#TravelWithThreeFlaneurs – Bhutan

Announcing our new trip to Bhutan in our ongoing #TravelWithThreeFlaneurs series – join us for an exclusive week long architecture tour of the magical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan this October from the 19th to the 26th. This tiny nation offers a golden opportunity to learn about responsible architecture. Take in the beautiful sights and finish with a daylong hike up to the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery.

Nestled in between the two Asian behemoths of India and China – Bhutan is perhaps the last Shangri-la – which comes from the Tibetan “Shang” – a district + “Ri” – mountain + “La”- mountain pass. But in contemporary times it has become synonymous with an earthly paradise and a permanent happy land, isolated from the world.

Breathe in some of the freshest mountain air and experience firsthand the ancient and contemporary sights of this beautiful nation that pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan A4 poster

Click HERE to download the updated trip brochure for Itinerary details and costs.

Contact Details:

Whatsapp +919867677058 or +919930876770 or email threeflaneurs@gmail.com. You can also find us online at https://threeflaneurs.wordpress.com/ https://www.facebook.com/threeflaneurs and https://www.instagram.com/threeflaneurs/ 

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Bhutan: An alternate Utopia

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Wheel of life – Buddhist Thangka painting in the Paro Dzong

Utopia literally means ‘No Place’, but it has come to signify an imagined perfect place that one can only aspire to. What earns the tiny nation of Bhutan, the sobriquet of ‘the last Shangri-la’ then? That imaginary place where everything is pleasant and you can get whatever you want, or perhaps as the citizens interpret it… you want whatever you can get? For the one thing that characterized the conversations with the Bhutanese that I met on my seven day trip was that they expressed a sense of satisfaction in their way of life. Nestled in between the two Asian behemoths of India and China, Bhutan as a nation started opening up its borders to the outside world only in 1974 and while tourism is a significant source of income for Bhutan, they would rather restrict the numbers of tourists than risk uncontrolled development that would invariably accompany the influx. And therefore visiting Bhutan feels like a privilege and you get the first taste of that when you land at the Paro Airport, which has a landing strip that is tucked in a valley between some pretty treacherous Himalayan slopes.

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Paro International Airport

Immediately one can sense a visceral shift as the air in Bhutan is clean and pure, a miracle as far as developing nations go as Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral and in fact manages to be carbon negative most of the time. The next shift one can sense is being surrounded by nature. The Bhutanese consciously eschew the Western model of development that has been blindly adopted by the rest of the developing world. They are categorical in their commitment to preserving their cultural and natural heritage. Our Bhutanese guide who was a young girl also revealed to us that Bhutanese society is largely not patriarchal and devoid of class biases.

My trip took me to the oft visited towns of Paro, Punakha – the ancient capital and Thimphu, the current capital and the largest city in Bhutan. Most Bhutanese have settled in the valleys carved into the Himalayas by several rivers and the cities I visited are also nestled in the drier plain-like valleys of Paro, Punakha and Thimphu respectively. The drives between these cities take you through relatively gentler and more rolling terrains unlike the steeper ones of the neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim. Situated in the valley formed by the Wang Chhu river, Thimphu is the political and economic capital of Bhutan. The urban character of Thimphu is dominated by small buildings that occupy the slopes and typically embody the prescriptive traditional architectural style seen in all of Bhutan. Corbelled and trabeated painted structures support sloping roofs adorn even the most blasé concrete frame buildings. Similar corbelled features are used to dress fenestrations. All buildings are mandated to follow these rules in order to preserve the visual harmony of the built environment.

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Views of Thimphu Town

Some more notable sights in Thimphu are the Tashichho Dzong (fort with administrative and religious offices), the Memorial Chorten and the recently built Dordenma Buddha statue which is the world’s largest seated Shakyamuni Buddha statue made of bronze and gilded on the outside. Some of the more profane places to visit in the national capital are the farmers’ market where you can see organic produce brought in for sale from all over the country. Apart from a variety of cheeses and chillies which form the staple food of Ema Datsi, you can also find lots of varieties of mushrooms, potatoes and herbs. In addition you can visit the National Textile Museum and the Royal Academy of Performing Arts. Apart from several restaurants that offer Indian and Tibetan food, Thimphu offers some great places to sample traditional Bhutanese cuisine especially to those brave enough to try the cheese-chilly dishes. Personally the Ema Datsi or cheese-chilly dish was quite a shock to even my seasoned India palette but I’d definitely recommend it with caution. For the more seasoned world travellers there are some excellent Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants also.

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The Dordenma Buddha statue in bronze and gold

Heading east, enroute from Thimphu to Punakha one usually halts at the Dochula pass which is at an elevation of 3100 m and is the site of 108 memorial Chortens built by the Queen Mother to commemorate the Bhutanese army martyrs in their war against Assamese insurgents. After a short halt you continue along the winding road edging along the river until you arrive at the unparalleled Punakha Dzong, magically situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and the Mo Chhu (Mother) rivers. The second oldest Dzong, it was the ancient power center of Bhutan and is the most elaborate example of a Dzong as well. One enters the Dzong through a beautiful wooden bridge that spans the river and is then greeted by the most awe inspiring sight of lush Jacaranda trees in their full purple bloom. Inside, the Dzong is composed of a series of connected courtyards contained within buildings made of compacted earth, stone and timber. Sadly despite these beautiful ancient examples one can only see ruins of compacted earth buildings in the nearby villages, with traditional construction being replaced by the ubiquitous concrete and infill methods and so while it seems that there is an attempt to preserve the building traditions of Bhutan in effect without actually using the old methods its simply skin deep tradition mostly.

