Anvar Alikhan talks to one of the city’s leading architects — Yeshwant Ramamurthy. The architect reveals why he finds the Chowmohalla Palace and the TCS office building interesting.
Yeshwant Ramamurthy is one of Hyderabad’s leading architects. We met up one afternoon for lunch at Okra, the coffee shop at the Marriott. We decided to order straightaway, so we could get down to our conversation. Okra is known for its buffet lunch, which some people have called the best in town. But we didn’t feel upto that, so we both ordered just a soup and a main course: herb-encrusted salmon with sauce nicoise for Yeshwant, and tenderloin steak for me, served with mushroom sauce.
‘So what’s it like to be an architect practicing in a city that has an architectural heritage as rich as Hyderabad?’ I asked Yeshwant, to begin our conversation.
“It’s interesting. “ he replied “The Old City of Hyderabad, which was laid out in the 1590s by Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, was one of the world’s great examples of town-planning in its time.
It was laid out in a grid pattern, with the streets running at right angles to each other – just as Manhattan would be laid out nearly three hundred years later.”
I remember Thevenot, the 17th century French traveller described it as ‘a great city of gardens and fountains’ .
“If you look, you won’t see any evidence of those old gardens on the ground today. But if you look at satellite images of the Old City — or if you view it on Google Earth — you can still see the outlines of those gardens, and the way the trees were planted. It’s amazing. Also, in the old texts there are descriptions of how water systems were used to cool the city in the hot summer months — something the Qutb Shahis had probably learned from the Mughals. You can still see the remains of those old water channels and fountains, if you know where to look.”
What happened after that? How did town planning evolve under the Nizams?
“There were some interesting town planning initiatives during Nizam VI’s time. But much more important were the initiatives of Nizam VII. After the Musi floods of 1908, a City Improvement Trust was set up to mastermind a major town-planning programme. The planning was very European in character, in the way the buildings were juxtaposed on the map.
But the architecture of the buildings themselves was in a typically Osmanian style. They were great buildings like the High Court, the Osmania Hospital, the Jagirdar’s College and, later, the Osmania University, which were designed by a remarkable English civil engineer named Vincent Esch.”
And what about town planning in Hyderabad after 1948?
“There was a huge void. Virtually nothing happened until Chandrababu Naidu’s time, around 1995. That’s when a lot of road widening took place. And with that, as always, came the building of taller structures — which you can view as a positive, or a negative. Also, that’s when districts like Madhapur and Gachibowli were planned.”
We’d finished our soup by now and our main course arrived. Yeshwant’s herb-encrusted salmon looked very good, and he pronounced it satisfactory. I was served three thick roundels of tenderloin steak, with mushroom sauce. It was, I must say, one of the best steaks I have had in Hyderabad — thick and juicy, and quite unlike the many pathetic, stringy steaks I’ve endured at many a 5-star restaurant.
‘As an architect, of all the buildings in Hyderabad, which do you find most interesting?’ I asked Yeshwant, to continue our conversation.
“The Chowmahalla Palace. It does something to me every time I go, because it has such grandeur about it. What’s fascinating is its transition of different styles, as you move from the public spaces to the private spaces. As you enter, it presents a Deccani style of architecture, but as you move inwards to the private courtyards, the style morphs into European. And yet, despite the different styles, the whole thing forms one harmonious whole.”
That’s interesting. Because in other Indian palaces it was the reverse. The public spaces were European, but the private spaces were Indian. What this suggests is that the inhabitants were so cosmopolitan that they were more comfortable to live in the European mode, while they paid public tribute to the Deccani mode.
“Yes, in the Durbar Hall you sat – on a farsh – on the floor, with a raised marble platform only for the Nizam’s masnad. But just one courtyard behind, they had things like leather-upholstered Italian and French furniture — some of which have been restored and displayed.”
OK, tell me another example of Hyderabad architecture that you admire.
“The Paigah tombs. They have a monumentality about them, but at the same time, a great delicacy. Just look at the wafer-thin lime mortar that forms the geometric jali work there. And the onion-like forms on the parapets, which look so dramatic when you view them against the skyline.”
We finished our main course and, after a brief debate, decided to split a dessert: a New York baked cheesecake, topped with raspberry sauce.
Let’s jump forward 300 years. What is a recent example of Hyderabad architecture that you admire?
“Deccan Park, the TCS office building. What I admire about it is the extremely intelligent the way it has been designed for our local Hyderabad conditions, by a leading Swiss architect. There’s none of that impractical glass and steel that has unfortunately become so trendy in our office buildings. Instead, it’s very refreshingly designed in brown sandstone, and set in a landscaped forecourt. It is an extremely environment-friendly and low-maintenance building, with a wonderful use of natural light.”
What’s your take on the Park Hotel? As we know it’s designed by Skidmore Owens & Merrill, one of the world’s top architecture firms.
“Whoever it’s designed by, to me it just looks like a concrete box covered with a fancy aluminium cladding. It has no sense of arrival, which is important in a hotel. It’s very cold, you are not greeted by anything or anyone. There are no landscaped areas. And inside it seems so mixed up, neither globalised, nor Indian.”
Coming to your own work, tell me of some of the interesting projects you’ve done recently.
“One of today’s challenges is that you have to work much smaller plot sizes. We did one residence where the plot was a strange shape — 30ft wide and 100 ft deep. Designing it conventionally, it would have ended up like a long corridor train. So we put the porch in the middle and designed two wings on the sides. The other problem was that the neighbouring buildings were just 5 feet away. So we did a four-level vertical garden on either side for privacy, so that all floors of the building look onto a green bank.”
What kind of work gives you the greatest joy?
“My firm does all kinds of work: hotels, resorts, restaurants, residences, interiors and landscaping. But my own passion is conservation. I really enjoyed doing Utsav, a restaurant we created in a 170-year-old building, which we had to restore to its original form. Also, I’ve done some very interesting work at the Secunderabad Club and the Hyderabad Public School, where everything new had to comply with the design character of the original 19th century buildings. I’ve won various awards for my conservation work over the years.”
Who’s the most interesting client you’ve worked with?
He’s visually challenged and I’m designing a hospital for him right now. It’s an experience that is both educative and very moving. He’s obviously very perceptive about incorporating features for the physically challenged. And one line of his brief was very poignant: he said to me, “I want the building to
Anvar Alikhan is Senior VP and Executive Creative Director of JWT. He’s also a columnist for the national media. He writes occasionally about food and other good things in life.
Photographs by Syed Alimuddin