Rejuvenation Project such as the Howard Plaza is perhaps a glimpse into the fate of many buildings in the near future. (fig 1) As countries develop, new builds seem to pop up everywhere, but once this brown field development starts to saturate and the economic growth stagnates, these buildings need to be revitalised. This is a sustainable solution, in-fact multitude of buildings in London are allowed to be rejuvenated with additional area(FAR) to attract investors. Whilst on the other hand functions are redefined at times when churches have been taken over by nightclubs and a crude example of Detlev Rohwedder House of berlin, the largest building in the world in1936, changed from an aviation ministry (under the Nazi), to houses of ministries (as east Germany) and stands as the finance ministry today.
Howard plaza, however, is only 30 years old and it starts to look dated. Its facade and experience were contemporary of its time, but like many other buildings of the gone century, it lacked iconic intensity. Although tourism in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri have improved in the last 10 years but room rents were on constant decline with increased competition in the city. An intervention was inevitable, but the question was how.
Advantages of a ‘Flexi-brief’:
We knew for Howard to make its mark back into the city’s fabric, it needed to pack a punch. Therefore, under the blanket of such resolution, an attempt is made to bring back the old Howard’s charm which is fondly remembered for its forward thinking proposal of the first helipad in a hotel in Agra and the grand chandelier in its lobby that still hangs from the roof.
Unlike most projects with strategic listed briefs, here the client who acquired the building 20 years ago, wished to test its full potential. It was a back and forth process to reach a desired solution and over time, additional functions were added to suit. It started with a rooftop restaurant which led to dressing of the shafts that inevitably produced a luxurious rooftop deck, the touchup on the facade and entrance, a private dining, toilets and the list goes on… (fig 2)
Glassy – the canopy:
The canopy was the initial trigger of the proposal with an intention to house a restaurant on the rooftop (fig 3). It is a seamless space with column free uninterrupted spans of 28meters in one direction and 11 meters in the other. And although it is a large structure, it still gives a sense of weightlessness (fig 4). It is a space where the structure is allowed to express itself boldly to enhance the beauty of the roof and its architecture, without any clichés or false ceiling (fig 5). It comprises 8 hyperbolic double curvature petals which hover above with support from stick mullions that stand in between transparent glazing panels. This gives a unique intervention of light filtering through space and shapes that lay in between its compression structure.
Such large spans are difficult to build with off the shelf sections but not impossible. The challenge however was to prefabricate and transport them to the top of the roof with massive cranes, which would have been an expensive affair. Therefore, to economise this process, small parts were brought to the roof, and with an innovative beam fabrication technique, was built onsite 20 meters above the ground. It goes on to prove that Complex forms can be achieved within modest budgets if supported with the right computation techniques and appropriate engineering methodology (fig 6.1,6.2,7). These techniques can be documented in a way that is easily translated to and delivered by contractors with site workers worldwide.
The solid and transparent enclosure departs from contemporary space we are accustomed to recognise. It challenges the notions we have come to accept as normal i.e. beam column structures, 4-feet Cill and 7-foot Lintel level for doors and windows, flat roofs, false ceilings and decorative elements. Dining or hosting an event inside Glassy has come to have its own meaning in the city, since its opening in 2019 and Tripadvisor reviews have poured in.
A translucent corridor:
On the other side of the canopy is the corridor where natural light enters through constrained spaces and here the colours add visual volume and warmth. When it is made to work together with these bright and dynamic colours, one forgets that these columns are functional toilet shafts that once stood lonely on the terrace (fig 8). To add to its character natural green creepers, climb the facade that filters light in an ever changing pattern governed by the plants that evolve through seasons. It all works together as a microcosm which is a semi-translucent buffer before one reaches the open terrace and deck.
The consequential Deck:
Enclosing the shaft prompted the idea of the rooftop deck. It appealed to create a space where one can come to relax at a higher altitude, away from the hustle and bustle of the tourism industry in Agra. Parts of the terrace are left vacant, unlike most other rooftop places in the city which are over-utilised.