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The entrance to the Punakha Dzong and the beautiful array of purple Jacaranda trees

Travelling further east one comes upon the valley of Wangdue Phodrang that’s drained by the Punatsangchhu River. Several villages are situated in this valley and one can see phalluses painted on several of these houses. The paintings of these erect phalluses are believed to ward off evil eye and malicious gossip. These esoteric paintings have their origins in the Chimi Lakhang monastery, blessed by the maverick saint, Drukpa Kunley often called the ‘divine madman’. The temple is visited by those seeking fertility blessings or to offer thanks for new progeny. Beyond Wangdue, one can continue on towards Phobjika valley to spot black necked cranes that migrate here from Tibet during the winters.

I returned back to Paro to spend the last few days of the trip and finish with the greatly anticipated hike up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery that clings to the cliff way above the Paro Valley. In comparison to the bustle and density of Thimphu and the pastoral Punakha, Paro is a well laid out and gridded town. It is also home to some of the most luxurious resorts that Bhutan has to offer, perhaps because most tourists visit here to conquer the Tiger’s Nest hike. One of the resorts that we visited is the Amankora resort by the famous Kerry Hill Architects. Built in rammed earth, wood and stone, the project interprets the Bhutanese mandates on architecture in a very contemporary way without losing the integrity of the traditional built form. The expansive patios of the resort look directly on to the oldest known Dzong in Bhutan or the Drukgyel Dzong. The Amankora Paro is an exemplary manifestation of architecture in harmony with its natural context and as mentioned earlier perhaps more building can take a cue from construction techniques used here.

The Paro or the Rinphung Dzong is perched above the town and is the first monument that one sees on landing in Paro, right from the runway. You can overlook the entire town situated along the river from the vantage that the Dzong provides. Situated on a sharply contoured site the Dzong is also quite unique in that the interlocking courtyards are at different levels and one has to descend from one to the other. While the Punakha Dzong is the most iconic of all, I personally found myself fascinated by the spatial and formal complexity of the Paro Dzong. The large steps descending from one courtyard to the other are placed perpendicular to the primary axis of movement and that intensifies the experience of progressing from one courtyard to the next. The Paro valley is also surrounded by several hiking routes which commenced from there or the neighboring Haa valley. In addition one can also drive through dense pine, spruce and rhododendron forests upto Chele La pass. Finally the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery or Takhatsang was the piece de resistance of the trip. The trail takes one up through lush greenery and the views of the monastery perched on the precipice are a reward in itself after one has made the effort of the demanding climb.

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Paro Valley views from the Paro Dzong

Maybe Bhutan is not complicit with western ideals of Utopia, in that it is not abundance without restraint but plenitude because of sacrifice. Bhutan presents an interesting model of progress but it is embodied in several dichotomies. People are very disciplined yet very happy, they are willing to subdue individuality in favor of a common identity as seen in their architecture. Perhaps the most telling is that the country that is already the only carbon negative countries in the world is targeting expanding their forest cover from 81% to 84%. Where else but in Shangri-La would one gauge progress by such a metric?




Karibu to Zanzibar!

Some travel to relax, some to escape and some to find themselves; of late I find myself travel a lot for ‘history’. To understand why places are the way they are, how places seemly so far apart are connected and eventually how I’m connected to these places!

It was many years ago, on a trip to visit the district of Belém in Lisbon, Portugal – the place from where the pioneering Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama set off on an impossible journey to find an alternate route to India and landed on the shores of my hometown of Calicut in Kerala – I first heard the name: Zanzibar!

On returning from that trip I read a version of how Vasco da Gama ‘discovered’ the route to India. Apparently he had recorded in his diary that:

Upon his arrival at the port of Zanzibar in East Africa he saw a docked ship three times bigger than his own. He took an African interpreter to meet the owner of that ship – Chandan, a Gujarati trader who used to bring pine wood and teak from Kerala along with spices and take back diamonds to India. 

Although it is now widely accepted that Vasco da Gama followed the Gujarati trader to reach the shores of India, other accounts state that the reluctant trader was in fact taken captive by the Portuguese and was forced to show them the way; in any case, as the saying goes – the rest is history!

A few weeks back I was finally able to make a trip to see this tropical island for myself. Today, Zanzibar (which is actually not one island but a small archipelago) is a semi-autonomous region which is part of the East African nation of Tanzania. In fact, the name of the country is a clipped compound of the names of the two states that unified to create it: Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

As you can see in the above images Zanzibar is a tropical paradise with immense natural beauty, nonetheless, to keep focus on the historic significance of this island the rest of this post will concentrate only on its oldest settlement and symbolic heart – Stone Town.

This world heritage designated town consists of some 2,000 coral-stone buildings, organised into different quarters and is a fascinating agglomeration of various cultural influences and architectural traditions from the East African coast and the world of the Indian Ocean. These quarters are bound together by an intricate network of narrow streets and lanes, which are so intimate that it is almost possible to walk from one end of the town to the other without having to brave the hot tropical sun.

