Luxury with longevity: Akshat Bhatt on designing the East India Hotels HQ

STIR speaks with Akshat Bhatt of Architecture Discipline, who designed the Oberoi Group’s new office, about merging the digital, analogue and natural realms and going beyond isms.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Oct 09, 2020

The Oberoi Office Tower that belongs to the Oberoi Group of Hotels, one of India’s top hospitality brands, is situated in Cyber City in the heart of Gurgaon, India. Architecture Discipline, a multi-disciplinary design firm led by Akshat Bhatt, was commissioned to design the 10,000 sqft. corporate headquarters for the Oberoi Group’s flagship company East India Hotels (EIH) Limited, which houses the offices of Arjun Oberoi, Managing Director of EIH Limited, his Projects Development team and also the company’s Executive Chairman, Prithvi Raj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi – a man hailed as one of India’s greatest hoteliers and the force behind the brand.

The design crafts spaces for two equally charismatic but completely different individuals with diverse opinions, belonging to the same lineage but separated by almost 40 years. The dynamic, avant-garde approach to the modern office therefore respects the pedigree of the system, while pushing the work culture into a new age with a newfound expression. The architect calls it a ‘glass box within a glass box’. The office intends to define the progressive attitude of the organisation in order to nurture a healthy workspace community and to set an example of how design can be used to break down hierarchies and create positive environments.

Architecture Discipline adopted an avant-garde approach to the modern office| East India Hotel’s headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
Architecture Discipline adopted an avant-garde approach to the modern office Image: Jeetin Sharma

Architecture Discipline worked on a distinct open plan workspace that lends its users the privacy needed for their work profile while also minimising the clutter by the method of reduction in the working zones. The design seamlessly merges the digital, analogue and natural realms within the space with state-of-the-art technology, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi networks, wall-mounted tablets and smartboards that facilitate productivity.

Akshat Bhatt, principal architect, Architecture Discipline| East India Hotel corporate headquarters | Architecture Discipline ! Stirworld
Akshat Bhatt, principal architect, Architecture Discipline Image: Courtesy of Architecture Discipline

In a conversation with STIR, Akshat Bhatt talks about the idea of longevity, design that can serve generations and that architecture must have a quest for excellence and move beyond traditional styles.

Meghna Mehta (MM): What was your first interpretation of the brief for the East India Hotel’s headquarters? Could you narrate the story behind your design process about the open plan, and how it evolved?

Akshat Bhatt (AB): We started working with The Oberoi Group in 2014. While interacting with them, I realised that they understand the fundamentals of luxury - height, light, space and air. They understood that these fundamentals don’t change; for example, you don’t compromise on natural light, and you cannot compromise on planning space. They have these ideas inherently imbibed in them - it’s programmed in their DNA – what can be called the quest for purity.

Once we completed the India Fashion Store in 2015, Mr. Oberoi called me after he saw it and said, “This is one of the best appointed stores I have seen in the last 15 years,” and asked if we would be interested in working with him, to which I readily agreed. For studios like ours at the time (we were maybe six-seven years old), we do not get opportunities like that. After having worked on experimental projects and projects where we had to slap a space together and make it inhabitable space, we had to grow up very quickly.

Another thing that was important to them was that the space had to be long-lasting, not just in terms of physicality but how the design expression has to remain alive. I relate to that, because when you do artificial distressing, you are actually telling a fake story. You are trying to create a narrative in a context, where the context doesn’t really exist.

The distinct open plan workspace lends its users the privacy | East India Hotel’s headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
The distinct open plan workspace lends privacy to its users Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: So are you saying that ageing was kept in mind during a design process?

AB: We did a house a few years ago where we applied seven different coats with seven different colours of paint on a staircase. We did it because it was a house for a family with two young kids, so we actually wanted the abrasion on the staircase to reveal different colours. That was a controlled narrative, a predictable narrative or controlled corrosion, if you may say. But when you do a pristine space, you want to arrest aging as much as possible.

