whilst we may be losing Corbusier’s imprint on a tangible level, his design influence is less easy to dismiss.

Today, he is seen as a major influence in the works of many successful architects who emulate his raw concrete, his modular proportions, his brise soleil, his five principles, his grid iron pattern and his minimalism. Corbusier stressed on science, space and greenery and showed how man could be brought closer to nature through architectural design. He was never rigid to a given logical suggestion; in fact he had the patience and the courage to mull on the thought and converge his ideas to better the given suggestion.

Corbusier’s purity in architecture gave him adulation and he took the world by storm by showing what concrete could do as a material. His empowering spaces existed sans any cosmetic treatment. He led the world and its people to believe in a ‘modern kind of architecture’ where simplicity of the spirit was paramount. The green approach which dictates the field of architecture today started with Corbusier’s efforts of gaining natural sustainability through his designs.

Today, Chandigarh is not the only city which talks, sleeps and breathes Corbusier - an advocator of a bold, modern architecture brimming with revolutionary ideas and persistently believing in being ‘exact and authentic’. Some might question his architecture’s relevance in the contemporary era, but the fact remains that he started a legacy which needs to be preserved and carried forward - the reason why Chandigarh is being considered in the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Corbusier had proudly once said: “To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.”

A man ahead of his times who was adept at creating architecture ‘of the mind’, a cerebral kind of architecture, he set the basis for climatic concerns in architecture. Louis Kahn had once mentioned: “Le Corbusier was a revelation to me. He made me realise that there was a man alive who could be an inspiring teacher. Through his work he could teach you.”

B.V. Doshi - Celebrating Life
Architect B.V. Doshi perceives architecture as a celebration of life and has attained a distinct vocabulary in the same through his candid cultural theories, teaching philosophies, empathy with natural materials and subdued natural tones.

Doshi’s rendezvous with poor people during his childhood inspired him to work on housing for the masses. For him, architecture should be able to provide a space where people enjoy living and are comfortable - the reason why he makes a conscious effort to talk to his clients at length to understand their requirements and why they have come to him.

Despite only a lose knowledge of the French or English languages, Doshi’s grasping power of Le Corbusier’s teachings while they were working together is exemplary of his passion for the subject. Thoroughly engaged with ‘research’ in architecture through the ‘Vastu-Shilpa Foundation’, Doshi is today involved in developing compact so-called sustainable cities. Clearly someone whose works want to better the standard of living in society, he believes that through architecture one can achieve a lot more as he says: “As architects we can inspire the layman and be participants in the desperately required upgrading of their houses. In formal architecture education, style and technology are taught and architecture is never considered as an issue of lifestyle and culture. This is the difference that I experience and I personally teach my students this way.”

A powerful yet simple space is the lead protagonist of Doshi’s projects. His belief in context-rooted architecture is reiterated when he says: “When I was with Corbusier I had taken a vow that when I return back to India I wouldn’t imitate him but would try to find out as an Indian what I can do for India - that spirit continues till today”. Doshi not only works towards conserving India’s rich heritage but also constructs the roots for creating today's heritage that will be celebrated 100 years from now.

Hafeez Contractor – Hard Work and Talent
Architect Hafeez Contractor has reached where he has today through his hard work, inborn talent for design, and unrelenting passion to keep on working, kicking off of all the brickbats hurled at him. He adds: “Throughout my career as a student I was working. For nearly 30 years that I worked for 365 days with no holidays, I never saw sunlight.”

Architecture in India has begun to shoot skywards thanks to his vision and propagation of building high-rises in order to accommodate the core population, to safeguard forests from destruction and to make proper channelisation of alternative resources. The fact that the practice has grown from a staff of two people to 400 employees is largely because each design starts with Hafeez’s input. With his focus only on the design, Hafeez leaves the rest of the logistics to his staff whom he values a lot. His résumé says it all - the names of each employee with their designated roles are listed alongside Hafeez’s as a concrete acknowledgement of their contribution to the success of this visionary architect.

Discourses restricted to his revolutionary forms, plans and facade architecture somehow obscure the source of Hafeez designs: that they are for the people. Acknowledging the repository that our previous generation has left, he feels a dire need to do the same for the future generation and believes that ‘It’s time to give it back’.

New concepts, new forms, new materials and new perspectives - Hafeez’s enduring belief and enthusiasm to venture into composing ‘new’ without fear is palpable in his work. He adds: “I do feel that unless and until we don’t venture out into new concepts new things won’t come up. I am not afraid of creating new concepts - for everything there will be appreciation or criticism. If on the whole you are doing well and if the intentions are clear then there is nothing else to worry about”. For youngsters down the line, he recommends the quality of ‘perseverance’ as imperative.

Brinda Somaya - Healing Architecture
Architect Brinda Somaya’s poise, grace and sensitivity reflect completely in her projects which always have an unfathomable sense of ‘healing the society’ and contributing towards it. Her philosophy that the architect’s role is that of a ‘guardian’ underlines her three decades’ work. She also takes a lot of effort to work towards the prominence of women, not only in the architectural industry but in everyday life. Her works have that ‘therapeutic touch’, aimed towards conserving tradition whether in the form of restoration of heritage buildings, or implementing traditional design elements like jaalis, pergolas, high ceilings, courtyards, and so forth.

An equivalent conviction is conspicuous in her works whether in the urban or rural areas. Her design nuances, and ability to keep herself in the shoes of the clients and perceive and conceive the project also is a reason for her success.

Brinda advises: “Instead of just concentrating on ‘iconic’ architecture in countries like India we should be building ‘relevant and appropriate’ architecture. Since we cannot build everything new, to create a future for the buildings from the past is equally important”.

Brinda clearly wants to give back to society in more ways than one. She has moved beyond architecture in terms of the mere ‘designing of buildings’ to educating the public about architecture, heritage and urban issues by founding Mumbai based HECAR foundation (Heritage, Education, Conservation, Architecture and Restoration). For the young architects in India she chips in: “We have to find our balance in design, enabling us to be part of the new and creative experiments ahead, as well as be part of what has gone before.”

Sandeep Khosla - Intelligent Implementation
Architect Sandeep Khosla, one of India’s most prolific young architects is synonym with ‘Tropical Architecture’ - context rooted designs, minimal materials, painstaking details and Indian concepts in a contemporary idiom, the modern style bearing imprints of his international exposure.

Khosla was working well in a large architectural firm in US after his architectural education, but his determination to discover a new kind of architecture brought him back to India, where after getting inspired by Charles Correa and Geoffery Bawa’s works, he started on his own.

In today’s era where a tussle between retaining the past and foreseeing a new future exists, Khosla has intelligently learnt the histrionics of borrowing from the past and streamlining them to the present context. “I find it important to extract useful concepts and ideas and then contemporise them to suit our present needs”, he adds. Traditional concepts and elements acquire a new meaning through his deft handling.

He draws a very thin line between architecture and interiors and works towards their beautiful mergence, as well as knowing how to blur the boundaries between the exterior and interior. What also counts in the favour of this ‘very young architect’ is that he believes in being a small niche firm and doing good work instead of completing huge scale projects and losing his identity down the line. His works reflect a wide horizon of imagination, an effort to push the envelope and think out of the box. “We always look for new challenges and the one thing that keeps us going is the will to keep experimenting, innovating and not to repeat ourselves”, adds Khosla.

Bangalore-based architect Apurva Bose Dutta works as an architectural journalist. She presently works as a freelancer, writing for a number of national and internationals journals and websites related to architecture. She can be contacted on apurvabose@yahoo.com or reached at www.apurvabose.com

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