Renowned, Vadodara-based architect Karan Grover is passionate about his profession and sustainable architecture. An interview with the famous, award-winning architect and activist designer
By Komal Rao & Tillana Desai
How is the green architectural segment faring in India? Are Indian architects, builders and developers keen on promoting ‘Green Architecture’?
Let me say that it is quite new comparatively. I was the first architect in the world in 2003 to win the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) “Platinum” Award for the greenest building in the world and it was one of the reasons of the creation of the India Green Building Council (IGBC).
The council was brought together by businessmen led by Jamshyd Godrej and the movement is picking up, but I think slowly; and the reason for this is lack of awareness and building materials.
To build green, you must have elements in the building process and materials which are green. There is no point me building a simple green building and having door handles and locks and window mechanisms which require enormous amounts of energy to make.
This is called embedded energy and we have to reduce that. India is yet to make a major headway in this area. I have now started promoting Green Architecture. I used to go all around the world talking about the importance of green sustainability and saving resources.
Everyone used to listen patiently and it was a very moving argument, but it did not have the effect I wanted it to. Recently, I changed the complete tactic and began focusing on the fact that all this ultimately saves you money.
I was making a presentation for Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and in my first slide I mentioned that these measures could save Rs48 crore. He looked towards his cabinet colleagues and then told me to go ahead and implement the project. There was no need for me to make the remaining presentations with 192 slides.
I have now concluded that executing green projects will save money and will be a big incentive for builders.
I explain to developers that when you put up a green building you have to tell all that it may be slightly more expensive (by about five per cent), but the cost would be recovered in two years. And over the next 60 years, about 60 per cent of energy costs could be saved.
You have to make your environment as less dependent on energy as possible. The biggest boost for green architecture is not emotional, but about saving money and that is a language which everyone understands.
Could you tell us about the student’s green movement which you launched about four years ago and hoped to reach out to over 10,000 architecture students and convince them to develop green structures?
It seems to be a one-man battle because students appear to have been completely won over.
I speak 15 times a year to 5,000 people in different cities of which 60% are students.
They are thrilled. They come and say they want to only do Green Architecture. But the fact is that they are not supported in college.
It’s not in the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) syllabus, so I am now fighting with the nodal agency which controls architectural courses.
When I was studying in the early 1970s, the textbooks prescribed to us were printed in 1903. And I had to go to Bombay on behalf of my class to get them from an antique shop. We were studying architecture that was more than six decades behind our times.
Passion to fight
Isn’t this ridiculous? The point is our education system has not caught up. Students see logic, the younger you are, the more open to common sense you are. The moment you start getting older, you start conforming. Then the passion to fight is lost. I still have the passion to fight. I am 65 but mentally I am 30.
I feel every student feels passionately about these things. This passion is not respected or appreciated or encouraged in college.
And that is my problem. Unless AICTE makes it mandatory to have this as a course it is never going to happen.
I just got the first ever award for ‘Sustainable Architecture’. Had this kind of an award been introduced earlier, a lot of other people would have wanted to win it. We are 15 years too late.
What are the projects that you are currently working on? Are they based only in Vadodara and Gujarat or do you also plan to take up projects across the country and abroad?
As a policy, I never take up projects abroad. I have been in practice for 45 years and I have always maintained this is my country and this is where I will work. But never only in Vadodara! It’s funny how we started in Vadodara, but never did any work here.
Which is your favourite structure?
It is impossible to say. I have never thought of it. But there are many and inspired differently. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain; the Frank Lloyd Wright building housing the Guggenheim Museum in New York; and the works of eminent architects including Nari Gandhi and Laurie Baker.
These people had a magic, a philosophy, they worked with different material.
The Titanium that Gehry uses is a difficult material, and the magic which Baker brings in brick, a limited material.
Somebody like Wright did those houses that were connected to nature. I don’t like concrete… it is absolutely wrong for India to use it
Today we are about 75% in the rest of the country and 25% in Vadodara. We are doing new legislature buildings in Raipur, Bangalore, Chennai and Patna and did the one in Goa as well. We concentrate on the architecture of the place. Our architecture reflects that of the region we are building in.
We merge our buildings with the architecture of the place we are working in. You will never say ‘That’s a Karan Grover building.’ You will say ‘That’s a building from Raipur or Patna or Bangalore. Who’s the architect?’ I don’t copy architecture, I reinterpret it.
What is a smart city and where do you see India in 2020?
I think it’s the wrong use of the word ‘smart’. You can be a smart person you can have a smart car or a smart office… you can’t have a smart city. A city is much more than a single entity. There are people, human values, emotions… it is ridiculous to call it smart. You are trying to be smart by calling it smart. A city is emotions, feelings, tradition, customs, history. History is not smart, history is history.
And then there are people who want to bring in heritage in ‘smart’ cities. What is smart about heritage? Everything must now fit into ‘smart’. I feel a city is too big, too complex, too human, too humane to be labelled smart. Smart is an inanimate object.
You have campaigned for the Champaner–Pavagarh project. What’s the current status?
We have been able to put it on the UNESCO World Heritage map. We are now trying to get funding to individually restore the building. There are about 115 buildings above the ground and foundations of about 4,000 buildings below the ground.
I had decided to give 30 years of my life to this. When I was 23, a professor of archaeology (Arun Mehta), who happened to meet me in Baroda, took me to Champaner. One day he said: ‘I want to give it to you’. I said: ‘It’s not yours to give, nor mine to take… it’s a 2,000-year-old buried city!’
One night he told me to shake his hand and give him 30 years of my life and come the next morning to ‘take Champaner’. When I went to his house next day, he had passed away. There was a huge black trunk with my name on it. It contained all his 3,000 drawings of Champaner and his 30 years of work.