To further understand and decipher the built form of Stone Town it is important to delve into the history of this town and the island in general. Although the town has its roots as a typical Swahili settlement, perhaps as early as the tenth century. Sometime in the seventeenth century Stone town became capital of Queen Fatma who ruled over the indigenous people of central Unguja (the main island of the archipelago). During this time the town was also settled upon by immigrants from Yemen and other Swalihis from the Kenyan coast. The Swahili architecture (which forms the bed rock of much the town) was predominately plain on the outside with people mostly experimenting internally with whatever limited available local building materials.

However, all this dramatically changed after 1698, when Zanzibar become part of the overseas holdings of Oman. (As someone who grew up in the Middle East I confess that I had no idea that Oman had a history of colonising many places along the East African coast.) And in 1832 in an unprecedented move the Omani ruler ‘Said bin Sultan’ even moved his court and capital from Muscat to Stone Town! He then went on to establish a ruling Arab elite and encouraged the development of clove plantations, using the island’s slave labour* (read more about this dark side of the history of this paradise island in the foot note to this post).

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Although there are many structures in Stone town that point to the strong Omani presence in the city – none are as prominent as the Old Fort, also known as the Arab Fort. It was built in the 17th Century by the Omani’s, on the site of a Portuguese Chapel. The oldest building in Zanzibar was meant to shield the Arabs from the Portuguese and also served as a prison and execution point. The fort is located on the main seafront – which reminded me of the beautiful corniche of Mutrah in Muscat, Oman – adjacent to another landmark building of the city, the House of Wonders (former palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar), and facing the Forodhani Gardens (all of which can be seen clearly in the above aerial photo).

The other ethnic group to have a very deep impact on the architecture of Stone Town were the Gujaratis traders (mostly from the port of Cambay). But in terms of architecture: unlike the Omanis (who built introverted structures influenced by the Islamic conception of privacy), the Gujaratis built structures – that immediately transported me to the Pols (housing clusters) of Old Ahmedabad and also brought memories of walking along Gujarati street back home in Calicutwith elaborate windows and balconies, with delicate fretwork and coloured glazing!

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This Indian Architectural influence reached its apogee in this building – the ‘Old Dispensary’ – built on a grand scale by Tharia Topan (an Indian Merchant from Bombay, again the link between this building and many structures in the older parts of Bombay like Fort, Colaba or Girgaon are very apparent here). Fortunately, this building was meticulously restored recently by Conservation Architect Dr. Archie Walls and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now houses the Stone Town Cultural Centre.

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A few streets away from the previous building I ran into this beautiful house in the quarter of the town known as Hurumzi (named after the Persian Gulf island of ‘Hormuz’ in present day Iran). Interestingly, between the 10th to 17th centuries (when Zanzibar was gaining prominence in international trade), Hormuz island was the capital of the Kingdom of Ormus – a powerful naval state with a large and active trading fleet and a powerful navy.

As I meandered through the narrow lanes of Stone Town one thing became obvious – the majority of the architecture in this town was externally very subdued, barring of course the elaborately carved main door of the houses, which ends up being its most prominent architectural element. The size and craftsmanship of these doors were (and to some extend still is) considered a mark of status and wealth of the house owner. And upon closer inspection of the motifs used on them, I realized it is possible to even distinguish the ethnicity of the household. It’s easy to understand why these doors have become one of the most emblematic images of Stone Town, here’s a few more varied examples from across the various quarters.

Many of these doors were probably made from teak wood sourced in Kerala.

As I came to the end of my short stay in Stone Town I found myself pondering about everything I saw here and I was once again reminded of what brought me here. Of the familiarity of these narrow streets and lanes that only a few days back I had not known existed; and the similarity of these elaborate wooden doors to the ones back home in the old quarter of Kuttichira, Calicut – a city that was historically closely knit to the maritime spice trade by the monsoon dhows exactly like Zanzibar!

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Here’s a map of the places mentioned in this post for quick reference.

 


All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic Pro drone camera


 

* The unfortunate dark side of the history of this island – The East African slave trade!

After the Arab and Swahili traders won control of the Swahili coast and sea routes during the 9th century they embarked on setting up an extensive slave trade network that stretched across the Indian Ocean. These traders captured Bantu peoples (Zanj or “Black”) from the interior in present-day Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania and brought them to the coast from where they would be shipped to various destinations.

In fact, it is from here that island gets its name – from Arabic “Zanjibār”, which is a compound of Zanj (‘Black’) + bār (‘coast’).

Zanzibar was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port, and under Omani Arabs in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year. Under strong British pressure, the slave trade was officially abolished in 1876, but slavery itself remained legal in Zanzibar until 1897.

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Today, there aren’t many markers of this cruel past but there is an excellent East Africa Slave Trade Exhibit with a series of displays and informative panels and the ‘Monument to the Slaves’ both within the compound of the Anglican Cathedral in Stone Town very close to where one of the world’s last open slave markets was situated.

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This moving sculpture reminds visitors and locals alike, of the atrocities committed on this very spot centuries before was created by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sönäs.


Sources:

Books:

  • Zanzibar Stone Town: An Architectural Exploration – 2008 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji
  • Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages – 1995 by Abdul Sheriff and Javed Jafferji
  • Lonely Planet Tanzania – 5th Edition, 2012 by Mary Fitzpatrick and Tim Bewer; Zanzibar Archipelago (Chapter)

Websites:

We’re off to Sri Lanka … July 22nd to 28th 2018 (revised dates)

Join us for a seven day architecture trip to Sri Lanka focused on the architecture of its most prolific architect – Geoffrey Bawa. Download the document below for all the details on the itinerary and costs.

