Connect Four looks at design holistically, from research to realisation, to create meaningful work

The only thing constant in this world is change. It enables you to stay adaptable, flexible, relevant. This is true of great architecture, and also of architectural firms. Mumbai-based Connect Four, too, has undergone a fair amount of evolution to come to its present avatar of a firm offering expertise in research, branding and strategy along with architectural and interior design. But the story of Connect Four is linked with that of another firm, Architectural Consultants. Their shared history and founders make them an inextricable part of each other. It all began in the 1960s, when Ashok Mody, inspired by his architect cousin Jagdish Shah — 12 years his senior — decided to choose architecture as his profession. “In 1964, when I started out, Sir JJ College of Architecture was the only college offering a degree course – so that is where I went,” he says. “When I finished, I went to work at my brother’s firm, Karani and Sanghoi as a junior architect.”

Soon after Mody joined his cousin’s firm, there came an opportunity to start an offshore office in Sharjah for them, and start building up a work portfolio there. The UAE proved to be a rich learning ground. “In the five years that I stayed there, I was involved in several high-profile and interesting projects like hospitals, social housing for the rulers, a hotel for Holiday Inn, a cinema hall, etc. This experience was crucial for my confidence and growth as an architect.”

Mody’s role as an independent practitioner began on his return from Sharjah, when he and Shah set up Architectural Consultants in 1982. During the boom of the 80s and the 90s, the partners worked with several prominent builders on iconic buildings such as Kalpataru Heights, Worli — at the time, the tallest building in India at 39 storeys; and an enduring landmark with its playful and colourful postmodern façade. Architectural Consultants further solidified their reputation in residential architecture with township projects such as Gokuldham at Goregaon East and Srishti at Mira Road. The latter — one of Mira Road’s earliest planned developments — is especially significant as it boasts many firsts: the concept of a half-bedroom attached to the kitchen for a growing family; a clustered development with large gardens in between as against serried ranks of buildings; efficient planning of infrastructure; wide, tree-lined avenues…

Creating ‘firsts’ did not stop at Srishti or Kalpataru Heights, or with residential architecture. When developers Conwood approached them to create an industrial estate far removed from the ill-kempt premises prevalent then within this typology, Shah and Mody gave them Udyog Bhavan, with its careful planning, methodical detailing and use of quality inexpensive materials that elevated this complex from the mundane. A testament to its timeless, relevant design is the fact that it currently houses several IT and white-collar firms instead of the original small industrial outfits that it was planned for.

Along with this growing portfolio, the firm had the opportunity to design several institutes like schools and colleges, and also forayed into other typologies such as the dairy processing plant for Dynamix Group – which went on to win the JIIA Award for Industrial Architecture in 1999. “This is one of our milestone projects,” says Mody. “We had to understand intimately the work-flow and production needs, as well as the equipment and machinery. The main factory building was designed as a large concrete structure with aluminium siding. The office and guest house wings were created as inward-looking square buildings, with a lush green courtyard offering relief from the factory environment.”

By this time, the architectural scene in India was in a flux, a state which exists even today. “There are positive changes, such as professionalism amongst the new breed of real estate companies, technology that allows for seamless integration between various disciplines now necessary to design and construct complex architecture, a large pool of talent from the multiple schools of architecture,” says the co-founder of Architectural Consultants. The flip side, Mody adds, are the opacity and unapproachability of the planning authorities, a political and social climate that is not conducive to the construction industry, intense competition and undercutting between professionals.

While Architectural Consultants were busy building an impressive portfolio, muddied industry scenario notwithstanding, its second generation was in the process of gaining formal training in the creative fields. While Jagdish Shah’s children Pinkish and Shaila pursued architecture and subsequently set up independent practices; Ashok Mody’s daughters Rujuta and Rutu — who would later be part of Connect Four — enrolled for architecture, and branding and consumer behaviour respectively.

