Be it turning shipping containers into auditoriums, building aquamarine parks for a source of fresh water, or creating low-cost, modular clinics and portable homes for slum dwellers, Bengaluru-based Alok Shetty has done it all. Mandate catches up with the architect whose innovative ideas for social advancement are making the world sit up and take notice.
Time magazine named him ‘Young Leader of Tomorrow’. Forbes categorised him as one among the ‘30 Under 30’ in the world to watch out for. And National Geographic called him ‘One of India’s Future Leaders’. But, Bengaluru-based, 28-year old architect Alok Shetty counts himself as just a beginner, set out to make a difference. When I meet him in his equally modest Bengaluru- office, Alok runs a rider to our conversation. “It’s very hard to take these things seriously,” he says, referring to the gamut of titles mentioned afore. “I try not to take both criticism and praise too harshly. That way, I can focus on my work.”
The first architect in a family of civil engineers, Alok formed his firm Bhumiputra when he was just 19, working out of a laptop at home. All the design software he learnt are self-taught, he says, since academic institutions here encouraged students to draw sketches by hand and vehemently denied access to technology. Winning a design competition while still in college led him to his first big project—a multi- specialty hospital in Jaipur.
Alok then made his way to Columbia University in New York for a Masters in Advanced Architectural Design, where he designed the award-winning black-box theatre. Basically, it is an auditorium built by taking apart shipping containers (the 40-foot structures can be easily transported to any corner of the world) and adding more components that are hinged to fold into each other, including 250 seats and stairs for the audience to walk in. The design also takes varied demographics into consideration.
Alok now plans to take the concept to black-box clinics and even schools, thus targeting two crucial developmental areas in India. “The clinics are transformable containers built on a train compartment model. India’s largest network is the railways, which has access to the remotest of villages. The entire clinic would be one train compartment that can be dropped off at a particular place. Once the healthcare services have been dispensed, it can be put on to the next train passing by.”
The clinic is still in the planning stages and Alok intends to take it up post the ambitious slum housing project, which is currently at the crux of all the global media attention. Working with the Parinaam Foundation in Bengaluru drew his attention to the make- shift houses of slum dwellers, made out of tarpaulin and plastic sheets that were prone to floods during monsoon, not to mention rat infestations and breeding grounds for countless diseases. “I wanted to re-imagine how slum houses are made,” he says. “There was no point in building these people a proper house since they have a nomadic lifestyle. So, the essence of the idea was that the house had to move with them.”
Alok then designed flood-proof houses made of discarded scaffolding, bamboo and reclaimed jungle wood, which costs approximately ` 18,000 apiece and took just four hours to erect and dismantle them, thus making it conducive for migratory labourers. “The use of recycled materials halves the cost,” says Alok. For those who cannot afford the houses, Alok is seeking government subsidies to bring the prices down. “A lot of government authorities have already approached us. I guess all the media attention has helped them in taking us more seriously. We are making around 10 prototypes now and plan to release 200 fully-tested homes by May 2015.” He also intends to put out all the plans, specifications and construction details online, so that anyone can download them and make modifications and improvements of their own.
Alok’s kitty of projects also includes a desalination plant in Mangalore that operates entirely out of renewable energy and would provide fresh water to the districts nearby. He is also developing light-weight construction bricks out of trash that is recycled using solar energy. The idea is to use them in earthquake-prone areas so that in the event of a calamity, the damage is constricted.
Needless to say, he tries to maintain a balance between design and ecology with every project. A case in point would be a hotel he designed in Bengaluru, which harnesses wind energy and reduces the usage of electricity and air conditioning by almost 30 per cent. In spite all this, Alok doesn’t believe in the term ‘sustainable architecture’, claiming that any form of construction is unnatural. “So, we just ensure that we pick and choose varied projects that add value back to the society,” he says, matter- of-factly.
Unlike many others, funding ideas has never been a problem for Alok. Courtesy: Judicious balance of commercial and socially-relevant projects. Charity, he believes, often just makes people lazy. “We don’t do charity, nor are we projecting ourselves as saints. We are extremely commerce- oriented, do a lot of large- scale projects and charge competitively. That is the only way we can fund our own prototypes for community welfare projects and afford to subsidise costs for the needy. There needs to be a balance between social and financial responsibilities.”
His inspiration, he says, lies out there in construction sites, which he has been visiting with his father since he was a kid. “I have always been fascinated by how a tall building, which requires so much of careful coordination, comes together from the foundation to the finish. I have a typical 19-hour work day, out of which I spend more than 10 hours on- site. I feel I learn way more on a construction site than by sitting in front of a computer. So, it has been a habit.”
At present, Alok is gearing up for another massive project. “We are one of the four international firms that have been shortlisted to build the Bangalore Football Stadium. There are firms from America, Germany and Amsterdam. And if we get it, we would be the youngest firm in the history of architecture to work on such a large- scale project. So, we are keeping our fingers crossed for this one.”
He says that his ideologies have evolved with time. “When I started Bhumiputra at 19, I just wanted to be the best. I was young and cocky. But over the years, I have realised how I can be of a lot of help to my country and add more value to my work.” (Pauses) “See, there are two kinds of people; one, who have the intention to help, and the others who have the resources to help. There are a very few people who have both—I am one of those. And, if I don’t make use of it, it’s a waste,” he concludes.
Black Box Theatre Concept