A sneak-peek inside Ar. Nilesh Chopda’s life

Can you tell us about your days before Onus Design? What made you decide about becoming an architect?

Ar. Nilesh Chopda

The design came to me quite naturally, from making objects of interest at my fathers wood workshop, in the process learning from the carpenters.  Dabbing with their instruments I developed a good sense of detailing and material interpretation. This interest led to joining training classes for product design, where I realized that design is surely the field I would pursue as my career. Training through the summers, I  got through the primary test for NID Ahmedabad, unfortunately losing the admission to the Gujarat riots. It was then that I opted for Architecture.

Architecture at MM College Pune was fun, the earlier two years were sincere classroom studies and in the canteens. Later in the third and early fourth year, it was in the library where the real world of design expanded, hence skipping some classes as learning was faster and more interesting in the library.

Conceptual design for commercial complex © Onus Design

Actually, any type of design learnt by reading through the experiences written by the masters, interpreting the thought process they went through during design. Also important was to acquire the skill and technical knowledge to build your design. College gave the bases for the technical side.I did my internship under Ar. Bijoy Jain. He is a renowned architect then based in Juhu, Mumbai. I was involved in designing Prithvi Theatre interiors and House of Shashi Kapoor while also assisting seniors in the office with projects in urban development design and architecture detailing. I used to work under Ar. Sanjeev, Bijoy’s partner,  a brilliant architect. His teachings were the turning point in design interpretation. There I learned how to handle large-scale projects.

Where did you work before starting your own practice?

Post to completion of internship which was wonderful and intense. Coming back to the classroom was slow but necessary to build patience, one of the most important part.

College submissions were not aligned with the practical world, hence to seek insolence it was necessary to work in an architecture firm. Ar. Ejaz Hakim gave me that opening allowing me to do it at a flexible time. I used to work after college hours till late in the night. While working with him on bungalow and interior projects in and around Pune, I learned a lot from him as well. It was a great way to bridge the gap between the latest practical knowledge and what was taught in college.

After Ejaz Hakim, there was still much to learn so we 3 friends came together and started working on our own. Since we had less work, we used to all sorts of works for other architects renowned architects like  Bipin Shah, Girish Doshi, P.R Mehta. We used to do design work for them and also look at its execution.

I remember doing the main Toyota showroom when Toyota was launching itself in Maharashtra with DSK. The entire work was given to Girish Doshi and it was supposed to be finished in just 35 days. From raw design to complete functional office. Girish Doshi handed it over to us and we managed to finish it in before time. We finished architecture and interiors of the project, from a service centre to showroom space. This gave us a high in achievement and also got in lots of work. Finally, the 3 of us, Me, Prashant Chordia and Vijay Kate came together and founded a partnership firm called ‘Premise’. We practised together for 2 years but with our varying interests, we decided to dissolve the company. And that is when finally in 2001, I founded Onus Design.

Which are some of the earliest projects that you have designed?

In the beginning, I was again doing a few bungalows; 2 bungalows in Suyog society, a farmhouse in Bavdhan, some interiors. I was also consulting others consultants during that time. This consulting went on till somewhere around 2006.

One of the most mentionable projects that I did in the starting was interiors for the house of Mr. Dinesh Vazrani in Mumbai. He was a celebrity, and an artist and one of the biggest private painting collector in India; a brilliant person. It was an unforgettable learning experience. It showed me what a different level of architecture interiors can be. I feel that it was one of the most beautiful projects ever made till date.

The first big project I did was for Kumar Properties, called Kumar Palm Spring. It was a project consisting bungalows and buildings. In phase 1 they only finished the bungalows but that project put me into a larger market of builders.

Acacia bungalow, Pune
© Onus Design

It was after this project that I got few more projects of small-scale buildings. And while I was working on these, a large township project from Bilaspur came my way. They had seen my earlier projects and had liked it. So they offered us the opportunity to design the township.

You have designed almost every type of real estate project, from huge townships to individual bungalows and even commercial spaces. Have there been some core values that have been part of every structure designed by you?

Every architectural design includes 3 aspects: beauty, utility and most importantly, psychology. The first and foremost important role for any architectural design is to satisfy the human psyche of growth. It doesn’t mean that the design has to be just flashy or futuristic. It means that it should become an aspiration. The harmony between a design based on human psychology and the ecosystem is what architecture has to be about. Studying this aspect and gaining a thorough knowledge of the matter helped me in planning the township on a micro as well as a macro scale. I have also seen that the design that pays attention to the human psychology of growth is the only kind of design that lasts long.