Click HERE to download the updated trip brochure

In case you have any further queries you can contact us on threeflaneurs@gmail.com or whatsapp/call us on +91 9867677058.

Images of some of the Geoffrey Bawa’s projects we will be visiting courtesy Sahil Latheef

Materiality and the City – Bengaluru

An extended version of this post will appear in the June, 2018 issue of the Domus India.

It’s our constant endeavour as curators and theorists to catalogue and discover a dialogue between the projects at the Architecture Open once we are done visiting them. Bangalore culturally and architecturally gave us a great space to have this dialogue with the audience and the buildings. We attempt to discover similarities and differences between projects in this post.

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The curated list of the first edition of the Bangalore Architecture Open, held on 24th-25th March, had three buildings on oft found 30′ x 40′ plots common to Bangalore, each completely different in program and aesthetics- namely the B-One by Cadence Architects, Nirvana Films Studio by Shimul Jhaveri Kadri and Associates and the House + Studio of BetweenSpaces– Yet all of them projected a very strong and valid attitude about the building and its relationship with the city.

B-One by Cadence is reflective of a continued stance taken by the practice with respect to the city. They consistently eschew opening the house up to the main street and in fact turn the house inwards focusing on the courtyards. The front façade of the project is stoic and solid and blank to the street and gives away absolutely nothing about the inside of the house. On the inside, most of the detail is erased in favour of legibility, be it the sculptural soffit of the staircase or the expansive glass separating the courtyard from the inside. The expressive intent is clearly that of the architects and their aesthetic vision.

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The interior of B-One erases details in favour of legibility

Nirvana Films Studio by SJK and associates adopts a diametrically opposite stance to this and the building is open to the street that surrounds it on two sides. It invites viewers, adventurous squirrels and dizzy butterflies to engage with the building with no restraint. Every floor plate is an open plan, with rooms scattered like pavilions and privacy is enabled only by slender white panels that can be rotated to open or shut thereby allowing air to move through the building. Here, the architects privilege views, light and tactile sensations more than the plasticity of the material or the expression of form. The expressive intent is not so choreographed in this project and is free for unique interpretation by every different occupant or visitor.

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The expressive intent is clearly that of the architects and their aesthetic vision at Nirvana’s film studio 

At BetweenSpaces the black shutters that have been employed by the architects on two floors serve to unify in identity the two different programs and can either present a severe uncompromising façade to the street, when closed or when pulled back completely bare the inside of the house and office to the outside. The shutters have a much stronger presence in this project than at Nirvana Films office, perhaps due to colour but also because they forms a singular wall when closed. BetweenSpaces are the most deliberate with material expression out of all three projects. The architects juxtapose the different materials of concrete, brick, white plaster and the black shutters on the façade in a very deliberate manner.

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The internal walls, at BetweenSpaces’ office, are all detailed to not just partition spaces but also perform other functions as storage and furniture

The Neev Primary school by Hundredhands was conceptualised purely using the ‘Mat’ building diagram to order the space and the program. The grid is reinforced by the columns and the parasol roof over the second floor terrace that serves to shade it for outdoor activities like permaculture.

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The Mat building lends itself interestingly to many programs and especially educational institutions as seen in the Neev School by Hundredhands

The Atelier project by Biome Environmental Solutions is also in some ways a Mat building but not so deliberate in its expression as the Neev primary school. The project is essentially a free plan with a roof supported on a grid of columns. If the other projects are about the finesse of the craft or the nuance of materiality and craftsmanship, Biome assumes that the building is meant to be ephemereal and they design it to that intent.

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At the Atelier by Biome divisions in between the columns are free-form self-supporting walls made of paper tubes that can be reconfigured.

The project that we concluded with was in many ways a testament to the spirit of the architect as community crusader.The design by VA prioritized the area allotted to pedestrians by increasing the pavement and providing additional infrastructure such as garbage bins, streetlights, street furniture, and other services at regular intervals.

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The most humanizing aspect of the project at Church Street is the ‘Kasuti’ patterned cobble stones

In visiting these different projects through the Bangalore and Mumbai Architecture Open and it is our endeavour to go beyond the reading of a project through just drawings and images or someone else’s critical opinion but to form an impression of our own and engage in a dialogue at site with various stakeholders.

Images courtesy Sahil Latheef

 

Architecture and the City – Bengaluru

Perhaps the architecture of a city is the first indication one has of its culture and careful design seems to pervade the built form of Bengaluru perhaps like no other city in India. Not having to deal with baggage of history, nor carrying the burden of being either the National Capital or the Financial Capital allows architects a unique freedom and so the practice in Bengaluru is rich with experiments.

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The Bengaluru Architecture Open is our continued effort at experiencing architecture and urban design within the city and to connect practitioners of design with consumers and design enthusiasts. We bring another set of really interesting and carefully curated buildings and urban design projects in Bengaluru.

