Architect P.R.S. Sivakumar

Tete-A-Tete with Experts Dated:  Feb. 11, 2015
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Architect: P.R.S. Sivakumar

Architect P.R.S. Sivakumar from Madurai has a number of awards to his credit including  the “Honorable Architect - Tamilnadu Chapter 2013” for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture. His design for a Green Factory, a garment export facility, in Tamilnadu has been ranked as one of the 10 best green buildings of Tamilnadu in the "semi-industrial building" category. From the Taj Group to prominent local politicians and industrialists to the common man, Architect Sivakumar has designed for all with equal passion and commitment. We talk to him about his views on design, architecture, building reputation for a soho setup from a smaller city & more...

Please tell us a bit about your design philosophy?
I do have strong design philosophies & beliefs. I always tell myself that architecture is not just another form of other arts. With other forms of art, after the art is completed, the “Patron” or the “Receiver” or the “Viewer” may like it or may not like it. If it was not liked, the sculpture need not be displayed by the patron, a painting need not be hung on the wall, a music need not be listened to. But the art of architecture deals with built forms in which people live / work / enjoy / have entertainment. And so we as architects have a greater responsibility to stay true to the fundamentals. [Read more about Architect Sivakumar's design philosophy]

You have always been steadfast in the principles that govern architects and architecture. Did that bring up any challenges while dealing with any clients and real life situations?
I have pondered over this question and reflected back through the years I have practiced. Surprisingly, the answer is No!
What I am going to say now may seem ridiculous! Sometimes my decisions are governed by my mood!!! If I was not in a mood to take up a certain project ( I might have had the time to do it and I might not have disliked the project) I would refuse it. So it would be no surprise that I did not face challenges with the kind of attitude I have!!

You have been working in this field for over 3 decades. How have you seen architecture evolve in this country over this period?
From the 1970s to the 1990s, in my opinion, there were 3 kinds of architecture which prevailed in India. One was excellent architecture, the second was P.W.D. Architecture / Sarkaria Architecture and the third was “ Engineers' or Builders' “ Architecture.
Post the MNCs flooding all over India under  “Globalisation“, the entire scenario changed. It has brought in architecture which is totally different and alien to India. Unfortunately, over the years, the Indian contemporary architecture seems to be getting lost. [More observations here]

What has been your most defining moment so far?
My most defining moment in my professional life - the moment which gave a big boost and thrust to my career came in the year 1995, when I was called by the Senior General Manager of one of the biggest & famous Hotel Giants of India for an interview. He had heard about me through one of my Corporate Clients. This Hotel Group usually engages “Branded Architects”  from Bombay, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, etc or architects from abroad for their very large scale projects. I told him that till that time I had not done very high – end, sophisticated buildings and showed him my presentation drawings and detailed drawings and conceptual drawings of my award winning Architectural Thesis Project done in college and a few other sophisticated designs done in college. Impressed by them he said I should give a serious try to a new luxury rooms block next to the swimming pool. He also said that my designs have to first get approved by the president of that group at Madras (now Chennai) and later by the C.O.O. of that Group, Bombay (now Mumbai). I felt quite nervous but he gave me lot of encouragement and I was given exposure to their sophisticated designs at their famous 5-star hotels in Chennai.
After that I gave alternative proposals for the new building and to my excitement and pleasant surprise, my designs were ultimately approved by the C.O.O. and the Board of Directors at Mumbai. And they gave clearance to engage me as their architect for this new building block at Madurai - with responsibilities to render Comprehensive Design Services as well as Comprehensive Supervision Services of the project. I was really excited because till then, even in larger cities, a local architect was engaged only as “Project Architect” - meaning he was not the designer but he oversaw the supervision and interpreted the designer's drawings and co-ordinated with the designer & contractor & the management for completing the construction.
But I was engaged as the primary designer and conceptualizer for architecture as well as for interior design. The project was a success to me - and later I also did renovations for some existing buildings & interiors also.
But their first project was a real landmark project for me in my career. Because this Hotel Giant  engaged me as their architect, other elite people in and around Madurai engaged me as their architects. These were the people who used to go to Chennai or Bangalore to engage “ Branded Architects ” from there. My architectural practice took a giant leap from thereon!

