Prem Nath: The Architect’s Performance

In conversation with Prem Nath of Mumbai-based Architect Prem Nath and Associates, we discuss the numerous obstacles traversed in his architectural journey, as well as some of the landmark projects that brought him to the forefront of contemporary architecture in India.

The following text is the edited transcript of the interview conducted with Prem Nath at his Mumbai office, on the 14th of October, 2021

I. Origins

Everybody always asks me this question – “Mister Prem Nath, how did you become an architect?” It seems almost like a miracle, that I became an architect.

Back in my time, in the 1950s, pre-independence – people did not know what an ‘architect’ was. Engineers, overseers and mistris (labourers), were common terms known to people, but they had never heard of the term, ‘architect’. I myself had no idea what architecture was. I became an architect by fluke, you may call it. Maybe fate had determined I was to become an architect through a series of random events, and I had no idea at the time.

We came from a very poor background, and tough childhood. My family were refugees who fled Pakistan during the Partition, and came to India. My mother and her two young children, seven and five years old, began life in India in a refugee camp. We were quite a rich family in Pakistan, owning havelis and having sizeable wealth. However, having gone through the bloodbath (of the Partition), and seeing a lot of death during our journey, we went through a very difficult time. However, we survived! That is what made me tough and resilient even as a youngster, because our main aim was survival.

We had to fend for ourselves – my mother became a construction worker to support us. As children, we started to join her on her trips to the construction sites. She used to work with bricks and sand, and while she worked, we used to play games on the sites – this was my childhood.

I must say the mothers are very important people in the life of a child. They motivate them and inspire them. To motivate us, my mother told us that if we wanted to grow up and do something good with our lives, we needed to study. So, we started going to school. It was initially in a small tent, and later at Government Barracks, which was all we could afford. We were given shelter at squatter settlements to help begin our lives.
To support my education, I started selling newspapers. You remember when we had newspaper vendors on bicycles, going around selling newspapers to various homes? That was my job. I would wake up every morning, go for rounds selling newspapers, and after that was completed, I would go to school to study. I made a little money out of that, and used it to support my education, buying books, stationary and geometry boxes. Unfortunately, that was still not enough, so every afternoon we would go out to sell balloons, eggs, bread, and whatever else we could, for about three to four hours. We also needed to study, and because of our work we could study only during the night. We barely had electricity at home, so we would go out to the street and study under the streetlights for a few hours every evening. Since these were old lights, they were not very reliable, and sometimes – especially during the winters – it would shut down.

We had a shamshan (cemetery) near our house. Whenever our street lights were not working, we would go there, and using the warm glow of the funeral pyres, we would study. Even as children, we had no fear of death, because we had seen plenty of it.

My childhood was a testimony of endurance. We sailed through all the difficult times life presented us.

I graduated from school with good grades, and moved to university for my higher education. I was thrown out of University by my seniors. They used to say, “You are a bloody disgrace. You cannot even say your name in English! You look very ugly, without proper clothing, and you are a disgrace to this university.” They beat me, and threatened to kill me. It was a very difficult and disappointing time for me.

Then I realised, even if I graduated with a BA degree, I would end up doing some rudimentary clerical work. Instead, I decided to try a different vocation, and pursue a course which I could attend during the evenings, and this allowed me to work during the day. I decided to try to look for a job. I could not get a job as a clerk, as my English was bad, and neither could I get a job as a typist, since my spelling was bad.

After multiple job attempts and numerous failures, I finally found a job as a blueprinting boy at an Engineer’s office. Those days, blueprinting was different, as they were not the regular ammonia prints. They were pharaoh prints. Using a big sun-glass dial, you had to expose the tracing sheet to the sun for about 3-4 minutes, followed by dipping it in a sulphate solution – which smells bad and makes your hands dirty. It was a very tough job which nobody else would take. I took it, because I did not have any other choice. This was my initial exposure to the world of engineering and architecture.

I had a good drawing hand – I was good at drafting and sketching. The office began using me as the boy who was in charge of all the tracing and copying work. Since they found that I had a good sketching hand, they employed me as a draftsman in their office. In about six to eight months time, I was making drawings for them as well.

Some of the architects at the office advised me to try and become an architect, and they explained to me what architecture was. I told them I needed the work, and could not quit the job, and they informed me about SPA, in Delhi, which conducts night classes and a seven year architecture course. It would allow me to work during the day, and become an architect in seven years time.

