PROF. CHARANJIT SINGH SHAH

Founding Principal-Creative Group (Interview PART-1)

Professor Charanjit Singh Shah has a 50 year legacy of practice in architecture, since 1970. He was practically born in a refugee camp in purana qila. His family migrated from a part of India that is now called Pakistan. His journey was such that his parents came barefoot to this beautiful land. He was born in the refugee camp and slowly studied his way to get into architecture. At the start of it, he recalls that his parents thought civil engineering was a good idea. He mentioned that he didn’t have any particular passion for architecture. But he got admission in top universities across the country, choosing Delhi so that he could save money on hostel expenses and other things put together. Doing architecture in SPA School of planning and architecture, professor Charanjit Singh Shah was a scholarship holder for all five years. The famed architect attributed his success to the fact that the teaching faculty was fantastically good. All the great masters were his teachers. Some of the contemporary pioneers put him into the understanding of what architecture is all about. That learning made him passionate. It’s like putting yourself into an igniting mind and gradually Charanjit Singh Shah dug up things together to understand the material, the smell and taste of the material and how evolution can take place. His journey is a true inspiration for every aspiring architect and the industry fraternity at large. As he practiced his profession, Charanjit Singh Shah uncovered his niche in architecture and empowered his colleagues to establish a strong work culture.
Professor Charanjit continued to shed light on his journey into the world of architecture with insights for us all to relish.

who shares his experience of over 50 years in the field of building and sustainable architecture.

The journey into architecture

Professor Charanjit Singh Shah has a 50 year legacy of practice in architecture, since 1970. He was practically born in a refugee camp in purana qila. His family migrated from a part of India that is now called Pakistan. His journey was such that his parents came barefoot to this beautiful land. He was born in the refugee camp and slowly studied his way to get into architecture. At the start of it, he recalls that his parents thought civil engineering was a good idea. He mentioned that he didn’t have any particular passion for architecture. But he got admission in top universities across the country, choosing Delhi so that he could save money on hostel expenses and other things put together. Doing architecture in SPA School of planning and architecture, professor Charanjit Singh Shah was a scholarship holder for all five years. The famed architect attributed his success to the fact that the teaching faculty was fantastically good. All the great masters were his teachers. Some of the contemporary pioneers put him into the understanding of what architecture is all about. That learning made him passionate. It’s like putting yourself into an igniting mind and gradually Charanjit Singh Shah dug up things together to understand the material, the smell and taste of the material and how evolution can take place. His journey is a true inspiration for every aspiring architect and the industry fraternity at large. As he practiced his profession, Charanjit Singh Shah uncovered his niche in architecture and empowered his colleagues to establish a strong work culture.

Professor Charanjit continued to shed light on his journey into the world of architecture with insights for us all to relish.

A pioneer in large-scale sustainable architecture

He said, “I started as a humble freelancer, and now we are a corporate firm with more than 100 architects working in our organization. We are probably one of the rarest architectural engineering consultancy. We are doing A-Z particularly in aviation. In airports, besides the architecture in terms of terminal building, we do air sites, city sites and everything put together called airspace, airspace conflict, air traffic movement and the return on money and the pre-feasibility study. We do in-house and many projects for more than 20 airports as well as 13-15 railways stations like Chennai, Coimbatore, Lucknow, Charbagh, Pune, Faridabad, and many more. We are into waterways, metros, land-ports like Kartarpur corridor. For Jamshedpur city, we have given the vision of how to make the city green. We have covered India and extended beyond our borders to global places like Gabon, Gambia, Rwanda, Nepal where we design green airports. The journey has been very good and God has been very kind. One thing that my practice has been revolving around is sustainability. Maybe its macro to micro level, we are into sustainability where we love to be near Nature, learn from Nature and get hold of all those sayings which we call real green architecture.”

Charanjit continued to explore the necessity of sustainable architecture and his devotion to Nature that has introduced God in every living form. The Best Creators wanted to delve into the brilliant mind of Charanjit and uncover the philosophies that guided him through the years. His response was truly humbling, for a man who has achieved many milestones in reshaping and structuring modern India and much of the world.

To live within your creation is a big part of architecture

His response was truly enamoring the close link between art, spirituality and architecture. When asked about his guiding philosophies, his poignant articulation shed light on the many strengths that make great architecture.

“My philosophy has always been spiritually intact. Nature and spirituality go hand in hand. Who created this universe is one of the things we always talk about. We say God has created this universe. Then where does he live? The next thing we say is that he lives within his own creation. So taking a lead from the creator, being an architect who is also as a creator, we are a miniature level creator who tries to create a built mass, a design which he tries to showcase as per the functionality and aesthetics of the form. If somebody asks, you created this? Where do you live? I say, within my creation.

