Vision was integral to the art of The Design Group, creator of iconic buildings in New Delhi
“For Ajoy and me the open spaces between buildings and open spaces around buildings was as important as the built up area,” says Ranjit Sabikhi, partner of The Design Group (1961-1991). The other partner Ajoy Choudhury passed away in 2017. This philosophy of urban design, which balanced open spaces so integral to India, with the built up area through buildings which bordered around geometric minimalism created their unique design style. The partnership which spanned three decades saw several beautiful buildings — in Delhi these were Shakuntalam Theatre, YMCA Staff Quarters, Yamuna Apartments, The Syrian Christian Church at Hauz Khas, August Kranti Bhavan at Bhikaji Cama Place, Janakpuri District Centre, DLF Centre at Sansad Marg… while those outside Delhi included the Mughal Sheraton (now ITC Mughal), Agra, Taj Bengal at Kolkata, ITDC Hotel at Varanasi, NDDB – Regional Training Centre at Jalandhar, NDDB staff housing at Noida, Indian Embassy Kuwait, Hostel for School of Paper Technology at Saharanpur and many more. Of these YMCA Staff Quarters and Yamuna Apartments make it to the list of 62 modern heritage buildings brought out by INTACH. However, the YMCA Staff Quarters was demolished a few years back. It was the Hotel Mughal Sheraton that was done in association with Arcop which won them the first Aga Khan Award. Ashish Choudhury son of the late Ajoy Choudhury says, “The Design Group had designed numerous private residences and an even larger number of projects, many of which were built.”
Sabikhi says, “Ajoy and I met at School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi, which was then called Delhi Polytechnic. We were all 1952 batchmates along with Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma… Kuldeep Singh and Morad Choudhury were a batch senior. I studied there for two years and then went on to Liverpool to do B.Arch. I worked in England for a few years before moving back to Delhi. Ajoy finished his studies and worked in Milan, Italy before moving back.” It is uncanny how each of these architects then went on to leave an indelible mark on the architectural landscape of Delhi.
Choudhury adds, “My father did not set out to be an architect. He had done his Physics Honours at Delhi University and wanted to do a Masters in English Literature, but was convinced to take up architecture. Dejected with the slow pace of instruction after his first year of studies, he wanted to give it up. A meeting with Achyut Kanvinde, convinced him to take up an apprenticeship under him while pursuing his B.Arch.”
The Design Group began around 1961, Shiban Ganju was a part of the group initially and then went abroad. Morad Choudhury was a part for a few years and then joined Achyut Kanvinde.
Tracing their work Sabikhi says, “Our first project was the YMCA Staff Quarters. We had a clear idea about what we wanted. It was built on a minimal budget. The choice of material was limited in those days just brick and plaster. Because the cost was so low we could not do traditional things like verandahs and balconies.”
The next project through the same clients was the bigger YMCA Institute of Engineering at Faridabad, set on 20 acres of land. The Institute curriculum, based on the German system, included training at the workshop and theoretical classes. The design was done to include this pedagogy. It included the academic centre, the staff quarters, hostel, the auditorium. The central structure was conceived as a pinwheel to allow for expansion later on. The academic centre, the staff quarters and hostels were built as separate units but connected through a system of covered corridors and verandahs. Sabikhi adds: “The design element of interlinking façade which was begun then was perfected at Yamuna Apartments.” The interlinking façade created a visual deception of open space thus could hide density.
What stands out as a common thread in their design is the clean lines with stark minimalism, more Western in its concept than the Indian ornate architecture. The monotony of the starkness of minimalism broken by using simple design elements, adding a fair bit of drama to the buildings.
What gives the design its uniqueness is the ability to include Indian cultural nuances, which gave the modern contemporary architecture an Indian context. Such that the design was not alien to India but represented the modern or forward-looking one. So far sighted that several of the designs could withstand the changes of time.
“Since we were also teaching at SPA, we undertook numerous field trips to Jaisalmer and Agra to understand and study traditional Indian architecture,” says Sabikhi. At ITC Mughal, three bridges connect the lobby to the rooms through a cluster of garden courts drawn from Mughal architecture, yet modernistic. The Janakpuri District Centre though used colonial architectural elements. Sabikhi says, “Our design was used to a large extent but then later, the land was parcelled and sold to developers who did not use our standard design control for the facades.”
Choudhury says, “My father shared with me that his favourite urban typology was ‘low-rise, high-density.’ It so happened that The Design Group did several projects that explored this typology. My father told me that design was, at one level, an exercise in problem solving and a response to the site and programme. But there was always a strong underlying search for a theme.” In Yamuna Apartments, the topography of the land was incorporated into the design. Levelling the land would have cost heavily and budget was tight. Thus the design balanced the heights so well that a block with three floors is comfortably connected to another with two floors through a club house. And through hanging balconies on another side.
The fact that students would have to walk long distances within the campus in the heat or cold resulted in the corridors connecting all areas including the auditorium being covered at the YMCA Institute. Sabikhi says, “In the case of Yamuna Apartments, which came up at the same time as Tara Apartments, I am happy that the framework, which we planned was strong enough to absorb the changes of the modern way of life.”
The choice of material though limited, has seen The Design Group use natural material for finish so that maintenance at a later stage is not a problem. Exposed brick has been used, grit finish to red sandstone. Incidentally, red sandstone has been used on the exteriors of The Indian Embassy Kuwait too.
“The difference between what we were doing then and what people do today is that we were not concerned with making money. For us, it was a dedication, a way of doing things. In designing space or concepts, to be able to convince our clients, of how we want to build.” Choudhury says, “My father once said that he did not know, when he started out, that one day Architecture would become a friend.”
So did they ever think that the buildings will be a part of modern heritage? Sabikhi laughs saying no. Wonder what Ajoy Choudhury would have said? But seeing the spectrum of their work, given a chance, they would have still built on absorbing all modern technologies still being the modernists.
Taking its cue from Connaught Place, the only commercial-cum-shopping hub for residents of Delhi with a snob value attached, the Janakpuri District Centre was designed to be a self-contained commercial and shopping complex with recreational facilities, restaurants and underground parking space. The Colonial architecture with which Connaught Place is so identifiable became a reference point. Sabikhi says, “The double-height colonnade defines and ties together all shopping spaces. This then visually extends and relates to the landscaped courts and gardens of the District Centre.”
Yamuna Apartments, the first cooperative group housing society in Delhi was planned more like a mini township — self-contained apartments with plenty of open spaces and pedestrian streets. The design has four radial streets which converge at the central point — a modern day take off on the traditional courtyard concept. The top is joined to form a community centre. The staircase to each flat is separate. “When I look back I realise they were practical, realistic people who did not want anything fancy. We managed to put in a few basements,” says Sabhiki