Saturday, 14 April 2012

Architecture ~ Breathing space in Bangalore

(This piece dates back to 2004)

Living spaces tell the story of people. What do our homes and office interiors tell us about ourselves? A peek into the architectural scene in Bangalore ~ India's IT and BPO boomtown.

Who are we? Where are we heading? Do our homes and workspaces reflect our lives, our dreams, our critical needs?

These questions prowl the private and public spaces of cosmopolitan Bangalore, in the wake of its surge of upmarket buildings and its escalating real estate market in 2004.

The IT and BPO boomtown, now stretching skywards with look-alike office blocks plush with tinted glass and metallic frontage, represents all the contradictions inherent in Indian corporate-oriented metropolitan growth today. Do cloned buildings, transplanted from a western ambience, work within our context? The Infosys campus, General Electric, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard offices are cases in point. On the home front, sprawling residential blocks fitted with a swimming pool, sauna, gym, club house and so on, have become standard fare. The order of the day encompasses projects by Sobha, Brigade, Prestige, Renaissance, Puravankara and other major players among builders. Their creations line the teeming corridor adjacent to the ITPL and Electronic City.

But do bright hued, plug-and-play paperless workstations, surrounded by quick-bite eateries, make for superior ideation? Do Italian kitchens, marble floors and made-in-the-US living spaces spell domestic bliss? What do our interiors reveal about us?

Ahmedabad-trained architects Nisha Mathew and Soumitro Ghosh, who won the November 1993 nationwide contest to convert Bangalore's 20-acre Central Jail into a Freedom Park, have an interesting take on the anonymity of current trends: "Bangalore's no different from any other developing economy that's seeing an unprecedented spurt. So, the choice of design and materials is informed by the imagined aesthetic need of a spectrum of corporate clients. They need to project an international image of being technologically advanced. So, their aesthetics are derived from either the parent company abroad or the offshore client."

In a time of soulless, detached MNC hire-and-fire employment, workspaces reflect the diminished entity of the individual. Architect Meeta Jain, another Ahmedabad graduate, agrees, "The clone look results from interior space seen as territory to be occupied by more efficient layout, rather than a qualitative work environment. Stereotyping with the use of available workstation ensembles reduces interior design to a mere selection of fabric, window blinds, carpets and false ceiling light fixtures."

Looking homewards, interior designer Ashwini Tandon notes, "My clients from the IT and BPO sector come into meetings sleepy-eyed after midday, following night shifts. They are reluctant to share the nitty-gritty of their lifestyles. All they want is to hand over the key to a flat they've bought — and collect the key once we're through." Their wish lists stem from travel abroad and disposable incomes. They seek totally wired, organised systems for living, and 24x7 stores... perhaps a single electrical switch-off point near the flat exit as they tear out to work. Or an old-fashioned, paatima-style curved chopping blade, but cleverly concealed within a kitchen packed with imported hobs, electric chimneys and other gadgets.

Big bucks fuel outsize dreams, as sci-fi meets Bollywood head-on in everyday Bangalore. An MNC or business couple in the high-income bracket, given to party hopping, might invite their interior decorator to go shopping for French or Italian designer furniture in Dubai. Or seek a tie-organiser or velvet-lined earring organiser in his-and-hers bedroom segments that segregate colour-coordinated party and daily wear in separate walk-in wardrobes. Mix-and-match kitchens sourced from imported glossy magazines are much prized, often by couples that eat out constantly in this food-trendy city.

Yet, amidst the monotony of mindless urban growth, some signs of people-responsive interiors emerge. They crop up in IT training spaces that grow out of transformed tobacco warehouses such as ITC Infotech's Epicentre by local architecture's enfant terrible K. Jaisim. Or an offbeat fashion studio for Gokaldas Images at Peenya by architect Meeta Jain and Swiss-born interior designer Georg Leuzinger. Or Meeta's edgy residence for artist Suresh Jayaram that yokes together quirky facades with an unobstructed flow of space. Or a gym fanatic's residence that allows exercise to fit in with social interaction in a low-budget, compact flat that Ashwini designed. Or Sua House, art collector-businessman Abhishek Poddar's office that combines aspects of a gallery with business priorities within a sliced, box-like space distinguished by wedges of light, rendered by Nisha and Soumitro.

