Indian architects and designers add their touch to Singapore landscape

Going back to an era before World War I, Singapore's skyline was dominated by colonial buildings which were mostly designed by British architects.

The first, tallest skyscraper in South-east Asia was Singapore's 79.5m Cathay Building (1939) by Frank Brewer. Three decades later another foreigner, the renowned I.M. Pei, gave Singapore the 197.7m OCBC Centre (1976). Another milestone was the multi-use Suntec City (1994) by New York-based Tsao & McKown Architects with local firm DP Architects.

Then came what has turned out to be one of Singapore's most recognisable buildings: Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, built in 2002. Mr Vikas Gore, director, DP Architects (DPA), was director-in-charge of the project. This made him the first Indian to helm a major development on the island nation which has gained global appreciation.

During the construction boom that began in the 1980s, Indian architects were slow in coming, and when they did, many joined leading local architectural firms of the time such as DP Architects, Ong & Ong, RSP Architects, Architects 61 and RDC, many of which are still active.

Singapore is undisputedly becoming the regional leader among design hubs. Practices offer challenges both in terms of scale and types of projects. Architects and designers based here are also increasingly doing extensive work in India, Indonesia and China.

Perhaps one of the largest design practices belongs to Gaurang Khemka of URBNarc. He hit the headlines when, along with RGSA, he won the International Design Competition for the under-construction Singapore Indian Heritage Centre.

Next, Himaal Kak Kaul concentrated on homes and gained renown as design principal of Metamorph.

When the over 50-year- old fabindia, one of the best valued brands in India, ventured overseas and opened its maiden retail outlet in Singapore, Ujjwala Naik Goenka who founded Studio Paradigm, was selected to design the store at Paragon.

Vikas Gore: Breaking ground with iconic projects

When Mr Vikas Gore moved to Singapore in the late 1970s, he became one of the earliest Indian architects here.

He recalls: "Indian architects, whether local Indians or expatriate Indians, were a rarity until the early 2000s.

"When I first came here, although I knew of Indians who had worked short stints before (and moved on) and one or two Indian Singaporeans in local firms, I can't remember actually meeting another architect from India.

"Today, architects from the sub-continent are numerous, as are other professionals. Naturally their contribution has also grown with their increasing numbers. Within my immediate environment there are architects from India working at both senior and junior levels throughout our office and this is certainly true of a number of other practices as well."

Mr Gore continues: "Many of these architects are in teams which shoulder much of the drawing and documentation work and a smaller number are also involved in design. With the introduction of BIM-based software the distinction between these two roles is diminishing.

Buildings in which they have had significant roles range from iconic landmarks to major commercial complexes to residential projects and so on. I think it would be fair to say that their influence, while still small, is still larger than their numbers would suggest."

Yet Mr Gore rues: "Unfortunately because of the increasing numbers, Indians from India seem to slip into a comfortable expatriate existence with little empathy or integration with local tastes and priorities. That's a pity because one misses out on a rich international experience. Hopefully, over time, this will change!"

The senior architect points out the hurdles the younger generation faces: "Nonetheless, at present, architects educated in India suffer a common handicap in Singapore. Their degrees are not recognised and strictly speaking therefore they are not architects. The Board of Architects in Singapore and the Council of Architects in India are working at selective mutual recognition at a glacial pace but there is a long way to go."

Despite this, some Indians, after having honed their skills with reputable architectural firms, have set up their own independent practices offering architectural, interior design, landscaping and even architectural photography services.

The 61-year-old director at DPA, who has an impressive portfolio of projects to his credit in Singapore, India and Indonesia, says he has "no grand philosophy". He adds: "Just a few thumb rules. I don't believe in pilfering historical icons. Historical architecture is specific to a culture that has changed."

From his completed and ongoing projects he selects five which he has a special affinity with.

1. Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay: "The Government wanted an iconic building. We won the project in association with Michael Wilfred and Partners (MWP). Unfortunately, once its initial layout was set, MWP left in 1995. Initially I panicked at having to shape the project alone. But this had become DP's opportunity to shine. We rebuilt our team and shaped Esplanade. It opened in 2002 and all that time I was constantly learning something new."

2. Seletar Satellite Earth Station: "An early favourite project for SingTel. The clients wanted a showpiece to bring schoolkids and visitors to. One day, Nikhil, my son who was six years old then, saw me designing and said, 'Oh! Satellites are up in the air, then how come nothing points up?' It made me think and I designed a sky-facing, blue crescent-shaped gantry to mount microwave dishes on. A touch of inspiration from the mouths of kids!"

3. RMZ Ecoworld, Bengaluru: "The 7 million sq ft business park is due for completion by mid-2014. RMZ wants to make Ecoworld a unique experience for everyone working there. I think we will deliver on that."

4. Sky Gardens, Bengaluru: "This G: Corp 20-storey project with two apartments per floor, each with double-height terrace gardens, is Bengaluru's tallest and most attractive residential building."

5. Select City Walk, New Delhi: "When Select was tendered out by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), they specified the general plan which had positive as well as negative implications. DDA did allow one crucial flexibility - a temporary roof over the central open space which creates an extensively-used public space and simultaneously offers substantial exposure to most shops. Good buildings are always a partnership between a client and an architect - and Select is a good example, with very enlightened clients."

