Interview: In Conversation with the Award-winning Architect and Urban Planner Rajeev Kathpalia

Tete-A-Tete with Experts Dated:  Nov. 19, 2015
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Architect Rajeev Kathpalia

Rajeev Kathpalia is one of the finest architects in the country – his list of prestigious awards speaks for itself. The national award winner (Prime Minister's National Award for innovative urban design for Restructuring the Historic core of Hyderabad ) has a Masters degree in Architecture and urban design from the Washington University, St.Louis. 

The veteran architect has held various honourable positions over the years including his service as a member of Prime Minister's and National and Confederation of Indian Industry, National Committee on Housing. Rajeev is currently a partner at Vastu Shilpa Consultants, a professional consultancy service in architecture, urban planning and design. He is also a trustee and Director of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation, a non-profit research organization in environmental and habitat design. 

Ar. Rajeev Kathpalia is also a visiting faculty at CEPT, Ahmedabad and has lectured extensively at Universities in India and abroad.

Vastu Shilpa Foundation is a research organization between Academics & Profession, to evolve contextually relevant norms and standards in Design. How has your journey been with the foundation and BV Doshi?

Very often architectural practice is taken as a means to solve an issue. The challenge is to be able to identify what really is the issue. Is it what the architect’s client has identified as the issue, or is it a larger societal, cultural issue that needs to be addressed. Every issue has its political, economic and social nuance and I believe the Foundation’s role is to search beyond the known boundaries.

Schools of architecture are inevitably focused on teaching, though ideally research must happen in them to help the profession in focusing on relevant issues. Unfortunately research in Schools of Architecture is limited and hence the role of the Foundation becomes even more relevant.

Doshi is first and foremost a philosopher and teacher and I believe the Foundation is born from his deep belief of questioning and sharing the results of that questioning with society.

The quote -’the journey is always more important than the destination' is undoubtedly reflected in your designs, through the research works. Could you tell our readers about how you enjoy 'research?'

Every project is an opportunity to learn. The journey is the research and learning that a project offers. The question is whether you as an individual have grown or it is just another project you have successfully completed. 

In one of your research papers published in 2011- 'Blueprint – Vision for future cities', you stress on the significance of  'Miniaturizing cities.' Could you share some notes on it?

We travel to quaint Italian hill towns or Greek villages nestled in the hills butting the sea on their many islands. We admire their picturesque setting and rejoice in their tranquility. It amazes me that we walk the whole day to traverse the ends of these places, lounge in the little cafes and yet are refreshed and energized. What is their secret? 

Of course, we are on a holiday, and the weather is lovely but I believe it is the scale, a very walkable, pedestrian scale, and their fine grain that also makes a huge difference in our perceptions of these places! 

Should we not work towards making pedestrian friendly city environments in India? Can we not imagine pedestrian friendly precincts linked by mass transport, a series of dense, compact areas interconnected where you would rather walk than drive? This is what the article envisions.

There are organizations working towards the concept of 'Car free days' in India. Many cities across Europe have been effortlessly enjoying Pedestrian Zones and Car free zones. Implementation in India has been facing complications, yet gradually realizing the same possibility here. What are your thoughts on this?

In the city of Ahmedabad we are involved with two projects for the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority AUDA) where the major thrust is making pedestrian friendly spaces in the city. One is to prepare Local Area Plans (LAP) for the East West Metro rail corridor. 

Here we asked ourselves a fundamental question – the metro rail will be built but what will be the nature of the last mile connectivity? How will people come (or vice–versa go for that matter) from their homes to the Metro station? The way Ahmedabad is presently laid out, the majority of them will have to drive their two-wheeler or car or take an auto to get to the Metro station. 

If this happens then it is quite likely that many will choose to continue driving to their destination rather than take the Metro. The only way this can be changed is if you can conveniently walk to the Metro station. This means that the present urban blocks, which are very large in perimeter, need to be broken up and made permeable for people to walk easily throughout, especially to the Metro station. Streets need sidewalks and the quantum of space for sidewalks needs to be much larger in proportion to what is allocated for vehicles.

The other project is planning for affordable housing on the periphery of the city. This project actually has helped us in identifying the issues of impermeable urban blocks cropping up in the last project and a way to eliminate this in the formation and expansion of the city at the onset. 

We have found that in Ahmedabad the rural landholdings on it’s periphery which are being brought into the ambit of the urban area are actually about the right size to be sensible, permeable and walkable urban blocks. Why not plan the town planning scheme in a manner that this is taken advantage off. 

By interlinking these various findings we will be able to make a more “home-grown” city rather than importing ideas from Singapore or elsewhere.

Smriti Van Earthquake Memorial in Bhuj, Gujarat involves a symbolic conceptualization- Plantation of 13805 trees with each tree representing a victim. Our readers would be interested to learn more about the project.

