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Designing with a Soul

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Architect Reza Kabul is a name synonym with design philosophy of ‘liberating spaces’. Always eager to try new concepts, his passion for design is evident in the string of successfully executed projects in India and abroad. Sapna Srivastava speaks to the architect about his journey as a designer, the challenges, his landmark projects and the steady rise of Indian architecture as seen by him.

A Mumbai boy aspiring to be an engineer leaves for Baroda to give the entrance exam. Instead, lured by the fascinating drawings & presentation of his friend, an architecture final year student, the boy graduates as an architect five years later in 1985 from M.S. University, Baroda. “In those times everyone wanted to be an engineer, doctor or pilot as they were the most recognized professions of the times. My random experience of viewing books on architecture proved catalyst enough to switch from engineering to architecture” explains Kabul. This was just the beginning.

After a short stint of two and a half years with Architect Hafeez contractor in Mumbai, Kabul established his own practice in 1988. “I was in too much of a hurry to begin working independently” says Kabul. “To start with, my father allowed me to use 120sqft of mezzanine floor above a restaurant in Worli, Mumbai which was a triangular space and considered completely anti-Vastu. I had practically no staff and used landline phone of the restaurant for occasional calls.” Kabul worked on all kinds of projects from small basic one storey buildings in areas like Thane, Badlapur and Nasik, to renovations of bedroom and bathrooms. However, his enthusiasm to do any work remained the same. According to him, smaller spaces demanded more creativity in terms of utilization of space and creating right environment for the occupants. He says, “A project is big or small is not important, what is important is doing good work as that is, what is one’s advertisement which would lead to bigger & better projects later. Many a times, clients want to test you with a smaller project before entrusting a bigger assignment. It is like climbing the ladder one step at a time to reach success and thus for me working on small insignificant projects was never discouraging.”

The turning point for M/s Architect Reza Kabul came in year 1989 with project of Sagar Classic, an 18 storey tower in Byculla, Mumbai. “This was one of the rare instances at that time when a real estate project was well publicized with name of the architect appearing in project advertisements. Simultaneously, I did a hotel interior project which further established the consultancy.”

Encouraged by the new found success, Kabul finally moved his office into a bigger space of about 1000sqft area in Bandra suburb of Mumbai. The firm now had a staff of 20-25 people. This was also the time when technology started surfacing in the field of architecture. Computers started substituting drawing boards and AutoCAD 2D drawings took place of pencil sketches. While, many professionals were reluctant to accept the change, Kabul readily adopted the new technology in his young architectural practice. One of the advantages of this was that now his office space could accommodate more staff within the given space as large drawing boards were replaced by smaller workstations for computers. Kabul adds, “We went through the whole learning curve from 2D drawings to dynamic 3D views of the projects and from early Dot Matrix printers to latest plotters. The technology helped the firm grow as work became faster, accurate and led to more satisfied clients.” However, Kabul accepts that he is still old school and believes that technology is creating a disconnect between the designer and the whole process of designing.

“I still pick up a pencil and start sketching whenever working on a new project. I still like to visit the site to get the feel of the location and actual ground before construction begins. The young architects are losing out on the skills of using paintbrush, charcoal and pencil to develop design concepts and then give them a final shape. Today, a site visit is not necessary as designers can view the place using Google Earth app. So, technology though has its advantages, if used excessively can negatively impact the creativity of an architect. Nothing can replace the feeling of being on the ground, or the learnings by talking to the locals, getting their feedback and the vibing with the place. Unconsciously, these factors add to the designing process as also help connect the designer to the project being envisaged.“

Design Philosophy & Approach

For Kabul, architecture has always been about the people who inhabit the spaces. His approach to designing any project includes visiting the site, imbibing the feel of the place, visualizing and breathing the design and putting himself in the end users shoes to envision the outcome of design. His design philosophy largely believes in integrating spaces rather than breaking them up in individual areas. “Like people buildings and spaces should also have a relationship and connectivity with each other. While, the building blocks should have the same language and speak to each other, various functional spaces should flow into each other with seamless transition.” Talking about influences and inspirations for his work, Kabul says he does not believe in following any designer in toto but does take inspiration from the work of prominent architects to learn from their work and creating his own individual style.

According to Kabul, the contemporary architecture in India is going through the phase of minimalism. Designers are more or less copying the West, emphasizing straight lines and geometry, interpreting it as modern architecture. There seems to be a discord between the classical architecture and architecture being created today. However, the latest construction technology, design software and high performance materials have undoubtedly added to building strength, superior performance and design flexibility.

“Design is subjective; what I like may be disliked by someone else and vice versa. An architect not only learns and gets inspired by good design but also takes cue from bad design so as not to repeat the mistakes in his own work. A designer does not necessarily have to agree with the work of his predecessors or famous peer designers but should try and understand their work and take it from there to make his own mark.”

As the buildings are getting more complex in design and construction, there are now specialized consultants engaged right from the conceptualization stage of the project. There are now building services consultants, consultant for HVAC, landscaping, lighting, parking and so on. As per Kabul, specialization of design processes adds value to the project and helps improve the quality of the building and its function. Clients too are more aware of the latest trends and more importantly architecture as a discipline as an essential to creating an efficient and comfortable space.