The catalyst for Architectural Consultants to transition into Connect Four was the entry of new blood on the scene: Rujuta Mody, Manoj Patel and Rutu Mody-Kamdar, who had hitherto pursued separate careers. Rujuta, who’d worked under formidable architectural theorist and critic Jeffrey Kipnis during her studies at Ohio State University, was already aware of design being a series of closely allied fields. “During the year that I worked with Kipnis, we curated a show called Mood River, which examined the current trends in Design and Architecture. This was a turning point for me: not only did the closely allied nature of all fields of design become evident, but I also cultivated an all-encompassing way of looking at design,” says the architect who is fascinated by the Alhambra and Salk Institute due to their simplicity of form, richness of experience and spiritual connection with the water. This revelation found an instant and organic connect with sibling Rutu’s expertise in branding and consumer behaviour. Manoj, on the other hand, brought with him the focus on being precise about drawing, designing and detailing — traits he’d internalised during his time with Lehman Smith + McLeish, Washington DC, post his master’s degree. Spouses Rujuta and Manoj, given their work experience abroad, were finely tuned into global design and had an intimate grasp of what international-quality detailing entailed.

Thus, Architectural Consultants was reinvented as Connect Four, embodying a convergence of experience and expertise in architecture, interior design, branding, strategy and research, in 2011. “My father, Manoj, Rutu and I started the studio as a firm offering an integrated design experience. We believed that a synergy of these allied, but varied disciplines would bring value to our design and, in turn, our clients. This process was crystallised early in the firm’s journey through a project for Rajasthani Sammelan,” reveals Rujuta.

Rajasthani Sammelan, a leading philanthropic Mumbai-based educational trust, had launched various educational establishments. The ‘strategy’ part of the project sought to create a strong brand identity, while also encouraging each institution to carve out its own niche identity. Architecturally, this translated into accommodating all the institutions in two new 12-storey and 7-storey structures, while ensuring each one enjoyed frontage on the arterial road, separate lobbies on the ground floor and individual vertical circulation. Connect Four also designed the interiors of the hostel that was a part of the group of institutions. A brand identity was designed for the trust and all the group institutes, based on the concept of a solar system symbolising the trust as a sun which provides central energy to all the other institutes.

“Connect Four would like to be remembered as a firm with its feet placed firmly on the ground and its vision to provide the best possible design solution for the people it caters to,” says Manoj. “We believe in working within constraints of the governmental agencies, client’s brief, various rules and norms, and yet creatively tackling these challenges to bring value.”

One definite area of interest is housing for the masses. Over the years, with townships such as Gokuldham, Yashodham, Maple Terraces and Srishti, they have been redefining how people live and socialise. “The city of Mumbai was built by private patrons, by private developers that housed the millions coming to seek a better life. We feel very strongly that housing for these masses – the middle classes, you may say – is as crucial as a star architect-designed building, or state-sponsored social housing,” he adds.

In Maple Terraces, for instance, the firm has introduced a larger passage that can be converted into a galley kitchen — which frees up the kitchen to be used as an additional bedroom. “We feel that it is essential for good architects to be involved in the speculative real estate sector,” concludes Mody. “This will improve the perception of the industry as well as benefit the country in general. We would like to be remembered as architects who strove to make this difference.”

Edubridge International School
Edubridge International School is housed in what used to be the iconic Robert Money Technical School, a century-old school complex in Mumbai’s busy commercial and educational area near Opera House. The design brief specified converting the existing structure into a modern, state-of-the-art international school. The project was handled with sensitivity as it’s a 105-year-old building (although it wasn’t a graded heritage structure) in an advanced stage of disrepair due to years of neglect. The main architectural features of the building were restored, and all spaces were re-purposed after giving due respect to the original structure. The building needed structural repairs for the slabs on both floors, as well as a new roof. Walls had bulged and cracked in several places, which were strengthened and then refinished. As much as possible, Connect Four tried to retain the original planning, while completely modernising the interior spaces — always keeping in mind the core credo that a school was more than just a building and four walls. For example, to ensure that the classrooms could be fitted with the latest AV and IT systems without chasing conduits through the old load-bearing structure, the team designed a panelised smart board system which would take care of all wiring and storage needs. The original passages of the building were retained and topped with finished ceilings for HVAC and other services. The corridor on the ground floor had a series of arches, which were restored and converted into an alternative teaching zone by adding wooden benches along the coves. The playground is modernised with a rubberised play court, while retaining a central iconic tree. The design of wayfinding and other signages also came within the purview of this project.

