A look at Ahmedabad-based architects Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel's prolific oeuvre
The guardians of built heritage have handled a wide range, scale and variety of projects, with the smallest project being a single classroom and the largest one a contextual mall in Udaipur.
Award-winning architects Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel have mentored…and inspired…generations of young architects and designers over the four decades of their distinctive practice. Almost synonymous with Make in India when it comes to built spaces, they are long-time champions of art and craft in architecture – as is evident in the wide scope of work they have done in this realm in Rajasthan. No wonder, then, that they continue to be felicitated for their unflagging efforts.
Just recently, on October 31st, the Sawai Jaipur Awards 2018 ceremony took place at the Pritam Niwas Courtyard of the City Palace. Held in commemoration of the late Sawai Bhawani Singh, this year the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust gave away awards in 24 categories – among them the Raja Kakil Dev Award for Excellence in Preservation of Heritage and Architecture. And who else could this prestigious award go to, than the inspiring architects whose portfolio fits the bill perfectly? Zaveri personally received the award from Rajmata PadminiDevi and Princess Diyakumari for their ‘conservation work, revival of traditional wisdom, art, craft and for conservation of energy’.
Besides winning several awards for their professional work in the architecture, interior design and conservation fields in India, the duo have also won UNESCO’S internationally-prestigious Asia Pacific Heritage Award for Culture, Heritage Conservation in 2000. They have travelled widely, nationally and internationally, to share their knowledge with students and professionals through talks/lectures and workshops on the subjects of heritage conservation, crafts, traditional knowledge and wisdom of India and sustainable architecture and interiors in the Indian context.
Zaveri and Patel have had their works published in several Indian and international professional journals and newspapers. Both of them were members of the panel for Sustainability Chapter, the newly-prepared National Building Code of India 2016 (NBC 2016). We are thrilled to record for posterity inspiring aspects of their eventful journey so far.
After their education at The School of Architecture (now CEPT University), Ahmedabad, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MITS), Cambridge, USA, the duo chose to return to Ahmedabad to set up Abhikram (meaning initiation in Sanskrit). Their mission is to explore design directions and processes that make the built environment functionally, psychologically, environmentally and spiritually more balanced, contextual and comfortable for all users.
When Zaveri and Patel started their practice on October 1, 1979, they were unsure about the path they should take – but they were very clear about which direction they should not take. “Our ‘dhyeya’ (aim) which became clear in the first 2-3 years was, ‘Together, we will explore the design directions and processes which make the built environment, functionally, psychologically, environmentally and spiritually, more contextual and more comfortable for all’,” they disclose.
Till then, the architects followed their basic convictions that their buildings will be contextual, innovative and blend with the local idioms, be user friendly and project the client’s personality, and that they should not confine themselves to a ‘style’ of building. “The strength of architecture of India is in its variety, based on the context and using minimum energy to make it comfortable,” declare the founders of Abhikram. “We wanted to uphold these norms and to make a responsible contribution to society and the nation.”
Since their practice was based on their ‘dhyeya’, convictions and beliefs, they were unable to approach anyone seeking work – so they waited for projects to come to them. Their first projects were a few family interiors, an outdoor classroom for pre-nursery students and a residence. But soon, they received an outsourced project from Saudi Arabia to revise the already completed design for three Government buildings (cost $150 million) so as to provide parking for 1,500 cars under the already designed building. “We had to correct 900 drawings and make 300 new drawings in a period of five months. Our office grew 10 to 78 colleagues in four weeks, and we worked on it for five months,” they recall.
The duo has based their practice on the convictions and beliefs dear to them. While Abhikram’s broad design philosophy, convictions and beliefs were already clear from the beginning, what evolved as the firm grew was the understanding of its applications and the richness of its results. “What also evolved was our own knowledge about the wealth of our traditional knowledge and wisdom along with the craftsmanship skills,” add the experts on conservation architecture today.
The practice has handled a wide range, scale and variety of projects, with the smallest executed project being a single classroom and the largest one a contextual mall in Udaipur. The directions include projects using passive cooling systems; of heritage conservation; of adaptive reuse; using traditional materials and crafts; and of settlements, townships and campuses; as well as a combination of the above directions.
The typologies cover residences (individual and group housing), schools, educational institutions, office buildings, industrial buildings, research centres, historic buildings, settlements and townships, hotels and resorts, policies for revitalisation and vision for historic settlements, etc.
