May 29, 2020
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Hybrid Spaces

A ‘global’ aesthetics is moving into India’s smaller cities, and it reflects new-age aspirations

Hybrid Spaces

IF architecture is any measure of a changing economic and cultural milieu, then small-town India is certainly witnessing a revolution of sorts. Traditional ‘ideas’ of a house or even public structures are passe. ‘Space’ is now being defined individually as buildings seem to have become life-size metaphors for do-it-yourself kits. This individualistic approach has its own credo: style implies choice.

When architect Prashant Diwakirti was approached by the Narmada Valley Development Authority to design a building to house its offices in Bhopal, his brief was clear: it shouldn’t look like a routine government building. The requirements: lots of nature and space. It was no isolated demand, for the three acres he was given on Arera Hills is shouldered in by a post-modern steel-and-glass Charles Correa creation. But what finally inspired the approved design for the Rs 22-crore project was another structure on Capitol Hill in distant Washington. The White House Diwakirti is building in Bhopal isn’t something normally associated with government offices in India. The central foyer has an atrium going up three floors, a huge landscaped central courtyard and several small courts all designed to keep ‘nature’ locked in.

"We are witnessing a small revolution in the way people live and work even in small centres in the country. Aesthetically designed buildings are a priority now," says Diwakirti. He also feels boom towns like Indore, Raipur, Rajkot, Baroda, Bhopal etc, with no greatly visible architectural traditions like that of Jaipur, Lucknow or Hyderabad, have shown unusual alacrity in adapting to what’s now referred to as an ‘international’ style. That’s a home-grown method where Roman, English and Gothic mix freely with Rajasthani and Mughal. It’s technology mixed in earthy desi desires.

This rather hybrid form manifests itself in the rapid change in the facades of buildings in small-town India. The ubiquitous kothi, which inherited its shape from the British or Kathiawar, with ornate windows, arched corridors and front porches now borrows heavily from Roman or Gothic. But don’t be surprised to find a Mexican hacienda with a Japanese garden in the front. The owner may also not find a Gujarati jhoola out of place under a futuristic-looking Chicago-type pergola structure covering the porch. The business class, it seems, doesn’t want to sit in a boring square-and-carpeted office with a stuttering AC anymore. One may be dealing in steel pipes or the soya bean processing trade, but an office straight out of a information age design manual can’t hurt business. That we have crossed the age of linearity and are now ready for more visually playful forms is evident. And if people want to live in a bottle-shaped house - as one bottle manufacturer in Raipur does - then architects are findings ways to cope with the demand.

"Foreign travel and television have changed things. I have people coming to me in Raipur wanting to replicate an open plan California beach house or a Hawaiian villa. But the two things most in demand in any design are green spaces and natural lighting," says Diwakirti. Agrees Ajay Kataria, an architect whose works have appeared in the Hong Kong-based Architecture magazine: "Today most homes made for the masses are designed to be built and sold quickly. But the list of clients with individual taste has increased manifold." The home he designed for a bjp politician (and which won critical acclaim) has a high-arched facade with an asymmetrical floor plan allowing natural light to cascade into every room on each floor. The balconies too were designed with the idea that hanging creepers would shade the sun.

Kataria has also designed a community farm house on the road to Hoshangabad which is something of a cross between a rural Indian and suburban American structure. Each plot in Savoy Sawan is at least a quarter of an acre in size and has all the amenities of rural living like open spaces and greenery together with urbane tree-lined avenues, shopping spaces and even a clubhouse. The residents have a choice of designs ranging from a one-bedroom set to six bedrooms and most have chosen to use the colony as retreat to spend quiet weekends. Anjum Gupta and Vineet Chadha, who studied architecture in Ahmedabad and now work as a team, have designed over 50 homes and find people to be conscious of greenery and grand spaces. "Sometimes I’m surprised by the knowledge about various species of indoor and outdoor plants my clients possess. The bedroom, bathroom, aangan - no area should be bereft of plants. In fact, the walls and tiles have to be in harmony with their chosen variety of plants," says Anjum. This new-age architectural aesthetics has redefined the idea of space. In fact, everyone wants a spacious and roomy feeling now. While the jharokha of yore may be outdated and even finding capable artisans might be a tough task, the pergola has stepped in. These are steel-and-concrete squares or diamond-shaped structures on top of four pillars or balconies which, in architecture-speak, "bring an aesthetic harmony to the building."

AND, it seems, people are quite willing to experiment with their living space on their own as well. Suresh Pavagadhi, assistant commissioner in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, wanted to expand his old house that stands in the heart of this crowded city. He did it himself but made use of some reference material provided by various programmes on TV. He added two more storeys to the building but deliberately made an unusually broad staircase. "I’ve no space in front or at the back of my house so that seemed like the best place to keep plants," he explains. This, incidentally, is a city that prides itself on its neatly designed high-rises, the first of which came up in the early nineties and is still called the ‘multi-storey building’. Similarly, the pressure on space in Indore has also made its architects innovate. Most multi-storey residential complexes in this booming industrial town have a functional property, a la Le Corbusier, but that’s usually wrapped under a post-modern aesthetic facade.

The biggest change, however, has come about in office complexes. Now even the government doesn’t want its offices to look like match-boxes, deprived of air and light. But architects need space to give expression to their imagination. Space on the ground. And it’s not available anymore in big cities. "Every architect wants to leave behind at least one grand structure which showcases his talent and ensures everlasting fame," says Nikhil Sompura, who’s designed the Swaminarayan temples in London and Gandhinagar. But that can hardly happen in our overcrowded metros. And when it comes to work areas or academic and research institutions, smaller towns are the only places which offer some freedom to architects. The result: mushrooming projects. The National Judicial Academy in Bhopal, designed by I.M. Kadri, is spread over 70 acres and is inspired by European forms of architecture. Charles Correa too designed the MP Assembly spread over 25 prime acres and won the Aga Khan award for it. Then there are architects like Diwakirti, who’s also designed the 50-acre campus of the Central Ground Water Board (cgwb) in Raipur. The cgwb building, like the Judicial Academy, is divided into academic and accommodation zones and both strive to merge the openness with the built form. These buildings, many believe, even compare favourably with the Lutyen-designed monolithic Rail and Nirman Bhawans in New Delhi!

But there still remains the big question. Can this be called the ‘representative’ architecture of our times? Is it a symbol of a new, motivated, prosperous small-town India that’s broken free of colonial influences or just an affluent but confused lot that’s drifting away from our roots and architectural heritage. The answer isn’t that easy. Each generation of architects has had to reinterpret the forms of their time. And since it seems that this era shall chiefly be remembered for its ‘globalisation’ impulse, architecture, logically, is no exception.

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