Friday, April 21, 2006

Blue skies, open spaces

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times, Mumbai

Nature has a big say at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research

Shevlin Sebastian

When Palash Nath, (name changed), a resident student of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research at Goregaon stepped out one night, he saw a leopard near the glass-paned entrance. Before he could shout out for help, the leopard, who seemed to be more scared of him, leapt through the panel, shattered the glass and escaped. “They would come regularly from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivili,” says T.V. Subramanian, the registrar of the institute. “So we had to raise the boundary walls.”
When you step into the institute, you are enveloped in a cocoon of silence; the cawing of crows is like a shout. Most blocks are connected through several layers of steps, and open corridors; the sunlight splashes on the floor and the breeze flows uninterruptedly. A plaza in the middle accentuates the sense of openness. Set on a hill, there are research and administrative blocks, a seminar complex, a library, an auditorium, a canteen and a hostel. Spread over 14 acres, the built-up area is 1.25 lakh sq. ft.
“The original site had an elevation of 30 metres and we wanted to retain that,” says architect Uttam C. Jain. “We have cut the earth to a minimum. Nowadays, people bulldoze everything and make it flat. But I have always respected nature.”
Asked about the brief given by the owners, the Reserve Bank of India, Jain says, “I was told that the institute was not for Mumbai or Delhi, but for the whole country. So, I thought of India’s culture, history and heritage.”
For inspiration, he borrowed from the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. “The chaitya arches, which we used in the auditorium, are an inspiration from the Ajanta Caves. In chaitya arches, both sides are balanced. But in the arches we used in the auditorium, because of technology, we could use non-symmetrical arches. In our thinking, we were traditional but in our working we became contemporary.”
On a sultry Wednesday morning, students Abhinav Thakur and Soumyadeep Mukhopadhyay are sitting on a low ledge outside the canteen during a break in classes.
“The interaction between the buildings and nature is superb,” says Mukhopadhyay. “Most buildings in the city have a closed-in feeling. That is absent here.”
Says Thakur: “This is an unique design. “When you go for a walk at 8 pm or when you go into the library, you can sense it is a different type of environment.”
However, not everything is hunky dory. Diana George, the administrative officer, who has been working at the institute for two decades, says that since the institute is open on all sides, the water falls on the corridor during the rainy season and it becomes very slippery and dangerous. “Sometimes, the water enters the rooms,” she adds. “Also, the central plaza is covered with fungus and moss and is unusable throughout the rainy season.” Despite these hiccups, the institute is regarded as Jain’s best work and it won the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architecture award for institutional buildings in 1991. At 72, Jain still puts in the hours at his fourth floor office at Nariman Point. His eyes shine with integrity and passion; he is a man driven by moral values and love for architecture. In his four-decade career, he has built primary schools, lecture theatres, a printing press, university buildings, beach resorts, libraries, hotels, tourist complexes, swimming pools, railway stations, apartments and a cloth market. A winner of the Indian Institute of Architects Baburao Mhatre Gold Medal in 1991 for outstanding contribution to architecture, he is also a keen photographer and has had held several exhibitions. Recently, he published a book, Manyness of Mumbai, which are photographs and thoughts about the city; the love for Mumbai comes through clearly.

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