Foreign accessories in lifestyle stores spur the city's demands. They include furniture brands like Faberge, Style Spa and Durian, sourced from either Europe or Malaysia, with other options including Thai water hyacinth furniture. But local ware proves equally classy. Such as the Himatsingka Seide group's minimalist `Atmosphere' store that has, since September 2003, retailed exquisite premium furnishings in Brazilian/Chinese silk or Italian cotton at between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,800 a metre, yardage that has conquered the export market for over 17 years. Or take `Pause', that offers top-end furniture choices. Such as a slant-sided Burma teak closet, clad in burgundy leather, or a muted blue chaise lounge with stainless steel legs. Or a choice of `the world's best lights' from Milan-based Flos.

Plush options apart, are our interiors environment-conscious? "In our largely tropical country, our envelopes need to breathe naturally. When the envelope has been infused with sufficient light, air and sky, it makes for a harmonious space. Then, it doesn't matter what flooring or furniture we choose. But we use excessive glass and don't shade it enough, creating virtual incinerators or sealed environments that completely rely on air-conditioning or artificial day lighting. By using such high-energy systems, we are behaving irresponsibly towards the environment," says Meeta.

Within these ambivalent constants, what have Bangalore's creative architects and interior decorators achieved over the past five years? Each of their breakaway, breathe-easy projects have stemmed from individuals unafraid to stand alone in a distinctive space.

Jaisim, ever inspired by Ayn Rand's Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, recently created a small, free-form warped shell with mud pots for a small consultancy firm in Indiranagar, reducing interior costs barring equipment to almost nil. But that's besides his major interior redefinition — ITC's Epicentre, with a Zen garden with stone stools linked to connectivity, perfect for a chill-out software session, and a training room roofed with inverted pots for perfect acoustics, its terracotta-and-olive curves contained in a redefined, century-old tobacco warehouse.

As Meeta notes, there are "interiors to live up to, and interiors for living." For Suresh's mind liberating home, executed in January 2003 with a budget of Rs 8 lakh, she conceived of a residence with minimal divisions, which integrates pre-acquired doors and windows, celebrating the resultant ambience. Cost-effective yellow oxide and Kadapa/ Kotah stone added to the space's essential mood, distinguished by a terrace with granite seats under the stars.

Meeta and Georg chose an alternative route to the Gokaldas Images studio, formerly a terrace, completed in August 2003 at a cost of about Rs 30 lakh. An overhead `street of light' skylight warms the workspace, where glass walls open onto a garden below. Amidst snappy visual boards, projection spaces and a trial room, the duo designed custom-made workstations that integrate pin-up, writing and graphic surfaces. The workspaces are two-level led, with a lower one for computers while the higher one allows for fabric use.

Nisha and Soumitro's concept for Sua House is equally personalised. Light and transparency are its keynotes throughout three subtly articulated levels. These features are enhanced by a staircase of suspended steel sections with treads of local hardwood, the `glass box' meeting rooms at each level, the barcode-like white marble inlay into grey-green Kotah stone for the flooring, even the frosted-glass light wedges that seal in the inner world. Within it, the owners retain their privacy at the top floor, the middle floor is a meeting zone, while the front isolates the managers' cells.

Judging by the far-from-scenic overview, whom are we taking our interior cues from? "The lifestyles of the rich and famous... an imitation of the pseudo-royals. Our films, our media," laughs Jaisim.

Or, as Ashwini points out, "Some clients want a totally European bathroom with a sunken-in tub and expensive fittings. But they're unwilling to take the bucket out of the bathroom. Or give up the traditional washing stone."

What of future portents? "Technological gimmickry is a big one. Materials that will soon arrive in the market can blow one's imagination. Like glass that changes from opaque to colour to clear. Or walls so thin, yet so strong, you can warp them around any form. Wireless power and communication lines," says Jaisim. "Sound and odour, now very young in interior design, will play significant roles. Imagine creating at will fragrances to suit a mood or change one... "

That brings us full circle to the crux of the ongoing interiors debate. A debate that points to an urban Indian identity crisis. For, as Jaisim says in his inimitable manner, "It's all very well to talk of history, heritage, culture and all that. But who are we as a people? As individuals, where do we belong? Do we have an identity within our civilisation? In India today, we are at the stage of instant interior design! No wonder we are where we are."


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