To me, it was simple. Becoming an architect meant receiving a better salary. I still did not know the extent of the field of architecture, I just knew I would get better pay. So I gave it a shot, and applied to School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. I was not able to get admission. I then found out about another architecture college in Bombay, called Sir JJ college of Architecture. A few friends of mine who were also trying to become architects accompanied me to Bombay, in an attempt to get admission into college, as well as find a job.

Luckily, I got a job in my first week in Bombay. I showed an office my drawing and sketching skills, and they immediately offered me a job. I conveyed to them my interest to apply to JJ College of Architecture, and they told me that they knew many of the administration and staff at the college, and could help me with my admission. It was a dream come true!
So, I got admission into Sir JJ College of Architecture, I passed out in 1965 with top honours in design, and officially became an Architect!

II. Early Years

Initially, I had never thought of starting my own practice. We came from a small background, and having a good job working for somebody else was a great deal. I had a good job with great pay.

Joseph Allen Stein came to college one day, to find talented people to work with him. He saw my work at college and immediately offered me a job at his office in Delhi, with an even greater salary. I was very happy to take the job, as my home was always in Delhi, and my mother was still living there, alone. Stein also told me that his office had over 60 architects, but he wanted me to work directly with him, as his personal design assistant. I graciously accepted.

So I left my job at Bombay amicably, with the team wishing me good luck and prosperity. Before moving to Delhi, I decided to tour Bombay a little. I was in Bombay for so long, but somehow never had the time to go around and experience Bombay properly. During this time, I came across a large group of people standing around in public, watching some kind of pooja. I approached the crowd, and found out that it was a pooja for actor Dharmendra, inaugurating a new property he bought.

At the time, I had no idea Dharmendra was a film star. I had only watched English movies once in a while, and that was only to try and better my own English speaking skills. I had never seen a film of Dharmendra’s, but I was immediately struck by his good looks. He was an incredibly handsome man.

We started talking, and he asked me what I do. I told him I am a Punjabi architect, currently working on a large bungalow on Juhu Beach. Upon hearing this, he asked me to design his house as well. So he took me to his house, and we had a long discussion about what he wanted his house to be like. I asked him many questions, and he told me the most important thing for him, was a personal studio for him to practice working on films.
After a week, I went back to him, with colourful renders, beautiful sketches, perspective views, and a detailed plan of the imaged house. He was stunned by my drawings, calling me an extremely good architect, and saying that my designs was exactly what he was looking for. He was working with another architect at the time, and confessed to me he was having a tough time understanding the visual spaces, but with me, he found it extremely simple.

He offered me the job, after a week’s worth of work. He told his producer at the time, “I found myself a good Architect, why don’t you hire him for your projects as well?” So I went to him, and after showing him some of my work, he requested me to design his house as well. Two big bungalows for celebrities in Juhu Beach – this was a sought-after job for many veteran architects, and it was given to me, a young architect from Delhi.

I had developed a confidence in my work, and it showed.

I never had an office, as I was still saying in a paying guest residence, so the clients could never come to my “office” to discuss work. They required to phone me, in order to get in touch with me. So I asked my landlady, who was a Parsi lady, if she could allow me to stay for a few more months before I left to Delhi, and also if she could arrange some kind of phone connection for me. She told me not to worry, as she used to work as a receptionist in her previous job, and she could manage and handle any calls that came for me, as my secretary.

Thus, my paying guest room became my office, and my landlady who could speak extremely well became my secretary!

III. Landmark Projects

Way back in 1975, when I was around 31 years old – I designed India’s first revolving hotel, with the Indian technology available to us back then. A young architect could make such visionary designs, with heavy structural columns and intricate design details – simply because of my “dare to do it” attitude.

I designed India’s first multiplex and mall too. Why me? People call it luck, but luck is just a chance. It is just an opportunity that comes before you, but it is up to you to capture that opportunity, or you will miss it forever.

I had no experience designing a multiplex. However, when I was offered the job, and asked to propose a design within two days, I worked hard and got it done. I saw my chance, and I grabbed it with both hands.

India’s first health spa was The Golden Palms, in Bengaluru. A health SPA was another challenge with which I had very little experience. I worked hard on the designs, creating something that had great relevance to our Indian users and the lifestyles we lead.

Even when I was offered to design a school for the first time, it was a similar story. My childhood school consisted of Government Barracks, and I did not think I was the right person for the job. However, the client motivated me, saying I had a good analytical mind, and if I put in the effort, I would be able to design a great school.

I agreed, and asked for a design brief, as well as if I could speak to some of the administration and education staff. The client told me that if I did so, then I would design a school in the way that they expected a school should be. He said, “I want you to think as an architect and design a school in the best way you feel a school should be. The only brief is that the school should not have homework.”