The projects on the schedule range from three schools that have their own unique takes on the typology of education. The Neev primary school by 100 Hands is a play on the mat building typology where the spaces in between the classrooms like the courtyards and the break-outs become informal learning spaces. A large roof above reinforces the misaligned grid on the ground and mimics the canopy of tree to enable gurukul like learning.  While in the Atelier by Biome Environmental Solutions Pvt Ltd the entire project is cocooned under a large roof and the building consists of four classrooms, a studio and a childhood stimulation centre around a central piazza, with filter spaces allowing transition between the rooms and the piazza. What is unique about the approach at the Atelier is that the designers have challenged the notion of permanence of the building and envisioned it to be completely salvageable -from the roof to the partition walls and even the flooring. The Neev Academy by Venkataramanan Associates is formed by two interlocking courtyards that are surrounded by the programs. The interlocking built form is modulated into a series of terraces so that the courtyards are not completely cut off from one another and the modulated mass forms an amphitheater that overlooks the courtyard on one side. The classrooms open into larger spaces thereby facilitating unplanned interaction between students.

The Nirvana Films Office by Shimul Jhaveri Kadri Architects is a unique embodiment of the Maison Domino diagram and then some- flat slabs that extend into infinity and only connected by the staircase that cuts the space while simultaneously connecting the floors effortlessly. Spatial flexibility truly allows the project to break out of the box that is the result of narrow urban plots as well as blurs the divisions of formal and informal programmatic elements and at the same time allows for natural light and ventilation through the building. The same flexibility is embodied in the operable louvers that help shade the large glass facade. The project by Between Spaces is an apt rendition of the design philosophy of the firm – apparent in their name while at the same time an exploration of an all too common typology found in Bangalore. Several suburban houses are getting rebuilt with the owners adding extra capacity to their house to lease either the upper or lower unit. At Between Spaces the separate units are a residence on the lower floor and the architects’ office on the upper two floors. The entire project is then conceived as a set of spaces that flow into one another.

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B.One by Cadence architects also deals with a similar suburban context as Between Spaces. Dealing with the dense residential neighbourhood and the busy street in front prompted the architects to conceive an introverted building. Diagrammatically, the program of the house was laid out in the form an ‘H-shaped plan’ that wraps around a courtyard such that each arm of the ‘H’ flanks the courtyard. The open to sky courtyard, becomes the point of interest and activity within the house while the courtyard becomes simultaneously the inside and the outside for the inhabitants.

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The final project is the redesign of Church Street by Venkataramanan Associates. Church Street is a complex street housing several entertainment establishments, businesses and residences in the Central Business District and despite its financial importance it was suffering from apathy and disrepair. The design by VA prioritized the area allotted to pedestrians by increasing the pavement and providing additional infrastructure such as garbage bins, streetlights, street furniture, and other services at regular intervals. Services have been moved to the periphery and adequate service chambers along the length minimize disruption due to repairs. But perhaps the most humanizing aspect of the project is the ‘Kasuti’ patterned cobble stones that reduce the scale of the street and act as a traffic calming measure.

With the projects cutting across the spectrum of Residential, Institutional, Commercial and Urban planning we hope to see very interesting and enriching discussions emerge between the architects and the audience. Hope to see a lot of you joining us on the 24th and 25th of March!

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All photos courtesy of respective Architects / Clients.

Bengaluru Architecture Open is a free event in which all sections of the community are invited to participate. 

Architecture Open- finding soul in Mumbai’s noise

The Mumbai Architecture Open that was held over the weekend of 10th and 11th February 2018 was in many ways an extremely encouraging event. Organised by ThreeFlaneurs in cohorts with the Urban Design and Architecture events of the Kalaghoda Arts Festival, we extended the boundaries of the discussions and the precinct to involve the city of Mumbai and the practice of Architecture in the city at large. The event called for the participation of a carefully curated list of five projects that had been recently completed and would generally be inaccessible to people without permission. The turnout of people to view these projects as well as the participation from the architects and clients to open up these buildings alludes to the generosity that this city and the Kalaghoda Arts Festival is famous for. However if one were to extend that discussion to the city and its architectural practices, the similarities and differences that emerge are worth exploring in more detail.

As an architect in Mumbai, opportunities to engage on institutional projects in the city are few and far between and most young practices find themselves working on interior projects or residential projects, hence it was interesting to be able to find five institutional projects that were extremely varied in nature. The patronage of institutions in India at large has shifted from the State to non- governmental stakeholders like private educational trusts and therefore the client is an equally important participant in the architectural production of institutions in the city.

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The pre-tour presentation by Tushar Desai and associates in the pause space of the Green Acres Academy.

Moving on, the projects that we looked at over the course of two days ranged in program from two educational institutions (Green Acres Academy school and KJ Somaiya IT college extension) to a private office (Synergy Lifestyles) and a neighbourhood development (Godrej Trees) –  both engaging the ideas of adaptive reuse in the city and lastly an architect’s own residence (Smriti 57) that was a commentary on the nature of residential redevelopments taking place in the suburbs. In all the projects one could read the underlying nature of responsibility that was attempted towards the users of the project as well as the city of Mumbai.

