India’s leading architect and designer, Prem Nath enters his 50th year of operations in 2017. The fascinating individual recounts his remarkable journey over the past half a century and also talks about the state of architecture in India in an exclusive interview with Urban Vaastu.
WORDS: KOMAL RAO AND TILLANA DESAI
Your firm is celebrating its 50th year in 2017. I am sure it’s a very special journey that you have had. What are your thoughts?
We are very casual about it. We have no idea that ‘humepachaassaalhogayehainabhi’ (…that we have completed 50 years). We never did any special celebrations. We don’t believe in them. We are happy we completed 50 years that’s all. We are busy moving on.
But these 50 years have been beautiful. In the younger days, we could devote more time to designs and thinking. And that’s why we could possibly do quality work and better than other people.
Architecture was not so fast track. We had limited material. Knowledge was also gained by exploring magazines. We didn’t have internet or computers. We had hand drawings. It was a good journey. I’ve been sitting on this same desk for the last 45 years.
And we just don’t know how time has gone. We have done projects starting from homes, celebrity homes to interiors to all kinds of different buildings. We were lucky that we were able to do many things for the first time in the country.
India’s first data centre for Citi group, the first health spa for Golden Palms, the first multiplex and mall, the first gold-rated green township, the first platinum-rated campus architecture – many things first and many challenges.
LEARNING NEW THINGS
We tried to be hungry to always learn new things, new technology, trends and also about economics, market resources, designing and even builder’s business. At the turn of the century we got exposure to foreign companies coming to invest in India. We learnt of their challenges, demands, quality and expectations.
We were the first again to do a fast-track architecture for Morgan Stanley in Mumbai in designing, foundation – everything end to end in about eight months by American standards.
The entry of foreign companies saw expectations rise in India.
Today we are well-equipped, have an experienced team, people who are ready to take any new challenges. We are ahead of others and have taken a lead even in the area of smart cities.
While some architects wondered what smart cities were, we demonstrated what they should actually be.
We are now being consulted by different cities keen on putting up such projects.
We demarcate leadership, constantly try to learn and evolve and be ahead of others.
We are enjoying our 50th year.
How realistic is the smart cities project?
India was way ahead of the times.
One of the finest examples of an ancient Indian Smart City is Mohenjo-Daro, the most developed city of Indus Valley Civilisation.
Many people today think a smart city is something hi-tech and plush as seen abroad.
But smart must be taken in the Indian context. India cannot afford the typical ‘smart city.’
There are just two smart cities in the world – New York and Tokyo. The idea of 100 ‘smart villages’ or towns is fine in India, but not smart cities. We need to think differently, we need resources, need to rethink our master plan to create jobs.
SMART THINKING, SMART GOVERNANCE
Who are we developing the smart cities for? Eighty per cent of people still live in villages and only a few are tax-payers. What resources do we have to fund smart cities, each of which will cost about Rs50,000crore?
Before we take up smart city projects, we need smart thinking, smart governance and efficient work. Only if we have good infrastructure in our cities can we make them smart. We need to bring efficiency in our performance, especially in governance.
There are just two smart cities in the world – New York and Tokyo.
The idea of 100 ‘smart villages’ or towns is fine in India, but not smart cities.
We need to think differently, we need resources, need to rethink our master plan to create jobs.
How do you think these smart cities will make a difference Indian society?
My concept of smart is different from those of my contemporaries. As an architect, I feel the definition of smart should be:
• S – Simple: to understand, simple in planning, simple to approach and sustainable development
• M – Manageable: the development should be easy to manage and easy to maintain
• A – Affordable: The development should not be planned for the uber class only; it should allow occupants of all financial strata
• R – Resourceful: to be rich in resources like power, water, employment, wealth, profitability
• T – Technological: development is smart only when it is technologically savvy (yet affordable), wifi-enabled communication and superior transport superior
SIMPLE FOR CITIZENS
A city can only be called smart when it is simple and not complex for citizens. One need not learn to live in a smart city; in fact the city shall make the citizen feel smart, it should surely be a self-sustaining one, not very intricate; the city needs to be planned, dynamic but yet maintainable and should not go out-of-date.
Most importantly if the Smart City doesn’t end-up being a financially viable one, the entire idea behind the development may go for a toss.
It needs to be affordable in development and to the citizens; it surely needs to be resourceful, if it is to survive through its lifetime, apart from being self-sufficient in terms of water, power and other basic needs.
It should be able to pull the crowd from outside to invest in it, should have its own employment, so that people can walk to work. Last but not the least, the Smart City shall be as smart as its technology – a wifi-enabled city, with ease of communication, transport and transactions. All this, shall ensure maintaining all aspects of the city as SMART.
Do you see the emergence of a younger generation of architects in India? Will they be able to take on the new challenges that will arise in the coming years?
What are the new challenges? Every generation has faced new challenges and has overcome it. Thus, I do not see any point of concern there. But having said that, yes, I see great potential in the new generation. In fact I see young designers as my competition.
And why not? When I was young, I was competition to the then stalwarts of the field.
It’s good to have a sense of healthy competition; it enables one to keep up to the standards.
Sometimes I learn from them and they get an edge over my designs, and sometimes it’s the other way around – so it’s great to keep remaining on the edge and sharpen ourselves.
