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Sculpting Success


Sanjay Puri has come a long way from his days as a pre-college intern under Hafeez Contractor. Deepali Nandwani scrutinizes the inspirations and methods that have shaped one of India’s emerging stars on the international architectural firmament.

Up until five years ago, architect Sanjay Puri’s work juxtaposed different geometrical forms, the effect of which was enhanced by the use of colour.

And then came a change in his design philosophy. “Somewhere down the line, I began exploring the thought of sculpting the entire space. I thought that instead of breaking the project into forms that juxtapose, what if I approach the building more holistically?”

It marked a major shift in Puri’s work. And this shift reflects beautifully in the ETA Hotel built in Burj Dubai, his first project out of India. A small boutique business hotel with 68 rooms, ETA is located in a high-density commercial neighbourhood.

“Here the buildings are just 10 feet apart – so there’s no privacy and you can virtually see into another person’s office across the road,” discloses Puri.

A complex concrete skin envelops the ETA Hotel. “As a complete deviation from the existing buildings in the surrounding area, the entire hotel is evolved from the abstraction of trapezoidal planes that constitute the outer skin of the hotel.”

The planes fold out from a 6m high entrance lobby, before undulating along all sides vertically upwards, until they fold back – creating a rooftop heath club and pool area. The concrete skin is punctuated by a jaali pattern borrowed from Islamic culture, thus linking it to the city’s heritage.

The emphasis, says Puri, was on creating a unique sculptural form. “The openings on the exterior allow diffused light to enter the rooms through balcony spaces, thus creating a cooling effect and making air-conditioning more effective since temperatures in Dubai are as high as 40 degrees.

The balcony areas are also shielded by the concrete skin, making them more private.” MIRVAC, the integrated real estate group, in a survey on the 100 most exciting buildings coming up in Dubai, listed ETA hotel and Synergy as the two to look forward to.

Synergy, which is located in Business Bay, looks like a stack of cuboids. A part of the building twists out, towards the left and the right.

“These stacks of cuboids emanate from a single volume but separate sculpturally, towards the front and the rear, creating open terrace areas.” Here too, the screen wall is punctuated by a motif derived from Islamic art.

“The contemporary use of a traditional element alludes to the architecture of the region and makes the building more responsive to the harsh summers that are endured in its location by creating cooler internal spaces.”

The ETA hotel and Synergy particularly reflect Puri’s attempts to contextualise his buildings. “That’s possible in Dubai or Goa, or even in Mumbai’s Ballard Pier or Marine Drive areas, because these are heritage zones that have a certain architectural character.”

In Goa, for instance, Puri has used local architectural elements to design a building that’s completely contemporary. The state’s architecture and culture reflects its Hindu and Portuguese roots, which still manifests in its architecture.

“In CIE mall, built in the heart of Calangute, I’ve used a pitched roof, but it slopes in a single direction. I’ve also used laterite, the local red stone, to construct the building that has an open courtyard. All the architectural elements have been borrowed from Goa.”

Puri, who recently won the MIPIM Architectural Review Future Project award in the commercial projects category at Cannes for Cubes, a project in Pune, says that his work has become more exploratory.

Cubes, he says, was built on a narrow plot with a lot of depth. “The depth was more than ten times the width of the plot. Instead of building something that deviates from the linearity of the plot,

I designed a building that brought it into focus. The idea came from a long truck with steel pipes that I saw while cruising down the highway.” The building looks like cubes stacked asymmetrically, punctuated by two large terraces.

“I was competing with the best in the business, internationally, and thought that a nomination itself was a big thing. Being awarded in the commercial category completely shocked me.”

But then, Puri is used to doing work that sets new standards. It was Ayn Rand’s fictional character, Howard Roark (Fountainhead), who inspired him to be an architect. A student of Mayo College, Ajmer, and an architecture graduate from the Rachna Sansad, Mumbai, he began working for architect Hafeez Contractor even before he joined college.

Right through college, says the Mumbai-based architect, his seniors warned him that working with an architectural firm could be detrimental to his career since his thought process would be shaped by the way Contractor approached projects.

“But I don’t regret the decision. Since Hafeez had just started out, the studio was really small and we did everything.”

From Contractor, he says, he learnt “how to have a clear mind and know which direction you are heading. I was also inspired by his outlook: no project is ever too large”.

The day he finished college, the senior architect asked Puri to join his studio as an associate. He worked there for another four years, before a fortuitous break allowed him to set up Sanjay Puri Associates in 1992.

“I was doing some elevation work for Sheth Developers and, one Sunday, I dropped in at the builder’s office to show him some sketches,” remembers Puri.

“I saw him mulling over the layout of Vasant Nagri, then one of his largest projects in Vasai. I told him it was a bad layout, that the buildings were too close to each other and pointed out that there were no open spaces.”

The chairman challenged him to come up with something better and, right there, he sketched out an entire new layout.

“It included everything, from 3,500 flats to the location of the lampposts and bus stops, the drainage system, the way roads would be laid out, everything.” Puri says that the herd mentality that most Indians adhere to, got him more township projects and, at one time, he had over 20 million square feet under construction in the western suburbs of Mumbai.

Since then, Puri and his team of architects have moved into a new office space that sprawls over three floors in Mahalaxmi, in the heart of Mumbai.

And the team has diversified into constructing hotels, malls and much more. “After some time, the two and three BHK residential model became very mechanical,” recalls Puri. “That’s when I diversified into more luxurious projects with bigger homes.”

Puri is known for fluid spaces that have a sculptural feel to them. “I started out by making rigid, almost boxy structures. It took me some time to get out of the trap.

I also questioned why there was need for so much of ornamentation instead of form in today’s buildings. It led me to move away from ornamentation and pay more attention to the way buildings feel and not just look.”

Among his breakthrough projects, he lists the Infosys building in Mysore since it was his first commercial project; the Mirador hotel in Andheri, his maiden hotel project and The Street, a lifestyle and shopping complex in Delhi that sprawls over 40,000 sq ft and has an art gallery, restaurants and stores.

“In this project, everything is located next to each other. There is one street that takes you through all the structures which serve as stores, restaurants and galleries.”

Puri is largely influenced by Vienna-based architectural firm Coop Himmelblau (formed by Wolf Dieter Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky). The team constructs asymmetrical structures that strive for freedom from the constrained formalism of a given style.

They create open-planned, open-minded, open-ended designs, made up of complex, undefined spaces. “It’s so easy to do things that have been done before, with a little twist here or there. The key driving force is to go beyond what’s already been done.”

Among Himmelblau’s works that he likes is a theatre in Dresden, Germany. Puri’s body of work includes large townships, commercial projects, small buildings, interiors, hotels – just about every kind of space you can think of.

“It’s as much fun doing an IT complex as it is doing a 300-acre large project or a small residential complex. I would rather leave a 10 lakh sq ft corporate park for a client who is not interested in design, in favour of a 20,000 sq ft restaurant complex, where the design plays a big part.” But what he really wants to design are public spaces.

“There’s no concept of a public space in India, except for malls and cinemas maybe. But imagine a larger public space open to a bigger group of people, where design defines how the building will be used and how people will interact with it.” If Puri imagines it, then it’s worth seeing in reality.

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June 2020
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