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The courtyard at the KJS IT extension forms a pause space between the labs and the classrooms

Both the educational projects looked at challenging the typology of such institutions. At Green Acres Academy, architects Tushar Desai and Associates attempted to blur the rigid boundaries of learning and circulation spaces within a school by allowing flexibility of program and encouraging imaginative use of the expanded circulation spaces. Clearly the building has skillfully dealt with the unforgiving mathematics of Floor Space to its advantage to be able to achieve the above goals. Similarly the KJS IT extension by Sameep Padora+associates is surprisingly humane in scale and sharp in its contrast to the ubiquitous vertical-ity of buildings in Mumbai. It was designed to meander between trees and hug the ground. The heart of the project lies in how it connects to the green spaces of the central courtyards. In the Green Acres school,  pause spaces travel through the building vertically, while in the IT extension pauses punctuate the project horizontally, accentuated and modulated by the large parasol like roof that dances over the building. Another striking similarity between the two projects was the deliberate and responsible adoption of green building technologies to increase comfort and reduce operational energy costs. At Green Acres the architects have actively investigated and adopted cross ventilation throughout the project thereby eliminating the need for air-conditioning and the Somaiya IT college has embedded chiller pipes into the floor to air-condition the classrooms. The experience of user comfort could be felt first hand by the visitors. Finally the use of material in its most natural and honest form is what completes the similarities between the two projects. Exposed finished concrete is used in the school as a way to control economics and the college uses exposed brick infill in between a completely steel column and beam structure.

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The manipulated roof that brings in controlled daylight into a space of muted monochromes at Synergy Lifestyles

The next two projects challenged the ideas of Conservation and Adaptive re-use – the Synergy Offices at Kalachowki by Shimul Jhaveri Kadri and Associates and the Imagine Studio in Vikhroli which was a collaborative effort by the GPL Design Studio and Studio Lotus. Perhaps in both these projects it is impossible to draw the line between the architects’ and clients’ vision. One, is a paean to the history of Mumbai’s textile industry and and the latter pays homage to the local history of the client’s manufacturing businesses. At Synergy offices the project deals with the neighbourhood in a very sensitive manner by completely avoiding an ostentatious facade and simply retaining the old structure while manipulating the roof for natural light. The internal floor-plate and structure has been retained in order to avoid engaging building permissions. The interiors are also largely an exercise in space making with muted monochromatic palettes and earthy materials and carefully crafted details in sync with the manipulated abundance of natural light. At Vikhroli perhaps the client- designer partnership is completely fluid with the GPL design studio acting simultaneously as designer and client  while mentoring the aesthetic vision of Studio Lotus that gives the renovation its character. GPL Design studio chose to retain the defunct industrial buildings and rehouse their marketing functions within, so that the site could retain its history as well as context and was not just relegated to a tabula rasa. The project is intended to later be handed over as a legacy to the future community that would inhabit the site. Perforated Corten steel is used to punctuate the industrial character of the past but also highlight the trees which form the concept of the project with the more neutral materials of natural stone and glass.

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Inside the erstwhile Industrial buildings at Imagine Studio at Godrej Trees Vikhroli.

The final project that we visited was Smriti 57, the residence of architects Nitin Killawala and Nimit Killawala. The house is situated in the dense suburban Juhu scheme which is in many ways a victim to the careless and expedient redevelopment policies encouraged by the BMC that benefit only developers and is a commentary on the changing needs of a growing suburban family, neighborhood, redevelopment economics and building technology to expedite construction. It is unique in that the architect is his own client and that came across in not just how the project is designed but also in the documentation of the construction process that the Killawala’s were gracious enough to share. They several times acknowledged the cooperation they received from their neighbours and community during construction. The project is a panoply of minute and painstaking details that one discovers around every corner and is characteristic of the architect’s oeuvre.

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Details abound at Smriti 57 at Juhu Scheme

The conversation between the designers and the visitors was not merely critical or complimentary but truly about the toil of the craft, the challenges of building, sharing of new technological ideas and detailing. It was refreshing to find architecture with a soul once again within the noise that one encounters everyday in the city. The overwhelming take away from the Architecture Open was the responsibility that the profession feels towards itself, it’s projects and the city. We hope to undertake more such discoveries in Mumbai and other cities in India in the near future.

All photos © Three Flaneurs & Sahil Latheef  | A version of this write up by Ekta Idnany was published in the Domus magazine (March 2018, India edition)

Open (up) Architecture – an event

At ThreeFlaneurs our main goal is to inspire people to travel with the objective of experiencing architecture and the culture and urban habitat that fosters it, which cannot happen within the pages of a magazine or an online website. Architecture and architects have many roles to fulfill beyond just the clients’ brief and it is very difficult to appreciate the complexity of a project without experiencing it in its context and especially without inhabiting it. Experiencing Architecture in the flesh also deepens one’s understanding spatially, temporally and tangibly.

#ThreeFlaneursOpenHouse

The possibility of an interesting dialogue between people and architects, inspired us to setup a Mumbai Open House event in collaboration with the Urban Design and Architecture programme that happens at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival annually. The idea that design curious individuals could visit a project and get a guided tour by the architects, we hoped would foster a regard for design in the city and allow citizens to contribute their voices to the dialogue about the aesthetic and urban concerns addressed by architects. This would also help design discourse to move away from being within the purview of the architectural community alone. Design is consumed daily via restaurants and cafes however not many are privy to design within private domains or institutions which is where we find that the voices are most interesting and diverse.