“As an architect, I live within my creation”
Charanjit Singh Shah,

“I really wish to live within my creation once, I tell God that I will be in love with my creation. And once I’m in love with my creation I will not be cosmetic, I will be organic. I will see that what I create with Nature is the larger perspective of life, in harmony with the nature just like God intended it to be. I do not practice to destroy Mother Earth. That’s what the philosophy is all about. Any build form should not be treated like a mere brick, mass and concrete but as a living organism which breathes and is embodied with Nature and that is what I am for. I put my soul into my creation. The architecture which I create has a soul like a living organism which breathes. Once I create a build mass which breathes, I cannot do injustice to nature to put it together. Anything that I put in, if it is from Nature and by Nature, I do what’s recyclable and do not destroy the balance of the cosmos.”

The balance of the cosmos is reflected in good Architecture

It is evident that Charanjit is a source of knowledge that continues to serve the industry and the world with the best practices in his field. His conception of sustainable Architecture stems from the deep connection with Nature and the balance of the cosmos. Best Creators wanted to dig in further and understand the fuel to his fierce spirit.

He continued, “I believe in Guru Nanak’s philosophy and Lord Krishna’s philosophy. Krishna said to Arjuna, “just keep on doing your karma and forget about the dividend. I never aspired that I would have a large office, but the only thing is that the process should be understood. If your process is for the right purpose and you continue to do the right thing, nothing wrong or bad can happen to you. Once I have an make up my mind to do and perform, the aptitude will develop. Sometimes I have a very good aptitude but I do not have the attitude to deliver. So the aptitude is of no use. What’s happening is that the process of making any build form, whether micro or macro level requires a design process. Once the design process is understood, you need to do passive architecture and cosmetic architecture as perhaps that adds on. With that add on, I started doing things to get green accredited or nature accredited, or any other accreditation. It’s like putting red into green. Yet we see that we put green into green and see how that will come with sustainability.”

Understanding the design process to complement the bigger picture

“How my building performs on the basic elements of natural resources and the oscillation of the sun. Any human settlement is actually to protect you from rain, heat and other atmospheric pressures. Once I respect the solar movement, the oscillation of the Earth, the day and night, I can see the sun’s movement which in the morning is in the Northeast and I conclude that South is the highest point here, and when it comes to Southwest, it’s below. The harshest sun is the west sun. How I protect the glaring west sun penetrating into my building during hot and dry climate is important.” When talking about the technicalities of sustainable design, Charanjit revealed examples of how integral a thorough knowledge of the cosmos is in designing a building.

Optimizing the design to embody Nature

“When I stimulate my building with the oscillation of the sun rays, I can see where I can justify myself and the penetration of light without any heat coming into the building can provide benefits to the building. It’s like maximizing daylight and minimizing heat entering into the building. That comes in case I really stimulate the building in a manner respecting that North is North with glare free light. I try to use that glare-free light to the utmost. That’s how I play with my window placement and all the architecture of the form and function. All are put together to create sustainable architecture, where the shape and size of the building can stimulate the best of the sun’s movement. I also see how to really preserve my natural resources.” In the process of exploring how Natural light can influence the building design, the genius of Charanjit revealed some critical reflective questions that architects can implore for their designs.

He explores the following insights.

  • Can i Produce my own water?
  • How do I produce my own water?
  • How do I reach net zero?
  • How do I see that my solid waste management is taken care of?
  • Can I make it off the grid with no energy required?
Scientifically choosing the right materials

Charanjit Singh Shah was very firm about his beliefs that have led a decorated career in the field of architecture. Choosing the right materials is an integral part of every project. He provides insightful advice about the driving force behind his decisions in picking materials for a project. Having headed numerous big operations, it was eye-opening to learn from the master himself.
He said, “What I’m creating is not putting pressure on my central grid. I produce my non-conventional ways like solar panels, biogas, windmills or any source management beside my design in a passive way, in such a manner that I’m not consuming energy in terms of air conditioning and other elements. I am very cautious about the envelope of my building and how it works. Envelope of the building is very important and that is a material. It’s like layering the building. When I select the material, I need to understand what the insulation is. A building must be protected in terms of conduction, convection and radiation. All these three factors are scientific processes in the design that have to be understood and reflected in your entire design. Once the process is understood, it’s no longer cosmetic. Why I say God is in charge is because God has made everything in my body functioning properly, without any effort. I am breathing but there’s no effort, it’s a process. Once I understand these processes, perfection ought to come. In all my 50 years of practice, these are the first takes. How does the sun move? How do I protect my sun?”

