There is a variety of approaches towards the solution of any architectural problem, ranging from an unabashed indulgence in heady architectonics to a more mature pursuit of gentleness in architecture. This latter approach concentrates on the creation of a complete environment where structures and the landscape, or the inside and the outside integrate into a benign matrix which orders human existence. 

This approach believes in a user-friendly architecture first and foremost. Delhi based architect, M.N. Ashish Ganju’s work seems to spring from the self same concern for the user.

In two of his projects in Delhi, he makes clear where his sympathies lie. One, Press Enclave is a residential colony without about 180 apartments for journalists and the other id a private bungalow in west Delhi. Both are very dissimilar projects, with differing scales, and requiring completely different design strategies.

“I do not care too much for architectonics. My architecture is quiet, unassertive, and simple. To me form is not just shape. It means the way a building shapes up and integrates with the user, slightly similar to the sense in which we say – this is or isn’t good form,” says Ganju.

In essence Press Enclave attempts to provide the infrastructure for a happy and healthy community life. Inherent in this approach is the awareness that a group of people living together have certain patterns of social behaviour within which the design must be located.

Moreover, the chunk of open space required by law, was broken up into many smaller core spaces around which building blocks were clustered. These smaller spaces were then linked together to a large central space which acts like a social centre.

One can easily sense the flow of space, while walking around the place. The network of pathways has been intricately worked out with subtle transitions in scale and quality of space.

The buildings themselves participate as equals in this interaction between people and their environment. They are neither overwhelming nor irretrievably self-effacing.

There is a range of eight floor plans for apartments in three sizes, providing residents with more choice. The smaller sized flats are accommodated on the ground floors of all buildings. They are provided with enclosed courts to accommodate the inevitable spillover.

On the plane of practicality too, Ganju displays the same clarity of vision. For better climate control, the buildings are oriented to an angle of 20 deg, east of south. It keeps the sun out during the hellish summers, while welcoming it in during winters. Further, the small courts act like cool-air traps and help in keeping the temperature down.

Economy being a governing principle, Ganju decided to employ load-bearing construction methods for this three-storied structure. The walls being load bearing, a great saving was effected on the cost of steel reinforcement.

Says Som Sapru, a resident and long-term admirer of Ganju, “We are thrilled with his design. Today, even a decade later, we keep discovering interesting facets of the design. What was great was the raport we enjoyed with him. Most decisions were taken together, by all of us.”

It is probably the rapport Ganju manages to strike with the users that is the key to his design success. In fact he enjoys an equally fruitful relationship with the owners of the private bungalow mentioned earlier. Both husband and wife were doctors and were abroad when the house was completed.

It is the very necessary friendly outdoor space in which, for example, you have your early morning cuppa. It is the inhabitants’ link to the outside, the weather, the sky, the light, the sun.

The best view of the courtyard is reserved for the kitchen which is placed at the centre of things.

The soberly furnished living room flows around a corner into an informal seating area a portion of which extends to double the normal height.

The study and master bedroom are separated by sliding partitions, which allow a flexibility in the degree of openness and privacy.

Spatial unity is the key to this house. At every point one is aware of other spaces and their occupants without intruding upon them. But what really bowls you over is the connectedness with the outside. Almost all windows look out into small patches of greenery and even from inside, one senses the warmth of the exposed brick seen from the outside.

In both designs, in different ways, one notes the felicity with which Ganju responds to the site conditions, specific requirements, and particular, interests of the user. But not content with that, he shows a readiness to extend the users’ influence to the hitherto ‘off limits’ zone of aesthetics.

For example, the lack of sunshades at Press Enclave (a decision taken by the clients inspire of the careful orientation of the buildings. However, none of them wishes to add anything to the structure for fear of damaging the looks, without Ganju’s total involvement. His reaction?

“Well, all this a ridiculous,” he says barely concealing his pride beneath a slow smile. “I mean they seem to think it’s some sort of masterpiece. But they should go ahead and add their sunshades. If done well, it will only enrich the building. Whatever happens, the form is quite strong and won’t be spoiled. The additions will add spice to the experience.”

Not many architects say such things.

Ashish Ganju

Seventy five years ago British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker began designing and constructing the new capital city of India in Delhi.

The first modern school of architecture had been established in Bombay in 1914, primarily to train architects to serve as draughtsmen for the civil engineers who controlled the formal building sector and thus the pattern was set for the Indian architect to design and advise the privileged and rich.

