Meinhard Von Gerkan on GMP's entry into India

Meinhard Von Gerkan, a partner in the German architectural firm GMP, was in Delhi recently to prospect for ventures in India, particularly in light of the upcoming Commonwealth Games 2010 in New Delhi. He speaks to Kaushik Das Gupta

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Sunday 15 July 2007

Down to EarthOn architecture Architecture, like all arts, originates from the human desire to give form and shape to ideas. But unlike other arts it has a utilitarian aspect the physical maintenance of human beings. However, this aspect has produced the unfortunate distinction between buildings that are erected purely on utilitarian grounds and those constructed for a 'higher' aesthetic function.

This distinction is a purely modern one. In the past, architecture represented the social values of people. Today, architecture's significance can be reclaimed if it could provide answers to today's social problems creating urbanity while protecting nature and maintaining a cultural identity.
On forays into architecture in Asia We worked on the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi in the early 1980s. Then, about eight years back, we designed a German school in Beijing, followed by an exhibition there showcasing our designs. The response was good. It got us a lot of work in China.
On projects in China We have been involved with a huge variety churches, opera facilities, museums, sport facilities, stadiums, exhibition centres, convention centres, high-rise buildings and industrial complexes. Currently, we are working on an urban conurbation near Shanghai.
On the USP of GMP buildings Our architecture is simple, ecologically sustainable and tries to tackle some of the problems arising from high-energy use today.

Today we have over 60 buildings all over China, and our success there to a large extent is because people have realised that the kind of architecture we do is very different from what is done under the influence of Americans and the others.
On energy use in buildings Let me take the example of a high-rise building complex we made in Guangzhou, China. All office units are lit optimally due to the narrow building depth. This was achieved by dividing the building into three sections, a glassed mid-section with a central area of access and two flanking, slightly narrower sections in which offices are located. The side section facades are structured with a grid pattern made up of supports with natural stone facing, and cross beams integrating two storeys. Vertical sun-screening metal lamellas, which are electrically controlled, move according to sun's position. They provide for glare-free light and pleasant temperature.

On an average, our buildings in China are 50 per cent more energy efficient than those made by others.
On what brings GMP to India We keep hearing that India is on its way to becoming an economic giant. This, I think, offers us an opportunity to present our work here. India will host the 2010 Commonwealth Games and our experience on working on stadiums and sporting complexes can come in handy here. It could be the beginning of cooperation with Indian architects.
On the utility of the Chinese experience to India We realise that Indian conditions will be very different. One has to react to new situations always. With every site, local conditions and culture vary. Our experience in China shows that it is absolutely necessary to work with local architects and learn from their knowledge. We have 30 different partners in various parts of China. We intend to do that in India too.
On materials We prefer natural materials to plastic. As far as possible, we source materials locally. But some techniques involve high technology and they must be developed or imported. On materials that are imported
There is, for example, a membrane-like special material for covering stadiums called spot. It is a substitute for steel, protects against the sun, rain and saves consumption of steel by 50 per cent. It's a steel-like material but not metal. It's also not natural but a kind of plastic. It is not available in Asia, so we have to import it from Europe. But you save so much money by using it 50 per cent of the cost of steel.

On sewage and sanitation
We come from Germany, which has the highest standards in this respect. Our facilities for cleaning water are among the best and we try to bring this experience to other countries.

On the use of local knowledge
Respecting it has always been our endeavour. But demands for high-end products also necessitate imports.

On cost-effectiveness
Our buildings are definitely not cheaper compared to other buildings, if you take initial costs into account. But if you do an aggregate cost of living in a building year-by-year, we definitely fare better.

Sustainability is not something that pays off in the short-term. In places where capital markets operate, cheap materials are jumbled together into the building. It might be cheap investment initially but in the long run the user pays the costs.

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