One of their projects, the Torrent Research Centre in Ahmedabad (1997) continues to be one of the largest passive-cooled buildings in the country even today. It has saved 200mt of air-conditioning, which has led to savings of an amount equal to the entire building costs, in only 13 years. The inside temperatures remain between 28° to 32° C when outside temperatures rise up to between 42° to 45° C.
Their luxury resort project The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur (2002), was able to generate employment for more than 700 skilled traditional craftspersons in the basic construction processes for about two years, and more than 300 highly skilled craftspersons in the works of arts and crafts traditions for over three years. It has won more than 85 hospitality awards so far, including the Best Hotel of the Year in 2007.
Looking to the future
Abhikram’s ‘dhyeya’, convictions and beliefs have remained constant throughout their 39 years of practice right from its inception – but a few more have been added to them, namely: 1) All projects will offer opportunities for creative inputs at all levels for all involved in design and construction; and 2) All design decisions (except for a few aspects of interior design) will pass through the sieve of common sense.
“Simply put, it continues to follow the dhyeya and its directions, the ongoing experimental and innovative approach to design, and build buildings which have greater longevity, better harmony with surroundings, qualities of timelessness, absence of specific style, adherence to contextuality, sustainability and user satisfaction over decades,” sums up the duo. “This revitalises and reinvigorates our energies as well as resolve, in our efforts to spread the relevance of the use of traditional knowledge, wisdom, crafts and local craftspersons in as many projects as possible.
“We would like to spread awareness at macro and micro levels for the clients/users, architects, designers, engineers, students, design institutions, policy makers, Government officers, IAS officers, police academies etc, through advisory consultancy lectures, seminars, workshops and publications and limited selected projects,” they affirm.
Projects that impacted the practice
Apart from the key projects that are highlighted separately at the end of this profile, Abhikram has been shaped by other projects that came their way. In their inimitably thorough style of responding, Zaveri and Patel make an exhaustive list and jot down the reasons for their choices.
• Balprasoon School Outdoor Classroom at Ahmedabad helped the firm to break the shackles of thinking of the educational institution heads and trustees, about teaching and learning within four walls in a formalised manner to learning being a holistic process which is imbibed better through play and informal inspiring spaces.
• Cosmoville Row Houses at Ahmedabad helped the firm to convince the housing developers that out-of-the box thinking and innovative approaches will solve the problems of users better and will also lead to better sales and profits. It also helped their potential clients get convinced about their design depth and capabilities.
• Bagor ki Haveli at Udaipur helped break the firm’s own mental barriers on how buildings and cities were built over centuries, and initiated their learning processes for heritage conservation, India’s traditional knowledge and wisdom, crafts and skills of the craftspersons.
• Jagat Niwas at Udaipur, being their first historic conservation hotel project in the walled city, started a trend on that 500ft-long street of converting residences into hotels for better income. Jagat Niwas was the second hotel on that street in 25 years, but the next 10 years saw 16 more residences becoming hotels on the same street. It helped the firm strengthen their belief that their role in such a situation was restricted to initiate an inherently correct action – so that it can snowball by itself without any inputs by them, or by other architects as well.
• Policies for Conservation of Udaipur City for INTACH clarified their own understanding of how to observe historic ruins, buildings or settlements; and because it was a pilot project for INTACH, it started the trend of initiating policies for other settlements in the country. It also helped the firm evolve the concept of a heritage fabric of any settlement, which gives it its unique identity and helps conservation architects in establishing priorities for the conservation of large settlements.
• Conservation of Chanwar Palkhi walon ki Haveli at Amber was a part of their initiative for the conservation of Amber, funded by John and Faith Singh of Jaipur and Abhikram itself. It taught them that 1) Our ruins are not as dilapidated as they appear to be; 2) They neither need contemporary materials nor presently trained professionals to conserve them, but only traditional materials, processes and craftspersons; and 3) They also do not necessarily need any drawings for their conservation. This project became instrumental in getting large Government commitment for the overall conservation of Jaipur and Amber.
• Conservation, renovation, refurbishing and adaptive reuse of various buildings and Palace at City Palace Complex at Udaipur was a huge lesson for Abhikram in how 11 centuries of dynastic rule has preserved its continuity and accepted growth without being incongruent with its contextual surroundings. It also exposed the firm to the fundamental vocabulary of the architecture of Mewar and its constants and variables.