This assures me that they surely shall be able to not only take up new challenges but overcome them too.
Golden Palms Resort at Bangalore was where I could design India’s first health spa and body rejuvenating resort.
Do you think the government needs to improve the state of urban infrastructure in India? What measures should they undertake?
I feel there should be a clear vision from the government for the development of not just infrastructure but also architecture. The government, in fact, is the highest spender and by far, I may say, biggest developer in our country.
It needs to surely improve the state of infrastructure. I can happily say that the current administration is doing quite a bit of work on implementation of such projects. A city’s development shall begin with its infrastructure – if the roads are well built, water, power, communication is all available and are of dependable source then development shall take its own positive course.
Today architecture in India is driven by builder’s architecture. Residential, malls, offices – everything is being built by builders. What is the state doing? There are no public buildings or public facilities like libraries, museums, auditoriums, theatres coming up. Even schools and hospitals are built by private builders. The government is not making a contribution to that. The government needs to invest money in these things.
Secondly, the government should encourage architecture. When you look at other countries, they are very proud of their architecture. They say it is the face of the city. Architecture today is in a very bad state.
Norman Foster, the famous British architect said: ‘As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown’. What is your take on this philosophy?
One designs through his knowledge and past experience – one design for the present, which is expected to last the future. My design philosophy is to keep it simple and as functional as possible with a touch of drama. My designs are non-acrobatic, yet smart in all senses. They are detailed to the grassroot level and that’s what makes them successful.
All designs need to be functional; if one designs something that is not functional, it may be known as art. Be it a home or an office, without functionality, it is useless. We must build keeping in mind that it must last for at least 100 years. Good for today and good for tomorrow.
Indian Hindu architecture, as far as temples are concerned, have some of the finest designs. Do you think we missed out from our own roots to implement those at present?
Our ancient architecture, Hindu architecture, which we call traditional architecture is mostly temples and palaces. Temples are the examples of structures that are over 2,000 years old.
They are not homes, they are monuments. Our ancient monuments like the architecture of the Mughals, including the TajMahal and Humayun’s Tomb were all made to last for generations to come.
They were built for worship. The craftsmen were passionate. That’s why those buildings have that life and feeling. In those times, there were only natural sources of light and ventilation.
The same can be said for European monuments and old churches amongst several others across the globe. New palaces were built during the colonial period by British architects who followed Hindu traditions in after carefully studying our architecture, nature, environment and the likes. We didn’t have Indian architects or artistes.
Apart from these temples, we really do not have any examples of Indian architecture. A few homes and havelis which were built by Maharajas in a few places are exceptions. There is no distinct architecture.
We can say British architecture has taught us Indian architecture.
They were sensitive to the Indian context. They trained our masons and craftsmen. What is colonial architecture? They came, used local expertise and started building colonies, courtyards, verandas, high-ceiling rooms, thick walls and used stones.
Please tell us about the project that you admire most in India – both yours and of other architects
I admire Lotus Temple at Delhi, designed by architect FariborzSahba, for its beauty, it’s form and structure and it’s monumental value. I love the planning done by architect Edwin Lutyens in and around the Rajpath in Delhi, the India Gate, RashtrapatiBhavan and the landscaped pockets within.
EXEMPLARY MASTER PLANNING
Similarly, I admire Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier, which is an exemplary piece of master planning; The Stock Exchange tower in Mumbai designed by architect Chandra Patel is also highly appreciated by me, for its iconic look and form.
As for my own work, the Green Residential Township for the HP Mittal Energy (HMEL) township at Bathinda is close to my heart for its outstanding performance in sustainability.
Similarly Vasant Valley School is a project that has won best Day School Award and is a uniquely designed educational project; Golden Palms Resort at Bangalore was where I could design India’s first health spa and body rejuvenating resort.
You have won a series of awards from lifetime achievement to many in the field of architecture and design. What inspires you to keep going and to whom do you attribute this success?
I work with passion and pretty hard. Awards are just incidental, they come by as an appreciation of my hard work.
Success is attributed to one’s own best performance.
Once a person puts in his best – be it best as in his passion or as his hard work – success is sure to come.
What message do you have for our readers?
Architecture is nothing but work that you do passionately.
Believe in excellence and love what you do.
What inspired you to take up architecture?
I came from a poor background and have stayed at refugee camps.
I used to sell newspapers to support my education.
I have worked hard to become a self-made person. When I passed out of school, I could not find a good job because of social reasons.
I couldn’t become a clerk because my English was bad, nor a typist because my spellings were bad. I found a job as a blueprint employee in an engineer’s office.
During my spare time I would draw.
I was referred to a night school in Delhi but didn’t get admission. Then I went to Mumbai where I started studying architecture.
That’s when I realised it was one of the best professions.
You have done some detailed studies of Vaastu. Should it be a part of the curriculum for architecture students?
As per my research, there is no such thing as VaastuShashtra. Vaastu is not a science it is the knowledge of ancient Indian architecture. Vastu is environment architecture.
An architect is expected to design all projects on the basis of the environment, orientation, the Sun’s path, and social and commercial aspects.
An architect is known as Vaastukar in India, which implies that one who deals with Vaastu is an architect.