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Turning junk into designer concepts
Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi
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December 30, 2006
From the creaky doors of a Delhi-based theatre to a moth-eaten tree trunk, architect Ajay Batra believes in reusing materials in his scheme of design.

Whenever architect Ajay Batra gets ready with a project, he first tries to understand the language of his clients.

"It is very important for me to not dominate. It's very rare that I allow myself to get carried away excessively with my concepts, my styles and my reflections of design," he says, as we sit down in his residence for our interview.

While Batra asserts his belief in transforming the abstract ideas of his clients into innovative design concepts, he says that on some occasions telling clients that some of their ideas can be detrimental to projects proves to be the most difficult task.

"A Delhi-based lifestyle store for carpets insisted on a flashy look and with great difficulty I convinced them against it."

While all projects, says Batra, offer a heady dose of challenge, there are two which are quite close to his heart. Batra, a student of the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi, trained under Bimal Patel, son of Hasmukh C Patel, in Ahmedabad, and much later opened his own company in partnership with another architect and called it 'To Design'.

"We were young and it was a thrilling experience to gradually grow and get noticed in the field of architecture," he adds. However, it was the urgent need to go solo that prompted Batra to launch Ajay Batra Associates in 1994. Since then, this Delhi-based architect has been involved in some very interesting projects.

The Meghdoot theatre, for instance, is an interesting example of the project that Batra worked on in 2002. As part of its golden jubilee function, the Sangeet Natak Academi approached Batra and asked him to give the theatre a completely new look for its week-long celebration. "When I first saw the theatre, I was shocked to find it in such bad shape," says Batra.

By bad, he means the doors of the theatre had worn out, the walls had been stripped of their sheen and the place desperately needed colour. Considering it was an abode for creativity, Batra knew he had a tough task in hand.

"It was tough, especially because I had to restore the 6,000 sq ft place within 20 days," he says. Which is why he didn't waste time in throwing away anything; instead, he simply made use of whatever was available to him.

"Ignoring the doors would have been foolish and that's why we decided to give it a brand new look by painting it bright red. This in itself introduced a fair element of colour and we then went on to paint different sections of the theatre in colours like yellow, blue and red."

Since a large part of Meghdoot Theatre is essentially an open-air theatre, Batra and his team decided to work with traditional form and smeared their hands with mud. "Any design has to be an amalgamation of aesthetics and practicality. The use of material has to reflect the sensibility of the client and be pragmatic at the same time," says Batra.

While mud was extensively used for the open seating area, the entire look of the theatre slowly began to resemble a village chaupal. However, to achieve the effect, Batra completely thwarted any idea of using thatch.

"This is where pragmatism in design takes over the sheer design sense," he says, elaborating, "We were designing a public space, which obviously would see a large number of people. The use of thatch was completely forbidden as it can catch fire easily. We didn't want to take any chance and though using bamboo was proving to be tedious, what with application of fireproof paint and generous coats of varnish, it was safer."

The architect realised that the flooring at the entrance showed cracks and was broken too. "The theatre attracted people in large numbers everyday and that's why we decided to do the entire entrance flooring in rough, red colour sandstone for its sturdiness." The roof too was made of galvanised iron, a material that prevents it from catching fire.

Batra reiterates that it is not merely functionality that he looks at. Instead, his design philosophy invariably has an artistic bent. While Meghdoot's theatre design offered not just functionality but also created the required ambience, for Magneto, a company dealing with heating and ventilation solutions, Batra once again experimented with art works not just on the walls but also on the ceiling.

"We created a false ceiling, painted it black and introduced satin fabrics and created a unique criss-cross pattern," he says, while showing us some of the photographs of the office.

Also unique was what Batra did on the walls. Not only were the walls given a textured feel, in addition, the architect experimented with thread art - various colours of thread being plastered on the wall and removed subsequently to give the required effect.

"It was a tedious process and to be honest it wasn't necessary in terms of functionality. However, it lent its own charm and that's why we went ahead."

While many experts would have given this thread art on the walls a miss, Batra went ahead with his plans.  Also on his agenda was placing terrazzo tiles ("My client didn't want Italian marble, but wanted a similar effect") on the flooring, interspersing it with white-cream-yellow coloured patches to give what he calls, "a jewelled finish".

Interestingly, Batra found an old tree trunk completely eaten by white ants. While others would probably have thrown the piece away, Batra cut it, polished it and used the bark in the lobby of the office.

The architect believes in reusing material. Whether it is a moth-eaten tree trunk, or the creaky doors of Meghdoot theatre - everything, he says, can be reused.

These projects, he adds, convinced him of the need to combine design with functionality, besides utilising materials that might otherwise have been whisked off in a local kabadi's cart.

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