Perhaps the most despairing reality of today’s world is the importance that we as humans assign to appearances and exteriors. Be it unintentional, but our judgment is more often than not, guided by appearance over functionality. This is true is many cases- a major one being architecture. Much weightage is given to what a building looks like, which is plausible, owing to the large number of publications focusing on flawless visuals over intangible functionality.
Architect Manish Banker, Principal at TAO Studio, challenges this view through his work. He believes that the element of architecture goes beyond the surface of a building, to the way it integrates people with their environment, and with other people. To him, architecture is a device that fulfills the basic need of every human being- the need of contentment, which can only truly be achieved when a person is one with his environment and the people he surrounds himself with. While every person is different, compared to this basic need of coming in contact with oneself, everything else proves shallow. Actualizing this goal is the main purpose of architecture, and thus, the primary concern of any project remains human consideration.
This perspective on architecture and years of award winning projects all stemmed from chance, and that’s where Mr. Banker’s story begins. He fondly recollects his high school days, when the hot weather of Ahmedabad would drive him and his friends to venture into CEPT University for a drink of cold water, due to the lack of a water cooler in their school. The teaching methodology at CEPT caught his attention- from the easygoing relationships between students and teachers to the outdoor sketching classes. The drawings and sketches of the students impressed him, and he would go home and attempt similar ones, not knowing the first thing about architecture. Even now he claims he was never interested in what they were learning back at CEPT, but rather the way they were learning it.
He finally learnt about architecture in senior school, seeking guidance from his uncle, who was a civil engineer. He learnt how to make technical drawings while he was just in 11th and 12th grade, and began considering architecture as his next step when he figured that designing came to him instinctively, and was thus a relatively easy option to pursue. He nonchalantly elucidates how easily things came to him during his education. When asked about the hardships that an architectural education is infamous for today, he says that “when you’re passionate about something, it simply ceases to feel like work.”
When asked about his most memorable project, he takes us back to the year of 1994 to his first ever project, another game of chance. He paints the picture of the start of his journey, telling us about the first house he was asked to design, on a 5000 sq. ft. plot in Kalyani Nagar that was offered to him before he had even started his practice. The potential clients showed him the plot and even gave him a token payment, which he accepted as he was to travel to Europe on a backpacking trip shortly after. On his way from Austria to East Germany, on an almost 6 hour train journey, he started to sketch and found himself with a design having three varieties for the villa by the time the train pulled into Germany. Upon reaching his destination, he promptly couriered photocopies of the designs to his clients and tucked the thought of the project to the back of his mind to continue on his trip, which took him another 3 months.
Arriving in India, he was reluctant to contact the clients, uncertain as to how they would have taken to his unconventional designs, and moreover since he had been unsure about practicing in Pune from the very start. When he was invited by the clients for dinner, he was surprised to find out they had picked one of his designs and already received a corporate sanction, and were looking to begin work with him. Ecstatic, he made the decision to stay and practice in Pune, and the house went on to sow the roots of his firm in the city.
The project, Anand Villa, not only won the AESA Award in the Best Residential Bungalow Category, but was also covered by Zee TV as a documentary through Ashiyana, bringing him well deserved attention, as it was his very first project.
Talking about his design process, he explains that it isn’t something that starts with every new project but rather a flowing concept. He compares every architect’s design process to an underground river, constantly flowing, and every project to a borewell fed by that river. He says that the task entrusted to every architect is to never let that river dry up.
He explains how the main focus of his firm is to find out the needs of the client and then convert them into their own program. Considering every technical aspect, they must find a way to add value. According to him, architects need to combine poetry and technicality. To help with the technical aspect, their firm uses expertise in the form of associate consultants. To him, the entire process is like solving a puzzle, to understand the requirement of each client and figure out the solution depending on the project.
Of course, success comes with challenges. Mr. Banker says the biggest challenge he has faced and continues to face is the gap in understanding between an architect and a client. While an architect has a certain level of understanding, the client has a completely different set of exposures and expectations. Architects have to go very deep into the process of design and execution, and clients may not have that depth of insight- and understandably so. It cannot be expected of a client. Nevertheless, it creates a big gap.
The biggest challenge lies in bridging this gap, which is something that only successfully happens about 75% of the time. Increased practice and sensitivity ensures that a platform of exchange is built among the two parties. With the help of consultants and his team, he says, that he is constantly in the process of trying to overcome this challenge through better communication and correspondences.
The topic of his endeavor with the Nyati Unitree Corporate Office building comes up, and he explains how it has been designed with a sustainable approach. ASHRAE standard external and internal illumination, low VOC emitting materials and adhesives, passive ventilation, water-cooled air conditioning system, rainwater harvesting, pollution preventive construction & efficient waste management during execution, along with environment-conscious features and energy efficient design strategies, have helped the building obtain the prestigious LEED Platinum Certification, apart from being shortlisted among the IIA Top 50 projects for 2016, being bestowed with the Asia Pacific Property Award 2018, the AESA Award for Best Commercial Architecture and the AESA President’s Award recognizing the project’s aesthetic value for the city of Pune.
