Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a) Factory in Bhiwandi; IT campus in Sion/ Mumbai
Set in the midst of two versions of the chaotic, constricting and claustrophobic urbanity of the city of Mumbai and its suburban regions, two projects from the office of sP+a offer their fortunate occupants microcosms of respite and retreat from the mess
The urban void is an enticing context to work within. These voids can take myriad forms, and their origins can be as diverse. In the case of the two projects featured here, both by Mumbai-based sP+a, the practice led by Sameep Padora, the void is a condition set within a cluster of buildings linked by their typological uniformity and mundaneness — in one case, a pre-existing condition, whilst in another, a projective future. Thus the sites themselves are ‘voids’ in the nature of their urban condition and as they sit within the morphology of their contexts, and interestingly enough, both buildings are conceived as encompassing a further set of voids in turn, within their folds.
First up, a two-storeyed factory building on the outskirts of Bhiwandi, set within a complex of large warehouses for a logistics company becomes a striking visual and spatial vortex with its exposed concrete surfaces and a dramatic corner cantilever that reaches out more than 16 metres. Its bare, ‘apparently unfinished’ surfaces and building mass strikes out distinctly and instantly, over its adjacent neighbours with their characteristic industrial homogeneity. What also marks the building out immediately is the corner under the dramatic low-slung cantilever — a porous edge that invites the street into the building mass’s innards. Here, under the upper storey’s fuselage, a sinuous three-pronged bridge, offers to connect either of the two building wings and the street corner. Raised over a pylon, the bridge forms an intermediate ‘roof’ for a sunken court — a
remnant of the site’s previous landscape, set as it is adjacent to a lake cut off from the building site by a road. This sunken court becomes a water feature as well during the monsoons. The courtyard catchment area within the building’s perimeter becomes a landscape in microcosm, a reflection of the site’s previous origins.
The building itself is a boxy quadrangular volume with its centre cut out for the aforementioned courtyard surrounded by cloisterlike spaces, and the raw exterior with its subtle horizontal ornament of arrhythmic casting joints along the length of the façade. This hints at the spatial characteristic within, as one experiences a palette of exposed brick, glass blocks and steel, set within the overarching raw concrete envelope. There is the hardy, robust sensibility of a building that is meant to withstand wear, but at the same time, the details are carefully crafted if not fetishised. Brick walls and diaphanous glass blocks sit within steel-framed partitions as distinct entities separate from the enveloping concrete walls, and there is a distinction between the ‘mass’ of the envelope, and the (comparatively) ephemeral nature of the inner partitions set within steel bounding frames. The interior is also unexpectedly luminous and warm — in sheer contrast to the hulking grey of the exterior. The main façades seem impervious, barring the corner void and a large vitrine on the upper storey of clear frameless glass that casts a glance northward across the adjacent lake and the village and greens beyond. The thinness of its grey walls is chanced upon at the corners of the large lower storey
vitrines where frameless glass greets one at the two ends of the sinuous bridge. Elsewhere, lower panels of glass blocks bring in shade-less light into the interior spaces supplemented by upper-level clerestories and ventilators. The building does come across more as a sombre pavilion with its own captured landscape and the thinness of its walls (in contrast to the preponderance of its mass) as encountered in direct experience belies its ‘heaviness’ — a weightless massiveness, if you will.
As a factory building, the project suitably propositions an alternative type — one that eschews the all-encompassing shed building typology (like its neighbours) with a work that has a processional character. The bridge is a suitable foreword to a series of spatial chapters that slowly unfurl within the building.
If this factory building in Bhiwandi embodies a distinct ‘linearity’ and ‘centrality’ in its spatial conception, the other building under our lens here — an IT institute within the campus of the KJ Somaiya College of Information Technology in suburban Mumbai — attempts to subvert this linearity through a distinct roof-scape and a spatial structure that decentralises the overall experiential narrative into a series of intimate courtyards reminiscent of the architectural disposition of the practice’s earlier Jetavan project (DOMUS India, August 2016). Not unlike that project, and at the other extreme from the factory building described above, this building
is an essay in transparency — a series of glazed pavilions lightly built, strung along a meandering pathway that traverses a nowcontained inner landscape — another microcosm — set off from the exterior by an introverted spatiality and building volumes that open into the inner realms.
Covering a far larger ground area as compared to the banal multi-storeyed neighbouring campus building, it forms an unintentional podium to the building in effect, thus suggesting a welcome alternative type to the now-prevalent homogenous multi-storeyed educational campuses that dot the city (its neighbour is no exception) — a scourge that recently trampled upon a distinct late 1900s building within a famed campus in western Mumbai to replace it with a non-place, unremarkable and banal glass box. What it also eschews is a superfluous ‘technology-fetish’ that accompanies buildings devoted to IT with their deceptive clothing — here, a skin-and-bones approach with a clever use of technique and tectonics makes this building in no way less technologically prodigious. For one, generic air-conditioning seems remarkably absent in its visual presence — something heightened by the vitreous boxes and their ‘show-all’ nature — and one realises that the building (or rather ‘buildings’) has a radiant under-floor cooling system. This is a technique that has proven itself as being far more effective and used widely now abroad in lowenergy buildings. Additionally, the building’s retreat from the outside by the creation of a quiet inner core means that the copious aluminium sliding windows set within the steel structural frame can be opened at will to allow for natural ventilation when the weather is conducive, and one can only imagine how this is a contemporary update (or upgrade?) of the traditional pathshala, now for higher learning of course.
