Tete- e -Tete with Prof. Charanjit Shah, Founding Principal, Creative Group

February 06, 2020, 03:46 pm IST

  1. How has your journey in architecture been so far? What inspired you to walk on this path?

As a young boy, I spent my entire childhood in the refugee camps of Purana Qila, facing challenges of being homeless, cloth less and money less. As I grew up, along with my parents and my family, we fought the odds to rehabilitate ourselves with basic comforts of life progressively. As a student, I was very shy and quite an introvert. It was neither my desire nor my vision to become an architect. Life journey is a process and you keep doing work as in when it comes. It was by chance that I got admission in SPA Delhi and got to learn from great masters like A P Kanvinde, B.V Doshi, J.A Stein, Raj Rewal, Kuldeep Singh, Jasbeer Sachdeva, and Shiv Nath Prasad. That gave me a way to understand the philosophy of architecture in terms of usage of space, the material, how we integrate and put together to make a form and deliver a function.  It was only during the course of my studies, that I was inspired and I transformed my thought process and inculcated the passion for Architecture in my heart. It was then that I decided to follow the footsteps of great artists and dedicated myself to achieve excellence in the profession.


  1. Is there any special story of the initial days of your career, a snippet of which you would like to share and inspire us?

The humble beginning of my practice began in 1971 with exposure to exhibition design where I built various stalls and pavilions at India Trade Fair 1972. I was fortunate to have designed Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Handicraft pavilions at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Then I moved on to designing individual houses, factories and interior works in and around Delhi which satisfied me financially and professionally. In 1973, I registered myself with the Council of Architecture and registered a sole proprietorship firm by the name "Creative Group".

I participated in open design competitions and won my first design competition for flatted factories for DSIDC in 1973 and subsequently won the national design competition for Jawaharlal Nehru National Cooperative Complex at New Delhi in 1976 and completed the multistoried project in 1980 which was one of the important turning point in my career, as it led to a lot of professional respect & recognition. The project for NCUI was actually very challenging since we had hardly any time or infrastructure to fulfill the requirement. Our jury for the project were people who were pioneers in this field like Raj Rewal, AP Kanvinde and few others, thus it was a very difficult project to bag, we didn’t have much experience and we worked day and night to make this project a reality.

During the course of his initial practice, I and my fellow architects faced a lot of resistance from established big players and thus we started interacting with them for our proper status. We established the Guild of Practicing Architects (GPA) in 1976 and I was appointed as the Founder General Secretary of the same. Slowly, the group expanded and positioned themselves in COA as well as in IIA and other professional bodies. The initial struggle actually made me realize that with grit and determination, we can achieve the heights we aim at. The sky is the limit, and we still have a long way to go, but the journey so far is an example that anything is possible if you wish to aim for it.


  1. How would you describe your college days as an architectural student? What was your major learning during those days that you believe is still assist you?

As I mentioned, it was not my intention to actually study architecture, but my destiny which led me to walk on this path. I had actually got admission in a college in Jodhpur but did not have the means to actually go and study there. That is when I got admission in SPA Delhi and decided to pursue it, even though I had no prior knowledge about architecture. Even in college, I put extra effort to learn and understand architecture as a profession, and the faculty in the institute supported my dream. I learned and worked hard, and was actually a scholar for all five years during my course. I think it was my understanding of the various materials, adoption in the innovation of construction details and critical structural analysis along with other elements of an applied architecture that have been instrumental in creating the sustainable built-forms accredited to Creative Group.


  1. What are your 3 most powerful influences, in terms of work and design? And why?

In the profession, one needs to look beyond architecture.  It is not the rituality, but the spirituality which matters, in your religious discipline. Similarly, the romanticism of the profession may be a sincere attitude that converts to the best aptitude.  Dreams transform into thought and thoughts into vision and vision transform into reality. This is my mantra to create authenticity at work.

Apart from this, I believe that our surroundings have a lot to teach us. The nature that surrounds us, our Mother Earth, is actually the biggest teacher we have. The sun, the wind, water, and earth – all the natural elements actually give us inspiration and influence the way we design and work. So do our history and traditional knowledge systems. I believe that our Indian architecture has all the principles and values embedded in it which is necessary for us to design for a better future. These are the most powerful influences which inspire me to work and create designs that speak to the soul.