But besides the impressive sustainability features of the project, another remarkable thing about it is its effect on the people working in the building. Mr. Banker claims that the employees who spend around 10 hours of their day working in the building are always happy, and the environment-incorporative design has had positive impacts on performance. He stresses on the need for variation, and the inability of human beings to survive without it. With sitting, for example, he sheds light on the different forms of seating that enable different postures for the employees, including break out zones such as terraces that help them to surround themselves with natural elements. Even the canteen allows superiors and subordinates to sit together and establish better relationships, leading to a better work environment for everyone.
He goes on to speak about the sculptural element of the building, wrapped in a ‘unitree’ façade envelope, its angular MS branches illuminated by low energy solar LED lights making the entire structure sparkle like a gem in the Pune skyline.
Further on sustainability, Mr. Banker says that rather than an isolated issue, sustainability should be an integral part of architecture, entirely encompassed by it. Sustainability should be inherent to any development, irrespective of the nature of the project, yet factors such as time constraints, unavailability of material, lack of understanding, and budget constraints cause Architecture to drift further and further away from sustainability, leading to the creation of insensitive concrete
jungles. The job of an architect is to see to it that the concept of sustainability is incorporated. It needs to be integrated in the nature of an architect, and then it starts reflecting in one’s work no matter what you do. He talks about the sustainability of vernacular architecture. Due to lack of tchnology, people in earlier times had to think of natural methods of lighting, air conditioning, and ventilation. The wonderful climate in Pune supports this. In his own house, he says, they do not use the AC much, as it is designed to ensure passive cooling. New generations, unfortunately, are getting used to using artificial means for functions that can be carried out naturally.
Speaking about green technology, he says that the biggest challenge with implementing it is convincing oneself as a designer. By taking up the responsibility of being sensitive to nature, approaching green technology becomes easier. Once convinced about the benefits of it, it becomes easier to convince others, as well. The nature of the project doesn’t play a part in deciding whether or not to implement green technology, for “green” is a construction methodology. Persuading clients on green technology can be done, but it needs to be explained in the right way.
While it is true that upfront costs with sustainable or green architecture are higher, Mr. Banker explains what he considers to be the fundamental mistake in accounting for the cost of a project. He believes that the cost of any construction project should be considered for at least 20 years, and not just its basic investment. The cost most are turn a blind eye to is energy cost, which is never counted in construction cost. He strongly speaks about how industry should start accounting for that cost. He explains that the cost of construction is very relative term. For example, capital cost may be ten percent higher, but saving on recurring cost needs to be considered. Buildings without proper ventilation, implementing artificial air conditioning, incorrect insulation leading to increased heat and artificial light are likely to incur a ‘cost of health’. Breathing in unhealthy air leads to medical expenditure on account of poor physical
and mental health, something no one counts in the cost of the building. In the end, sustainable products end up saving at least 20% of cost. Moreover, after covering the cost, you get a healthy life which is, as Mr. Banker puts it, a bonus. This should be the primary aspect of any architectural undertaking.
When asked about the change in the architectural world that he experienced, he personifies the enormous change by mentioning that time is a factor that influences architecture. Due to digitalization and industrialization, everything moves incredibly fast, and is exposed globally. Accessibility to different kinds of material and styles of architecture from all around the world increases. However, accompanying that change, is chaos on account of unfiltered overloading of information. He brings up how focusing on styles and looks is blinding people to understand what architecture is meant for.The approach of buildings is commercialized, insensitive. There is a big change because of increased need for speed, style and the vast resources at our disposal, making us forget about natural resources. Nature is not appreciated as much as indoor decor. While speed has increased, quality has decreased. Architecture has gone away from culture, and everything is turning out more superficial and less natural, and this is something we must fix.
On a more personal note, he explains how his way of looking at things has evolved. His firm constantly updates themselves on technology of the new generation, as they believe that they have to see to it that they meet the new standards. His practice has evolved through learning from masters and wisdom which exists in our rich heritage. 20 years ago, he didn’t know if they could manage work, but now their confidence has evolved. Even so, he says they are still in the process of evolving, and believes that they have not reached even 50% of their potential capacity.
Looking back at himself 20 years ago, he speaks about his fearlessness and enthusiasm, and hopes to contribute more to keeping the environment and culture intact. This unique mindset carried forward by Ar. Manish Banker is what sets him apart from the crowd, and hopefully professionals of the new generation will carry some of it forward, in order to create a world where human beings can better coexist with their environment.