The buildings that we present in the event have been carefully selected to represent a variety of different practices and largely different programmatic and typological concerns. The projects participating in this event are privately owned and generally not open to the public. They consist of a school, a private residence, an IT institute within a college campus, a private office set within the erstwhile mills of the city and a defunct industrial space converted to a studio that can be used as per the clients’ imagination. All the projects deal with the dense fabric of the city and address concerns of legacy, adaptive reuse, economics, construction, aesthetics and conservation and are extremely unique in their approaches to solving problems that are endemic to architecture in Mumbai.

The different projects on offer also address the various inhabitants of the city. From school children to teenagers and a single family owned house to a larger residential development. The IT project at the Somaiya campus has never been published or seen by the public before. Our hope is that the discussions about these projects open up questions about the various concerns of the city that range from from how one can generate an aesthetic architectural approach in spite of the existing building laws as addressed at the Green Acres academy, to how redevelopment projects within the city can be addressed at Smriti 57. The Synergy office project provides answers to how effectively one can adapt and reuse the existing infrastructure of our mill lands, while the Imagine studio project addresses the idea of conservation in a very interesting way outside the usual south Mumbai confines of where conservation is usually looked at. We hope that the event can raise a few more interesting questions if not at least provide answers to some.

For more details on the participating projects and practices on our blog click here.

Sight-Site: An Open House initiative at KGAF ’18

In continuation to the previous post explaining the idea behind the Mumbai Open House (a public event being conducted by the ThreeFlaneurs in collaboration with the Urban Design and Architecture programme at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival), here’s some details on the participating projects and practices.

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Project 1: Green Acres Academy, Chembur (Tushar Desai & Associates)

Programme – Grade 1-10 ICSE school
Area of the Building – 7980 sq m
Year of completion – PHASE I- 2015, PHASE II- 2017, PHASE III- 2019.

This school project, situated in suburban Mumbai, has relooked at the school building typology within a dense urban environment. Designed by Tushar Desai & Associates, who specialize in designs that are simple and use direct geometry, textures and colours, light & shade, this particular building, built over three phases, uses the juxtaposition of exposed concrete, contrasted by bright colours as an effective design language. There was a concerted effort to maximise the potential of the space and providing for unplanned interactions. This was achieved through by widening corridors and designing break-out spaces in different parts of the structure. The architects believe in the necessity of creating a delicate but harmonious balance of the programmed and un-programmed tangibles, which can well be noticed in this building.

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Project 2: Somaiya IT, Sion East (Sameep Padora & Associates)

Programme – Workshop Area, laboratories, seminar hall, drawing hall, Common Rooms
Area of the Building – 2070 sq m
Year of completion – 2018

This recent addition to the renowned Somaiya College, has been designed by the design studio sP+a who view history as an instrument of projecting futures, where history becomes an evolving idea not a static craft or programme logic. The roof is the most visible feature of the building, which consists of workshops, laboratories, lecture rooms, student community rooms and a café extension. It folds into giant gargoyles channeling water into the courtyards and further into harvesting tanks. The functions are arranged around a series of courtyards but without any shared walls. The resulting gaps in between adjacent programs create vistas outwards. The internal wall sections are designed in a way that allows visual connects without noise transfer and classrooms spaces are tied together in clusters around a courtyard. This project at this time is still in the final stages of completion and is as yet unpublished.

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Project 3: Synergy Lifestyles, Kalachowki (Shimul Javeri Kadri Architects) 

Programme – Office and Showroom
Area of the Building – 533 sq m
Year of completion – 2016

In the case of this particular building interior, tragedy presented the architects to revisit a site completed by the firm more than 20 years ago. What was a landmark project then – amongst the first of the industrial projects that was converted to offices – in a city fast changing from its industrial roots to a service economy – was gutted recently by a fire and had to be practically rebuilt from the inside. In its new avatar, the ubiquitous staircase still remains the focus but, in the architects’ words, the project is perhaps even more honest than its predecessor, ever more transparent and reliant on the craftsmanship of concrete and steel – so as to hide nothing!

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Project 4: The Imagine Studio, Vikhroli (GPL Design Studio & Studio Lotus)

Programme – Marketing Office, Sample apartments, Café/Bar, Plaza, Urban Farm, Legacy
Area of the Building – 1000 sq m set within 1 acre
Year of completion – 2015

A unique example of an adaptive reuse project in Mumbai, the Imagine Studio was conceived as a project that could serve various needs as per the desires of the client and as per their changing requirements. Conceptualised to preserve the legacy of the existing industrial buildings in the Godrej compound, the studio can be re-transformed to serve several eventual needs of the residential community once the building seizes to serve as a marketing office. Planned as an exercise in place-making in an ultra premium development, the project transforms a small cluster of non-descript industrial buildings and its surrounding landscape into functions such as Studio, Workshop, Café, Legacy Park, Urban Farm, Open Air Theater and Market Plaza. Existing building elements were recycled not only to underline their historical relevance but also add meaning as important spaces to pause within the new narrative that the client is trying to brand & market effectively.

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Project 5: Smriti 57, Juhu Scheme (Nitin Killawala + Associates)

Programme – Family residence
Area of the Building – 1000 sq m
Year of completion – 2015

This project encompasses the designer’s vision to the greatest degree possible, as it is his own residence. According to the architect “I was always fascinated with steel as a material, although I never got the opportunity to design a steel building for any of my clients, I thought of designing my own house with steel that will last for many years, and at the same time, provide structural aesthetics”. The building in totality is an exploration in alternative technologies of construction, challenging norms, time cycles as well as affordability. While on the exterior the structure looks fairly simple, internally the Grid over six floors in broken down into several possible configurations as per the users needs. A guest floor on the first level, a duplex over the next two levels followed by a triplex over the subsequent floors. The flexibility of making individual spaces ensures that the creation of “home” is not lost, and all the disparate needs of the inhabitants have been looked after.