  1. How would you describe your own design vocabulary?

Architecture is like humanity and basically an architect has to create spaces for masses, so an architect has to be first of all a good human being to understand the humanity and only with a true understanding of humanity he can create that kind of human settlement which is required for a common man. I would say that this is a type of architecture that is embodied with nature and you are the part of the cosmos, it’s the like the complete philosophy of architecture is to understand human behavior. Thus the basic necessities of shelter, food, and clothing are practically interwoven with nature. 

From the inception of my career in 1970, I have believed that a built form should not be treated as a dead mass of brick and concrete, but as a living organism, allowing it to breathe with nature. Only when one respects the solar and wind movement and resources one can build nature-friendly sustainable buildings. I’m deeply impressed with great masters like Laurie Baker, Le Corbusier, and AP Kanvinde and have tried to learn from their works and ideologies and tried to adopt them in my practice. Today, we are moving not only towards designing buildings with sustainable means and passive strategies but actually moving towards net-zero development – where nothing is imported from outside – from water to electricity to solid waste management – being completely self-reliant.


  1. What are your views on current architectural practice in India and worldwide? What are the design trends that you feel are currently dominating the world market? And why?

I believe that current architectural practice has deviated away from the true essence of designing for the masses. Today, we believe that development is based on adding layers of infrastructure and designing glass towers all over the city. We are constantly trying to ape the west in their culture as well as architecture, without realizing that it is not suitable for our environment. The approach for our design should be global but we should keep in mind the context for which we are designing.

India has a rich history of about 2000 years of civilization. Even during that time, we designed buildings that were sustainable and responded to the context. Our cities are the manifestations of human settlement. Before we design something, it is important to understand each and every aspect of the city including the streets and the neighborhoods, to understand the relationships of humans with their surroundings and how they treat it. Through this understanding, the architect can amalgamate the surroundings into his design; he can develop the building’s relationship with nature, promote interaction in public spaces as essential ingredients in every community and thus engage civic participation in his designs.

Architecture based on sustainable aspect respecting the solar and wind movements, orientation and landscape use eco-friendly material, as core components, creates the human settlement embodied with nature. Modern trends of design need to respect the region, the climate, the culture, and the socio-economic factors and cannot be intimated globally and universally.


  1. What aspects of architecture do you mainly prioritize while designing a space?

I have always believed that sustainability is not an ideology but actually a way of living. It has been embodied in our architecture and ways of living since the beginning of mankind.  Therefore, promoting and designing for a greener architecture is my main priority while designing a place.  Use of various passive and active design features in the design is what we have aimed at through our designs since the past five decades, now we are moving towards net-zero designs which aim at making any development self-sustainable and efficient.

While designing, the most important thing we prioritize is the physical features of the site and the context. The topography, climate, solar and wind movement, the cultural connections, all of these play a major role in the conceptualization of the design. We need to understand these features, and then only will our designs be truly sustainable.

Designing for environmental sustainability is actually not a challenge but an inbuilt passion to create built forms which are grounded with nature and treated as living organisms rather than a mass of brick and concrete. If our process of thinking and designing is based on principles of sustainability, it would automatically lead to environment-friendly architecture.            


  1. How has technological advancement and new materials impacted your practice?

I have witnessed the growth of architecture as a profession and the building industry since the post-Independence period of India and have been associated with the work of great masters of that time. The initial 3 decades were testimony to freelancers practicing the profession but lately, in the past one decade or so, there has been a tremendous change in the practice of architecture and engineering due to intervention of global players. The practice of architecture has progressed from freelancing to integrated, corporate architecture and engineering firms. Due to urbanization and infrastructure growth in India, which has metamorphosed into a developed nation, the scale and size of projects have drastically been magnified. Consequently, architecture as a profession is no longer being looked upon in isolation so a single-window approach with an integrated consultancy with respect to architecture, engineering project management, and financial management needs to be realized. Therefore, in this tough competitive global practice, one needs to be fully equipped with all sectors of consultancy in a holistic manner. My son, Gurpreet has been largely responsible for bringing about this change and taking our practice forward to new heights. His global experience while studying and working in the USA has helped us adapt to newer technologies and approaches towards design.

