Akshat Bhatt offers insights on contextual architecture for the present
The principal architect at Architecture Discipline believes such architecture should be responsive to the Indian climate, ethos, tradition and materials
The profession of architecture is rooted in the past, with its beginning cited as far back as 3,000 years. Architecture is the art of creating human habitat, and therefore, it has to deal with issues associated with human conditions with a surprising amount of depth. Through the practice of architecture, one realises that what they are creating is not for the present alone, but also a memory for the future. Hence, it is only wise to be guided by the depth of knowledge and learning of a place, from its past. Sensitivity is key in any project. We must learn from our surroundings and from the people that surround us, and in order to do that as an architect, one has to be sensitive towards the culture and climate of a place. Often, you will find that the appropriate tools lie embedded within the climate and culture of a place, and engagement with its people and the vernacular resource base can unravel techniques and devices that are forgotten. The need is to create memorable spaces that people can identify with. It is crucial to propose designs that are rooted in tradition, yet imbibe versatility and functionality.
In this context, our first significant engagement has been through a hospitality project in Ranakpur – Hotel Mana. The value of Ranakpur as a town, is that of a stoic revelation in time. Located about 90 kms away from Udaipur, the context of Ranakpur is exceedingly contrasting. While Udaipur appears to be a homogenously modern city, the setting of Ranakpur is seemingly untouched through hundreds of years. This makes its physicality and the proximity of site very apparent, as does the reaction of the natural landscape to the changing of seasons. It is an exercise of almost mapping out longer cycles in time and, therefore, allows you to create a slower cycle in memory. Each time a person visits Ranakpur, they experience something new through all of their senses – visual, physical, tactile and olfactory.
Having said that, the architecture that we propose for today cannot keep hugging to the past – it has to show us a way forward. Optimism is the only way we will survive as a species. Hence, it is vital to take the deep-rooted, critical understanding of the past and use that as a tool to advance. This ideology is reflected through the retail store designed by the studio in The Oberoi Gurgaon. Neel Sutra is a small-scale project, elements of which are designed completely with forgotten Indian timber and forgotten Indian threads and weaves. Eleven different types of timber and a variety of weaving techniques are used to express tastefulness in an absolutely modern surrounding. The need for a resilient identity and a compelling space was impending – one that could mark a presence regardless of the ever-changing exhibits. At the same time, it was important to create depth within the spatial volume, and induct a sacred sense of vastness. Fashion design in India, is most often connoted as a fiddly amalgam of colours, weaves and layers. In contrast, an extremely structured space is created using multiple architectonic elements. The store hence becomes a figurative response as a tribute to Indian fashion. Weaves that are reminiscent of Indian textile design, are contrived in the form of layers which use material play that befits the Indian context, manifesting themselves as fundamentals within the store. There is not only a conversation on the materials used, but also a conversation on the scale of the project. With a height of 6 metres, the space makes the patrons feel surrounded by an envelope of everything forgotten.
The Discovery Centre in Bengaluru, takes all of the above-mentioned principles into account and interprets the idea of the natural setting of a space and merges it with the current context of Bengaluru as a modern IT city. Yet, it places itself firmly within India, with simplistic, local materials procured from the surroundings. A material as modest as granite is used, albeit in a progressive manner, amalgamated with steel and glass, creating an absolutely modular and reconfigurable structure.
The urban regeneration project of Jodhpur and the refurbishment of The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, come to show that preservation of the past can also be a way forward. The JDH project reflects how a city with layers of abuse on it, is transformed with contemporary Indian brands in programming, which also manifest their own learning from the Indian past. Looking beyond the clichés of the blue city, the project endeavours to commence an inclusive urban revitalisation of the city to revive momentous landmarks. Steered by the inclusion of local experiences and expertise, the project reaps the insight of local practices and knowledge. The initiative draws from the injection of new ideas, infrastructure and influences, that are sensitively integrated with the local community and architectural past of the place. This alliance of technology and sustainability guides the inclusive effort of revitalising the fortress city. Known for attracting the global elite, the walled city’s exquisite palaces and forts are a playground for tourists.
The redevelopment of an architectural marvel that dates back to the 1800s – the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata – was conceived as an intervention to augment the historic structure with a contemporary character and extant functionality.
In conclusion, to design for the present (and to make it last for the future), an architect needs to have a profound understanding of the practices, techniques, and fundamentals of the architecture of the past, and be able to fuse those elements with the modern-day design character.