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Balancing Old & the New

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Architect Premnath is nothing but young at heart. His age belies his enthusuasm and passion to think ahead of his time. He has won array of recognitions, the recent being “Life Time Achievement Award in Architecture” by NDTV Profit, ‘CW India’s Top Ten Architect’ for four consecutive years, CNBC Awaaz CRISIL Award for “High End Interiors’and IADF Achiever’s Award. Sapna Srivastava talks to the prolific architect on his projects, design philosophy and architectural trends & technology in India.

Ar. Prem Nath, receiver of top design honours from Sir J. J. College of Architecture in 1965, started his practice Prem Nath & Associates (PNA), Mumbai in 1967. He is also a chartered engineer, certified valuer and a real estate appraiser and one of the few people in India to have ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) certificate to practice in USA. When asked about the reason for him becoming an architect, he says it was purely coincidental. “During 1960’s there was not much awareness about architecture as a profession although some great architects were present at that time and were doing some great work in the country. Architecture came to me as a compulsion as I belonged to a poor family and needed to work along with studies to support my family as well my education. The field of architecture suited me as it afforded me to work during the day along with attending classes in the morning and studying at night.”

“I was introduced to architecture by destiny as I was bad in English but good at sketching. Due to my bad English I could not work as typist or clerk and had to settle as a blue printing boy in an engineering firm. There I was encouraged to develop my talent in drawing and become a draftsman. So I found my way at Sir JJ College of Architecture in Mumbai.”

The time when Premnath started practicing, interiors was not considered a professional field and most of the interior work was undertaken by furniture companies. Architect Premnath was one of the first professional designers to work on an interior designing project which was for the Britannia Industries. “In 1966 I was assigned to design the interiors of 10,000sqft office space at Nariman Point in Mumbai. The reason the company gave me the job was my good design illustration that I used to present my idea. The management was impressed and was open to hiring a young designer. From there on, one project led to another. Thereafter, I did a residence design for a celebrity actor and airline’s office and thus PNA as a design firm began its journey. The firm today offers professional practice in architecture, interior designing, Project Management Consultancy (PMC) and MEP Services all over India with projects ranging from residential, commercial, SEZ complexes, educational to hospitals, temples, hotels, resorts & health-spas and integrated townships.”

Architecture Then & Now

Premnath with his natural talent for science and arts has created some iconic structures across the country and is also working with foreign clients for their projects outside India. Over his 40 years of architectural practice, he has witnessed many a changes that have affected the architectural scenario in general. He says, “In the basic sense, architectural business still remains the same which includes visualization, followed by putting the design idea on paper. What have changed are the tools of implementation. The drawing pen and pencil of yesteryears have been replaced by computer keyboard, mouse and stylus. The whole design process has become fast paced compared to the earlier slow pace of designing mainly due to the quick communication means of e-mails, smartphones and other software. In addition, exposure to international markets and trends has resulted in technology integration in the design process such as building management system, security and automation. Today, there is no time for designing at leisure as client expectations are high and the degree of competetiveness has increased. To provide faster project delivery engineering and construction industry has already geared up and architectural practice has to take leading initiative to keep pace with the fast track construction.”

Design Philosophy & Approach

“The Architect today is both an artist and an engineer, who must combine knowledge of design and construction and of the available resources in labour techniques and materials to produce a harmonious and functional work. The architect plans both the aesthetics and the construction of his building in a highly conscious manner. My way of working personifys my design philosophy of “Staying ahead of time”. I use my smartphone to create sketches, view CAD drawings and email them to my office or clients. This system I call ‘Architecture in my pocket” as it enables me to design even when I am travelling. Thus, technology has become an enabler. Sadly, most of my counterparts have not been able to adapt to new technology available today.

“I dont believe in dramatization and design gimmicks. Building should be simple, clean, functional and user friendly by virtue of being easy to use and maintain. Having said that, design features that add individuality and appeal to the project are necessary to create an impression but should not take away from the simplicity of its function.”

While, architecure is an art of visualization, technology has helped architects to put on paper more design options within a less timeframe which was not possible a few years ago. The design process is just the same but tools have become advanced to bring the process in sync with the fast paced construction. I believe architects should remain ahead of time by knowing world trends, new technologies and resources and plan accordingly to assimilate latest design parameters.

My design approach starts with studying a client, his requirements and thinking process. If it is a residential project, knowing clients lifestyle, family life, entertaining style, religious beliefs and social customs etc. become important. For a housing project, factors like location, target market, buyer’s profile and living standard are vital. So shifting approach and mode of identifying, in keeping with the changing target users and educating oneself are critical to being an architect.”

Technology v/s creativity

According to Premnath maintaining the balance between old and the new is essential. Keeping design simple and everlasting, be it interior or architecture for homes, offices, institutes or public spaces needs design creativity and correct use of technology. He explains, “Buildings become energy guzzler if technlogy and advanced materilas are not applied in the right manner. The technology and new materials cannot replace nature. They can only control it or enhance it for the benefit of the occupants of the building. For instance, technology can control ventilation for better building insulation but cannot create fresh air. For the buildings to breathe and be healthy, adding human element and nature is critical. Technology will only augment those features for better utilization and integration with building systems.”

When asked if Indian architecture today is more about glass and steel buildings, Premnath gives example of various palaces where stained glasses were used and buildings like Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai where main construction material is steel. “This shows that materials like glass and steel were being used in India traditionally but with economy and affordability becoming critical, these materials are gaining popularity as they also give lot of value in terms of light, transparency and reduced weight of the structure. With steel, stronger structures are possible and with advanced technology, it has become easier to use it more efficiently.

The issue is not cpoying the west but about how bad design elements and ineffective designing are giving technology a bad name. I have used floor to ceiling glass walls in my home which connect indoors to outdoors by giving beautiful views of the garden. The exhaust vent built in the ceiling next to the wall effectively removes the hot air and the lower level vent in the floor next to the glass wall brings in cool air. This maintains the ambient indoor temprature without increasing the energy consumption and in fact reduces energy requirement as artificial lighting is not needed for most part of the day. Similarly, adding micro screens on glass facades help maintain transparency and control sunlight & heat. Creating plant barrier is another way to absorb incoming heat from glass facade. The plants provide shade and use heat to generate fresh air which improves the IAQ of the building. Thus, understanding the new technology and materials and their smart use is important in an architectural practice to be in synch with the changing times.”

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