Mandate - - Profile - By Divya J Shekhar

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

Olympic In­sti­tute

Aqua­ma­rine Park

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