The Correct Orientation

Ancient Vedic philosophy becomes the guiding principle in the design of a new headquarters for India's largest private corporation.

March 01, 2005 |

For David A. Hansen, AIA, taking on a major project in Asia is nothing new. As a design principal at Chicago's Perkins+Will since 1986, the University of Illinois-trained architect has been bouncing around the Orient for years, juggling major commissions for Samsung in Korea, for Mori Trust in Japan, and, more recently, for clients in China.

Three years ago, Hansen's colleague, G. William (Bill) Doerge, managing principal for P+W's international practice, returned from a trip to India and told him about a major corporate campus being developed by India's Reliance Group in Navi Mumbai, the "new" Mumbai an hour-and-a-half's drive from the old seaport city.

On this 136-acre site, Reliance Group was planning to consolidate its many offices scattered in and about Mumbai into an ultra-modern, high-profile technocenter for 30,000 of its 80,000 employees worldwide. The campus would encompass operational and call centers, a conference and training center, a biotech lab, a "national headquarters" building, and a headquarters for Reliance's petroleum business. In the course of the next few months, Reliance Group commissioned P+W to design this last structure, known as Petroleum House.

For a design firm, there are worse things than having Reliance Group as a client. The company's history reads like an Indian Horatio Alger story. The founder, Dhirubhai H. Ambani, left his native village of Chorwad in 1949, at age 17, to work for a distributor of Shell oil products in what is now Yemen. He returned to India in 1958 with enough money to start an import/export house in Bombay (now Mumbai), later diversified into textiles, and took the company public in 1977 in India's first IPO.

After his death in 2002, his elder son, Mukesh, became chairman and named the new campus the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City in honor of his father.

Today, Reliance Group is India's largest private-sector company, with revenues of $22.6 billion in oil and gas, refining, petrochemicals, textiles, financial services, power, and telecommunications. It contributes about 3.5% to the country's gross domestic product, as well as nearly 10% of indirect tax revenues and 6% ($3.6 billion) of exports. The company accounts for 17% of total private-sector profits in India, as well as 6% of the country's total market capitalization. One of every four equities investors in India holds Reliance stock, the largest shareholder group—3.1 million—in the subcontinent.

Building the Vastu Shastra way

Hansen's plan for Petroleum House had to conform to the principles of "Vastu Shastra," an approach to building orientation and design based on ancient Vedic philosophy. Much like China's feng shui, Vastu seeks to unite humankind and nature through the basic elements of fire, water, earth, space, and air. In practical terms, Vastu Shastra had a direct impact on the physical dimensions of the project.

In order to avoid violating Vastu principles, which require that the place of authority be located in the southeast corner of the site, the chairman's office (or "cabin," as such offices are referred to in India) had to be located in the most auspicious spot, the southeast corner of the project. "It's the power position on the campus, according to Vastu, so we had to add a floor to make the chairman's office higher than anything else," says Hansen. Thanks to Vastu, Petroleum House, now 11 stories in height, was assured of being the tallest building on campus—58 meters in height. A manmade retention pond was also sited to conform to Vastu Shastra principles.

The chief construction complication facing Petroleum House was one that every project in this part of India faces—the monsoon. "If you're not enclosed, it just shuts you down," says Doerge. Hansen says the schedule had to be "hyper-accelerated"—he calls it "monsoon-track" speed—to beat the rains, which can last from June to September.

Reliance is such a huge company that it is essentially self-reliant when it comes to building its facilities. "They have their own construction people and engineers in-house, and they act as their own construction manager or general contractor," says Doerge. "All our work was coordinated through Reliance."

Completed last November, 366,445-sf Petroleum House forms an L in the southeast corner of the site. A two-story office and control center runs down the short leg of the L, with a taller office and support services structure running down the other; at the nexus is an atrium that serves as the public entry. Spanning the wings is a "corporate cockpit" where managers meet.

From the exterior, the atrium forms a curved, metal-clad tower. On other surfaces, Hansen chose an unpresupposing granite from Finland. "I didn't want the stonework to take over from the façade," he says.

On the south façade of the office/support wing, which runs parallel to the main road into New Mumbai, Hansen wanted a different look, for reasons of both aesthetics and sustainability. "We knew that Petroleum House would be the most visible building from the roadway, so we curved that wall with highly reflective glass and installed sunshades to produce a very fine filigree that really animates what's reflecting off it," says Hansen. "This thing is just flashing as you drive by."

Central to the client's needs are two-story, nine-meter-high control rooms, where engineers and technicians can trace the ebb and flow of Reliance's petroleum products around the world on huge screens.

There's still more work to be done on the campus. Hansen has completed the design of the conference and learning center, for which he has created a long pedestrian bridge with a glass base. In recent weeks, he and his P+W colleagues have been testing glass samples for strength, traction, and other factors. The project is currently under construction.

Eventually, Petroleum House will welcome as many as 1,200 visitors a day, many of them customers or prospective customers of Reliance Group. "These are people they're doing business with, so there's an important identity and image piece to the building," says Hansen.

I asked the designer about having to deal with extra layers of complexity posed by the Vastu component. "I like it," Hansen told me. "To me, design is about taking challenges—in this case, site, culture, client needs, and functionality—and solving them—the more the merrier."

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