Projects in the public domain are not ordinarily facilitated by a direct dialogue between the architect and the end-user. Instead, they deal with multiple agencies or a singular representative body, depending on the nature of the work. Operating within two distinct frameworks but catering to a public at large, the GKD Crematorium and the Railway Station in Coimbatore designed by Chennai-based Mancini Enterprises Pvt Ltd explore the possibilities in the many constraints and contradictions of privately-funded public projects, where the resulting architecture is an informed alternative that is both, applied and strategic.
Architecture in post-independence India played a critical role in the task of nation-building, a project supported by the State and a significant number of goodwill citizens. Since the wave of a largely ‘privatised’ global economy, the profession like many other service sectors, is inevitably sustained by an industrial commerce. However, this notion has witnessed a change of perception in the recent years with several professionals collaborating with not-for-profit organisations and other institutions operating in the public-private interface, as a means to initiate a design dialogue that holds significant value for a society.
With the dawn of a different kind of architecture in the public domain that is unassumingly responsive to set-requirements by virtue of a diligent design process, it appears that the “fundamental difference between public and private projects is not just defined by the agencies involved but also the amount of trust that is bestowed on the collective vision of the private donors and the architects, by the authorities representing the public. Once this trust is established, the process of design is not really compromised as opposed to the general perception”, clarifies Niels Schoenfelder, Principal Architect.
Addressing the practice of architecture in the public realm, it must be acknowledged that there exists a fundamental difference between ‘architecture in the public domain’ and ‘public architecture’- the distinction primarily being one of the involved agencies, depending on the ownership and monetary source. Set within an intricate web of dynamics, architecture today has resurfaced as an effective design aid in the public realm adopting a different approach to practice by way of collaboration across diverse specialisations. In this new equation where the current economic, ecological and political climates provoke architecture to confront its own priorities and assumptions, how could these broader relationships help to redefine the role of patronage in architecture?
While the level of complexity poses a variable, the only uncompromising constant is the unanimous pursuit of an inclusive architecture. Situated in contrasting contexts of the city of Coimbatore, the architecture of GKD Crematorium and the Railway Station strive to strike a balance between the ideation of the appropriate, the imminent negotiations while addressing the rationale of planning, and practising restraint in the approach to design.
THE GKD CREMATORIUM, COIMBATORE
The rituals associated with death are as diverse in India as its many cultures. The environment in which they are originally performed are intrinsically linked to the geography and landscape of a place. In the mundaneness of our everyday urban environments, crematoriums like most public infrastructure are a bare minimum construct of function. While catering to the inevitable pace of urbanisation, the design of GKD Crematorium seeks to uphold the traditionally sentimental values associated with this typology.
Situated in the heart of the city, the design of the crematorium consciously negotiates the thresholds between its environs and the city. With high walls compounding the complex, the gaze is drawn towards a pair of stark form-finished concrete roofs that appear to be gently hovering above the designed pavilions which are set deep within a garden of existing trees, containing a requisite seclusion within the premises.
Funded by a charity, the exposed structures of the crematorium attempt at a bold reform that is not only respectful of the cultural construct, but also the nitty-gritties related to construction on public land. Entrusted with complete oversight of the execution of architecture and engineering in the project, Niels stresses on the importance of the client in the, “Excellent handling of the publicprivate interface, and the continued association with the operations of the building post-construction.”
This framework within which the design was enabled offers a critical learning in the role of the architect as a mediator of ambition and expectation, rendering an informed alternative that has more to offer than meets the eye.
THE RAILWAY STATION, PERIYANAICKENPALAYAM
In another public setting, a modest 146-year old railway station situated in the midst of a suburban industrial neighbourhood of Coimbatore, was redesigned to accommodate a potential increase in the number of commuters in the near future. As a public-utility building, the project encompassed potential to grow beyond hierarchies of decision-making, and strategise through empowerment of the local bodies by way of participation. Although privately-funded, the design was not constricted but informed by an established framework within which the representative public body operates, “The Indian Railways have a rule book for the development of stations, and an engineering staff oversees the design and construction of any project on their premises. Apart from lending their expertise, The Railway Users’ Association of Coimbatore also involved the local community representatives via a regular review process to ensure that the immediate neighbourhood is satisfied with the overall design of the station.”
The new building was conceived as a simple 2000 square feet layout with clearly defined service cores flanking the two ends. Although the renewed railway station facility seemingly appeals to a ‘modern’ sensibility in the manner of its materiality and logic of structure, at its core the overall architecture of the station attempts to merely “sharpen the vernacular” with an industrial appropriation that is especially visible in the fine resolution of the roof.
In architecture, occasionally it is found that a project is often critiqued for its manner of detailing that is sometimes not obvious to the untrained eye. Whether it is in the quality of form-finished concrete surfaces in the Crematorium, the finer details of accessories or even in the choice of a material palette in the Railway Station; the efficacy is usually apparent in the way a space is eventually occupied and used over time.
In purview of the recently completed and other proposed public commissions for a ‘state-of-the-art’ architecture, the critical feedback such projects foster could potentially inform the profession about a cyclic change or evolution of needs and concerns of design of our public spaces- filtering out assumptions and romanticised notions of a ‘public architecture’ that often hovers between dream and disaster.
Taking stock of the utilitarian architecture in the public domain over the last decade including public toilets, walkways, post offices and bus-stops, it is clear that the value of the profession is no longer bound by a particular kind of patronage but is accessible as a service to the society at large. While ‘inclusiveness’ as an approach to design is a significant indicator of the engagement of the architect with the society, it is hard to ignore the fact that, “public projects offering a sense of respect and wellbeing to its end-users through quality detailing and a connect to their aspirations, can play a pivotal role in reversing the perception of the profession as a provider for the ‘privatised sector’.”
With a recent shift in the patterns of patronage and new-found modes of finance including ‘crowd-funded initiatives’ and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives among others, it is more important now than ever to recognise the appropriate role of the architect in the execution of a ‘progressive design’ idea with respect to the operational framework of a project. The course of design then follows a duly informed approach where the architect is not only conscious of the limitations but also the implicit potential they present in themselves. Evident in the architectural language of the Crematorium and the Railway Station is an inspired individuality that is more about a new spirit, than style of public architecture as an integral contributor to societal needs manoeuvring convention and wishful thinking♦
Images & Drawings: ©Mancini Enterprises
Text: Hrushita Davey
Founded in 2004, MANCINI ENTERPRISES offers comprehensive design services in the fields of urban planning, architecture, interiors, landscape, furniture and lighting design. Based out of Chennai, South India, Mancini’s team of 40 professionals is headed by Niels Schoenfelder (M.Arch, TU Darmstadt), J T Arima (B.Arch, Goa) and Bharath Ram K (B.Arch, Chennai). Their approach is based on dialogue with corporate and private clients and analysis of constraints, thus establishing the project ‘reality’. Subsequently, the entire design process – from ideas to finished products inclusive of costing and engineering refers to this reality. It is the challenge of diversity which fuels their practice.