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From Inheritance to Architecture of Tomorrow

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CRN Architects, an ISO 9001-2008 certified multi-disciplinary firm based in Chennai was founded by C.R.Narayana Rao in 1945. Since then, the firm has been a major player in designing the urban landscape of India and cities across the world. Mentored by their father, the second generation of Dr. C. N. Srinivasan and Ar. C. N. Raghavendran, is consciously taking forward the client-centric philosophy of the company. Following the footsteps, architect C.S.Raghuram, son of C.N Srinivasan and Director at CRN believes in spirit of innovation and design experimentation.

The journey of CRN Architects coincides with India’s first steps towards freedom. During the initial three decades of its existence, the firm contributed to the country’s industrial development by actively partnering with several industries that were born during that period. CRN specialized in industrial architecture, specifically the automobile, auto ancillary units, textile and sugar production units in association with names like Dunlop, Amalgamations Group, TI Group, Ashok Leyland, Ennore Foundries and the Rane Group of Industries. The philosophies and work culture in these formative years set the trend for future growth and development of the firm.

Over time, CRN consolidated its activities in the industrial sector and educational institutions and also established its practice in the Middle East. Gradually, the firm diversified in other fields of architecture like IT campuses, sports complexes, retail development and interiors among others. Today, CRN is ably treading the path of growth with assistance from the third generation designers including C. S Raghuram who has a dual Masters in architecture and construction management from the University of Illinois and work experience in the US. “I strive to apply my specialization in design & technology integration towards projects of multiple scales and complexity. Also, with ever evolving architectural styles, novel building techniques and the need for an environment sensitive integrated structures, the firm is successfully altering its services as per the changing needs of the industry.” said Raghuram.

Design Philosophy

The firm aptly believes that architecture should reflect the values and aspirations of the clients and offer “a built environment” of lasting impact. The building should fit together as a whole, integrating the circulation, materials, façade, technologies and the services with the design concept as also in keeping with the budgeted costs and time schedules. Raghuram elaborated, “The functionality driven aesthetics remains fundamental to the ethos of the firm. It practices all the disciplines of architectural design such as master planning, architecture, structural and MEP design services within the organization itself and endeavours for a holistic integration of all engineering disciplines with the architectural design. Emerging out of this philosophy is a collaborative working style within the firm involving various professionals, designers and management. The collective working style also extends to involve specialists like landscape architects, acoustics & lighting consultants and sometimes even specialist vendors of products and technologies. There is a hands-on approach of the management in solving day-to-day design challenges and interfacing between different disciplines. This I feel is very critical to the success of the project.”

The Design Exploration

In mid-1980, CRN added to its industrial architecture portfolio, corporate offices, interiors, healthcare and retail architecture assignments for HAL, KSFC, IDBI, ANZ Grindlays, Unit Trust of India, Silicon Graphics (USA), British Foreign Office, Tamil Nadu Hospitals, Cancer Institute, Spencer and ITC besides educational institutes such as IIT, Pondicherry University and several other engineering colleges. One of the first malls in the South, Spencer Plaza was designed by CRN.

In the 1990s, the firm widened its consultancy to include building sports facilities. CRN has designed about six sports stadia for major sporting events, all conforming to international standards. The noteworthy projects consist of Nehru Sports Stadium, Chennai and the Guyana cricket stadium. The changing economy of the decade also saw the explosion of Information Technology (IT) and influx of multinational companies in the country. CRN designed campuses for IT Giants like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Cognizant. Tidel Park- the 1.5miilionsqft IT facility in Chennai designed by the firm in 2000 was considered the trailblazer in this segment. Another exemplary IT campus project designed by CRN is the Wipro campus at Electronic City, Bangalore planned to accommodate about 20000 employees on a site of 47 acres. The master plan uses the first planning principles of axis in the layout and composition of different buildings. The front arrival court is semi-circular landscaped area with public buildings arranged around and flanking the arrival plaza.

The visual and compositional axis terminates at the cafeteria and the high rise software building behind it. Cafeteria is a circular building with 45m diameter doom in the centre. Vehicular access and utility buildings are arranged around the periphery of the campus while the central area is completely pedestrian. Software buildings are laid out on either side of this axis. First phase of the campus is low rise, while later phases at the western end of the campus are high rise structures. Scale of spaces proceeds in a hierarchical manner from large landscape plazas off the axis to the small court yards in-between software blocks. Architectural characters of the building is defined more by terraces, semi open spaces at different levels and a balance of solid painted walls and punched glazed openings on the facade.

An important branching out in recent years for the Company has been in housing and education. Along with the diversification in building types, CRN has also spread its presence across all southern states, Maharashtra, Gujarat and in the North of India. Raghuram adds, “Leading international companies such as Oracle and Accenture have engaged CRN for their different campuses. Working on mixed use development for leading multinational developers too has added variety to the portfolio of our projects. Presently, one of my key interest area is the architecture for educational facilities. I have worked on projects for IIT Madras, IISC and the IISER Pune campus right from inception while, other recent educational projects are campus development for ICFAI, IISER, IFMR and NIT. An interesting educational project is the ongoing development of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) 100 acre fully residential campus. It is eventually to cater to about 2200 students. The buildings are laid out so as to offer an unhindered vista of the mountains beyond even though the site is small. The master plan for the campus organizes the site into academic zone and residential zone connected by common amenities zone having dining block, sports and recreational facilities. A continuous network and open spaces is an integrating element for the entire development as it extends across all the three zones. Landscape and hardscape using local materials and flora bind the spaces and built elements together. Vehicular flow is restricted to peripheral ring road while central green space is predominately pedestrian. The arrival plaza is defined by the amphitheater and clock tower giving an iconic element to the campus. Academic buildings are low rise while residential buildings are high rise and of higher density. Vertical circulation elements such as staircases are highlighted as design features. The architectural character uses newer cladding materials to give institutional character, while, double walls, deep overhang pergolas, recesses & voids create visual interest and also protect from the radiation. The campus is planned to be GRIHA four-star rated.”

Contemporary Architecture

In the past few years, there has been a lot of specializations in the fields of urban design, landscape, facade design & engineering, acoustics, lighting etc. Correspondingly, there is an explosion of new materials and technologies in flooring, ceilings, glass, building cladding etc. Raghuram gave an overview of the contemporary design scenario, “The rampant use of glass and ACP irrespective of context and building type has made the built environment look sterile and out of place. In the process, vernacular building materials and practices have been stifled. Lately, there seems to be a rearguard action by many in the building industry to revive these traditional building technologies. It is also a well-known fact that historically, Indian architecture had adopted sustainable practices long before any rating system was thrust upon us from the west. The traditional havelis of Rajasthan and courtyard houses of the South are cases in point. Not surprisingly, the energy efficiency code of the NBC and IGBC’s Indian Green Building Code is making the process of design and evaluation more India specific. Some latest design projects of CRN showcase a contextual aesthetic response to the climate and local materials such as in a mixed use development in Trivandrum that I have just started designing, a housing project in Ongole and a project proposal in Raipur that the firm is participating.

Furthermore, from an earlier three person configuration of Client-Architect-Contractor, the project team has exponentially grown into a multi-person – multi-discipline set up with specialist consultants and specialist vendors. The architect’s role has diversified into that of a facilitator, a coordinator and a catalyst for bringing in the best. However, the primary onus of the project will always rest with the architect, him being the original conceiver of the project and the creative leader.”

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