• Rajasthan Urban Infrastructure Development Project (RUIDP) (2000-2004) was the largest commitment (Rs.50 crore) by any State Government in post-Independent India for Heritage Conservation. As heads of the team, Abhikram evolved the methodologies for: 1) Observing and assessing a historic building/precinct; 2) Preparing design proposals for its conservation; 3) Converting the design proposals into tender drawings, BOQs, etc as per the Asian Development Bank’s guidelines; 4) Getting the works of any scale, nature and complexity maximising the use of traditional materials and traditional craftspersons; and 5) Training the general contractors to became heritage work contractors. This gave a huge impetus to the movement of heritage conservation and generated employment for hundreds of traditional craftspersons. One of those contractors, who had never done heritage work before, is presently one of the most-sought-after conservation contractors in Rajasthan and its neighbouring states.
• Heritage Sensitive Vision for the development of Jaipur & Amber (2001-2004) left an impact by way of developing a deeper understanding of the evolution of Jaipur from the cradle of Amber, Jaigadh and Nahargadh over centuries. The firm understood that it is important, not only to recognise ‘Donation of Responsibilities’ as an important resource, but it was absolutely necessary to identify, define and assign the responsibility of actions from the macro scale (Government) to the micro scale (single family). It is only then that the work will progress faster and more effectively. They learnt how to handle such large and varied conservation projects through proper analysis, documentation, reports and drawings of international standard for the tendering process, all the way to its execution.
Finally, let’s take a look at some of Abhikram’s key projects…
Owner: Faith and John Singh
Location: Near Jaipur
Architects: Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel
Consultant architect: Ravi Kaimal
Land area: 45 acres of farmland
The site was barren except for tree plantations and mango groves – hence the name ‘Aam Nivas’. The owners were already in the process of getting their farmhouse designed, when the conservation work was initiated by the Jaipur Chapter of INTACH for Amber. The project convinced them about the use of traditional materials for building – and they decided to experiment with it in the construction of an outhouse at the farm, with Abhikram’s help.
The owners wanted to build a self-contained one-bedroom unit, to serve as a guest house, using traditional materials, traditional technology and traditional craftsmen. The house soon grew from a one-bedroom unit to a 5-bedroom one, and then a 6-bedroom one – and finally become the main house itself, with the ever-changing needs of the occupants.
Besides meeting the core requirements, the design agenda sought to make a climatically comfortable building by merging the interior and exterior via ponds, courtyards and verandahs created at the heart of the building; evolve the plan without sacrificing even a single mango tree; and involve craftsmen at all levels of decision-making.
The building process used lime mortar and stone. Ceilings were left unplastered and waterproofed in the traditional manner using a concoction of materials like lime, gur (jaggery), and methi (fenugreek), with inverted kullads (earthern pots) for insulation. Most of the woodwork used in the house was brought from a dismantled haveli in Ahmedabad. Long and narrow windows were incorporated to allow circulation of air. The internal plaster is of lime and cement, while the external walls are of stone masonry with three to five coats of lime wash. The column and other decorative elements were crafted in high-density red karoli stones. The flooring was of patterned Indian Patent Stone (IPS) or the Bijola stone or readily available mosaic tiles from the market. The geometric stone and wood jaalis inserted into the larger windows were for a dual purpose of being decorative and practical as well as for filtering light and giving privacy. Skillfully positioned lily ponds also reflect light inwards, creating soothing rippling effects on walls and ceilings. The house was desert cooled – a natural system where water is circulated up through cooling pads of fresh fragrant roots and grasses into an exhaust fan mounted outside.
Owner: Faith and John Singh
Location: Outskirts of Jaipur
Architect: Rohit Dhankar, principal of the school
Other architects: Jyoti Rath and Ravi Kaimal
Consultant architect: Nimish Patel
Design inputs: John Singh
Land area: A little less than 4,000sq-ft
This educational institute was started by Faith and John Singh to implement their own ideas and convictions regarding the methods of imparting education. The school is an example of a project in which the role of the architect is limited to an advisor. Architects Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri gave advice over two half-an-hour sessions pertaining to materials, systems of construction and openings, etc, to the principal of the school – who played the dual role of designer and executor. The exception to this was the main building, which was designed by architects Jyoti Rath and Ravi Kaimal.
The design evolved from basic needs combined with financial constraints and ample use of common sense. The facilities required were 11 classrooms, an office, a library, a store, and toilets for around 200 students, to be construction on a tightly reined budget and made with available resources which themselves were meager. A direct consequence of the security needs of a school in such a distant location as well as the need for greater control evolved the design of a side entrance and an inwardly oriented polygonal school.
