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An architect in sync with nature
Gargi Gupta in NEw Delhi
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November 17, 2007

From the outside, the Machani home in Bangalore looks like a glass house. It has clear glass panels all around, lined inside with bamboo chiks. Interspersed in between the walls are rocks and huge boulders - these are the pillars actually - on which steel struts are fixed to support the roof.

The roof, again, is not your conventional one but a tiled affair with glass slats to let in the light and keep out the heat. The walls, meanwhile, are made of exposed bricks, terracotta tiles and rough-cut stone, which contrasts well with the green of the house-plants and shrubs that abound.

"It's beautiful, ecologically viable and economic as well. It tries to make the best use of nature since you can never beat it," says architect K Jaisim about his creation, which was recently featured in a design journal.

But then Jaisim is known for his brick and stone structures, mostly residences, although he has had a few institutional clients as well in his more-than-40-years-long career.

"Don't clothe your structures, let them come to live," says the architect with the zeal of someone furrowing a narrow path in today's big-is-good ethos, quite like his hero Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead.

In fact, his firm is named after the last: Jaisim Fountainhead. "Look at the hollow terracotta blocks I've used. These work at three levels - aesthetic, acoustic and structural. And all for the price of one." Jain uses concrete sparingly, preferring to use age-old materials like lime and mud instead.

Jaisim has recently developed the plans for a rehabilitation housing colony for 6,500 families of tsunami-affected fishermen in Chennai. For this, he has used prefabricated polysterene-concrete sandwiched panels in each of the dwellings, which meet two important criteria of this World Bank-funded project - low on cost and high on insulation.

But even here, Jaisim's primary objective has been to create a living environment that is organic, beautiful and in sync with its natural surroundings. The project brief of "high density" built area has been married with the idea of typical fishermen's homes; horizontal areas, allowing for free spaces to walk about in.

The design was inspired from a bee-hive  - the buildings are multi-storied but they go up subtly in levels, which are punctuated by courtyards.

It's a technique of making the best of both worlds while keeping faith with his own tenets of building with natural materials that Jaisim used, five years ago, in the ITC Infotech offices in Bangalore. These are housed in what used to be a tobacco factory.

In a feat of imaginative retro-fitting, Jaisim retained the shell of the high-ceilinged warehouses but added interesting touches like a roof made of earthen pots and a stone floor and tables.

Incidentally, stone - huge boulders in ungainly shapes - is a favourite and Jaisim says he has picked up supplies from all over the countryside, including construction sites where stone was being blasted and being thrown aside as of no use.

But then, as Jaisim rues, institutional clients like the ITC are very rare indeed. For example, he wonders about the fate of his tsunami project. "The fishermen really liked my designs. But the point is, who will build it without making compromises? You know what official structures are like and the corruption everywhere."

As for corporate clients, there are many who appreciate his personal style, but when it comes to getting him to build their offices, Jaisim runs into opposition from structural engineers who say that it won't do for high-rises.

Anyway, large structures of the kind that are being built all over India today, are definitely not the 64-year-old architect's cup of tea. "Give me medium and small. I won't do anything highly commercial. All my structures are human, humane; as I tell all the developers who come, asking me to design these gated high-rise communities, I'm not putting anyone in a prison."

No wonder, all his structures, even the institutional ones like the Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bangalore, School for Management Studies and Tumkur; Light and Life Academy have this quality of quiet repose and communion with nature.

The real showpiece of Jaisim's talents, however, will be Suvidha, a retirement village that he has been working on for the past two years in Kanakpura, a beautiful valley a few kilometres outside Bangalore.

Here, there'll be housing for 200 old couples in a single-level, single-loaded design with a medical centre, swimming pool, golf course, and arts and craft centre. The design incorporates green elements: a 4-acre lake formed of rainharvested water, with solar panels and windmills, so that eventually, it can generate energy to meet as much as 60 per cent of its needs.

Suvidha, says Jaisim, is being developed by a conglomerate of small builders on 45 acres given by the government on a subsidised basis, since it is largely meant for doctors. "My colleagues laugh that I too will probably live there after retirement." They could well be right.

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