Fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani was in a quandary. It was 2005 and he had shifted from leafy Mehrauli in Delhi to the industrial environs of Gurugram. But did he really need a building? That’s when he met architect Stephane Paumier who gave him more than a steel and glass tower. The brick facade of the fashion designer’s headquarters harks back to the Mughal arches one would find at Mehrauli’s monuments. “I’m happy to be at work in this building. It makes my day,” says Tahiliani, “People who visit us say it looks like an Indian studio in Paris. We have ample natural light, with the skylights that slide along the length of the building. It’s an artistic space in the way that light travels through the day inside. We have a champa courtyard on the second floor and when leaves and flowers fall on the glass floor, it forms lovely patterns below. And brick as a material ages beautifully.”
Models and photographs of this building are among the select projects on display at Alliance Francaise de Delhi, where the exhibition ‘Place Making’ showcases work by SPA Designs. Paumier with architects Anupam Bansal and Krishnachandran Balakrishnan founded the studio, winning numerous awards as they journeyed together for more than two decades. Paumier arrived in India in 1996 for a voluntary civil service after his graduation from the School of Architecture, Paris-Belleville, France. Through an international competition, he won the commission for the Alliance Francaise de Delhi in 2001, in collaboration with Bansal and Rajesh Dongre of ABRD Architects.
The Alliance, which would have an art gallery, an auditorium, classrooms and offices, was meant to be an energy-efficient building, high on craft and technology. Paumier took forward the neighbouring Lodhi Garden theme into the site, where the greenery and the building sit side by side. Much of its technology expertise came from Mahendra Raj Consultants, who provided the structural finesse to the elegant steel pergola that hats the building. SPA Design would go on to partner with Raj for two other projects that required complex engineering skills — Tahiliani headquarters and the Triburg headquarters in Gurugram.
In his exhibition note, Paumier writes: “As a practice based in the Indian subcontinent the issues of geographical location come with specific opportunities and limitations. The projects in this exhibition rely on simple architectonic principles that are developed specifically for each project. They focus on the quality of space, its structure and the systems to support it. The aesthetic result is the sum of its clarity.”
This idea is well-defined in the Triburg office, which followed the principle of the inverted Adalaj stepwell. Its labyrinthine shape allowed for four large courtyards and a seven-storey structure, which moves gradually to become nearly 30 metres tall. “From the main road, you don’t see more than two floors. The idea was to get a crafted structure. It was a way of showing that a modern Indian building can employ traditional craft and technology at the same time,” says Paumier. Raj’s team with the architect worked on the exposed RCC (reinforced cement concrete) mushroom columns and brick vaults, making it a one-of-a-kind commercial building.
At the turn of the century, when companies had discovered the glamour of steel and glass, when “impatient capital” was the foundation of the built environment in the country, SPA Design had consciously preserved the idea of place making, being sensitive to the context they were building in.
In the Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur, at a competition project, they found that a 60 metre-deep valley divided the site into two plateaus. They proposed to connect the two parts with a linear academic block and auditorium, mess and the library, with housing for students and faculty along the hills. Though they didn’t win the project, it was a reaffirmation of their belief in site strategy, and keeping the programme compass directed towards a unified idea.
If they make every effort to honour craft in their work, they also salute technology in their use of precast construction, which Paumier swears in the easiest way to build with concrete, given time and scale constraints. “It can be adapted for housing in India. Technology has barely moved in 50 years with this regard. It could be industrialised,” he says.
While at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonepat, Haryana, he evokes metal trees in its introverted plan, the Franco-German embassy in Dhaka, like a DNA molecule, presents duality in a single building. With the German part in brick and the French part in concrete, you read the structure as two buildings melded into one. “To give it a local element, we gave a glass tower with Islamic geometry within the building to house the lift, pretty much like a James Bond movie,” says Paumier.
But these nearly two decades of practice were not without learnings. “We now have the capacity to adapt fast and evolve design if necessary. It brings an intellectual ability to always question your project, find alternatives, and propose options. That is a process that goes against a more western Beaux Arts teaching of architecture, that is more formal, where you are supposed to come up with a parti or a concept with a formal resolution, and defend it. The Indian practice makes the process more tedious, but in the end, you explore more avenues,” he says.