The school looks like any other rural structure congruent with its surroundings. The basic structure consists of three vertically placed stone pattis, the central one being higher than the other two, located radically at the boundaries of the spaces and embedded in the ground to give sufficient rigidity. The walls located between the pattis are made from rejected and burnt-out bricks with mud mortar. The thatch roof was put together in the traditional manner to make it waterproof. The floor is compacted earth retained by a vertical piece of rough local stone embedded in the ground to facilitate the compaction. The internal wall is low, with door-size openings, and the eternal wall has perforations in the brick masonry for openings to ventilate the spaces. Both walls are covered with mud plaster, internally as well as externally, with lime wash on the external plaster. The cost of the school, including that of the thatch roof, was about Rs.80,000 – and this was achieved primarily due to the non-involvement of a professional architect in the decision-making process.
Owner: Mr and Mrs Indravadan Modi
Location: Chharrodi, near Ahmedabad
Land area: Approximately 1 acre
Built-up area: 230sq-m
The site was a part of a real estate development complex, to be developed into a weekend retreat. The area was a flat ground with existing eucalyptus trees as the only natural feature. The client had come across circular rooms in the Himalayas, which he found to be desirable for meditative activities and thus wanted a construction designed in a round shape for a two-bedroom unit made from natural materials, but equipped with basic modern necessities. He was quite impressed with Abhikram’s suggestion to experiment with the use of mud as a material for construction.
The architects sought to establish that mud and thatch as building materials were not as weak and short-lived as they are thought to be. To create a residence that would blend the traditional with the modern, they employed the expertise and craftsmanship of artisans from the Banni area of Kutch, Gujarat, where such rounded houses – or bhungas – are still to be found. The architects also endeavoured to evolve a new form by interconnecting two independent bhungas with a different roof form.
The earth for the sun-dried mud blocks for the walls was dug from the site itself, while the thatch for the roof was locally purchased. Babul wood was used for the doors and windows, as it is termite resistant and also because the craftsmen were familiar with it. Chikni mitti (sticky clay) from Kutch was used for decorative relief work, mirror-work and storage units. The mirror-work on the wall allows the openings to be kept small, decreases the heat gain and increases light levels through internal reflection.
The roof was constructed using wood and bamboo. The crevices were filled with mud, over which layers of thatch were laid in such a manner that rainwater cannot seep in. For the interiors, a collaborative effort between Kutchi craftsmen and local carpenters evolved a comfortable furniture theme. The design team and the craftsmen worked very closely with each other during the whole process of construction, and constantly reviewed the design and finishing decisions. Special pieces of appliqué fabric and selected textiles in exuberant bright colours were commissioned by Parul Zaveri of Abhikram to echo the magnificent Rabari quilts used in the house.
TORRENT RESEARCH CENTER
Owner: Torrent Pharmaceuticals Limited
Land area: Approximately 20 acres
Built-up area: 20,000sq-m
The project brief was to locate and accommodate all the laboratory, administrative and supportive activities with their requirements of space, light, ventilation, utilities and services with a free and undisturbed circulation between them. The agenda the architects set for themselves included using innovative problem-solving approaches in design and construction processes. They were also keen to establish that it was possible to design a complex building and still maintain comfort levels of its occupants using negligible electrical/mechanical energy. To this end, they introduced the Passive Downdraft Evaporative Cooling (PDEC) system to minimise dependence on conventional air-conditioning systems and reduced the use of artificial light through the strategic and adequate placement of openings.
The building was designed as a reinforced concrete structure framed with brick in-filled walls, glossy enamel paint on the cement/vermiculite plaster on the internal surface, white textured paint on cement plaster on the external surface as the principal materials. Internal plaster surfaces were either curved on the inside or covered on the outer corner edges to minimise dust collection and cobwebs at junctions and corners. Details like the size of windows for light against the maximum allowable heat gain, the predominantly north-south orientation of each laboratory block and the desirable distance between them, the access routes of electrical and air-conditioning services against the supply and disposal routes of water-based services, the insulation of the external fabric versus the ease and economy of construction, etc, were all considered in order to achieve the level of performance targeted from the building itself.
The building, which incurred an additional civil work cost of 13%, ended up saving 200mt of air-conditioning plant capacity – and the Rs.60 lakh saved from the electricity bills paid back the additional investment in less than one year, the cost of civil work in less than 13 years, and will pay back the entire investment of the project in less than 40 years.