Resource management is vital

With a series of thought-provoking questions, Charanjit explored the many implications of vastu and how architecture should be in tandem with the natural processes of life. He stressed on sustainability as the driving factor behind his buildings and designs. “How do I conserve rain water within my site? Create some water body where I conserve water and use it for my gardening, landscaping, and air conditioning. This is how resource management should be done within the project. It’s not the government’s headache to give me light, water and dispose of garbage. I can use garbage to the best and probably achieve net zero.”

Embodying the rich heritage and values of Indian architecture

Professor Charanjit is a passionate advocate for home-grown design. He often refers to the rich heritage and diversity of this nation as the pedestal to future innovation. His experiences in various parts of the country and the world have been met by successful projects of many scales, where his wisdom and charisma are a shining beacon for the industry.

He said, “My intake has always been that this part of the subcontinent is very rich in heritage and still we adapt from the west. America has a history of 300 or 350 years but we are probably the oldest civilization recorded in the Indus Valley Civilization which was also the most well-planned. Whatever is our great heritage, we have a diversified heritage all along our Indian borders and we can learn so much from our great heritage. If you go to Jaipur or further down South to Mysore or Ooty or Bangalore or Chennai are the great places from where I learned so much. We’ve done more than 20 projects down in the South from Coimbatore, to Tirupur, Bhavani, Erode, Chennai and all these places put together. What I learned is that there is something called Vastu Shastra.” Charanjit shed light on Vastu and how scientifically it proves the sustainable design of buildings.

(Interview PART-2)

What does Vastu Shastra really mean?

He said, “This was a science to understand how the building industry should work. The Brahminhood made it a myth by enslaving us with different terminologies like if you sleep in the west you will die. If your head is in the North you will get a brain tumor. I became enslaved to some of the Vastu pundits. But I understood the real science of climate Vastu. What is the purpose of making northeast the lowest? What is the real purpose of making the southwest the highest? All these are practically an outcome of understanding the solar movement. Northeast is the lowest because once I keep the Northeast as the lowest, the Southwest becomes the highest where the Southwest will try to cut the Southwest sun coming into my building and I will have shadow on the surrounding of my building where I can sit very coolly. This is one thing related to the understanding of the oscillation, orientation and various other functionalities of the sun, but not a myth. Not the phonetic vastu.

God has given me this intellect but I become enslaved by the rituals associated to vastu. I agree with the myths because I lack knowledge. Vastu science is different in a housing project than in a house or commercial building. I studied industrial Vastu and all that to make the perfect industrial buildings in the milk plant near Erode. I made a housing project in Tirupur which caters to all Vastus. I could satisfy the client’s myth and I satisfied myself with the clear understanding. Once I get into the scientific understanding of the sun’s oscillation and various other things, I will be doing justice to my profession. I will definitely understand my client and his psyche. If the client says he wants a project done as per Vastu, I will do it as per Vastu but I will make you understand exactly what Vastu is about.”

His deep thoughts were earmarking insights into the fundamentals of architecture. His knowledge in the field is an expression of vast experience in creating massive structures that continue to serve the world today. He attributed architecture as the expression of the mind.

Architecture is the expression of the mind

“The fundamental thing is that the expression of mind should understand every knit and bit in detail. I would like to quote Sadhguru Vasudev, who always says be in confusion but not in conclusion. The confusion ought to be cleared with knowledge so that you can conclude. But a conclusion from someone else’s mind like a Brahmin telling me not to put a window on this side, means that I am directed by somebody else’s conscious and not by my own conscience. My conscious is my soul and the soul is a product of knowledge. Put that all together and justify your mind to apply your mind in a conclusive way. Learning is good, but always guide yourself by your own consciousness.” A passionate advocate for sustainable design, the Best Creators gained powerful insights behind Charanjit’s work ethics.

Architecture must be practiced with your nerves

“Once I drive a car, I learn and become the master. I subconsciously drive without looking here and there because it has gone into my nerves. Architecture must be practiced with your nerves, by the soul and not into the worldly cosmetics. When I do something that is cosmetic, it’s not original, it’s copy pasted and that shouldn’t be the case. To understand global empowerment is to be socially empowered to create great architecture. I have gone through so many books and when I was doing the dairy plant project, Mr. Rajasekar was the managing director, he didn’t know English and I didn’t know Tamil but he said ‘Vastu.’ He came to Delhi and asked me “You Vastu pundit?” I said yes because pundit means that I understand and put the Vastu studied into the building to show that my building is as per Vastu. My building is as per the understandable Vastu and that has come out as one of the best projects.”

It was clearly a fortified work ethic that defines Charanjit Singh Shah’s success in the industry.

Challenges of handling large-scale Chennai airport project

Charanjit Singh Shah reflected on parts of his life where he thought they were pivotal to this journey in the field of architecture. Having experience in some of the country’s biggest projects, his intake was revolving around sustainability and collaboration. He explored the various roles that contribute to the success of a project, no matter how big. He gave us examples of massive projects that were challenging yet a great source of learning.

