In an off-grid location Bhagwat’s distinctive office building is colonised to become the nations first contemporary art gallery. Photography by Edmund Sumner
What is most curious about this building, besides the billowing brick walls and blinkered Cor-ten exterior, is its setting. Situated in the middle of Delhi’s satellite city Gurgaon, the precise location of Devi Art Foundation is Plot 39, Sector 44, Gurgaon (Delhi), India. The address hints at the placelessness of this (non) place, built as part of the National Capital Region of India; an odd setting, perhaps, for the nation’s first private contemporary art museum.
While Gurgaon is an urban horror, however, this building is distinctive enough in looks to make up for what it lacks in location. Its architect, 50-year-old Aniket Bhagwat, is also distinctive in character, feisty and argumentative at times, but displaying in conversation the same sort of ceaseless and enthusiastic energy exhibited by this busy building.
A return to craft and the specificity of Indian modernism are what turns Bhagwat on, as he speaks with pride about the opportunity and promise of contemporary Indian architecture. The practice - founded by Bhagwat’s father, Prabhakar Bhagwat - is one of the country’s leading landscape architects, and was responsible for projects such as the remodelling of an 18th-century fort near Udaipur into the luxurious Devi Garh hotel.
The family firm that commissioned that restoration is also the client behind this project, briefing Bhagwat to design an office building for its emerging boutique hotel operation and the family’s more established paper mill company, which gives this building its official name, Sirpur House.
Its use as an art foundation came later as owner Lekha Poddar and her son Anupam became increasingly established as leading collectors of contemporary Indian art. With this building already in development, they decided to colonise space for art, which explains both its off-grid location, set among other isolated corporate HQs, and its basic regularised form, comprising two linear ranges of accommodation that respond to the site’s statutory planning constraints.
With set-backs and scale predetermined, the building’s initial moves are the same as its neighbours’. However, while the best of the rest adopt the conventional corporate uniform of curtain walling, and the worst espouse neo-classicist po-mo, Sirpur House is a bespoke, hand-crafted creation.
Over-detailed? Yes, without doubt. Complicated to build? Yes - it took eight years to complete. But nonetheless it is a unique embodiment of both its client’s and architect’s love of craft.
‘It was never meant to be an art foundation,’ recalls Bhagwat. ‘It was meant to be a regular office building, and the art has been put up in a standard office bay. The space has been taken over so that [the client] can show the art until he has the money to build a museum, or until the office spaces are needed for that purpose.
They didn’t need all of it straight away.’ Accommodating a traditional paper mill company and chi-chi hotel chain side by side gives the building a kind of split personality, expressed not only through the shift from the external Cor-ten steel skin to the inner faces of brickwork, but also more overtly between the modes of fenestration on each side of the central courtyard.
‘The paper mill is a very old fashioned business that has been going for generations,’ says Bhagwat. ‘So they are very stiff. On the other hand, the son’s activities - the hotels, a design company and of course now the art foundation - all have to co-exist in the same space.’ As a result, one side of the building is a very stoic, straightforward, reasonably well-proportioned brick facade, while the other side gets ‘feisty, joyous and talks more’.
Bhagwat compares the buckled brick fins to sheets of paper that have fallen from the paper mill offices and landed in the courtyard. ‘At one point we actually started throwing pieces of paper from the air to see how they fall and clash, and [watching them] bend and crease, we wondered if we could make brick walls like that.
Was it really possible?’ It was possible, but the result is perhaps the least convincing part of the building and, worryingly, Bhagwat is certain that the walls would collapse in the event of a significant earthquake. But as he repeatedly says, ‘It’s fun’. Joking aside, elsewhere the building manifests the more serious side of Bhagwat’s architecture, with each detail expressing the care and attention of a talented team of designers.
The offices are especially successful, but even these break the rule of standard commercial space, with a split section differentiating between open and cellular enclaves. Furnished with fine timber joinery, they have the calm, timeless quality of a library reading room.
The proportions also have a more domestic scale, with the narrow plan giving occupants the option to naturally ventilate the space, pre-cooling the exposed concrete floors and soffits.
The biggest surprise is to be found in the basement. This also bears the signs of Bhagwat’s ceaseless pursuit of craft, with fine cast concrete and metalwork elevating its status from mere car park to occasional art space. ‘We always knew it was going to be a parking lot,’ he says, ‘but the client had begun talking about it as a place for him to use for events and to show his art, so it needed to be a little better than a straightforward parking lot.
It was always going to be built in exposed concrete, so in that sense we just detailed it a bit more than you would normally do. But that was it.’ Through its tectonic and material rigour, the building completely outshines its more glitzy neighbours.
Recognising the unmistakable references to both Louis Kahn and Balkrishna Doshi, Bhagwat says: ‘I guess we should admit that we are still the product of Ahmedabad’s Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology [where Doshi’s influence is still felt today], and through this I guess our subconscious minds will never let us stray beyond a certain point.’
Architect M/S Prabhaker B Bhagwat, Ahmedabad, India
Structural engineer Nitin B Shah
Electrical engineer Dhaval Mehta