THE TRIDENT, UDAIPUR
Owner: PRS Oberoi
Location: Banks of Lake Pichhola, Udaipur
Conservation consultants: Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel
Built-up area: 8,000sq-m
When the chairman of the Oberoi Group, PRS Oberoi came up with the plan of setting up a hotel on the land portion jutting into the Lake Pichhola, he ‘wanted to prove that traditional material, technologies and languages can be utilised in the design of ‘complex contemporary buildings’. He wanted to make this property a role model for popularising the continuity within the historic and aesthetic language, as well as generate a demand for the skills of the traditional craftsmen.
Aligned with this brief, the architects sought to design an extremely contextual and congruent hotel with eco-friendly but self-imposed guidelines protecting the lake’s edge as well as the sanctity of the lake front. They would do so by minimising the cuts in the rocky areas of the site as well as conserving the existing tree cover, tree species and wildlife, and respecting the existing buildings on the site and their skyline.
The primary materials used for construction were lime stone and lime mortar for masonry walls with a minimum use of concrete blocks and bricks. Pre-cast concrete elements were used to replace the prefabricated stone elements of the traditional construction. The flooring of the entrance courtyard was done in local Chittor stone instead of granite cobblestones, while its walls were constructed out of broken waste stone (called tiri locally) using ‘leaner’ mortar. The flooring in the rest of the property was done in local marble using traditional patterns, and the external finish was lime wash on masonry walls – the first attempt for any hotel of this status in India.
The design activity, which lasted almost five years, was a continuous balancing act: between the aesthetic language of the building and the technologies to achieve them; between the traditional and contemporary materials; between the client’s needs and the statutory requirements; between the unfamiliarity of the execution teams with the traditional material and the constraints of a time frame to achieve the target; between the insistence to use local material and technologies and the contractors’ resistance to it…
Owner: PRS Oberoi
Architects: Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel
Built-up area: Approximately 25,000sq-m
Udaivilas is a 30-acre resort located along the manmade Lake Pichola, near the site known as Haridasji ki Magri (meaning “the hillock belonging to Haridasji”). The mandate to the architects from PRS Oberoi at the beginning of the project, was that the chain of luxury hotels wanted to ‘build a palace’ such that it would respect and represent the continuity of Mewari tradition in all aspects. The other brief was to use traditional materials, technologies and craftsmen in the construction process – and give it the authentic feel of the palaces of yore with a sense of timelessness. Thus, Udaivilas today stands as an enduring tribute to the region’s craftspeople.
The palace resort was so conceptualised that every room has a courtyard adjacent to it, and some have swimming pools adjacent to the courtyard. All the suites were given their own private swimming pools and courtyards. Courtyards, an essential part of the architecture of Mewar, reflects the understanding of the harsh climate and the varied cultural requirements of the individuals as well as the community. The great courtyard is a combination of green grass and tiny trees with black granite and white marble around the edge. In the middle, is a pool with a flat, white marble lotus that appears to float.
The entire complex was given a satiny, creamy white monotone achieved with ghutai – a traditional lime plastering technique that uses a powder of a secret mix of stones, egg white and tamarind. It requires up to 18 months of preparation and is known to last centuries without any maintenance.
Everything used in the building is a gentle reminder of the past – from brass doors with spherical doorsteps, the corridors with 450 handcrafted stone columns with the luminous ghutai finish to the mirrored silvered glass (thekri work) of the great dome in the Candle Room and small niches all over the property. An ancient banyan tree with twisted aerial roots, predating everything around it, was not removed – and it enhanced Udaivilas by giving it a timeless feel and aged reassurance.
Among the projects that Zaveri and Patel are looking forward to with enthusiasm are:
The Fort Barwara Resort, at Chowth ka Barwara, near Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan – a conservation and adaptive reuse project to be operated bythe Six Senses Group.
A large contemporary residence at Ahmedabad which uses lime mortar and lime plaster.
A proposed small boutique resort at Naldhera in Himachal Pradesh using local materials and local craftspersons on an extremely challenging site.
Above all, the partners of Abhikram are looking forward to increase the spread of what they have learned over four decades of practice in the following:
Minimising the use of electrical and mechanical energies for human comfort conditions,
Policies for conservation of historic settlements,
Conservation and adaptive reuse of historic structures,
Use of human skilled crafts in contemporary designs,
Methods of using traditional knowledge and wisdom along with construction techniques as well as processes in present/ongoing projects,
Methods of increasing employment generation for local traditional craftspersons in their areas of expertise using local materials.