Drive south, down MG Road, past Gurgaon’s gleaming malls, Hero Honda Chowk’s factories and the new superhighway, and you finally reach the peaceful farmland of the kind that used to surround all of Delhi once upon a time. “Five years ago, Gurgaon looked just like this,” Pitamber Sahni says. “In five years, perhaps, this will be crowded with factories.”
Today, however, just one factory stands among the mustard fields and grazing cattle. Named Padmini Engineering after its owner Kabir Bhandari’s grandmother, it manufactures a small auto part that controls emissions.
The factory was built four years ago with the idea that the company would grow into the 11,000 sq. ft space. Bhandari decided to build an office area for administrative work, to convey the company’s professionalism to buyers who would make the long trek to the factory.
Bhandari’s wife, Sonia, had just the man for the job—Sahni. Sahni says he met Sonia Bhandari through a friend and had taken on the task of expanding the Bhandari home. He had recently started his own architecture firm in Delhi. Plus, Sahni and Kabir Bhandari had both got their bachelor’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. That connection sealed the deal for Bhandari.
When Sahni saw the space, he realized that creating an office there would be simpler if he didn’t try to avoid the fact that it would be housed in a factory building. He decided not to change the existing architectural shell of the office and instead, spend the resources available on enhancing the interiors, while ensuring that the look was integrated with the surroundings. To keep the space looking like a factory, they built it “using raw materials like poured concrete, using exposed surfaces, having that rough edge to it”, says Sahni. But they also used “very finely crafted materials—a frameless glass, a teak veneer”. It is supposed to say, “Yes, we’re in a factory, but we’re also fine-tuned,” he adds.
The office takes up one of the six blocks that form the red-brick building. Because the space housed a part of the factory earlier, the ceilings were 14ft high. Sahni left the ceiling uncovered in the entryway and in much of the main space of the office. Once inside, the visitor’s eye immediately travels up and takes in the Àlvaro Siza light fixtures. The eye is also guided up by a teak veneer which swoops up the wall from the floor, covers part of the ceiling, and then down again into the first office space on the other side of the reception area.
Another visual stimulant, moving the eye upward, is the graphic design behind the receptionist’s desk. The black and white vertical wavy lines create a sense of movement and noise in an otherwise straight-lined office space.
Apart from the graphic print, the office is decorated with only four components: wood, glass, brick and concrete. Sahni opted for a poured concrete floor. He admits that the concrete could turn off people who expect a shiny marble floor in an office, but the Bhandaris were happy with the aesthetic. The concrete let him play with the idea of the factory, by suggesting the factory floor continues into the office space. And the rough, imperfect appearance appealed to his design sensibility. Plus, it was a smart purchase at only Rs150 per sq. ft for a floor that requires minimum maintenance.
There are small ripples and stained spots in some places on the concrete floor, but all that falls into Sahni’s plan. “There are places that are very crisp, but we also just let a lot of stuff happen,” he says. He also instructed his workers not to take too much care with the ceiling plaster. He wanted the pipes to be exposed and the look to be unfinished. When the exposed brick walls were going up, he realized the bricks were all the same colour. “I had them go back and get bricks from two other mines, then I had them mix all the bricks and start stacking them haphazardly,” he says. Now, the wall has a sporadic mixture of light and dark shades.
To furnish the space, Sahni turned to Vitra furniture, imported from Germany, and furniture made by Basix, a Gurgaon-based furniture company. The two companies have a straight-lined, contemporary feel to their pieces, with white workstations, olive green bulletin boards and one large orange donut-shaped seat. The furniture adds an ultra-modern, professional feel to the space, to offset the rough look of the interiors.
The other notion Sahni toyed with was continuing visual lines or extending views through architectural tricks. Along the west wall of the office, the four main cabins sit in a row. Each cabin is fronted in glass, giving an open feel to the workspace. The north and south walls are covered in wood veneer. But at the end of the offices, a glass gap in each office creates a small visual space, so that a person in the reception area can see all the way down to the far office. The glass in this space meets the teak veneer ceiling, showing off the unbroken line of the ceiling.
Sahni repeated this trick in the main conference room, but here he had his four elements meet: The exposed brick walls meet the wood ceiling of the conference room, which meets the glass of the gap, which meets the poured concrete floor. The materials meet without any intermediary, so glass rests on concrete and brick meets wood, without any trim. A small interior atrium allows for an uninterrupted view. From the workstations, employees can look out through the trees to the conference room and to a glimmer of the actual factory beyond.
Sahni came across only one stumbling block, and it is the only part of the design left unfinished. To separate the reception area from the workstations, Sahni decided to create a wall of eight large cage-like canisters, filled to the brim with the auto parts made in the factory, to introduce the factory’s product to all visitors. If the part is dropped even once on the factory floor, it is rendered useless. Sahni thought they could just start collecting the broken pieces to fill the canisters. Unfortunately for Sahni the factory workers have done their jobs too well, and he hasn’t managed to get enough pieces just yet.