After a busy day visit to Taj Mahal or the nearby Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri, tourists can sit with a drink and have food in a place that is not too commercial or filled with loud music…Just to find some serenity from the crowd. Spaces such as these, open to the sky, with natural plants growing on walls, soften the mind from the hardscape of the city. Often one finds children at play here or local visitors finding time to relax… reminding us how treasured public open space can be. It is a contribution of the hotel, for the city. (fig 9)
An integration of green on the walls as a natural landscape over a rooftop strikes a pleasant balance within a framed Corten Steel. The decision to use Corten was made with the understanding that it is a living material on site, and it must be tackled as carefully as nurturing a child (fig 10.1,10.2). On exposure to weathering, Corten changes its colour from dark grey to light red and can quickly turn darker if not careful. It was an adventure to keep track of uniform weathering and conceal with polishing at the right time to perfect the desired rich red colour. These walls add a sense of softness whilst other parts of the terrace are left free for space to ponder and stroll.
To activate a deck an opportunity of a bar was proposed as the central hub. Rooftop bars with food is a common feature to most hotels in Agra and specially at the Howard plaza when a big attraction ‘the Taj Mahal’ is within your sight lines on one side and the view of the city on the other.
This was made with folds and pleats in Corten steel to create a counter top and display spaces in the back wall located in the junction of the Y- shaped hotel building that boasts a good view of the city (fig 11). It sits under a disc that was primarily planned to be a helipad in the 1990’s but never got aviation clearance. After picking up a drink, one can choose to sit on the roof deck with either a view of the Taj Mahal or hover over the main city streets looking outwards into the horizon and sunsets.
The Corten Box:
The need for a private event space was requested in the later part of the project to activate the opposite area of the roof. We built here a Corten box that is sliced in an angle like a knife cutting through a block of cheese. On one side is the solid area of the box not to reveal its inner secret to the approacher, but once inside, it opens the experience of the other slice that is built in glass opening up views towards the historic Taj Mahal.
To mark an entrance:
The requirement from the client increased further when they sought a new look for the entrance of the building whose architecture looked dated. We took clues from the Approach to the Taj Mahal, where one is bound to be struck by the astonishing beauty of the white shrine, but what makes an everlasting impression is when one stands at the main entrance 400m away inside the main gate, all peripheral vision is blocked and one can see just the one object (fig 12,13). The new entrance of the Howard was inspired from this vision, where we created a dark gateway from which one would view the central attraction object designed on the building facade.
The route to Sustainability lies in longevity:
Whilst the philosophy of 20th century architecture has come to become a collage of industrialised products from catalogues and off the shelf manuals, here at the Howard Plaza the meaning of rejuvenation is redefined. The translation of a new design and its identity is reflected in every detail of the building, its bespoke furniture that are manufactured and sourced locally, until the very last detail of its logo (fig14). The brand appears on the menu, entrances and other prominent locations in the city to create a project identity that adds a new language into the city’s fabric.
Projects such as these are done with an intention to make a mark in the city, to push boundaries by contrasting the old with the new. This process in architectural terms is often known as the figure and ground approach. An intervention has been made and the result speaks a language that has not been seen before, especially in the city of Agra that was once the epitome for architecture, which established one of the wonders of the world (fig 15).
Although there is little doubt that the fate of many buildings in the near future would be to rejuvenate from its past. But the larger question that looms of whether these interventions can stand the test of time, would be uncovered in the next 30 years…. The design choices we make today will prove if we are developing a sustainable habitat for our future generations… and to leave a legacy we can all be proud of.
Project Name and location: Rejuvenation of Howard Plaza – The Fern, Agra, India.
Name of Architecture Firm and Location:
conceptSG: London & New Delhi.
Design: Subharthi Guha.
Team: Suman Kumar Guha, Ravneet Kaur Dhillion.
Client: Howard Plaza – The Fern, Agra.
Structural Consultant: TPCL.
Electrical Consultant: RADInfra.
Total Area of Built up: Approx. 6000 sq mts.
Project Cost: Undisclosed.
Year of completion: 2019.
Author profile : Subharthi Guha
conceptSG is an international architectural and urban design firm founded by Subharthi Guha in 2006 with offices based out of London and New Delhi. The firm seeks to create eloquent identities through innovative design and construction processes. We work across all sectors and scales including cultural, housing, commercial, recreational, product and city planning. We collaborate with a network of consultants in multiple countries to bring innovative design to your doorstep.