I believe for architecture, for it to last forever, you have to build with detail, with planning and with materials that will endure the test of time. – Akshat Bhatt

MM: Would you say timelessness was one of the requirements of this project?

AB: I think the maintainability, serviceability, longevity is part of the DNA of any Oberoi project. It does not come as a brief; it is understood. If you want to innovate, there has to be a need for innovation, rather than innovation just for the sake of it. The need for these spaces was to be clean, quiet, silent, yet cultured. Spaces where people are instantly awed yet comfortable.

We were briefed that Mr Oberoi is a progressive thinker and he would not want something traditional but he would want something which is, for the lack of a better word, ‘classic’. And I think the definition of classic has a certain instant propriety to it, which has the right amount of distinction and discretion.

An informal reception greets visitors into the corporate office | East India Hotel’s headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
An informal reception greets visitors into the corporate office Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: What inspired the floor plan to be the way it is? When you were cutting out your spaces, what was the critical element that created the layout?

AB: After three levels of security from the entrance, one comes onto the top floor of the seven-storeyed building and walks in. The first step was the thought that there was no need for a prescribed reception. The doors are always open, there is no formal reception. And when you know someone is coming in, you actually walk up to the door to receive them, and you would usher them yourself to where they need to go. The second part was that the space in itself lends you privacy, you do not need doors to do that for you. You would only need doors to hold in sound, perhaps.

And then we started arriving at some numbers - there are only 22 people, how many meetings can there possibly be? There was also a need for an open office, almost like a studio space. It is an open plan for everyone, there were no hierarchies. There are three distinct spaces, however; one is where the chief architect sits, another space where the chief of projects sits, and the third one is where the head of engineering sits.

  • Floor Plan of the East India Hotels Limited’s headquarters | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    Floor Plan of the East India Hotels Limited’s headquarters Image: Courtesy of Architecture Discipline
  • A section through the East India Hotels Limited’s headquarters  | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    A section through the East India Hotels Limited’s headquarters Image: Courtesy of Architecture Discipline

MM: Could you explain the flow of spaces in the office?

AB: The office primarily includes a closed conference room, a meeting room, the Managing Director’s office, Senior Vice President's cabin, a large collaborative workstation zone and a casual lounge space.

Arriving at the office reception, one is presented with the view of a large, unexpectedly green courtyard around which different zones are located. A lounge on the left with books and accolades on display is programmed as a breakout zone to have casual meetings and discussions. This opens into the large open plan with workstations and collaborative desks and cabins. Turning to the corner around the courtyard leads one to the meeting and conference rooms. At the end of the corridor is the Managing Director’s office.

The open plan allows spaces to visually blend into each other | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
The open plan allows spaces to visually blend into each other Image: Jeetin Sharma

Keeping the same sensibilities of the brand and its character and playing along the Managing Director's enthusiasm for automobiles, a piece of aviation history has been installed in his office. A decommissioned Cessna aircraft’s eight-metre long wing has been turned into an eye-catching table top. The aluminum structure of the table top is a light animated object and an impression of Arjun sci-fi odyssey.

  • The aircraft wing table stands as a proud and arresting centre-piece in the Managing Director’s office| East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    The aircraft wing table stands as a proud and arresting centre-piece in the Managing Director’s office Image: Jeetin Sharma
  • The detail of the Aircraft wing table | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    The detail of the aircraft wing table Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: And the other cabins?

AB: The Executive Chairman’s office is stately and distinguished, stoic yet flamboyant. It has been designed as a clean arrangement with the use of spatial geometry. Warm shafts of sun penetrate deep into the interior spaces giving it the feel of a spacious daylight-filled art gallery.

Biki Oberoi’s cabin features sophistication with minimal materials such as a dignified dark stained walnut desk with a perforated bronze metal modesty panel, fine handcrafted leather gilded top, with the backdrop screen continuing the metal lattice language inside the room. A lounge sofa seating with a bronze tinted glass coffee table and Carrara marble top side tables make for a relaxing space.