Another most defining moment - but a very different one was with another Giant Hotel Group of India, again for luxury rooms project. After the designs and concepts were approved by the Board of Directors, Mumbai, I was confronted with something that I could not handle. The Hotel Group C.O.O., ( Mumbai ) who was next to the chairman, in position, had called me for a personal discussion at one of their famous 5 star  Hotels at Cochin where he had come to take a holiday. I was quite excited that the C.O.O. himself had called me. I stayed there for 3 days - but it was no excitement for me. The C.O.O. wanted me to finish the entire set of Working Drawings, Structural Drawings. Construction & Tender Documents in 40 days time and call for tender on the 41st day. That was an impossible task for me with my tiny infrastructure of 5 staff. I wanted 90 days. He said he knew very well that I had only a tiny office. So he suggested that I concentrate  on their project alone for those 40 days and that I would be very well compensated for the loss of productivity with my other projects!!. This “ Preaching ” went on for 2 days! During tea on the second evening, he proposed doubling of my fees!!
I gave a final and stout No and decided to leave the project! I would never let down my other clients who too had total faith in me. A 40 days lapse with other projects would leave quite a few projects stranded for want of my drawings. I was not going to let down my well - wishing clients who gave me continuous projects. Finally, on the morning of the 3rd day at breakfast, the C.O.O. accepted my withdrawal and sarcastically “appreciated” me for my loyalty to my permanent clients !!
This time, my refusal to such a Hotel Giant of India's project brought tremendous good will to me from my other clients. My moral integrity stood proven at that time!

How willing are clients for Green Design today?
I will tell you my experience of my green design for a hosiery garment manufacturing unit. It was my first Green Building project - and the only one which I have done so far! The clients already had other units and they were exporting garments to Europe. This new unit was intended to supply garments to 2 of the very famous garment giants of the world who insisted that their products had to come from a green building. Had it not been for their clients' insistence for a green certificate, they may not have gone in for a green building. [Read more about this Green Factory Design]

Talking about Green Buildings here in South India - IMHO and as far as I know - it is only rarely someone wants to go green willingly by themselves. Because the cost of the building goes very high and also the total built-up area becomes very low with respect to the site area - depending on the type of the building. So there has to be some form of compulsion - from the consumer side - like what happened for this building or say, if it is a Hotel, it may attract more foreigners as they are now keen on Green Hotels and the like. So unless the Green Building brought more returns to the entrepreneurs, they don't go for it. High costs prohibit Green Buildings” here in my region.

Amongst all the projects you have worked on, in the last 4 decades, which was the most enriching and which one would you call your favourite?
I love to design lavish villas and bungalows. The one that I love most was done in the year 1998. A sprawling bungalow at Kodaikanal Hills in a one acre plot sloping towards a valley with unobstructed view of Kodai Lake in the far distance.

The bungalow, as per my principles, was designed in tune with the sloping terrain. One drives downwards a winding driveway and reaches the portico. The main living floor and bedrooms are at that level, - with most of the rooms  having a nice view of the valley.

Then there is a lower floor - again a sprawling area where guest bedrooms and main dining area are provided. The salient feature of this Bungalow is a large 1500 square feet open concrete deck projecting out from the upper level as a triangle towards the valley. A french window is provided for the entire length of the hall. I made the deck triangle in shape so that the line of sight from the living hall is not obstructed too much by the deck so that one gets the view of the valley from the hall. The area below the deck is accessed from the dinning hall and serves as an open sheltered party space. The house is visible from all sides including aerial view from higher levels at Kodaikanal. So I made the sloped pyramidal roofs in an interesting pattern so that it looked beautiful from  aerial view also.

This bungalow is considered (even today) as one among the best in Kodaikanal. This client is a corporate giant in textile mills in down South of Tamilnadu. Its entire group of families (4 families) became my clients from this project.

Would you like to share any interesting anecdote from your design assignments with us?
Yes, years back, a real joke happened ! That was the time when I was transitioning from drawing boards to computers & cad. (I was one of the two in my city who first migrated from drawing boards to cad).
One of my continuing clients came to my office and he wished to build an  apartment block with 3 different categories of apartments. After a long discussion, to my surprise, he asked me if I could give the concept drawings the next day !! I asked him if it was humanly possible !  Again, to my surprise, he said : Why not sir? Your assistant now has to just key in the requirements with the different categories for the apartments on the computer and will the computer not give you the concept immediately? You only have to take a print out ! I replied: Then why did you come to me sir ! You yourself could have keyed in on a computer if you had one and got the concepts ! Why pay me for that !
I really had a tough time with him to convince him that the computer could not design - nor create architecture ! Thinking of it makes me laugh even now !

You have designed a number of schools. What are the key points according to you that an architect must consider while designing a space for young students ?
Students in the primary school should feel at home. The ambiance of the place should be casual, colourful, playful. Smaller kids should have a very safe & secure play area. Best to place them on the ground floor - with immediate access to play area,  and the interior should represent the scale of the kids. Very informal, say a row of tiny chairs circling around the teacher etc. And with today's technology, even a kids classrooms could be smart rooms.

