Pair of Aces

Anupam Bansal and Rajesh Dongre, founding partners, ABRD, have been designing institutional projects that are complex in size and scale

Architects Anupam Bansal and Rajesh Dongre of ABRD.
Architects Anupam Bansal and Rajesh Dongre of ABRD.

Their passion for architecture and design is evident. They have been working together for more than two decades, but even today a new project, better when it’s highly challenging, continues to excite them. Anupam Bansal and Rajesh Dongre, founding partners, ABRD, are the keystone architects who have designed structures with remarkable efficacy that leave a lasting impression.

Interestingly, at a time when some architects have adopted cookie-cutter design, the team of ABRD ventured out with gusto into what was then unfamiliar territory. They  ventured  to compete for institutional projects. The long gestation period was not a deterrent. Nor was the fact that they would be dealing with numerous stakeholders that would infringe on their creativity. It was the challenge of executing a complex and multidisciplinary  project beyond what they have done that stimulated them.
Besides, it is a friendship that goes back to their college days that helps them work together easily.

No set formula
The starting point in life is always the toughest. Proving one’s mettle to the world is necessary so others can believe. Bansal says, “Though we did have some work experience behind us, when we started out on our own, we began taking on any projects that came our way. It was a one-step-at-a-time journey. In those days, competitions for projects were largely universal and it was an opportunity for a young firm like ours.”

Competitions bring out the best in people. Associations with the right people too help. It was their association with French architect Stephane Paumier that helped them bag the prestigious Alliance Francaise project. Dongre says, “There was no looking back since then. Our next big institutional project was the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR), Bangalore. This was one project that necessitated  some indepth research and  travel to biotech laboratories in the USA. We studied The  Salk Institute designed by Louis Kahn in San Diego and Clark Centre, Stanford University designed by Norman Foster in California and other labs in MIT. There was so much learning in this project and I believe it helped the  practice to explore new horizons.”

The Alliance Francaise Delhi project that gave them their first big opportunity.

Over the years, the duo has seen to fruition several projects that have not only earned them a reputation but also accolades. The French Institute (Pondicherry), IN-STEM (Bangalore), Centre for Brahmaputra Studies (Guwahati), IIIT (Dharwad), Science City (Guwahati), IBSD (Manipur), are only some of landmark campuses that they have made proposals for. 

They are now nearing completion of the South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi. When complete it will be one of the largest projects in their kitty. Bansal says, “The project is on a 100-acre site and we have teamed up with our college batchmates from Nepal to execute this. We bagged this project almost a decade ago amid stiff competition that had a jury comprising eminent architects like Charles Correa and Professor M. Shaheer.  We were unanimously selected as the sole winner. SAU is an International University established by eight SAARC Nations; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.”

It was such assignments that sparked the idea of finding creative and ingenuous solutions to complex issues. Dongre says, “What began as a challenge is now a modicum of our function. Today, we are working on a first of its kind  multilevel air cargo warehouse project , while another super-specialty hospital project that  tests our ability to work under severe space constraints. Some  projects in the Himalayas  where the site constraints such as  terrain and strata have added to our learning.”

Largely, it is their post-graduate degrees in Urban Design that has instilled this quiet confidence. Both of them believe that urban design must complement the surroundings and that is what they strive for in their body of work.

The ongoing South Asian University is one of the largest projects in scale and size they would have done.

Carving a space
A thought-provoking fact that Bansal says during the course of our conversation is the importance of looking at every project anew. “We do not let experience hinder our  growth and creativity,” he adds. That profound thought can only come from those who take the road less travelled and are distinct.

It is such a belief that makes ABRD bid for distinct projects – it could be a location or an image that has evolved  when one pictures a project – and the need to be outstanding has ensured they do not get carved into a particular design or style. Dongre says, “We have abstained from making a signature style to bring in freshness into every project we undertake. Moreover, our collaborative nature has aided in bringing in the best of minds and the results are there for all to see. The premise is to exceed stakeholders’ expectations and also our own.”

Bansal says, “Yes, of course, experience and memory is what makes us. However, like we said, our collaborative nature brings out the best. Often, in team meetings, we suggest something and someone else may have another thought process. It is such instances that prompt us to think of newer ways to build.”

Client expectations and the purpose of the project also need to be kept in mind. There are challenges like this along the way. For instance, when working on the NCBS project, the client wanted the design of the laboratories to be flexible, because “they were  not sure how the scientists will use the space to work. Moreover, they wanted a building where the scientific fraternity could adapt their laboratory workspace”, says Dongre.

Similarly, the South Asian University required three distict  zones – the academic, Faculty  and student’s housing. The campus thus evolved like a small city around a central green forest that is an ecological hub. It was the urban design that mattered here.

The humility with which both of them conduct themselves, be it in design, collaboration, team work and in their capacity as teachers (yes, both of them also teach at architecture institutions) is also visible in their nomenclature. Often, architects call their practice by the founder’s name, but here when ABRD gathered a team of young architects in the firm, on completion of two decades of their practice they rechristened as ‘atelier for built-environment research & design’.

Heart of the matter
As projects get advanced and complex, the duo  keep themselves updated on design trends, consumer demands and technology. Dongre says, “We have adopted new technologies that are available in the market for design. It is important to be very observant in our profession. Right from door knobs to window frames to tiles to building design and utility, we are devoted to absorbing everything we see. Since we also teach at colleges, we are in touch with the today’s generation to understand how they perceive. It keeps us on our toes.”

They are passionate about travel and exploring architecture around the world. So much so, that their holiday photos within and outside India have more pictures of; buildings, details, elements etc. than family members!

What is important and exciting to them is the tools available today to create magic out of nothing. Bansal says, “Working on institutional projects has taught us that everyone involved in that project are keen to make it memorable. As architects, it gives us the freedom to choose materials, look at  fabrication techniques and interact closely with craftsmen and contractors while working on site.

The journey also involves understanding the entire process of  an institutional project take shape. Citing an example, he adds, “For the South Asian University, we are making pre-cast concrete facade elements. We needed a pre-cast concrete specialist who couldprovide technical inputs for its execution This was another learning process.”

However, they have also been ahead of the times. ‘Creating Conscious Designs’, the practice has focussed on sustainability and well-being as their founding principles. 

Materials too are used judiciously. Dongre says, “We are careful with using glass in projects. Though we try to use it innovatively, it’s not a material that we consider early on. In the Alliance Francaise project, we sandwiched a metal sheet between two layers of glass. That became interesting and novel then. That was way back in 2003. The same goes for metal cladding. At a time when it was unfamiliar to most people, we found a way to do it ourselves.”

The innovations are also attributed to an appetite for risks. Bansal says, “This comes with conviction, R&D, some brainwaves. It also helps if they are built into the tender documents, so as to stay within costs. In order to stick to project costs, the Bill of Quantities, estimation and every other process is done in-house.”

The humungous amount of work done in their studio and projects and  long gestation periods saps ABRD teams energy. But then they are back on their feet the next day looking forward to the tasks ahead of them.

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