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All photos and drawings courtesy of respective Architects / Clients.

Mumbai Open House 2018 is a free event in which all sections of the community are invited to participate. However, under this initiative we would invite a limited number of design curious individuals to sign-up by writing to threeflaneurs@gmail.com to explore and understand the value of a well-designed built environment. Kindly mention your contact details (Email / Mobile) and preferences of which sites you would like to visit. 

Please note: Due to the interest generated in this event, we may have to restrict your visits to only any two of the sites. 

Louvre Abu Dhabi – Utopia realized

A couple of weeks back, one of the most anticipated architectural projects in recent times – the Louvre Abu Dhabi (LAD)- opened to much fanfare after a 10-year-long journey. Designed by Pritzker prize winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum’s design is almost the literal translation of the idea of Utopia and the ideal Museum as imagined during the Renaissance period of European history.

During the Renaissance, both utopia and museum(s) were imagined as circular, set apart, and ordered: utopia was an ideally governed island, the ideal museum was a domed rotunda on a mountaintop.”*

The LAD is an almost actual realisation of the above description; it is designed as an archipelago set just off the main body of Saadiyat island; which in itself is unique, in that it is set to host some of the most ambitious cultural buildings in the world. The most notable element in it’s design is a theatrical dome that hovers over the galleries and other facilities; filtering the harsh Arabian sun into a dance of light and shadow. Here the eight layered dome behaves quite similarly to the geometrically-patterned screen facade that was used in the Aga Khan Award winning Institu du Monde Arab in Paris also designed by Nouvel.

The main gallery spaces of the complex are laid out as a set of low-lying blocks almost like a middle eastern medina (a slightly ambitious reference as these kind of white minimalist buildings are more common along the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East and not in the Gulf region); partly under and partly beyond the dome floating above the sea. This strategy creates many interesting spaces, courtyards and terraces in between the museum elements both below and outside the dome.

Beyond the brilliant design the museum houses an enviable collection of around 600 works of art – 300 of which are on loan from 13 French museums, including the Louvre in Paris – curated in an unusual manner as ‘chapters’ to explain how art simultaneously developed across civilizations rather than the conventional galleries dedicated to each civilization or art movement making this collection and it’s presentation truly a bridge between the east and west.

Going by the enthusiasm leading up to its opening and the response so far, this facility is poised to become the main cultural attraction in a country that is increasingly looking towards tourism as a key economic driver.

If you are planning to visit this iconic museum here’s a few practical tips: 

  •  The museum has an amazing collection of artworks/artifacts and some really interesting architectural experiences so do plan to spend as many hours as possible.
  • Book your tickets online at least a few days before the trip to avoid lines and to be able to park in the car park that’s closer to the museum.
  • Try to avoid visiting during weekends (i.e. Fridays & Saturdays) or bank holidays and the museum is closed on all Mondays.
  • There are free tours every half an hour or so from the main entrance of the permanent galleries where they explain the highlights of the collection: these 45 min long tours can be crowded but are a good introduction to the extensive collection. They also have a dedicated architecture tour of the complex (but that’s additionally chargeable).
  • If you start the day with the tour do go through all the galleries again on your own as there are many small rooms (with some real gems) attached to the bigger galleries that are not included in the highlights tour. 
  • Also at the end of the tour, if it seems to be particularly busy day, you probably shouldn’t exit the museum building into the domed common plaza (if you exit the building you may have to wait in queue to get back in as they have a restriction on the number of people inside). But once you’re inside they won’t ask you to leave till it’s closing time, so you can work your way back to the start from within the galleries itself. 
  • The LAD is a large complex and if you want to cover everything be prepared to walk a lot!
  • The internal spaces of the museum can get really cold to help preserve most of the delicate artwork, especially if you happen to get some galleries relatively empty, so don’t forget a cardigan or a light sweater. 
  • There is a sea-facing cafe below the dome (which unfortunately doesn’t have much veg options) and proper meals are a bit expensive and take a lot of preparation time (30 to 45 mins), but there are slightly more reasonably priced ready made sandwiches available. The restaurant is not yet open! 
  • If you’re looking for something lighter – there are a few small mobile kiosks selling water, drinks and chips below the dome that moves around the central plaza space. 
  • There are many interesting spaces, courtyards and terraces outside the museum – it’s easy to miss them if you don’t go looking for them, check on the museum map for areas you may have missed. 
  • The toilets (at least the ones in the basement) are worth visiting from a design perspective even if you don’t want to use them. 
  • The museum periodically hosts interesting performances and light shows (late in the evening), if there’s one happening on the day you’re visiting – it’s probably worth staying back for it!

Some drawings of the LAD © Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

* – Marcin Fabianksi, “Iconography of the Architecture of the Ideal Musea in the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of the History of Collections 2, no. 2 (1990): 95-134.

All photos © Sahil Latheef  | A shorter version of this write up by Sahil Latheef was published in the travel section of the DNA newspaper (Mumbai edition) on 29th Nov 2017