A sense of place

A sense of place
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First Published: Thu, Jan 03 2008. 11 21 PM IST

The main lobby with the cantilevered staircase that connects all the four floors and the terrace. (Photograph courtesy Somaya & Kalappa Consultants Pvt. Ltd.)
The main lobby with the cantilevered staircase that connects all the four floors and the terrace. (Photograph courtesy Somaya & Kalappa Consultants Pvt. Ltd.)
Updated: Thu, Jan 03 2008. 11 21 PM IST
Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata group of companies, passed on an empire and some sage advice to his son Dorab before his death in 1904: “If you cannot make it greater, at least preserve it… Go on doing my work and increasing it, but if you cannot, do not lose what we have already done.”
Architect and conservationist Brinda Somaya is no stranger to the Tata culture—her father, the late K.M. Chinnappa, worked for more than three decades with the group, becoming director of Tata Industries and managing director of the Tata Electric companies.
The background
The main lobby with the cantilevered staircase that connects all the four floors and the terrace. (Photograph courtesy Somaya & Kalappa Consultants Pvt. Ltd.)
In 2005, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) appointed Somaya’s architectural firm, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants, to convert the original Ralli House into their global headquarters, TCS House. The Grade-II A Heritage structure, built in 1922, is located in the same historic Fort precinct as Somaya’s award-winning restorations of the Cathedral and John Connon School buildings (current group chairman Ratan Tata is an alumnus) and St Thomas’ Cathedral.
Situated on a vantage corner plot overlooking Azad Maidan, the four-storeyed Malad stone-clad TCS House immediately orients you with the Tata legacy. Directly opposite is the former Tata Palace, once home to the Tata family, now the Deutsche Bank headquarters.
This imposing baroque revival style edifice was built in 1918 by Ratan Tata, Jamsetji’s grandson. Not too far away is the still-older Esplanade House, the classical mansion where Jamsetji lived amid his collection of rare Chinese and Japanese antiques.
For years, TCS, one of the world’s largest information technology companies, led its global workforce—currently 95,000 people from 67 nationalities located in 50 countries—out of premises in the Air India Building at Nariman Point in Mumbai. So, for the management and for Somaya, it was important that TCS finally have a place it could call home.
Says Somaya: “We’ve tried to prove that an old building can eloquently fulfil the expression of life today and also provide for the future, without losing the spirit of the place.”
The renovation
The imposing baroque revival style building.
Somaya found that there was simply no way that the dark, cramped Ralli House—a relic of the Raj—could be retrofitted to suit the expanding needs of a vibrant, global company such as TCS.
A forest of internal columns propping up the sagging, old structure left little freedom to create a modern, open work-space. Rebuilding the structure with the same type of stone construction was also not an option, as most of the old quarries had shut down and, as she says: “I don’t believe in recreating something like a film set.”
So, leaving existing columns and beams intact to support the external walls, the building was gutted from inside. Simultaneously, new members were introduced, so that the building came up from the inside out, as it were. She laughs, “It was all conducted with surgical precision.”
The logistics were considerable: swift debris collection each night so that the site, a busy spot in the city’s commercial area, was clear by day; safety concerns during the demolition; and battling the torrential Mumbai flood in July 2005, among other things.
The result: In mid-2007, a brand new building within an heirloom skin, a symbol of the hi-tech TCS coexisting within the umbrella of the Tata group. Says Somaya: “We wanted to bring in light, space and a feeling of connectivity and belonging.”
Two key elements
A job done: Architect Brinda Somaya.
One is the cut-out between the ground and first floors, so that when people come in, they can look up and feel a sense of space. Second, the original stone wall on the south side of the building has been replaced by a glass wall, against which is a cantilevered staircase that connects all four floors and terrace together. This is the first object in clear line-of-sight as you enter the lobby. With its body of aluminium-clad panels and Burma teak treads, it forms the spine of the building, its glass and stainless steel railing enhancing the lightness and making it a functional sculpture. The staircase-and-wall duo, much like a greenhouse, erases visual boundaries, allowing free access to light and the outdoors.
While the lobby at Ralli House was a barrier, the new reception area, in keeping with TCS’s inclusive, non-hierarchical culture, has been totally opened up. Just off the lobby is a state-of-the-art media room that can seat more than 40 people.
On every floor, there is a reception area, open work spaces, and three meeting rooms, where private conversations and discussions are possible. The second floor, occupied by senior management, has boardrooms, conference rooms and an intimate dining room, whose old teak table and chairs are from Ralli House days. In the VIP visitors’ reception area on the same floor, the beautiful, hand-painted, Mughal-style door to the Ralli conference room has now become an artefact hung on the wall.
Everywhere, the old and the contemporary coexist. Burnished Burma teak window frames have been retained, with new double glazing. The Greek inscription carved on the front-door stone lintel of the old building has been spruced up. Avatars have changed, but what it says—“Walk the straight line”—stays the same.
(Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com)
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First Published: Thu, Jan 03 2008. 11 21 PM IST