Mr. TM Thomas, the principal architect of Thomas Associates in Bangalore, is one of the most respected architects of the country. He has over four decades of experience in traditional and specialized architectural services. The firm has delivered some of the country's greatest landmarks like the UB City Bangalore, Titanium Bangalore, Raheja Towers Chennai and the Bagmane Tech Park, among others. Mr. Thomas shared some of his rich insights with us. Following are excerpts:
You have always insisted on a fine line between a profession and a business. Could you please elaborate?
Ans: We run our office like a professional office, not like an office which finds itself in the business of architecture. We are into the profession of architecture. As a result, we cannot physically endorse projects or products. We can endorse characters of products, a type of product or the generic product.
How would you define ethics in architecture?
Ans: There are several aspects of ethics. One would be design ethics, which is a primary concern to us. You need to stick to design principles, design honesty and design truthfulness. Then there are professional ethics, where you don't get involved with the marketing or manufacturing of products. There is also the ethics of being responsible towards the client. You are expected to deliver what the customer expects, which among other things, include cost rationalization as well. You should do justice to the trust he/she reposes in you. These are the three crucial ethics, apart from the ethics of abiding by the prevailing laws made by organizations like the NBO, the NBC, and so on.
In France or maybe in other parts of Europe as well, architecture is aligned with the philosophy of conserving the countryside. What is the scenario in our country?
Ans: That philosophy is again one of the ethics, the fifth principle of ethics, which is about being responsible and sensitive towards the environment and the society at large. Now, comparing our country with France and other parts of Europe is also not correct, as they are not densely populated. The per-acre population there is nothing when compared to our country. In a country of say 100 million, the pressure will naturally be less on the environment. However, even with a population of over 1.2 billion in our country, we should never lose sight of the importance of environmental sustainability.
A lot of that responsibility also lies with the government, in terms of how the roads are laid, how the countryside is preserved and all. Reuse of water etc. is going to have more and more impact in future for our kids. These have all come into construction now, and we are finding it a very nice stage to be in. Even our clients have become pretty aware of this, so our task has become that much easier.
Do you think the government in our country leaves enough scope for creativity in architecture, although it follows a conventional approach in most cases?
Ans: The government adopts a new technology, only if it is tried and tested and mentioned in the Bureau of Standards. You have to remember that government has to deal with a whole range of buildings from the bottom of the market as well. Therefore, it has got to be careful and may be conservative in some cases. If you deal with a lot of high-end stuff, you may also end up with a lot of accidents at the lower end, which is not covered adequately by laws. So I would say the government is right in being conservative to an extent. But there is also a considerable amount of research done by IISC and other people on composite structures, composite buildings, and so on. The implementation of research ideas will take time depending on affordability and evolving economic realities.
Indian metros are starting to look the same, having the same kinds of shopping malls, commercial complexes and apartments. Do you think the characters of Indian cities are being challenged in a way?
Ans: What is architecture? It is the response to needs and aspirations of the people. The needs and aspirations in any city is the same. You will find the same sort of aspirations in any growing economy; not in India alone. All of us want to go to movies, shop well and stay at decent hotels. However, it is also important to maintain the heritage of a city.
How difficult it is to embrace something new, new materials for instance, for someone belonging to the old school of architecture?
Ans: I still cope with that every day (Laughs). But that's the fun of it also. Every day you are learning. New materials keep getting introduced every time. It is a challenge, but to me that's the exciting part of the whole thing also. In India, you know budget rules. The most elaborate building here may be $100 per sq. ft., whereas if you consider such a building in foreign locations which you so admire, it will easily cost $500 or even more.
How would you rate aluminium composite panels from the point of view of affordability?
Ans: It is an exciting product. However, people have to be made aware that it is not a maintenance free product. It is a very desirable product, and it solves a whole multitude of problems for you. But if you see, many buildings with ACP claddings built 10-15 years back look very shabby today. That's no fault of the panels; but purely because they have not been maintained properly. Also, the fire issue has to be looked into. The FR ACP is the only material that has to be pushed in the market now. The other day I was in Dubai, and a building caught fire. The ACP went up like a candle. It was very scary.
There's one memorable building designed by you in the structure of a ship. How do you decide on a structure like that?
Ans: I respond to the demands of the site. When I go to a site, the site speaks to me. I have a conversation with the site. I am going to put something on it, which may stay there for may be 50 years. When I go to a site, I hang around there, and that location responds. If it tells me to design something special, I will do it. And luckily, I have clients to foot the bill too (Laughs). I serve the purpose at a fixed point in time, and if that purpose continues to be useful 10 years or 20 years later, I am quite happy with the solution we have found.
What is the end result you seek as an architect, while designing something?
Ans: The only thing that makes me happy is when the occupants are happy. To me, that's the be-all and end-all of architecture. It's not to please myself that I make buildings. It's to please the people who live there, work there, eat there and play there. This is more important to me. When I go to a shopping mall or something built by me 10 years ago, and I see the light in the eyes of the people - to me that is architecture.
Your take on our Copper and Zinc products?
Ans: Wow! It is good to hear about these new products, because even 10 years ago when I travelled abroad, and looked at buildings there, I would wonder when I would get a chance to do things like that (using copper and zinc composites among others). But now that it's all here, I would look forward to explore the opportunities of using them.