Size and practice make a difference. Collective and collaborative practice is the only left out approach towards survival and dignified practice to match up with the global player. Otherwise, we shall miss the great opportunities and shall not be able to showcase our passion, vision and be able to convert our dreams to reality and help our nation’s rebirth in creating not a global but an Indian Sustainable Smart Habitat inspired by our ethics, values of great heritage, purely and surely based on the principles of nature and physical sustainability.


  1. What would you like to share with fresh graduates in architecture?

My advice to architecture aspirants has always been that this profession is an experience and a journey of your own visualization, self-assessment, and discipline. I would rather say that it is the meditation of this very profession wherein you can transform and create something futuristic, something that nobody would have thought of while respecting our Mother Earth. There is no short cut to success. There is a pressure of urbanization. Air, water and sound pollution is increasing day in and day out. The young architects need to be responsible to tackle the devastating effects of the building industry and the lifestyle wherein we create livable spaces less damaging to our health and hazards.


  1. Any four favorite projects you would like to share with us.

I would rather say that you cannot discriminate between your children and each of my projects is like a child to me which has been conceived very carefully. Once the project has been completed, then I feel like a proud father. I own them not one but all of them. There are some projects which are close to my heart, which I did at the start of my career like Amudham Dairy Complex and NCUI Complex.

Amudham Dairy Complex is the biggest milk plant in India in the private sector. The design brief mentioned the requirement of the main factory building and the administrative complex with residential accommodation for the workers and visitors. The time span for the construction was restricted to 11 months including the installation of plant and machinery. Since it was one of the very first projects that I undertook, the idea was to make a conventional industrial building into a sustainable one. The building orientation in the N-S ensures the blocks with continuous glare-free light throughout the entire day. The multi-level vaults on the façade and in the building, at that time, created dynamism in the building profile and generated interest while also enabling cost, material as well as structural optimization.

NCUI Complex was actually a competition which we won, and was thus constructed in the central hub of South Delhi opposite the Asiad village complex, is built on a site of 3.29 acres. The brief for the project consisted of a training center, a research and documentation center and a large auditorium with a seating capacity of 1000, along with multiple conference halls and seminar rooms. The building was designed keeping in mind the basic solar orientation and movement, thus the form of the building, with tapered edges, and use of louvers was extensively used. 

Another one is Chennai Airport. When Gurpreet joined the practice, our firm started taking up bigger infrastructure projects and Chennai and Raipur were the initial ones. With Chennai, we delved deeper into creating a smart yet sustainable mega – structures, thus opposing the statement that ‘Mega structures are actually energy guzzlers.’ Also, Chennai Airport was a highlight in structural as well as technological innovation with the use of V – type columns and large overhang cantilever roof of 12m. A combination of active and passive green strategies shape both the terminals. In addition to shape, size, and orientation, much thought has been added to the material application of the building. Where autoclaved aerated blocks (A.A.C) and double glazed structural glazing shield the façade from the harsh solar gains, the double layer of aluminum roofing system restricts thermals roof gains. A sheet of green grass pavers helps to minimize the hard surface, by creating a permeable membrane to water absorption.

The most recent ongoing project is Karatarpur Landport Terminal Building at Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab. This project has been envisioned as a physical homage to the great Guru Nanak Dev ji and also to create the sensitivity of Art & Architecture in symbolizing the universal message of oneness and humanity through various elements of visuals, dimensions, space, and volume. The building form originates from Khanda, of Sikhism symbolizing unity, peace, and sending out a universal message of global brotherhood and coexistence. The disabled-friendly building will have immigration and clearance facilities to process movement of 10000-15000 pilgrims a day and provide visa-free access. Gateway crowning the port with the composition of 5 petals symbolize the 5 vows of Sikhism.  These are just a few of the projects of my experience of almost five decades, which are close to my heart.