Akshat Bhatt On Architecture Then, Now & Tomorrow

Akshat Bhatt is the Principal Architect at Architecture Discipline, a New Delhi-based multi-disciplinary design practice he founded in 2007. His work highlights the emergence of an architectural expression that is contemporary, yet rooted in a critical understanding of regionalism. After completing his studies in architecture in 2002, Bhatt began his career working with a slew of renowned architectural firms in the U.K. and India.

One of Bhatt’s most significant projects is Mana, a boutique hotel in Ranakpur, Rajasthan, that perfectly demonstrates his agenda of regional expression within a global context, while being environmentally-conscious. Another example of Bhatt’s reverence for the old as he designs for the future is his partnership with the Oberoi Hotels group: After completing the refurbishment of the flagship restaurant at the 19th-century edifice of The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, he is currently working on a series of new urban hotels for the group, which are designed to be modular in their entirety. Apart from working on the refurbishment of the Luxury Suites at The Oberoi New Delhi, he has also done the design for the East India Hotel Corporate Headquarters in Gurugram. Bhatt’s design interventions extend to the city-scale as well – JDH, an ongoing urban regeneration project, aims to restore the old, walled city of Jodhpur, India, to its former glory, breathing new life into the city's invaluable landmarks and livelihoods.

Bhatt’s work has been widely acclaimed in India. In 2015, he was cited amongst the 50 most influential names in design by Architectural Digest, and felicitated by the Government of India for the design of India Pavilion at Hannover Messe, Germany. Over the last sixteen years, he has taught at three architecture schools in New Delhi, actively engaging with the city’s academic community.

How would you describe your signature style?

We are deeply influenced by British High Tech and the works of Pierre Charreau, Laurie Baker, Coop Himmelblau and Snohetta. As a studio, we engage with different kind of expressions depending on what the project demands. Pure architectonics are defined by how we construct something as opposed to how we want to see something. There is an underlying link that connects our projects – through the method of construction, physically and spatially. There is always a sense of relaxed details, dry construction and an emphasis on juxtaposed compositional techniques.

What you imagine is very different from what becomes of it. From imagination to paper to reality, guide us through your design process.

Over the years we’ve been grooming ourselves to react with precision and a great amount of conviction during the early stages of design involvement. So we weigh a project’s requirements, investigate them and what would determine the success of that project. From there on, it is a series of rational but design- and experience-based decisions that lead us to the outcome.

As the world has been moving towards increased consumption, the philosophy of slow and minimal living is hard to practice in a place like India. What are your thoughts on this, how do you incorporate this in your work?

Design is about reduction and optimisation and goes beyond engineering to a sort of poetic level. I feel there is a strong need to revisit the essence of design and start removing all the unnecessary embellishments that result in waste and clutter. There are cues in our built environment –– it is supposed to give us space to think and exist. To that effect, I hope the current scenario makes us realise how little we really need to co-exist happily. I think mainstream construction is not building for the three generations; most people are not planning and building for things to last forever. We’ve almost given in to a disposable attitude to construction which generates a lot of environmental waste. Often what we think are redundant structures, technologies & landscapes, can yet be transformed into something moving or quietly contemplative. This is going to be the century of recuperation. So let’s not destroy space, forests, and consume more water. Treating our own waste and generating our own energy and reducing consumption is the miracle we need to save our planet.

Restoring old spaces is not just about preservation but also about heritage. How important is this for you? When working on restoration projects, how important is preserving culturally significant elements?

I believe preservation is the path forward. Most inhabitable spaces can yet be transformed into habitable ones. To that extent, working on adaptive reuse and conservation projects is meaningful to us in the studio. It allows us to preserve built heritage, because that is actually what remains of civilisation. Urban regeneration and adaptive reuse projects allow us to preserve historically significant spaces and prepare them for the demand of the new world. All good architecture is a quest for space. The Jodhpur Urban Regeneration Project, for example, presented us with an opportunity to integrate real estate development with architectural restoration through the creation of retail and cultural spots in the Walled City whilst preserving its inherent essence. Jodhpur is an incredible maze of streets, bazaars, public tanks and stacked indigo-painted houses. Once famous landmarks that fostered the local heritage of the royal city, these worn-out structures rest as the forgotten evidence of a cultural past.