London trained architect Ashish Ganju realised on returning to his own country that a change of direction was needed, so through his own private practice and his teaching at the School or Habitat Studies which he co-founded, he is seeking to direct the profession into a more mature phase.

We met in Delhi as he arrived from Europe on his first trip there in 22 years. He had been giving a seminar on ‘The Changing Urban Environment’ as part of a Festival of India held in Berlin, also visiting London where he was once a contemporary of Tchaik Chassy, Julian Wickham and Nick Grimshaw at the A.A. back in 1961, under the tutorship of two films shown, simultaneously and depicting the machine age and electronic maze of signboards in Las Vegas.

Then, like others, he saw the major innovations as coming from the New World. As a strong Kashmiri Brahamin, he also felt a contrary pull coming from the ancient wisdom of the world he knew back in India, and after a spell of teaching in Guildford he decided to return to Delhi. Evens overtook his plans dramatically however, when one night his young wife was critically injured by a hit and run driver in London. While she made a slow recovery, Ashish took a job with Norman Foster, then working from a small office with some ten staff.

A year later in Delhi, Ashish teamed up with two partners and together they competed on a co-operative housing project for the Press Association, the first of a kind there. Simultaneously the same partnership entered a government competition for low cost public authority housing and won first prize with the consequential effect of straining their own resources so much that the partnership broke up, with Ashish retaining the Press Association brief.

“We were searching out a new architectural form combining traditional features of North Indian residential districts, which deals effectively with the climate and the social organisation, alongside new considerations of spatial organisation. Basically, people, climate and construction. Modern communication systems were the new element. Low cost was a priority without sacrificing quality” he told me. Six months were spent on discussions with the families (180 of them) to identify their requirements and the same time translating them into building design.

“The requirements were to keep people’s privacy and yet generate a sense of community within the neighbourhood; all in a high density project. If treated properly these paradoxes can be life enhancing, there is a play between the contrasts.”

Ashish explained that to avoid creating a mass, small modules of five houses were built, each a villa joined to the other and maintaining his basic principles of open and built space. Delhi has a composite climate with hot and cold winds in summer and winter and a monsoon season where air movement through the house is essential to give comfort. “Traditional buildings consist of narrow houses with deep sections allowing a breeze to pass through; they often have walls and courtyards to give mutual shade. This approach altered when the English arrived and they built colonial style houses surrounded by gardens, a concept generally unsuitable because of the space and high cost of maintaining the gardens.

“Delhi is on the edge of a desert and experiencing an increasingly serious water shortage. I had to carefully orientate the houses in relation to the sun and the breeze to maximise comfort and after some twelve years of existence I think the project has proved successful and the open spaces have worked well, they’re green and full of plants which need little maintenance.”

The open spaces are necessary as the density of the project was high, some 120 houses per hectare, and though each house was designed for five members, but being in India, the true number with the extended family was more like ten, effectively 1,200 people per hectare.

While designing this project, the client journalists derided Ashish for offering parking spaces twenty yards from their houses.

“ ‘You architects are such idiots’ they said, ‘there is plenty of room outside the house, we will park there.’ But once the common open spaces were joined with paths, children began playing there are people stopped to chat with each other after work so the courtyards functioned as community spaces and nobody did park their car there.”

Ashish also incorporates roof gardens and small private courtyards into buildings wherever possible, an obvious attraction in a hot climate. He calls them ‘rooms without roofs.’

His work changed tack after this project when he became involved with UNICEF, working to evolve community buildings in rural areas. These were to be built by government engineers where priority was given to local materials and indigenous construction techniques. Before this the government were employing a standardised approach and applying it uniformly across the country – an all too familiar story. Ashish helped to devise a set of guidelines and planning principles which utilised local techniques again at a minimum cost. These included earth walls with thatched roofs, brick walls with tiled roofs, and in desert regions earth walls with stone roofs.

“In the coastal areas in the south, the techniques were to use walls with large openings and wooden screens allowing air to pass through. It was a great research experience for me, travelling through remote parts of the country and learning from the villagers.”

Ashish encountered a wide variety of plasters and mortars the use of which are fast disappearing. The technique in recreating an earth floor with fine clay can involve mixing in cow dung and vegetable and fruit juices which given an antiseptic quality. Often such specialised finishing materials were particular to one region and previously undocumented. “The traditional crafts exist across the country, but they need nurturing and to be utilised in a contemporary framework” was his comment.

