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Verve People
December 18, 2014

Sculpting Spaces

Text by Nasrin Modak

Inspired by art, Sanjay Puri aims to explore spaces innovatively. The award-winning, Mumbai-based architect speaks to Verve about his abstract building designs

Sanjay Puri has made a mark in the global architectonics circle – the world of building design – with his geometric precision and angled layouts. So, whether it’s a picturesque chapel on a hill at Murcia in Spain, a cohesive patterned pedestrian piazza in Montenegro or the carefully planned organic building of the Bombay Arts Society in Mumbai, architect Sanjay Puri underscores the connection between art and architecture through his design philosophy.

The Mumbai-based architect who has garnered 38 international architecture awards – including the prestigious MIPIM Architectural Review Future Projects Awards 2014 in Cannes and the A+Architizer Award in New York in 2013 – is a simple and modest man, two qualities that are reflected in his residence in a high-rise on Peddar Road, in central Mumbai. Walk into the terraced apartment and you will realise that it is like a beautiful capsule with its open spaces, glass walls and bricks – a fascinating change from the typical boxed, urban home designs that one comes across in the bustling metropolis. “The previous owners couldn’t believe what was done to the house they were living in for so many years. When we bought this space, 12 years ago, I brought down almost every wall – it was like working on an air space,” Puri states. Dotted with artworks collected over a period of time – by artists like Brinda Miller, Sujata Achrekar, Ravi Mandlik and Nitin Dange – the décor is minimal; yet has its own charm and character.

Our conversation begins with the architect’s geometric precision and angled layouts which are garnering attention in international circles. Stating that he has always been obsessed by design and inspired by the abstract, Puri explains, “That’s exactly how I design spaces,” ignoring his ever-buzzing cell phone on the centre table.

The roots of Puri’s arresting and eclectic designs can be traced to his interest in art – a passion that has fuelled his consciousness since his childhood. He wanted to be an artist. However, his reading of the book, Introduction to Architecture, determined the choice of his career. By the second year of college, Puri was designing small offices and homes. The big leap came with the design for a residential complex that included a school and commercial facilities in Vasai, near Mumbai. This project gave birth to the firm Sanjay Puri Architects. And Puri was kept busy doing similar projects thereafter. “In our industry when you do one kind of thing, you only get those kinds of projects,” reasons Puri. For him housing complexes are all about numbers – mass scale projects with limited creativity. “At that time I wanted to expand my imaginative instincts,” he recalls.

The real turning point, however, was the sleek and elegant office for Russian Economic Affairs at the World Trade Centre in Mumbai. With exposed ducting and bricked walls, the space no longer looked like an office. Appreciating the architect’s appetite for risk-taking, the owner gave him a free hand – with a proviso. If he did not like the end result, Puri was told he would have to redo the space at his own expense. “That’s the chance I took at the early stage of my career,” smiles Puri.

A 100,000 sq ft of entertainment space in Ahmedabad and Centrestage Mall in New Delhi were next. Puri’s successive projects replete with human emotions and a not insignificant amount of glamour seemed to appeal to the ultra-affluent. Unlike most architects who scale up from residential spaces to larger projects, Puri moved on to do niche homes for select clients. Moreover, while his firm still takes up bigger assignments, his personal interest also lies in designing zestful public and cultural spaces like hotels, museums and art galleries. “I like to design spaces where people congregate in large numbers and experience the space,” he adds.

Puri’s repertoire of designs is not limited to stereotypes and themes in brick and stone. He believes in the bespoke. “What’s the point of a house that looks similar to someone else’s? I prefer the abstract – deviating from the boxes to explore spaces in a different light,” he says. His creative process involves probing the context of the space he is designing and the significance of sustainable architecture. “Where is the space, what’s the sun direction, who are the people who will live here? Considering these factors gives a sense of direction. It’s not just about making bamboo and mud homes; the orientation of design has to be such that the user ends up saving energy. As an architect you have done your job to make that difference,” he says firmly.

So, are the awards an impetus for doing things differently, I ask. “Not at all,” he laughs. “When you look at the end result, you must feel that it was something you did right. Your greatest critic is yourself. You know that had you spent a little more time on that, or used a particular technique, you could have done better,” he adds.

Puri married Nina, his college sweetheart, who is also a qualified architect. While she is now a homemaker who takes up custom interior work, what makes the situation perfect for them is the fact that Puri brings work home for ideation. He also takes feedback from his two daughters – one of whom is a student of architecture in London and the other is taking a course at Parsons. The design-inclined family loves to travel. Rotterdam’s architecture has left a huge impression on them. “Unlike the rest of Europe that sports centuries’ old buildings, the entire city is built from scratch after being bombed in World War II. It’s refreshing,” he adds.

The professional also admires Germany for encouraging modern architecture and respecting architects. “I am in awe of the road where the embassies are in Berlin: each building is different and showcases the flavour of the country it represents. I admire the Dusseldorf Lake where renowned architects have built buildings or even the Grand Hyatt, Berlin where the ballrooms are named after the architect who designed it. It’s about giving an architect that kind of deference, something lacking in India,” he complains.

Despite prestigious projects in Spain, Montenegro, Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates, his personal favourite is one he did back home. “The 35,000 sq ft space in Biawar, Rajasthan has won four awards and has been mentioned in several international publications. But the most heart-warming compliment comes from its owners who often call to tell me that their friends and relatives who go there for vacations can’t stop talking about the design and the architecture for at least two weeks,” he says, with a broad smile.

Puri demonstrates that the way to a good life is not just by splurging; but it is also about making the right choices. “I often pick up watches for their designs and it is fun to see people’s faces fall when the watch’s brand doesn’t register. Most people have a fixation for brands, I love things for their structure and the way they have been constructed… not for their name tag,” he states.

So what’s the architect’s retirement home going to be like? “Tranquil. Somewhere from where you can see the sea and hear its waves. With a large corridor that opens outside with a melange of interesting and open spaces. Probably in Montenegro,” he adds. And, what would his dream project be? “I am fascinated by how they have transformed the economy of a small industrial town, Bilbao in Spain, to a city that tourists flock to just to visit one museum – the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry. I want to do something like that,” he says, hopefully in Mumbai.

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