Monday, November 14, 2011: 05:55:44 PM

Special Feature

Designs On The Future

Hafeez Contractor shares his views on excellence in construction and design with Sabiha Ghiasi

Freakin' Awesome! Freakin' Awesome! Freakin' Awesome! Freakin' Awesome! Freakin' Awesome!

Architect Hafeez Contractor needs no introduction. What he began as a humble practice with two people way back in the early 80s, has gone on to become one the most formidable entities in architecture and design the world over. In this freewheeling conversation with Sabiha Ghiasi, the clairvoyant design maestro shares his views about constructing with a conscience, the true meaning of building unconventionally and what the city of Mumbai really needs.

What are your views on sustainable and eco-friendly development?
In construction, the word ‘green’ is very loosely used. The situation today is something like this: we go out of our way to save a little water while we brush our teeth; but on the flipside, we spend half-an-hour under the shower. In the same way, we speak about green, eco-friendly construction and efforts to save energy and Mother Nature; but on the other hand, we are rampantly developing large plots of land and wiping out forests and farm land—nobody understands that. This is why I have constantly criticised the way people are talking about green buildings. I want to bring to light the fact that we should not talk about saving water while we brush our teeth, but rather focus on conserving water where it really matters.

In fact, we need to start talking about how buildings in the future will be able to generate their own electricity and drinking water. This does not mean treating water that is provided by the government or recycling water for gardening—we need to be able to generate water from the atmosphere. Now, that is the kind of construction we need to talk about and make tangible in the next 30 years. Currently, the demand for food and the number of people on the planet is constantly increasing. Even the sea levels are rising and millions of acres of land will be submerged by water. We are going to need more land to grow our food; so how we are going to live in the future is the most important question.

Also, when green construction began, people went with what suited them best, and then their efforts began to be rewarded with points. But what is the right way of evaluating the sustainability of a construction project? I think that the basis on which green building is being judged today is not right. Since the concept is so popular, people just go blindly with the common sentiment, and do not completely think it through. So, while green construction is not ambiguous, the way it is being evaluated is the crux of the problem.

With Infosys Bangalore’s building design, Hafeez Contractor has proposed a solution that is nothing short of a new paradigm in building design and development. This structure comprises conceptual framework that values Nature, honours diversity and nourishes the surrounding ecosystems. The edifice’s design synchronises development and ecosystem—Mr Contractor had developed a building typology that has minimal footprints on the ground. The building features living spaces at a higher altitude, and encourages dense vegetation such as farms, orchids or forestry on the ground. Through its intelligent design, the building embodies Infosys’s emphasis on integrating human wellbeing, and social and environmental concerns into the company’s management and value systems.


What do you think about unconventional architecture and trends in the industry today?
Inventions and explorations are usually caused by two kinds of people—those who have tried everything and want to do something that has not been tried before, and those who are crazy. To find both these types of people is a challenge in itself. I think that the real deal is not tweaking a building around the edges.

Instead, we have to take into perspective that for the first time in the history of the world, the world’s population is bursting at its seams and will double in the next 50 years. Where is the food going to come from? Also, everyone wants luxury—better houses, cars and various other things. How are we going to make adequate provisions? Today, there is a dire need of new materials. Imagine a world where, at the press of a button, an entire house springs up, or, as I said before, a building is able to generate the water it needs from the atmosphere. I say, why not? We need to develop a material that will allow buildings to rise up to 100 storeys, at a throw away price—not the exorbitant rates that are being charged at present. Thus, we need newer ways of construction and construction material, and innovative farming techniques to take cater to man’s two basic needs—food and shelter. We need to think on that tangent. A few years ago, when people spoke about the concept of a mobile phone, everyone thought it was bizarre and crazy. I think it is important to dream and imagine better living. I think most of the prevalent trends today are just fads. The best trend that is here to stay and that has existed for generations is delivering a project quickly, efficiently and in the most economical manner possible.

The formidable Imperial Towers—currently the tallest towers in India-at Carmichael Road, Mumbai are 50 stories of unprecedented luxury. Each tower has a landscaped podium on the 10th level, with nine levels of parking below. From the lower level to the 29th floor, there are four flats per floor that include two, three and four bedroom houses. The 29th to 36th levels feature three duplexes and one four-bedroom apartment on each floor. The living spaces offer 270-degree views of the sea and captivating glimpses of the city. A swimming pool, a 929 sq. m club and a laundry are part of the amenities. A pyramid-shaped crown measuring 35 m in length covers the roof of this tower, its glory accentuated with a 6 m-long spire.


What are the key determinants of a project’s success and/or failure?

Each project has its own success and failures. I believe that the definition of challenges varies from one person to another—what one may find very difficult, another may not. What we see is only the end-product; a lot of effort and thought goes into making a project what it eventually becomes. Take for example the Bharti Airtel structure, which has a striking red, blue and white façade. A lot of planning and discussion went into making the edifice the way it appears today. I think it turned out to be an excellent project because it went through so many stages of detailing before it was completed. With any project in general, in the end, the project should be functional and sustainable when in use. That is the best determinant of its success.

How much has architecture and design evolved over time?
A good way to look at this is to consider the example of fashion—it changes every day, and so does architecture. There is constant evolution in the materials used, styles of building, and architecture as a practice and even culture. Architecture has changed tremendously over the past few years, just like how fashion has. In a nutshell, architecture and design have evolved over the years in the very same way as food and fashion. Today, materials come in from abroad, there is international perspective in so many spheres and this influences the current trends in the domestic industry. For example, about 100 years ago, designers only worked with stone and wood; this was followed by steel, concrete, and now there is plastic and glass. Building and architecture are changing constantly and, of course, for the better.

Which international architects would you say have contributed to innovating architecture?
It is difficult to pinpoint a couple of architects who have delivered revolutionary architecture. There are various tiers of architects and even if I name 20 architects, I am bound to miss someone out. But I think right from Le Corbusier, Paul Rudolph, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Sterling and Gavin, Joseph Stien to our very own Charles (Correa)—all of them have contributed to architecture in their very own way. All of them have worked on something very,very unique at one time or the other. It is important to realise that architecture is so vast, that it is akin to asking what God thinks is his finest creation. So, it is hardly just on my part to compare, as I think all of them are noteworthy in their own way.

How do you picture Mumbai’s skyline 5–10 years from now?
What Mumbai will turn out to be in the next few years depends on the kind of administration in the city. With the right direction, we can be better than even Singapore or London. But if that is not the case, then we will just be left with the same shortcomings, only amplified. The skyline of big cities is not in the hands of an architect alone; it is in the hands of the law and decision-makers. We are simply draftsmen in the city scenario; what you are allowed to do, finally, makes the city. A city needs to be nurtured, just like a child. It needs people to take care of it—it needs to be given benefits and adequate value-addition.

A city is like an individual: it will grow or become a product of everything it is given and all that has been provided for it. It is important to remember that there is no overnight success, and that anything should be done only after a lot of thought has been put in about its impact on the surroundings. I came across a very apt old saying that perfectly summarises this: ‘Treat the Earth well; it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children’.

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