Maple Terraces
The Maple Terraces project illustrates the firm’s ability to handle a real-estate project in a 360-degree manner, right from research to design and branding strategy to marketing communication. The affordable housing project, located in Mumbai’s fast-developing satellite town of Palghar, consists of 26 buildings with 2BHK and 1BHK apartments.
For the firm, the project started off as surveys for buyer insights and competition analysis — which gleaned the importance of a sense of community for the target economic class, as well as the need for some connection to nature or the outside world.
The design response, thus, organised the site to create maximum community open space. Also, each apartment was either given a terrace or a private garden. The terraces were formed by rotating the corner bedrooms in each apartment by 90 degrees as they stack up, creating an interesting form. The leftover space was then converted into a terrace. Keeping in mind the typical size of a family in this area, each apartment included a utility corridor that could be converted into a kitchen – thus freeing up the ‘original’ kitchen space to create a study or bedroom.
The branding strategy for the project also took forward the same notion and centred around the aspiration to ‘own a bit of the sky’. It deliberately used Indian references and imagery to foster greater familiarity and comfort with the lower middle-class customer.

Rajasthani Sammelan
Rajasthani Sammelan, one of the leading philanthropic educational trust bodies in Mumbai, had launched various educational establishments such as a management institute, international school, graduate college, sports grounds and various vocational courses. There was a need to create a strong brand identity of the trust to bind together all the diverse institutions under one umbrella, while also encouraging each institution to carve out its own niche identity. The project involved developing the centralised brand architecture and brand identities for the central body as well as individual institutes.
The existing two- and five-storey structures were demolished to accommodate new 12- and seven-storeyed towers. The new buildings, which house six institutions, were designed as flexible modern boxes that allowed maximum customisation according to user and institute. Each classroom was given four large windows to maximise the sunlight entering the space, and the corridors connecting them are wide and well-lit. The grid façade formed by the windows of the building was animated by calling out certain special spaces such as conference rooms, libraries, etc, with specialised massing or curtain glazing. All institutes enjoy frontage on Mumbai’s arterial SV Road. On the ground floor, each institute has its own lobby and vertical circulation that is exclusive to students belonging to that institute.
The interiors of the hostel, which was also included in the scope of work, comprises rooms strung along a wide, double-loaded corridor with lots of natural light – through skylights and slab cutouts between the two floors. These double-height cutouts, with special wall graphics (designed by the firm) and benches in the corridor, create an active social street for the inhabitants. Common areas are located on the upper level with a mix of indoor and semi-covered outdoor deck space. This area is connected to the lower level corridor through a large cutout in the floor. The rooms are designed in a way that the room and its storage area can be locked separately, and service staff can independently access the rest rooms for cleaning.
The brand identity of the trust and the group institutes was conceptualised on the solar system – with the trust as a sun, providing central energy to its satellite bodies.

Kalpataru Heights
Developed on defunct mill land, Kalpataru Heights is a landmark project in Central Mumbai and, at 39 storeys, was the tallest tower in India at the time (early 2000s). Featuring multiple levels of parking, the building has 2BHK and 3BHK apartments on the typical floors and 4BHK duplexes and penthouses on the top levels. The playful façade of the building is a tribute to post-modernism and dominates the skyline with its bold use of form and colour.

Author : Rupali Sebastian

Connect Four looks at design holistically, from research to realisation, to create meaningful work

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