Back in the limelight

With the New Delhi office of film production company Whitebalance Studio, Studio Bipolar illustrates just how a worn out structure can be intelligently reinvigorated in keeping with the needs of contemporary workspaces.

Text: Carol Ferrao; Photographs: Suryan//Dang, courtesy Studio Bipolar

Architects Ujjwal Sagar and Sanjana Mathur

Often design complexity in program as well as site can either unravel you or push you to innovate like you never have before. When Studio Bipolar was entrusted to design the Whitebalance studio, principal architects Sanjana Mathur and Ujjwal Sagar had to wrestle with this question: How would a pharmaceutical warehouse translate into a contemporary workspace? Here was a site in New Delhi’s Okhla Industrial Area, abandoned since the 1960s and structured with a strictly utilitarian purpose, which now has to adapt to a creative film studio with a distinct pattern of working that differs from regular corporate culture.

But clients Robert Godinho and Gayatri Sethi, who reached out to the firm through a common acquaintance, were confident that Studio Bipolar would resolve the two exigent aspects creatively. It helped that both shared the same vision wherein they wanted to harness the structure’s history in creating this unique workspace. As an abandoned warehouse, the site didn’t make for an impressive canvas to begin with. “Even though the space looked very big in our plans, in real life, it was a series of small, low height interconnected rooms with almost no natural light,” explains Sanjana. “We got rid of all the partitions and mezzanines that divided the halls and opened them up for the first time in 50 years!”

The nature of the warehouse was retained and improvised upon to match the energy of a studio house. The exterior, now finished in emulsion paint with the Whitebalance logo, has become the preferred spot for company pictures.

Organic flow in movement and interaction between the diverse team of designers, editors, production assistants, operations team and administrative services — who were all to be housed under one roof — was essential. The furniture layout was thus conceptualized around this requirement. Doors have been eschewed for arched openings in the walls that punctuate the space. The original windows that had been boarded up have been restored to their original charm and arched windows along the north wall were added to maximize natural light but minimize heat and glare.

In the main workspace, IPS cement flooring, white walls and a black painted roof forms the core shell of the linear hall. It’s an elementary set-up meant for the production team, with open desking that is minimal in design with only the wood tabletop providing the necessary warm contrast. The editing bay and conference room are the only “boxed” areas but still maintain the collaborative vibe. The former is brick walled with two arched entries and open desks on either side. Inside, a private, enclosed suite doubles as a makeshift sleeping zone with bunk beds. “This has been done as the editing team often works long hours and needs to take naps throughout the day and night,” explains Ujjwal.

A decent chunk of the floor space is reserved as a multipurpose hall where a makeshift conference room can be set up (the frames actually fold down into tables). For movie screenings, there’s a projector suspended from the ceiling as well as long blackout curtains in the corner which roll into place when needed.

Located at the other end of the space, the conference room is composed of glass and metal with a mezzanine floor on top. Another set of linear workspaces lies adjacent to it. Despite the entire floor being rather rudimentary, there is a creative energy penetrating it all. Whether it is the Palladian arched windows with fresh brick-lined semi-height walls and upholstered seating bays, a pre-existing round window, a graphic wall, a “supercharged” wall art fashioned out of abandoned pipes, or the many pendant lamps that dot the place, each element stays true to the industrial nature of the space while still been able to “rejuvenate and energize people”.

Adjoining this main work area is a multifunctional hall designed for events, movie screenings, product shoots, on-the-go meetings and more. The mezzanine from the conference room extends into this hall with a private meeting area for the directors on top. The directors’ office too is sans doors with trumpets artfully arranged on the entrance wall. Inside, you find a minimalist yet artsy composition of a modern chandelier, pinewood desk, aviator chair, chesterfield sofa, origami table lamp and pendant lamp from Ikea that blends with the structure’s original clerestory windows and painted industrial roof.

When pseudo brick cladding failed to impress, the designers chose to build an actual brick wall in front of the original wall. The resultant depth enabled them to turn the window sill (upholstered in vibrant prints) into a book with seating.

The industrial feel was something the client desired in the first place; after all, warehouses and films have a long-standing association. The budget also made it a viable solution given the sheer size of the space and the level of repair work that was required. “We had to invest our money wisely (but) not compromise on functionality. In terms of decor, we found creative solutions: the light installation is from scrap electrical conduits and we sourced pieces from flea markets in old Delhi, which are functional yet add charm,” shares Sanjana. She added that the industrial space determined the material palette to some extent but they gave it a richer texture by employing wood and brass.

The nature of work is such that even the lighting needed a specific strategy. “We didn’t want to over light the whole space. We took care that the main workspace was well-lit during the day with natural light,” informs Ujjwal. Focus lights on the original metal frame roof serves as general lighting (used only after the sun sets) and pendant lights provide accent illumination. “The editing bay had to be treated in a certain way because they require low levels of light. The main hall has several layers of lighting because it needs to adapt to various situations such as movie screenings, company events, etc,” he adds.

Trumpets sourced from Chandni Chowk are a budget-friendly aesthetic touch chosen for the private area reserved for the directors. “People often toot their own horn before entering the boss’s private office,” Sanjana quips.

For the two teams, ie the client and the architects, restoring the potential hidden in this space was an exhilarating experience — with a good dose of fights, blood, sweat and tears. “But at the end of the day, we’re all very happy with the result!” the architects proudly state. One thing was clear from this exercise, the traditional idea of a workspace is changing. No more is an office a place to plug in your laptop and work from 9-5. Employees want a community where they can grow and network in a comfortable setting and feel a sense of belonging. The architects may be onto something when they says, “In the future, workspaces are going to get fluid with multiple work settings, recreational areas, sleep spaces, event halls, etc.” If this means more abandoned lots will be rejuvenated with a breath of fresh air, we are looking forward to this shift!

To enhance the structure’s industrial character with its new purpose as a studio where collaborative work thrives in an open layout.

Floor: Floor IPS cement flooring cast in situ
Walls: Asian paints acrylic emulsion paint
Ceiling: original metal roof restored with cleaning and paint
Facade: Asian paints acrylic emulsion paint
Partitions: Metal sections with sliding French doors
Furniture: Metal frame with wood veneer desk tops

Project: Whitebalance
Client: Robert Godinho and Gayatri Sethi
Location: Okhla Industrial Area, New Delhi
Area: 6,000 sq ft
Principal architect: Sanjana Mathur and Ujjwal Sagar
Design team: Manan Talwar
Contractor: Laying Infrastructure Pvt Ltd