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June 04, 2018

Rooted in Reason: Architect Alok Shetty On The Future Of Indian Design

Text by Zaral Shah

Alok Shetty talks about where the Indian design scene is headed, projects that propelled him into the spotlight and what the future holds for him….

Alok Shetty, the founding principal of Bhumiputra Architecture, has always been creatively inclined. As a child, he spent a lot of time at construction sites, often interacting with people who worked there. That was his first peek into the world of mortar, cement, dust and scaffoldings. When fresh out of high school, his mother encouraged him to pursue architecture and he obtained his undergraduate degree from RV School of Architecture, Bengaluru. With a master’s in advanced architectural design from Columbia University, New York under his belt, Shetty — who turned 30 last year — founded his firm in 2005. Having encouraged local artisans for over a decade, he continues to give them a global platform. In conversation with Verve, he talks about where the Indian design scene is headed, projects that propelled him into the spotlight and what the future holds for him….

“Each project begins with an understanding of its context, site conditions and limitations. Then, client expectations, budgets and locally available materials are considered. More than anything, our focus is on designing something that lasts, rather than something that ‘trends’. We have a problem-solving approach and aesthetics continue to be a by-product of that.”

“The Black Box was my final project at Columbia with two of my classmates — Nathan Smith and Shea Gilligan. Our brief was to design a mobile auditorium for TED conferences. Essentially, the project takes a 40-foot shipping container and converts it into an auditorium for 250 people. The project was very well received, and we ended up winning the Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Award for Design Excellence in 2011 too. Since then, we have pivoted the project to become a deployable model for healthcare and education all over rural India. It operates on a shipping container and a train compartment module based on the requirements of every location.”

“The Olympic Training Academy in Vijayanagar is a first of its kind state-of-the-art, private academy in India. We just completed phase one with over 200 athletes currently living and training there. Six athletes that train there recently won medals at the Commonwealth Games. Phase two is now under construction and will be completed next year. The project is harvesting its own water and solar energy. We’ve used natural plasters, and bricks made from stabilised and excavated earth. We have substituted sand with slag from the nearby JSW steel plant. Even the rock that we excavated for the foundations has been used as toe walls in our landscape design.”

“I’d say we are influenced more by people from fields outside of architecture rather than within it. In India, they’re Samit and Mallika Ghosh of Ujjivan Financial Services for their work in financial literacy and empowerment of underprivileged communities, Shubhendu Sharma of Afforestt for his work with afforestation and carbon sequestration, Sanvar Oberoi and the full team at Bombay Hemp Company for their work with hemp as a construction material, and Hanif Qureshi and the St+ART India team for their work in reactivating our neighbourhoods and buildings with conscious art. Internationally, we admire Elon Musk for his breakthroughs in renewable energy and design and Chamath Palihapitiya for pioneering sustainable design through his hedge fund Social Capital.”

“A challenging project would be the hospital I designed while still in college. It gave me an edge, significant experience, confidence and, most importantly, empathy. A hospital is a project that’s all about the end user. Knowing that people at a hospital are either in pain or under stress — be it patients, their families, doctors or the staff — it urges you to design consciously. And that shaped the core principles on which Bhumiputra was formed.”

“I’d say that our focus has been on responsible architecture as a whole, whether it be the projects we choose, the materials we use, the local artisans and workforce we employ or our overall approach to problem-solving through design. It has to be an all-round effort. Conservationism and sustainability cannot be effective if they are conditional, they have to be a given.”

“To me, the updated Indian design aesthetic is self-aware, socially and culturally relevant, fiercely competitive and also equally rewarding. I think Indian designers are very aware of the impact of their work, and that has resulted in more attention to detail. We continue to do well-designed work which is also driven by the fact that the average Indian consumers have become more well-read and well-travelled in the last 10 to 20 years. They actively seek that which is a reflection of their heritage as well as something bespoke and richly crafted. This applies across all scales and genres of design. Now is a good time to be a creative or design professional in India.”

“I’m addicted to my work. I look at it more as an extension of myself, so I spend as much time as I can reading and watching movies — all related to the various arts and genres of design. Basically I am trying to consume as much information as I can about the human condition and things that I’m curious about. The appetite for learning is always growing. I also swim about three kilometres every day. I used to be a long-distance swimmer back in school and college. It is my daily therapy. I also enjoy playing basketball on the weekends. Sports truly gave me a lot of confidence as a child, and instilled in me the competitive gene. I really value it deeply.”

“Future plans are the same as the current manifesto that the firm follows. Problem-solving, community development, and value addition through the projects we take on. We have just won a competition to design an airport — which we will begin in July; a public library — which we will begin next month — and a one million square-foot mixed-use lakeside tower that we will begin later this year. Apart from these large-scale projects, we are working on about 200 small-scale intervention projects — bus stops, foot bridges, renovation of classrooms, maternity wards, public toilets, market places — across the country. We’ve already finished about 50 of these, and hope to finish the rest by July.”

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