The secondary school could be more formal. In both, I would like to always give as much natural lighting & ventilation as possible. I try to avoid air-conditioning (my region belongs to the hotter climate zone) unless where it is absolutely necessary - say a computer hall etc. I personally believe that the students should not get exposed to a very luxurious place as a school - this would only lead to spoiled grown up children with superiority complex. I really hate those international schools where every room is air conditioned and the whole school has a 5 Star hotel atmosphere - though they may have very informal, playful atmosphere for the kids - ultimately such students come out with superiority complex and they fail to see the realities of life. Well, this is my own philosophy & my own personal views with the design of schools.

I achieve comfort with ventilation & lighting through courtyards which are open to sky. IMHO, this is the right kind of architecture for the hotter Indian climate. The landscaped courtyards  not only allow light and air, but become  informal & secure play area for the children as well. Informal gatherings and teaching could be done under the trees. When the building's exterior are well shaded and with sun breakers wherever required and following the principles of tropical architecture one could really achieve physically comfortable spaces. And I have been really blessed with clients who listen to my philosophies ! (It is also a fact that, in my region, even for an International School, parents here cannot afford to pay several lakhs of rupees per annum - like in Bangalore or Chennai or in the North). The fundamental question is: does India need such 5-Star Schools ? IMHO an emphatic NO. High standards of learning atmosphere could be created in other ways too. In my philosophy, I wish to create schools where the students not only get good education - but they are also exposed to down to earth atmosphere / ambiance at the same time without sacrificing physical comfort in hot climate.

What do you like to do in your pastime ?
Wow, pastime !! If I ever had that now-a-days !! Well, I did have very serious hobbies in the past - and a few now too.
1) Photography: My strongest passion. Most of it were done during the film days - Black & White (I even had a darkroom & processed my film & printed on my own Leica enlarger) and colour - mostly Kodak Ektachrome or Fujichrome transparencies. My interests were in pictorial photography - nature, landscapes, abstract, and my specialization was in “against the light photography”. Quite a few of my photographs had been accepted by their merits for display in several All India Photography Salons (exhibitions) in several Metro cities in India - conducted by the Photographic Society of India (PSI) and the India International Photographic Council (IIPC). One of my photographs was accepted for display in an International Photography Exhibition jointly conducted by the Photographic society of America & the IIPC. The photograph was exhibited in all the Metros of U.S. & Europe & I received it back after 1-1/2 years. Have conducted a couple of workshops on “against the light photography” - a popular newspaper gave me a full page coverage.
Though I now have very good professional digital camera equipment, I am able to do photography once in a while (some of them were accepted for display in Internet Photography Salons)
2) Painting & Sketching: I had been doing painting with oil paints and water colours and sketching with graphite pencils. Now, once in a while, I am doing Digital Painting on computers with Wacom digitizer tablet & stylus and on Apple iPad with a special digital brush - Sensu Brush from Japan. Software are the ones which mimic natural media & brush painting software. I do love these !
3) Listening to Western Rock Music & at the same time interested in Indian Classical music. Western rock music gives me lot of inspiration while I am designing !
4) Love watching  English movies on a large TV for at least 1-1/2 hours in the night before going to sleep ! (without which I do not get sleep !!) These movies, I consider them as Edutainment !
5) I am crazy after computers, software, electronic gadgets & the like. CAD, 3d Modeling & Rendering have been my passion. Since I have very high regards on intellectual property, right from my first computer & to the multiple computers today, all my software are licensed & legal & I always advocate for using legal software. Have also done research on Open Source & Free software & Low Cost software (though not low in quality) - identified for use with Architects - have given two lectures / seminars to Architects (IIA) on “Use legal Software & yet don't go bankrupt” !!
I am a regular beta tester for progeCAD (a very good low cost CAD software) of  progeSOFT, Italy. I also recently gave a seminar to Architects (IIA) sponsored by Autodesk  on “BIM for Architects - focus on small offices” which was highly successful as per the statement of Autodesk.  CAD & its related software have become one of my hobbies (happens in late night hours !)  I am an active member in several Internet Forums - Cad & 3d graphics related, Computer Graphics & Painting, Photography Forums, etc.

You have won several awards, including that for lifetime achievement. What do you attribute your success to and what message you would like to give out to young and aspiring architects who want to emulate your success ?
Let me first say this:  If someone says that Honesty & Truth do not pay, well, here I am - a living example to prove them wrong. (So did my father & my grandfather when they were alive).
Morals  & Ethics, Integrity in Professional life & in Personal life - all these really count. [Read more advice for young architects]

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