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Harmonising Form and Function

Balancing aesthetics and functionality with steel can yield breathtaking results. Amin Nayyar, Managing Director, ANA Design Studio, delves into the inherent properties of steel, the importance of collaborations and more in this conversation.

How do you balance aesthetics and functionality when incorporating steel elements into a design?
Steel is an inherently aesthetic material. If you design steel members to utilise their optimum capacities, the building lines follow the natural lines, which are beautiful. I have never struggled with trying to find an external inspiration with steel. I believe that exposing steel elements and utilising their inherent form is usually the most aesthetic way of using steel.

Can you provide examples of projects designed by you where steel was used creatively to enhance the architectural concept?
In the University of Kashmir project in Srinagar, we were asked to design a new administrative building. The design philosophy was a collaboration between the management and the ethos of work. They wanted to transform their management and optimise their environment to be more collaborative. The original building was a 1960s vintage with lots of rooms and dark corridors. So, the design was planned in a manner that created two blocks and was connected with an intermediate space. The winters are quite harsh and since the weather was in such extreme, we had to enclose the space in between. We toyed with a lot of materials but eventually arrived on glass as the choice. There is a set of portals and frames that carry this glass atrium. The panels open up and are fitted with sensors so that in the warm seasons they can open up. A bridge connects the upper levels of the two blocks. The lightness of this place could not have been achieved had we clad the steel in another material.

Another example on our drawing board is the roof of the Chandigarh railway station which is a sweeping structure. It is a series of vaults that taper into a paraboloid curve. The steel sections will be exposed and there will be zinc roofing. From the road, it will probably be the largest structure in Chandigarh, given the low-rise nature of the city. The idea is to create a large structure but make it seem light, airy and unimposing. It is a combination of tubular and built-up sections.

How do you ensure that the steel components align with the overall design intent and architectural style?
There are several aspects to how this gets done. So long as you allow steel to behave in its most natural and optimised form, the lines created would be beautiful. Then comes making the connections work. Whether it is lifting and fitting into place, or a series of launchings, the onus falls on the construction agencies to decide the capacities of cranes, assemblies, the safety of the launching, and whether the space beneath the launching and erection would be an isolated site. In the case of Chandigarh station, it will remain operational during the construction. The window of opportunity will be small. In such cases, segmentation of the components is defined by the construction technology and equipment available, and the ease of junctions. Lastly, the size and geometry of the members depend on the up-close aesthetics. We try to avoid members that are not closed or put them at angles where birds won’t nest, and so on.

In what ways does designing with steel impact construction timelines and costs compared to other materials?
We are seeing a positive move towards the use of steel due to a number of factors. Cost is one of them; we have reached a point where the cost differential between constructing in RCC and steel has reduced significantly. I started using steel 15 years ago when the difference was 15-20 per cent. Today, it has come down to under 8 per cent. Back then, For the next few years, I see the hybridisation of structures or composite structures. there is also an increase in the number of agencies available today that can convert steel to structural members while ensuring quality. We are not dependent upon on-site fabrication. The industry is maturing and there is more knowledge and capacity available. We are at the cusp of that ecosystem being generated in the construction industry where an adequate number of people have done good work and understand quality, systems and the tools available. While the total work is increasing, the number of skilled workers has not increased proportionally. So, we will also see a strong move towards prefab, component manufacturing and building modularisation.

What are your thoughts on modular construction? How do you see it picking up in India?
Modularisation is built into the logic of most buildings. Even with conventional RCC buildings, based on the usage of the building, you will find certain spans repeating across 80-85 per cent. Floor-to-floor heights are also mostly modular. Then, of course, organisations like the RLDA, which is currently in the process of modernising railway stations, have mandated that all stations must be modular. Those mandates are based on the current platforms, train sizes, and the way their scheduled dimensions need to be. A lot of thought has gone into creating these modules, and given the timeline and that the stations will remain operational, it makes sense for people to work within those modules. None of the station designs look the same and yet when you delve deeper, you will find that the mathematical logic of the grid and module remains constant. Of course, there would be bespoke elements with respect to cultural iconicity but the concourses, platform covering, and offices would all be modularised.

How do you collaborate with engineers to ensure the structural integrity of steel elements in the design?
It is wholly a partnership; you can’t have one without the other. From an architect’s perspective, there is a training of the mind and eye for practical and aesthetic details. The exact mathematical sizing, the behaviour of the material and its ability to withstand forces will come from careful analysis by the engineer. The structural engineer’s skill, care, and diligence is an absolutely integral part of whatever we create.

What is your opinion on the future of steel in architecture, considering emerging technologies like AI?
AI will take the manual and repetitive load off the back of the architects and engineers. It is an excellent tool for visualisation and creating parametric options which manually would take years to do. It is for us to hone our knowledge and skills to make sure we are not carried away by impractical ideas. The ability to understand whether an idea is worthwhile is key to the good use of artificial intelligence. It is here to stay; how we use it and how carefully we are subjugating it for our use. We are already using it at ANA and it has shown interesting results so far.

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