Responding to the city is what you are trained to do as an architect and that’s what you have been developing your skills for and all it takes is a look around you to react to the city. What we have tried to do is to take symbols, materials and idioms from Jodhpur and sort of abstract some of them while placing the others within a space as a literal superimposition to remind the user of the architectural history and legacy of Jodhpur.

Conserving energy is crucial, how do your designs encourage clients to do so?

Sustainability is a dynamic concept. What is of paramount importance is to change our patterns of consumption and minimise it. That will allow us to reduce waste and consume less energy. Eventually, you want to able to treat waste and create energy so that you are a zero-input, zero-output developer. We work towards this cause not only through technology and technique but also through the building of a project at site. So the idea of sustainability becomes a culture and is not just a buzzword.

Architecture is another form of creative expression, so how closely is art intertwined with your work?

Architecture is public art and we must hold ourselves accountable to the communities for which we build. Our projects attempt to be expressive, reflect contemporary lives, have innovation at their core, and of course, bold so that they create maximum impact within the constraints of budget and functionality. Let’s not forget, great architecture must always embrace people.

Climate change is inevitable, can architecture be a driving force in saving us?

Over the last 25 years there has been one challenge that we have failed to address but we have made ‘sustainability’ and ‘green buildings’ a buzz word. However, our problems have been compounded manifold and therefore the biggest challenge faced by the architectural fraternity today is climate change. We are constantly ignoring the fact that more than 70 percent of greenhouse gases emitted are a direct result of the construction industry. We must address the way mankind is making the planet uninhabitable, and we must do so very quickly. If we can generate our own power, treat our own waste, it might just be the miracle needed to save us as a species.

Tell us about a project that changed your perspective of design.

The Refurbishment of the Oberoi Grand, Kolkata –– it’s one of the oldest buildings in the country and it’s a Grade I restricted building. Because of the tremendous amount of physically built architectural history, you can touch very little. There are also many layers of emotional and narrative history that the building has imbibed. So working within the physical limitations of a structure and expression that you can’t really touch and respecting and recreating the old construction techniques and material history in an existing and operational hotel has been quite a challenge.

Being culturally rooted is important, however, evolving with time is equally necessary. How will the future of architecture maintain its historical roots while moving forwards?

As a studio, we’ve never seen buildings like traditional temples that are fixed and composed. We’ve always seen them as open-ended frameworks, with large floorplates, good amount of natural light and ventilation to allow for democratic spaces that can be used for multiple functionalities. What has become prevalent over the years is the demand for much higher performance of the spaces –– be it in terms of programme or building physics. And I don’t see complex programmes and complex interactions as a challenge any longer.

Due to COVID-19, there will be repercussions round the world in all fields. While panic hits everyone, what will your plan of action be to stay calm and minimize damage.

As it is obvious, the whole grind has come to a halt and nothing getting produced. Architecture and design studios are mostly interactive and collaborative. As a designer, I have a lot to do with putting pencil on paper, building physical models, touching and feeling material palettes etc. This sort of immediacy of the download of content and impromptu discussions has been interrupted. We can only ideate up to a certain extent. While softwares like Facetime, video calling platforms, and other design applications are helping us get by, no real-world ideation or collaboration is happening.

I shudder to think of the future. The current state of mind is of course pessimistic. However, while the initial reactions were of doom, people are now eager to go out and get into the groove. There is a little lag but things will go back to normal.

I feel one of the deepest problems with this profession is that we only get commissioned if we agree to do something –– the profession is in need of an overhaul. And I think this time has taught us to be more critical, to be more appropriate in what we build and not just build for the sake of building.