  • A perforated bronze metal modesty panel offers glimpses into adjacent spaces | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    A perforated bronze metal modesty panel offers glimpses into adjacent spaces Image: Jeetin Sharma
  • The Chairman’s Cabin | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    The Chairman’s Cabin Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: How did the courtyard come around in the plan?

AB: It came very early on in the project, we inherited a courtyard but we knew that we didn’t actually need the space. There was, due to FAR requirements, a certain amount of leeway that was required. Also, let’s understand one thing - our cities are insanely ugly. The courtyard for the Chairman’s office is a structured space with an olive tree sitting within a grid of wedelia and white pebbles with green vines cascading from above. The second courtyard has a singular olive tree placed on a timber deck and a sculptural bench.

An internal glass courtyard provides relief and facilitates transparency | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
An internal glass courtyard provides relief and facilitates transparency Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: What are the significant features of this project that differentiate it from others?

AB: I would call this project a ‘glass box within a glass box that creates an oasis in a busy city’. The office has an external glass façade that allows a 360 degree view of the charged urban context, while an internal glass courtyard provides relief and facilitates transparency across the floor plate. This project has been conceptualised as an oasis of nature that is calm and relaxing in juxtaposition to its immediate context by creating central glass courtyards that feed the interiors with natural light.

All good architecture is a quest for light and space. – Akshat Bhatt
  • Sketches of the aircraft wing table created out of  aluminium wing from the decommissioned Cessna aircraft | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    Sketches of the aircraft wing table created out of aluminium wing from the decommissioned Cessna aircraft Image: Courtesy of Architecture Discipline
  • Initial sketches of the aircraft wing table | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
    Initial sketches of the aircraft wing table Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: Arjun's enthusiasm towards automobiles and aviation has been included in various ways - through the use of the aircraft wing in the table, the sci-fi aluminium tabletop. How did this blend in with the modern interiors and the overall brand and design ideology?

AB: It is Arjun’s work table, actually. Arjun is an automotive enthusiast, and Oberois have an aviation division. There is a spirit of freedom that we all relish, automobiles or automotive components or bikes do that to us. We felt that the space needed something special, and Arjun said it needs a jet, it needs an aircraft - it needed a kick of energy. We realised, through Oberoi Aviation, we could start looking for a real aircraft component to do the job, and we found a crashed plane at Indira Gandhi Airport. So we bought two wings and the tailplane, and we split it three ways. So one wing belongs to me, one wing is a spare which is available on auction to the highest bidder, and the tail plane went to Arjun. It was actually very inexpensive. And we got a guy who restored cars to do the metalwork for us and polish it, and he made the base. All the mechanisms inside the plane wings still work too.

I don't believe that the -isms are what architecture should be about, it is about finding new directions. – Akshat Bhatt
IEclectic furnishing brings dynamic spaces to life | East India Hotels headquarters by Architecture Discipline | STIRworld
Eclectic furnishing brings dynamic spaces to life Image: Jeetin Sharma

MM: You have tried to give each material its own meaning; would you say you adapted a ‘brutalist’ approach?

AB: I like to stay away from trends and trend formations as such. I believe architecture has to be for the future, for the next three generations. And that has to be your vision. Often clients do not have that vision and as an architect I have to bring that in. Today I can say that I have designed many spaces that are relevant for the next 25 years - in terms of physical build quality, the aesthetic, the design identity and the planning. As a word, brutalism has taken on a whole new dimension these days.

The quest for excellence and the pursuit for creation for the future will never change. – Akshat Bhatt

The return to traditionalism is so in vogue, but why? We tend to hide our designs behind one picture-perfect corner, but that is not space created for us forever. We do not have to return to tradition. Our traditional ways of learning, our traditional styles...we must move beyond it.

Project Details

Name: East India Hotels Limited corporate headquarters
Location: Gurugram, Haryana, India
Area: 10,000 sqft.
Architect: Architecture Discipline
Design team: Akshat Bhatt, Himanshu Chopra, Nikita Aneja, Anjula Roy

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