Kapil Gupta is an innovator in the guise of an architect. Or is it the other way round?
He picks projects that allow him to experiment and let him “demonstrate more inventive ways of delineating with the same conventional programme”. In short, he likes to build stuff with things poking out of it.
For instance, the interior walls of the live music show establishment and restaurant Blue Frog in Mumbai have these large bumps that look like pimples. His latest design for an office building in Parel has storage spaces sticking out of the building in a “bizarre” Lego-blocks-gone-wrong sort of way.
The disclaimer comes quickly from Gupta—the large pimples are an acoustic improvisation, while the lumps on the building uses a municipality loophole with floor space index (FSI) to provide a “core exterior composed of storage units which pop out of the elevation, decluttering the interior space and creating huge amounts of storage in the periphery”.
For an ongoing project, Gupta is wrapping a hotel around a hill in south Maharashtra, inspired by Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji’s forts.
(Left) Kapil Gupta. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint. The diner capsules at Blue Frog in Mumbai. Photo: Fram Petit
One half of the Serie Architects firm, Gupta, 37, enjoys a professional, long-distance relationship with partner Christopher Lee, which began in college and has endured for over a decade. The two were room-mates at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in the late 1990s—one is now based in Mumbai, the other in London. They set up the brief for the designers, who come back to them with options that get critiqued before a final solution goes to the client. About 20 people work across offices “in this disembodied fashion”, using webcams, Skype and Internet.
“It’s almost intuitive,” says Gupta at his Lower Parel office, about his partnership with Lee.
That intuition and innovation has stood Serie in good stead—they recently won the best bar design prize at the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards in London for Tote on the Turf, a luxurious eating-meeting place surrounded by rain trees that used to be a colonial betting hall at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai.
That’s just one highlight in a resume overflowing with accolades—they were nominated as among 10 “Visionary Architects” by the European Design Academy, Serie was runner-up in the 2008 BD Young Architect of the Year Award in the UK, they were chosen as one of the “20 Essential Architects” by Icon magazine in April 2008. The numbers add up, but here’s the catch.
Serie, Gupta says, does not believe in numbers. They selectively pick projects that allow them to experiment. He uses one of his favourite words—paradox—in arguing that innovation and a booming economy seem inversely proportional. “When the economy is booming, I can sell anything. When it’s competitive, innovation becomes a differentiator.”
A big fan of “adaptive reuse”, Serie got the opportunity with both Blue Frog and Tote—the former an old mill warehouse, the latter an abandoned “totelizer”, a space used for placing bets on racehorses. They had to design Blue Frog in such a way as to allow people to enjoy the music without bouncing on diners’ toes, while others could eat without feeling pressured to participate in the performances.
“Adaptive reuse is effective strategy: You are extending the life of an existing structure without bringing it down, as well as preserving some of its cultural value,” says Gupta enthusiastically.
(Tob) The banquet hall at Tote on the Turf in Mumbai. Photo” Fram Petit. A botanical museum at Xian in China
The success of Blue Frog, now over two and a half years old, gave the company the confidence to tackle Tote on the Turf, a 25,000 sq. ft lavish spread in the heart of Mumbai, facing the race course. “Walking around when we first arrived, what strikes you are the incredible rain trees; they are inscribed, thinly spread. So we adopted the branching system of the trees as an architectural idea.
If you look at the pattern on the ceiling, it’s an abstraction of dappled light that you can get through the leaves of the rain trees. The same branching pattern in the Tote building in the upper level became an acoustic pattern,” he explains.
Gupta has his own personal grouses about the city, like most original inhabitants of Mumbai. He mentions the dysfunctional land laws, the disuse of the eastern waterfront with its 2,000 acres of land, the unproductive use of space, the absence of green, and so on.
He wishes there could be public competitions, forums where architects would be allowed to present ideas to the city, stir its imagination—and make it more vibrant.
While Blue Frog and Tote may have become landmarks in upscale Mumbai, Gupta remains indifferent to the loaded term of legacy. He says ideas of timelessness are only retrospective. “Timeless is also a function where there is a sense of historical extension,” he says. “Where you can look forward and backward simultaneously. Tote may over time retain a certain aura—it appears to have its feet in the past, present and future.”
At the end of the day, he says, they don’t have a style but they do have a method. “The moment you have a visible style, which you keep replicating, means you are not thinking any more, used to churning out the same thing over and over again.”
Replication is not yet Gupta’s problem—one of his current assignments is a 600-unit housing project in Slovakia.