So, I analysed and worked hard. There was no limit or budget of any kind, so I began thinking, “Why should children be afraid to go to school? They should love it! Make a school that is so colourful and attractive, that they will enjoy everyday that they come to school!”

I made a concept and told the client that this design would cost three times more than a regular school, due to its expressive design. The client told me, the economics of construction would be handled by him, and I only had to come up with the best possible design. I showed him my designs, with visuals and a proper oration. He immediately approved the design.

The school remains one of the top rated schools in India, due to its attractive architectural setting. Even when I designed it, I made it future ready, with ample expansion space for computer labs and evolving building technology.

The client came to me with only one brief, and everything else was left to me. We achieved it. After that project we received many others of large scale – IT Parks, townships, and many others. All these projects – coming from one single opportunity. I took up a challenge, and I did it.

IV. Values

Even today, I do zero marketing for myself. I believe in only one thing – performance. It is like a stage, or a circus – the actor goes on, and has only a few minutes to show his talent. Either you get cheered, or you get booed off stage.

Architecture is the same – you must demonstrate the best of your ability. It is a much slower process which requires patience and endurance, and you must be able to think long term.

An architect cannot be greedy, only content with what they have. There is a lot of respect for architecture in Indian society. Architects are wonderful people, capable of making big changes, and cover almost all aspects of life – culture, religion, philosophy, economy, construction, technology, art, science, materials – you name it! An architect has to be an all-rounder, as he/she is the creator.

As an architect, I must be able to plan for the future. I must always be looking ahead. In order for clients to have faith in me, I have to demonstrate the confidence in my abilities through my performance. Performance, and service with a smile. These are two important traits.

An architect can never cheat – not himself, and not a client.

My design has to stand for the next 100 or 200 years. I cannot afford to make a mistake there, which forces me to be honest in every respect. This is a fundamental quality of any architect – reliability. If I never cheat myself, naturally, I will never cheat anybody else as well. You have to be true to this profession.

Architecture is a passionate profession. You should love your work. When opportunity comes around, you must grab it! You may call it luck, or even fluke, but you must respond to that. You must perform. If you have confidence and experience, you can do anything. Even today, my staff and I guarantee one thing – we will work hard, and do a job of great quality.

You may have heard the saying that the world belongs to superior people, and I have found that to be true. You have to be better, work harder and learn more everyday.

Success is not an unachievable thing. You do not require technology for success. You just need to use your common sense, but in a very unique and uncommon way. This will help you find a solutions to anything. Find a way, and do not find excuses. And above all – perform it.

V. Epilogue

I never had any huge expectation that I would do great things. Somehow, it always came to me. We never see our dreams, we are only able to think about them.

As architects, not only can we think about our dreams, but we can also visualise them and then construct them. With enough positivity and dedication, things will fall into your lap. Maybe you can call me a lucky person, but every time something new comes my way, I always take it. I always say, I am equally good making high-class homes, with future technology and expensive equipment, but I am also good at making homes for underprivileged people with economic constraints.

As Indians, we are very proud of our rich cultural heritage. However, we have still not managed to develop our Indian style of architecture. The English have given us colonial architecture. They came from London to India, studied our environments and climates, and designed adaptive structures that suited our climatic contexts – what is now known as Indo-Saracenic Architecture.

I urge young architects to do this. Find a unique style, and carry our legacy forward. And if you do not do it, I will stay longer, and I will do it myself!

That is my inner feeling to create something. Hopefully, I will be able to do it. I hope to sow a seed, that will be carried on for many years to come

Image Credits: © Prem Nath and Associates

PREM NATH & ASSOCIATES is a Mumbai-based design organisation established in 1967 having professional practice in architecture and interior designing, and offering Engineering Services all over India for over fifty years. The firm is proficiently equipped to handle jobs of various types and magnitude. Its activities cover Architectural and Interior Design Projects of Residential and Commercial Complexes / Malls Multiplex, Corporate Offices, Institutional / Industrial Projects; Hospital Projects; Health Club, 3 to 5 Star Hotels, Holiday Resorts & Amusement Parks & fast track I.T. / I.T.E. projects. It operates under the able direction of their Chief Executive Officer, Mr Prem Nath who personally ensures maintenance of high standards of design from the Aesthetic and Utility point of view.

This editorial was originally authored and published as part of a series of articles for the [IN]SIDE Journal.

DIALOGUE chronicles a conversation with an eminent architect/designer/ thinker on an idea or issue pertinent to contemporary design practice in India.

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