For Kabul, a sustainable building is a building which ensures maximum utilization of space, which can be used efficiently by the occupants and incorporates green practices such as recycling, reuse, rain water harvesting and solar control exterior. For instance, Kabul suggests, instead of mandating more parking areas in a project, if gradually good quality mass transit transportation within in the city and especially the central business district is increased, it will discourage use of cars and help utilize parking spaces as green areas. “The green and sustainable practices when initiated from the top i.e. the government and then trickled down the pyramid to individuals, i.e. the citizens then they are more successful. Sustainability in true sense still eludes us.” says Kabul.

Highlight Projects

While all projects of Reza Kabul have presented their own set of challenges and are memorable to him for one or the other unique experiences associated to them. Some projects have been distinctive in terms of being the first of their kinds at time of their design and construction. For instance, Shreepat Arcade, a 45 storey building in Mumbai designed by Kabul in year 1989 was path breaking, as till then the tallest building in India was maximum 39 storeys high. The project was one of the defining moments in Kabul’s career as it involved designing and incorporating many new technologies not yet introduced in India like high speed elevators, bus bars and other construction techniques required for tall structures.

Similarly, Bharat Diamond Bourse building in Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai was a project that was revived after 10 years and included half constructed buildings. The clients were the same but over the long gap, the project requirements had changed and the area where the project was located had developed manifold with some characteristic buildings in the vicinity. The planning of the complex was reworked to accommodate the new requirements and functions. The façade of the buildings was also redesigned so as not to seem outdated and to complement the surrounding steel & glass buildings.

Another project which again involved remodeling the existing structure was that of Marine Plaza Hotel in Mumbai which was an Art Deco building. The owners wanted to convert the residential building into a hotel but as the building came under heritage regulations, no major changes to the structure or façade was possible. Working within the given limitations, façade and periphery was renovated to look like a hospitality property. A swimming pool with transparent glass bottom was added on the roof of the atrium, keeping the structure intact. Kabul says, “The design feature was an outcome of necessity of providing swimming pool for the luxury boutique hotel and to provide natural light in the atrium which would otherwise have become a dark space. Today, it forms a distinctive part of the property.”

A not so run of the mill project was the renovation of an Iranian mosque in Mumbai, a heritage property about 100 years old. The roof, walls, floor and structure had deep cracks with water leakage in many places. No drawings were available and it required a lot of research to determine the materials used, load bearing structure, causes and methods to rectify the defects. Another challenge was to match the newer materials used in renovation and interiors like stone, carpet, chandeliers with vintage materials. Cost was a determining factor as it was a charity funded project and Kabul could

“While architects are doing their bit in implementing green designs and even building bye-laws to promote sustainable healthy design practices, the government procedures for approvals and permissions are highly questionable. Architects are still required to submit 10-20 prints of drawings whereas globally CD of all the drawings is submitted to the building authorities and communication is conducted via email. Once approved, only one set of drawings is required to be submitted. Indian government too needs to proactively utilize electronic media to avoid wastage of paper, time and resources as well as to make the process smooth and speedy.”

and ensured that the project after renovation though appeared new, did not lose its heritage feel in the process. “Midway through the project, when paint was scraped off from the doors and windows to be repainted, we realized it was a Burma teak frame. The same were then polished instead of again painting. The polished wood now adds more heritage value to the mosque than it did earlier. Onyx marble, vintage chandeliers and carpets were sourced with great difficulty but at the end it was worth the effort. “adds Kabul.

“I have been through my share of struggle and have overcome various challenges to bring myself to a place from where I now need to not only maintain the expectation from the previous achievements but also better them and bring in new pioneering designs, introduce new construction techniques and use novel materials to set new benchmarks for myself. “

The Way Forward

As the projects have been getting bigger and more complex for Reza Kabul architectural firm, his standards of design and construction have also been rising. He sets a new bar of standard for himself with every project. The passion and flame of creativity still burns bright after 27 years of working in the building industry. His new projects are defined by innovative design approach, advanced technologies and cutting edge management practices to offer most optimal solutions. As he puts it, “ Nowadays, a project requires tremendous planning at the conceptualization stage as the buildings are getting more intricate in function as well as design. Every project is a fresh challenge and needs new thinking. I cannot sit on my laurels but have to start anew with same vigour and fresh ideas for every project.” Commenting on the younger generation designers he adds, “The young architects today need to learn not to build in isolation but to design buildings which are part of the community. Rather than creating an iconic building which has no relation with its surroundings or encroaches on adjacent property, they should take care that the design assimilates with its environment and respects the limits of its boundaries.”

Certainly, the young architects have a lot to learn from architects like Reza Kabul who still thinks he has lot to learn and many more challenges to face. His creativity lies in being connected to what he designs at the most basic level and the spirit to imbibe the latest of technology and knowledge without being intimidated. He is not afraid to call spade a spade. He believes in learning from the best as well as the worst of the building designs. Maybe, that is the reason why he does not follow any particular architect or trend and is not afraid to question the best of buildings and most influential of architects if he does not agree.


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