Ujjwala Naik Goenka: Visualising concepts from existing spaces

She landed in Singapore in 1997 as a fresh graduate from CEPT, Ahmedabad, India. Along with short stints at DP Architects and Guz Architects and the three formative years at SCDA, Ms Ujjwala Naik Goenka imbibed a thorough grounding in the aspects of design and building processes ranging from shop interiors to a high-end condominium.

Ms Goenka's big break came when Kerry Hill Architects offered her an opportunity to work on the design and construction of a set of six Amanresorts lodges in Bhutan.

"From 2001, the next five years provided an amazing experience working on the project from the concept to handing over five completed hotels in the kingdom of Bhutan. It was hands-on learning in conceptualising, detailing, drawing and on-site supervision of a resort hotel which sits comfortably in its spectacular setting and becomes an integral part of its environs."

A second stint with SCDA involved overseas projects including the Park Hyatt, Maldives and in India the JW Marriott in Manesar and some high-end residential projects.

While working on the hospitality projects, Ms Goenka felt a void in access to a holistic approach to styling and accessorising in hotels. In 2010, along with Ms Sonali Chitale, she set up Souk Design Resources, a sourcing and styling company for accessorising spaces. It led to the opening of Kaizen Design Accents, a furniture and lifestyle store in Chennai.

Studio Paradigm was set up simultaneously in Singapore offering design services. Ms Goenka, 39, has since independently completed a range of retail, commercial and residential projects.

Her most challenging commissions were fabindia (Paragon) and Benares (ION Orchard), two brands which entered Singapore concurrently yet offered completely diverse experiences.

Fabindia's rectilinear space allowed for a dramatic spatial installation made from rope creating a visual focal in the space. Benares' linear space is conceptualised as a covered bazaar with its vaulted main street and alcoves alongside the walls for product display. A full-height mirror covering the rear wall gives an illusion of greater depth.

"They required distinct visual identities," she reckons

Gaurang Khemka: Touching the ground lightly

The founding director of URBNarc describes his architectural aesthetics-cum-maxim thus: "Connect to the context, and touch the ground lightly. Use as few resources as possible, but still serve humanity."

Mr Gaurang Khemka, 40, started his practice in 1993 while at Sushant School of Art & Architecture, Gurgaon, India. He did some private residences in New Delhi to "realise my ideas and dreams that were being formulated on paper in the studio".

Within two years, searching fresher pastures, he set on a journey stopping en-route to work for some of his favourite architects in India, Singapore, Hong Kong and the US, and did a tenure at UC Berkeley studying Urban Design.

In 2009, this journey culminated with the founding of URBNarc, a design practice formulated to focus on all aspects of the built environment.

He chose Singapore despite not being registered as an architect here. The decision was taken based on "two stints of living here that affirmed my belief that this is a true hub for South and South-east Asia, has a transparent and fair economy that embraces talent and offers a fair chance of success".

Mr Khemka recalls his initial years as "a fun ride. I built up the studio to 10 international architects, becoming a veritable sampling of the global talent that Singapore attracts". Early commissions included a hotel in Perth; a high-end resort in Kerala and winning an Aquarium-centric mixed use design competition on Mumbai's famed Marine Drive. More commissions followed such as the Alila Seminyak in Bali, Indonesia.

The 240-room, five-star beach resort is scheduled to open in October this year.

In 2011 Mr Khemka won the international design award for the Indian Heritage Centre, commissioned by the Singapore Government to be opened by August this year. He collaborated with RGSA as Mr Khemka is still not a registered architect in Singapore.

In parallel, URBNarc has been busy doing some small offices, a bespoke restaurant, a retail shop, a small boutique hotel, an apartment modification, a private residence and even a food court "just to keep our hands dirty and our knees bloody in realising our dreams", says Mr Khemka.

Himaal Kak Kaul: Shaping the past, present and future

After moving to Singapore in 2000, Himaal Kak Kaul spent six years honing her design skills in residential architecture at the small and extremely design-focused practices of Ernesto Bedmar of Bedmar and Shi and Guz Wilkinson of Guz Architects.

Setting up her own practice, Metamorph, in 2006, making her a pioneer among her Indian peers, was "a natural progression of wanting to express, explore and refine my own design philosophy". "Singapore is a very fulfilling place to practise in as clientele are discerning and well-informed," she says.

Among her work is the design of a good class bungalow at Binjai Walk from scratch, additions and alterations to an Emerald Hill shophouse and the renovation of several apartments at Gallop Gables, Fontana Heights, Horizon Towers, Trevose Park, Camelot, Costa Rhu and Shelford Green.

The 40-year-old design principal's endeavour is to create humane and timeless architecture and interiors that optimise the potential of the site, reflect the personality of the clients and go beyond the design brief to achieve a tranquil retreat from the world outside.

Towards this end, Ms Kaul strives "to emphasise the inherent beauty in natural materials like stone and timber to give character to the interior".

She adds: "Integrating interior spaces with transitional spaces built around the landscape characterises inspired living in the tropics.

Passionate about inspired design, for me every project is an opportunity to engage with a completely different set of requirements and work closely with my clients to explore built expressions of their unique design sensibility."

After eight years of independent practice, she is looking beyond a purely modern expression of design to re-adaptive use of old elements with a contemporary aesthetic. She considers the one limitation of working in Singapore to be the lack of skilled artisans for crafting bespoke design features.

"Many young designers in India are creating contemporary design elements inspired by the wealth of traditional skills and craftsmanship available to them. Integrating such elements with my work is a direction I am moving forward to explore," concludes Ms Kaul whose exclusive homes are testimony to her flair for design.

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