In most architectural endeavors we deal with the making of space by working with its container, it is also about the making of place between two containers, but rarely do we have to deal with the making of a journey of reflection, a journey of life itself.

In all religions, pilgrimages are an essential part of the journey of self-discovery. We have often heard the phrase, “life is a journey”!

Perhaps, most of you know about the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat. Some years later we were commissioned to do a memorial for the earthquake victims. The brief by the then CM of Gujarat was simple - plant a tree for each of the victims. The idea of planting a tree was brilliant! It indicated rebirth, renewal and hope, the beginning of the journey of life once again.

Birds eye view nightBirds eye view at night - Smriti Van

For us this journey suggested two intertwined paths, one of the families of the victims who would come to this garden as pilgrims in remembrance of their loved ones and the other one - the path of sustenance of the tree.

For the sustenance of the trees it is necessary to understand very carefully how natural systems work. How land, water, air, birds and insects in conjunction are the agents of nature to make complex ecological and environmental systems. It is only necessary then to assist nature and after the first few years it takes over. This assistance is to identify local species, identify the paths that water flows, the soil and nutrients that the water collects on its journey and most importantly identify the places where the water can be collected to recharge the ancient aquifers in the earth. The monsoon and its collection and eventual discharge to feed the trees is one kind of journey - a journey of nourishment, perpetuation and continuity, a journey of hope and delight.

The other journey was to link these leaking reservoirs where the names of the victims would be enshrined, by paths that the pilgrims would traverse and eventually rest, the views they would encounter, the horizon they would contemplate and eventually the space in which reflection and contemplation may perhaps happen. These two intertwined paths became the basis of our design.

Another theme that runs through the project is about the transient nature of materiality and analogously our own cycle of birth and eventual mortality. We open the earth to build upon it, the building is in use for some time, memories and associations are layered upon it, but eventually it becomes a ruin, the earth reclaims it, organic matter consumes it. The leaking reservoirs are made up of stone rubble in gabion baskets. There is no mortar in the joints, every monsoon will record its presence or absence by the silt it will deposit in this rubble, where eventually new life in the form of plants will anchor itself and add to this cycle of birth and decay. The reservoirs in time will become one with the earth, as plants will obliterate its presence only traces of its absence will remain. 

Of all your entries and awards in design competitions, the 'net zero environmental impact Master plan for Nalanda University in Rajgir, Bihar' deserves to be discussed. The competition for reviving the oldest university on earth after almost 800 years has been won by VSF. How has it been working on this?

I need to correct you here; the Nalanda competition is won by VSC under my stewardship and not VSF, though I also head VSF as its director.

Nalanda UniversityNalanda University

It is undeniably a privilege to have won the Nalanda competition, a revival of one of the world’s oldest universities. I also feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with some of the finest thinkers that have been steering this young but also very old institution under the stewardship till recently, of the very eminent Chancellor Amartya Sen. As the construction of the University is poised to begin later this year, the Chancellor’s baton has been passed onto another eminent Chancellor, George Yeo from Singapore. 

I believe it is a historic project, which will bind India to the world, especially Asia in unique ways. I hope the campus we have designed will facilitate this great journey of India.

Another marvel is the Ashapura Institute of Shipping Management, designed in 1996, where the brief was about designing an eco-system of landscape and buildings where each asserts to its own presence whilst supporting the other. Our readers would want to know about the design and the concept of 'radiating bridges' in it.

This is a seminal project for me even though it never got built. It was the first time that I thought of infusing the building program within the existing topography and eco-system almost as if buildings were not buildings in the usual sense but extensions of the topography. It set up for me my future approach to architecture where building and landscape fuse.

Ashapura Institute of Shipping ManagementAshapura Institute of Shipping Management

The bridges were essentially transitions between the more public areas of learning and instruction on the one side of a valley and the more private residential areas across the other side. The bridges also became the service connectors and the mediators in between the valley. While crossing from one realm to the other they helped focus the students vision back to the infinite horizon on either side as well as channeled the movement of the sun.

As an Architect, Urban Designer and a Planner, please put in your own words, the definitions and the differences among 'Redevelopment', 'Revitalization' and 'Restoration.'

Restoration is to restore a building to its so-called original state. A difficult task at best, since original state is a difficult state to define.

Redevelopment is a term usually used in connection with a larger area and several buildings together that are being restored partially or fully.

Revitalization I suppose would be the term, when a building or area is derelict or defunct and is being redeveloped.

This is today’s definition of these terms, tomorrow I might change them.

What is the next major goal of the Foundation?

The training of teachers of architecture, perhaps?

On a lighter note, what could one find you doing during your free time?

I love to walk, swim and cycle. I am a prolific reader. I travel a fair amount and wish I sketched and painted more than I do.

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