Like the previously described factory building, this one too has a raw material disposition with kota floors and brick walls set within (now white-painted) steel frames that support the light pavilions. The inner courtyards with their verandahs are encased by glazed walls with low brick parapets in all directions — a panoptic view of the institution reinforcing a sense of transparency and openness. Silos are subverted and monumentality is eschewed. This is a free, liberating space for the
mind to wander productively. The roof forms an interesting undulating landscape that creates a singular architectural statement within the glazed rooms and the courtyards. Upon closer inspection, one observes that this is essentially a ‘flat’ roof with valley folds pushed downward in the direction of the courtyards. One can imagine the sheer joy of witnessing the cascading micro-waterfalls into the central spaces on a monsoon day. At other times, this folded roofline creates a sense of intimacy within the courtyards, making the space legible and ‘humane’ in its proportions.
A couple of years ago, when I wrote on this remarkable learning centre in rural Maharashtra — the Jetavan project that I have cited earlier here, designed by the same office of Sameep Padora, the first major completed public architectural work by the practice, and one that took me by surprise — I termed it a “turning point in their oeuvre” – with (and I
shall quote from that piece) “a distinct shift towards letting go of a certain fastidiousness and fetishising of material articulation and detail — as there is a certain rejection of formal or compositional dogma. The Architecture here appears more ‘looser’, light-footed yet firmly positioned — a tad bit more agile and certainly more inclusive of its setting and circumstance. The importance of the specific detail and surface dissolves into an overarching desire to create a certain ‘spatial sensibility’ that unifies atmosphere with immediacy — the ‘occupation’ of a ground with its delineation, the joy of being with the experience of engagement. One can only hope that this is a beginning.”
Now faced with two projects by the same office that are as distinct from each other as the two houses I covered earlier on these pages (Bipolar Order, DOMUS India, September 2015), one can only say that the office is on a firm trajectory as anticipated, with its distinct diversity of handling each project beyond formal articulations immutably embedded within the practice’s core value systems, a dismantling of the ‘control’ over the expression of each project in terms of seeking any kind of superficial continuity within one’s oeuvre, and a spatial sensibility that now borders on the almost frugal and ‘everyday’ in terms of its materiality and tectonics. This is a quotidian view on the act of building – married with a distinct regard for the architectural promenade and a predilection for openness and transparency — spaces that ‘free’ and ‘de-regulate’ as much as possible one’s everyday interaction with the world. I dare say that this comes close to the beloved idea of a ‘radical pragmatism’ that one first
began to see in the works of Alejandro de la Sota, and in recent times, in the ‘cheap’ but exciting and architecturally enthralling buildings being built in countries such as Portugal, Spain and Holland. The works also embrace and extends notions of the raw pavilion — something I had mentioned in my earlier article on the learning centre — an architectural lineage that includes the masterful crematorium in Coimbatore by Mancini, the light-footed and avian health centre designed by Flying Elephant in rural Karnataka, and this office’s very own learning centre (mentioned previously). Here in these two projects, set in the midst of two versions of the chaotic, constricting and claustrophobic urbanity of the city of Mumbai and its suburban regions, these pavilions offer their fortunate occupants microcosms of respite and retreat from the mess of the hyperdense real.
Opposite page: The site of ‘Manufacturing Void’, a two-storeyed factory building in Bhiwandi, on the ouskirts of Mumbai, is visually arresting — its exposed concrete surfaces and a dramatic corner cantilever that reaches out more than 16 metres
This spread: The factory building is a boxy quadrangular volume with its centre cut out for a courtyard surrounded by cloister-like spaces, and has a raw exterior with its subtle horizontal ornament of arrhythmic casting joints along the length of the façade Opposite page, far left: images showcasing the models of the factory building
This page: under the upper storey’s fuselage, a sinuous three-pronged bridge offers to connect either of the two building wings and the street corner Opposite page: the courtyard catchment area within the building’s perimeter becomes a landscape in microcosm, a reflection of the site’s previous origins Opposite page, bottom: the interior is luminous and warm — in contrast to the grey of the exterior
This page: a spacious, quiet inner core of the IT building on the campus of the KJ Somaiya College of Engineering Opposite page: an aerial view of the site of the educational institution
This spread: the insulated roof plane spans over all programs linking them together into a distinct singular building while folding into giant water gargoyles that would channel rainwater into the courtyards and further into harvesting tanks
This page, bottom: views of the corridors, and the laboratories as well as the classrooms on campus Opposite page, top: the folded roofline creates a sense of intimacy within the courtyards, making the space legible and ‘humane’ in its proportions Opposite page, bottom: the perimeter of the courtyard is surrounded by a verandah-like circulation space