“Few of the very large projects were very challenging. One was the Chennai airport from 2007-2011, which was a 2400 crore project, making the international terminal, the domestic terminal, making the metro and that too in a brown field airport. If you have seen the Chennai airport, on the right side there’s no space, it’s practically overlapping with the road. And how you do these brown field projects is very challenging. We had to plan out things in a manner where the project manager and architect should be good at management. By virtue of understanding, you cannot be a designer in isolation and let it go to hell so somebody else can come and do it. You have to see that what your design is practically created. It’s like you can be like Hanuman who didn’t have anything to work with Sita going there but he was a true disciple of Rama. He said he will go and bring Sita. That’s the type of person an architect has to be. You’re not the master of all arts, neither a jack but should have a comfortable knowledge of the basic elements of applied architecture which is wholesome, all-engineering, quality and time. All these are the product and how you see it unfold.”

The references to scriptures and tradition are deeply embedded in Charanjit’s identity as an architect. He believes that sustainable architecture is the home-grown masterpiece that reflects the true nature of this nation’s spirit. Then, he invited us into a process of design thinking and how his experiences were a clear reflection of humility and constant learning.

Delivering excellence with design thinking

“These challenges we have met in Chennai airport, Raipur airport and recently during the Kartarpur Sahib corridor at Punjab and Pakistan border which on the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak is opened with a direct corridor which goes to the Gurdwara of Guru Nanak. And that project ambitiously with the Ministry of Home Affairs faced a lot of issues because of the border, but we could complete the project of 400 crores in 4 months. This is how I tell you that your contribution should be holistic. You need to understand how the contractor works, how the client works, how the project works. All these things we have to practically foresee. Unless you do a surgical analysis of the project, you cannot walk in. You need to walk into the process of construction and how it’s taken care of. This is your experience and your feedback. You see that on day one the work has begun and how the whole thing pans out to get finished on time based on how the whole thing backs up and start working well. According to these parameters, we work things out. When the Prime Minister came on the 9th of November, he was so fascinated. I was getting reports that this would not be completed and he was so touched that we completed it. It’s like the pleasure of motherhood. If the mother knows there’s a miscarriage, it’s difficult and heartbreaking. The mother’s confidence has ability to turn a miscarriage and bring about a proper carriage. Everything is possible and nothing is impossible in this world. Have the determination and confidence.”

His insights are powerful learning’s for aspiring architects. His values are strong and indeed the pivotal focus of every architect’s journey. He attributed resource management and sustainable design as the key focus of every project.

He continued, “Ability to perform is an intention that lies with your resource management. You must have a competent consultant and the right people around who can guide you and put you on the right track. It’s teamwork. Unless I am comfortable with the many people involved in a project, I cannot go through the high and low tides because teamwork is fundamental.”

Recognition from the PM for great architecture

Charanjit Singh Shah has been a recipient of national and international recognition for his marvelous work in the field of architecture. He narrated an experience, “On the 15th of August the Prime Minister spoke of the project saying he salutes the team for a project of this nature in such a timeframe. Nothing else could match up to the words of our honorable Prime Minister speaking about our project well.”

The spirit of union is evident in Charnajit’s tales of historic achievements in the field of building and architecture. His voice is the face of today’s industry, rapidly evolving yet deeply intertwined with a rich heritage and tradition.

Holistic architecture is fundamental

The Best Creators then inquired about the force of his clients and how they perceive his creation. His response was yet another insightful narration of experiences that have shaped his career at the top of architecture.

“There are a variety of clients. Government clients are not very concerned about the budget. If it goes a little more or less it doesn’t matter. But when you talk to a private client, he wants the best and he wants it cost-effective. As an architect you don’t look at whether it’s a government client or private client. Whatever we create has to be aesthetically appealing and functionally the absolute best. It also has to be cost-effective. Value for money has to be there and that’s why in our projects we do value engineering to assess the rightful pricing for a project. There are so many tools today, where the accuracy of BIM is that you get the exact cost and layer the building in a manner to finalize the building requirements. When you are working, you can integrate your thoughts not in isolation, but by giving your client all the steps of understanding. You must see the social, economical and cultural angles to provide holistic architecture.”

Charanjit further expounded the prospect of home-grown architecture as the key to our future. He urges Indian architects and the Government to engage with the history of this nation and the architecture that has formed our diversity in the past. We must take this forward. His insights were truly reformative and awe-inspiring.

“How do you take our identity forward as the builders of the nation, the industry builder? How do you create an environment which is soothing to my soul is pure architecture?” – Charanjit Singh Shah. To be continued. >>