I feel that only focussing on aesthetics is a very primitive approach towards designing because aesthetics are always going to be subjective. What appears beautiful to me might not appear beautiful to you. It all depends on the perception of the individual. It’s never about whether form-follows-function or function-follows-form. It’s always about the psychologically, social, cultural and utility required for that place and then making sure that your design fulfils that requirement.

You are currently the architect for one of the biggest townships in central India. How do you begin the conceptualisation for such a humongous project? Were there any particular challenges that you had to face initially?

As I said, the every architectural design has to be about catering to the psychological needs of the people using it and this is exactly what we are doing when we design; may it be a small house or a larger township. The only difference that I can think of is that the psychological elements and requirements involved in a township are always going to be complex and interdependent compared to that of a small house.

For example, when we design a society, we want its residents to feel safe and it is being safe is a feeling. One has to deal with it in a physical world but in the end, it is all about creating a feeling.

Swarnabhoomi township, Raipur
© Square One

When it comes to creating a master plan for a township, we try to plan in such a manner that navigation becomes intuitive and obvious for the people. That way, for the people or elements like cars which are not supposed to be at a particular place, that place, by design itself, becomes least accessible. When it is designed in this way, it will not only stand the test of time but it also put the minds of its residents at ease. In their hearts they know that their child is safe when playing outside; no car is going to hurt him as he runs around with carefree innocence.

As far as the challenges are concerned the clients usually don’t create any as long as it’s not impacting them financially. That’s why I didn’t face much of a challenge on that front because since I wasn’t creating something that would affect the financial aspect, the client told me to go ahead. Interestingly, with these designs, he ended up saving quite a bit of money. And after experiencing the architecture, the 2nd phases of these townships got sold like hot cake so now I’ve got a free reign to do it my way. The challenge here is to do justice to their trust.

Your projects are pan-India. Are there any differences in cultures that influence the architecture and have to be considered while designing?

The physical conditions of the different regions are obviously going to be different and so are the social, cultural conditions because the family structures are different. When we talk about culture or region, there are many elements that come into the picture; the altitude, the climate, the rainfall and apart from those, even the socio-economic conditions, the political inclinations of the majority population, etc. If you considered these aspects you will realise that these aspects concentrate more on the way of life. From architect’s perspective, the difference in culture or region means the difference in the way how people live their lives because the architect has to understand that specific way in order to embed the requirements of that lifestyle. Otherwise, all the structures would have turned out the same way. But it’s the differences in way of life are what give rise to different requirements and result in different designs.

For example, if we are designing a residence in Srinagar, we have to understand that safety is not always about building strong, tall walls. Again, it’s a feeling. If I were to design it, I would build a place that will enable all the members of the family to be together on a frequent basis at a central area because there is nothing more comforting than the togetherness of the family; then the family feels safe knowing that there is closeness as well as strong bond that will help them in any scenario.

Is there anything that you wish to change about the latest trends in architecture?

The evolution of architecture usually happens in the process of urbanisation. As the population of the city grows, first they expand vertically and then horizontally. However, planning for accommodating the growing demand becomes difficult as the policies cannot exactly keep up with the shifting trends. It results in crammed infrastructural development and stunts the growth human mind.

The thing is in the era of smartphones, gadgets and TVs, the flow of information or data has grown tremendously. However, the issue is that without the time to process all of it, it is impossible to grow because the growth comes through knowledge, not information. With a very busy schedule and tight timelines, it has become very hard to contemplate and evolve. Just information won’t help us evolve. We need to find time to think.

If we look at more developed countries like Norway or Sweden, we realise that they have given a lot of thought to finding an answer to this issue and have planned the course in a manner that brings man closer to nature and keeps him physically fit. And that is what helps them move ahead. Honestly speaking, the people who have lost touch with nature become weak over a period of time.

So while planning spaces we need to make sure that there are enough opportunities to connect with nature.

Villas at Swarnabhoomi township, Raipur
© Square One

The architects also need to consider the future requirements of people they are creating the design for. Looking only at the current requirements damages the flow of urbanisation because of the lack of foresight applied in the past.

For example, if a couple gets married and intends to buy a house, it’s the architects who should understand that in less than 5 years that couple is going to need one additional room. And what happens is that the couple, in their current status, might not be able to afford the house with that one additional room but 4-5 years down the line when they are capable of adding that additional room, they have to buy a new house (which is not a very convenient option) or live in a smaller place. This all could be avoided if only there was some forethought put by architects in the initial stage.

Doing these are the only aspects that matter the most. These are the things that will make the cities smarter and not an example of blind infrastructural growth.

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