Saturday, 14 April 2012

Architecture: K Jaisim ~ Reinventing space

Jaisim: Image by KN Raghavendra Rao
(This dates back to 2002)

The cut granite wedges at the windows stop us in our tracks. Randomly placed, they edge the glass, liberating the windows from being a mere viewing point. Against the free-flowing terracotta and olive green bands that swathe the building, they assert an alternate insight. In the instant that we absorb their import, we shed the normal lens through which we view interiors and the lifestyles they reflect.

We're outside the new learning centre of ITC Infotech (I3L), a wholly-owned subsidiary of ITC Limited, a $ 1.8 billion company with a market capitalisation of $ 4 billion. Initially the internal software and systems division of ITC since 1980, I3L grew into a separate company in October 2000, as the parent company began a major diversification thrust.

How is this reflected within its foliage-rich campus in Bangalore? Facing us is the creatively-named `Epicentre,' an old tobacco warehouse reborn to a new lease of life, which was inaugurated last October. This is where the company "builds its capabilities, fosters innovation and freedom of thought," proclaims its brochure.

The nature-hued warehouse exterior beckons us, past a traditional bell strung from curved metal posts. The sun-streaked, minimalistic Zen garden outdoors, dappled with stone stools, exuberates in the interplay of the five basic elements - perhaps enhancing the inward journeys of the seekers within.

Could there be an ambience more conducive to learning? There is, within the Epicentre's sheet-glass doors. Terracotta floors and tiled ceilings, masking the original roofing, curve the nature notes through unconventional, unpredictable spaces.

"The character remains that of a warehouse," explains V Sreenivasan, General Manager, Software Development, as he walks us through the experiential centre that provides new recruits with technology training, corporate etiquette and culture.

In reinventing this historic, 100-year-old building, ITC — known for its formal, old-style offices — sought out the brilliance of K. Jaisim of The Fountainhead, the breakaway architect known for his freewheeling creativity. Their brief: `low-budget, world-class' architecture.

How does this translate into real life? Past a linear, metal-line sculpture of a peepal leaf in growth, symbolising the centre's aspirations, we enter a 50-seater lecture theatre studded with state-of-the-art equipment, including LCD projections, video-conferencing facilities, visualisers, e-Beam projection, one-touch remote operation, among others. "If somebody doesn't want to sit in the class, they can tune in at the library, where there's a large LCD plasma screen," explains Sreenivasan. But hi-tech is not the mood of the moment in this gently-lit space that hosts engineering graduates for eight to 12 weeks, with flexible, flat-backed seats that are ergonomically designed for comfort, under a vaulted ceiling studded with upturned pots.

"The world is waking up to re-architecture, where conservation and preservation are major issues," says Jaisim playfully. "Here, the architecture had to evolve from an interior within a constrained space. That was a major challenge. Without a preconceived plan, the ideas grew without changing the basic functions. We looked at each new constraint as an opportunity to explore... pushing walls outwards, softening the lines, working with terracotta jaalis to let in light and air, inventing crazy furniture."

The foyer, imbued with earthy ambience, boasts metal overhead ventilation ducts, instantly yoking the contemporary and the traditional together. The receptionist's desk is a rough-edged sheet carved out of a granite boulder, with a striated footrest to match, its naturalness essential to the top notes of the interior, including the blooms afloat in a bowl. A semi-circular sunken pit fringed with potted plants draws waiting souls into the grey stone bench laid within it.

Sounds of flowing water rivet the senses. Can there be a water body indoors? The eye veers away to a stream that flows into a bubbling pool by a trail of granite chips, stilling the rush of thoughts even as wall sockets invite the laptop user to plug in.

Up a flight of glass-topped steps on a delicate metal frame in the foyer, that gives the illusion of delicacy while proving sturdy, we find ourselves in two 20-seater classrooms synchronized with the lecture theatre. And a wondrous library with electronic media and a plasma screen, where the computer desks adapt ergonomically to the user's requirements, while the seating veers with every turn of the torso. Spoilt for choice? Bright beanbags provide a seating alternative.

As the ethnic tones continue their explorations through the Epicentre, a conference room upstairs facilitates communing with overseas delegations with teleconferencing facilities, while a window frames a passing bough, distilling the essence of a painting.
Reflective. Restive. These are the basic interior values of this offbeat learning centre, where the earthiness counterpoints technology as the learning path. As memories of childhood gardens permeate the indoors, perhaps inborn values of play will flower into imaginative learning.

"Some of the students here become nerds, some become technology whiz-kids," says Sreenivasan, as we enter the non-linear prototyping lab in which new ideas incubate, replete with high-end work stations.
How do the occupants respond to the alternate environment? The faculty head reveals that though there has been no paradigm shift in the course material, students have been performing significantly better within this meditative environment. Another instructor notes that many of the 30 to 50 students in each batch opt to remain at the Epicentre seven days a week, despite the attractions of Bangalore. Surely the squash court, the gym and the pool room in the complex have something to do with this!

Perhaps Jaisim's spontaneous detailing has cast its spell. Such as the broken triangles of mosaic that edge the terracotta floor, breaking the band of colour. Such as the soft overhead undulations of the earth-tinted ceiling, hinting at an inner music. Such as the glass-sandwiched brick wall that literally builds transparency around the faculty head's room. Such as the huge, coffin-like wooden piece transformed into a buffet table in the cafeteria, where reverse lines against the nature hues flare into the semblance of a bamboo grove, while bandhini-like splashes of fresh colour on the upper reaches liberate the mental space.

"I wanted to break the sense of thinking diametrically, while still blending it," says Jaisim, ever the iconoclast since he began practising in 1970, inspired by Ayn Rand's classic, The Fountainhead, which remains his touchstone. "None of the materials here have ever been used in the conventional sense elsewhere in India. Nothing is breakaway for the sake of being different. Nor does any element jar violently."

As students enjoy the play of light and shade through the jalis on the naturescape indoors, as the centre's 120-odd occupants tune in to the gurgle of running water as their ideas jell between infotech exercises, Jaisim reminds us that "we had to work within very tough cost and time constraints" to complete the redefined space within 140 days.

The unorthodox is the essence of the Epicentre. Out of the debris of discarded ideas comes a creative quake, then calm. Out of history, the humane touch. Because reinvention is intrinsic to the quality of Jaisim who, in redefining the stone-edged window, allowed the inner eye a fresh vision. Quite naturally.

(The Hindu Business Line, 2002)

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