He later visited Kabul on a similar project while the city was being bombarded by the Mujahadeen. “Every night the sky was lit up by fireworks, it wasn’t frightening, it made the world more real somehow. Afghanistan is a cold desert but there is tremendous solar energy there and since I visited, much research has been done in this field. I was mainly concerned on working out a ‘matrix’ there for future buildings, again on similar lines as the project in India. Much of my time was spent in learning myself. There is such a reservoir of ancient wisdom and unless we can tap it, modern ideas will destroy us. Since I started off with this line of thinking twenty years ago we have seen this occur. Every move we make takes us nearer to destroying the whole planet, yet we are also uncovering these secrets. Modern technology gives us such power and we should develop the means of using this power constructively in the long term for unless you can work out your own relationship with nature, with the cosmos, you cannot make things which are related to them. The cosmic relationship is essential. The ancients taught that every instrument you use transforms the world around you and also transforms the individual using it. (A yantra) Unless we understand the transformation that the instrument makes to ourselves as people, the transformations we make in the environment can go terribly wrong. Modern techniques should go hand in hand with an understanding of how society has developed.”

We can now see that despite the best of intentions we have developed ideas in Europe and transported them to India without realising the long term implications that are not becoming only too apparent.

The TVB School of Habitat Studies

Whilst developing his practice in Delhi, Ashish inaugurated a group known as ‘Greha’ which is a Sanskrit word meaning both ‘home’ and ‘planet’, a term he felt fitted nicely into his own philosophy. “Initially we worked with poor people trying to upgrade slums, but our ideas were not implemented and so we turned our attention into transmitting these ideas through a school. Fortunately the senior members saw the sense of that even though they all had to continue with their own work. By 1985 we registered ‘Greha’ as a voluntary organization and in 1991 a friend, Suresh Jain kindly gave the school three acres with two buildings, and we obtained permission from the government and their full support, an important factor with a private initiative. The members of ‘Greha’ provided the faculty and we enrolled 40 students for the first year and another 40 this year making 80 to date. The fees are modest and government controlled. When I told my friends in England the amount was £200 p.a., they fell apart laughing and said they would send all their students to me.

At TVB we are seeking to research and re-establish a professional framework wherein expert knowledge, relevant to our conditions and traditions are gathered, developed and used for the well being of our changing society. Currently I teach there every day as well as working at my private practice.”

The courses there are designed specifically for the Indian sub-continent for an evolving technology with a strong humanist edge. Its basis is similar to the A.A. but with emphasis on environmental studies, in areas like soil mechanics for instance.

“On my recent trip to Europe I realised the great potential for dialogue that exists, and I am very keen that the school sets up an exchange of students and staff on an international level. I saw Peter Cook at University College and Nick Weaver at the Polytechnic of east London who are both sympathetic to my ideas.

I caught a wonderful lecture by Peter and Allison Smithson and agree what they were putting forward that architects have become jackdaws, stealing images and they have lost all seriousness.”

After our discussion Ashish took me to site on the outskirts of Delhi at Jayanti Park where he is overseeing his design for a canopy over a statue of The Buddha. For technical reasons it cannot be called a ‘temple’ because then every other religion in India’s is dedicated by The Dali Lama and the Tibetan people to one of India’s greatest sons and as a symbol of gratitude for the support given to refugees escaping from the barbaric Chinese occupation of Tibet. The design is a form subscribing to Buddhist Cosmology. The design of the base, within a traditional Kalacakra Mandala, is a divine square representing an energy field the centre of which is “nothing...which is everything, the void and the seed of energy.” This prime space in the Mandala square is adorned by the statue of the Buddha. The canopy itself has six parts, base, columns, dome, cone, rain canopy and spire correspond to the six chakras which form the centres of subtle energy in the body.

The construction is being undertaken by stone masons from a village in Rajastahan and sixty of them are chipping away at the huge stone pillars as we arrive, some standing, some squatting, they beaver away together as an integrated team. Only one person I saw had any kind of drawings of plans. They are real specialists and travel wherever th work takes them, returning home only for special holidays, which in India actually means ‘holy days’. It seems ironic that while they create such a fine edifice to house the statue of the Lord Buddha, they actually stay in makeshift tents behind the bushes. The design work is undertaken for the love of the job and the respect which has come from the Dalai Lama and the charity ‘I leave his pet name of ‘Muni’ wise one seems more fitting than ever, especially on account of his greying locks.