So I promised to give 30 years and worked religiously for it. It is now the only World Heritage Site where an individual has campaigned in UNESCO. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made me the Indian Ambassador to UNESCO for 10 days. I went to China to present the project and we won.
Green Building revolution
You are seen as one of the pioneers of the Green Building revolution in India thanks to many of your achievements, including the development of the Sohrabji Green Business Centre in Hyderabad, the first structure in the world to receive LEED platinum rating from the US Green Building Council. What motivated you to undertake these challenging assignments?
I didn’t see them as challenging assignments. I saw them as my work. I started working based on traditions and my understanding of Champaner. So I saw ‘jaalis’ in Champaner which would keep the building cool. I then introduced ‘jaalis’.
I was really not doing anything challenging, anything great. I was just doing my own thing sitting here in Baroda. And then, President Bill Clinton came to India in 2000 and we had this conference in Hyderabad where I spoke on this interpretation of tradition and showed all my work. He came up to me and asked me why I did not bid for the US Platinum award.
Innocently and without any pressure, we went ahead and we won it. There were 7,000 people when they announced this.
You are so attached to Indian roots, culture and architecture. So do you believe in the ancient science of Vaastu?
Vaastu is common sense. For example, the kitchen cannot be in the south west. That’s a wind direction in India and the whole house will be smelling of food. In the beginning when I did not know Vaastu, clients were very happy with the designs. When they showed it to their Vaastu consultants they could add nothing to them. It was sheer common sense.
If I give you the example of my house; my bedroom is built in the opposite direction of the wind. So it gets super-hot and is heavily dependent on the AC as compared to the children’s bedroom in the wind direction which is cooler.
Many architects feel that technology is the answer. It’s funny because then you have no proximity to natural climate and the environments. What we do in our architecture is that we work with the climate and the environment. You must work with the land, the culture, climate, tradition and you have a great building.
In one of my projects, we had an incredibly tiny plot in Juhu. We made this little garden at the back. Then I built a veranda in front of it and then I built two open kitchens in the veranda with bricks and all. It completely changed their eating habits. They started sitting outside in the garden and having their meal. And I am talking about Mumbai. The way you build the house completely changes your lifestyle. And that is nothing but Vaastu.
First to win USGBC ‘Platinum’ Award
Karan Grover and Associates, established in 1985, has emerged into a multi-disciplinary organization with the best associate consulting teams for all the services, which is seen as an integral part of architectural design activity. After being flooded out of their basement office in 2006, they have moved to the topmost floor of a building in Baroda on the banks of a tiny brown nala – the famous Vishwamitri River set amidst 1000 acres of green; with 100 crocodiles which sun themselves every morning near the office car parking.
Karan Grover has enthused children in conservation and been nominated as a “Social Entrepreneur” Fellow of the Ashoka Foundation, Washington in 2004. He won India’s nominations for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status for Champaner-Pavagadh in 2004, after a 22-year old campaign. In 2004, Grover became the first architect in the world to win the USGBC “Platinum” Award for the greenest building in the world – The “CII–Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre”. He also won his second Platinum Award for the interior of ABN AMRO Bank at Ahmedabad. He has been made the Permanent Honorary Fellow of the National Academy of Environment at the hands of former President Dr Abdul Kalam in Delhi. He spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative, New York at the personal invite of President Clinton in 2006.
He won the US GBC Gold Award for the Keendiam diamond factory at Navsari as the greenest factory in the world in 2008.
Karan has been selected as the winner of the Green Globe Award for Architect, Infrastructure Category from Green Globe Foundation. In August 2009 he was given the Keys of the City of Birmingham by the Mayor of Birmingham at the Inaugural Address of the International Green Congress of the Green Building Focus. The World Economic Forum at Davos has named Karan Grover as their member on the Panel for Sustainability for 2009 and Jury for Emerson Cup 2009, 2010 for Sustainable Design as well as first NDTV Greenies Award.
Karan is a founding member of ADaRSH (GRIHA) and has been nominated as Member of the Confederation of Indian Industry Western Region Sub-Committee on Climate Change & Sustainability for the year 2010-11. He has become the Chairman of IGBC Vadodara Chapter on 28th March, 2011.
He was nominated as one of India’s top 10 architects consecutively for 5th year by the Construction World; and in 2012 he has been recognized as one of the five architects in India to receive the CWAB Platinum Award for Excellence. He has been honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award at the “Aces of Spaces” Architect & Interiors India Awards 2012 on 2nd December, 2012 and INDEX/IFJ Award to Creative Genius on 16th November 2013.
Also Lifetime Achievement Award at Estrade Real Estate Awards on 23rd October 2015.
Synthesis Business Park project at Kolkata has been awarded with LEED CS Gold Certification by IGBC in October 2012. West Block 3 at L & T Knowledge City, Vadodara awarded with ‘LEED INDIA GOLD’ Rating by Indian Green Building Council in July, 2013. KGA have been selected as the “Best Architect of the Year 2013” (Residential Category) by the Era Fame Awards 2013, supported by the Indian Institute of Architects in August, 2013.
For his sense of fashion he has been selected as one of “India’s 50 Most Stylish Men” along with Amitabh Bachchan – India’s leading film icon.
Karan Grover is a frequent speaker at national and international forums having addressed over 20000 professionals and students pro bono annually on Sustainability & Green Architecture – a personal commitment he made to President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative, New York in 2006. A few notable among them are his presentations at the World GBC in Pittsburg in November 2003, in Portland in November 2004; & in Atlanta in September 2005.
In June 2009 he spoke in Birmingham, Alabama at the Green Congress and in September 2009 at the India Green Building Congress in Hyderabad. He has been Keynote Speaker at the IGBC for eight consecutive years.