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How his travels helped this former mariner successfully find his bearings in the world of architecture and design

Jyoti Chidambaram Ayyar
9th Apr 2019
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Don’t you tell me what you think that I can be.
I’m the one at the sail, I’m the master of my sea

- Imagine Dragons 


For Rohit Suraj, the journey from being in the merchant navy and commandeering a super tanker around the globe, to designing award-winning buildings, has been nothing if not unique. As the founder of Hyderabad-based Urban Zen, Rohit may be considered a maverick by some, as he has no formal educational background in architecture and design


He believes what sets him apart from others of his ilk is the fact that he has no precedent. “I didn’t study architecture, I didn’t get formatted in school or in any organisation. Everything that I have created is from my own imagination, and has everything to do with my travels at sea. My travels helped me interact with so many different nationalities and helped me see so many places, that everything became a learning experience.”  


Rohit Suraj, Founder of Urban Zen

A firm advocate of Steve Jobs’ dictum that ‘you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards’, Rohit believes that these experiences in the early part of his career played a huge role in shaping who he is today.


That, and his dogged sense of determination to be the best, as he illustrates with an example. After completing his schooling in Hyderabad and Chennai, at the age of 18, Rohit left India to do a course in nautical science in Glasgow, Scotland, with just £500 in his pocket. He started working part time as a dishwasher in a hotel to supplement his living expenses. “On my first day at work, I was given a can of polish and asked to shine the brass railings, clean the toilets etc. Coming from an Indian home where I was used to having others do these things for me, it was unusual to be asked to do them, but I was not alarmed. I just polished the railings so well that the manager was shocked; and for a year after they didn’t have to be polished again. For me, it’s never been about whether a job is big or small, menial or not. I believe that if you aren’t willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in any job, you just cannot command the respect of others or lead from the front.”


Success comes from having a sense of pride in one’s work


This hunger to excel, he says, has been a definitive trait that has paid off throughout his career. In the above instance, he eventually went on to become a manager at the same hotel where he started off as a dishwasher, and that too within a year. “I never wanted to be told that I was not doing things well. A sense of pride and the will to succeed kept me going in any job, regardless of whether I liked it or not.” 


His life before he started Urban Zen in the year 2011, amply demonstrates this. After obtaining his masters’ degree in nautical science, he started working with global shipping conglomerate Maersk.


“The first day on my job, something didn’t feel right -- I got this sense that I did not belong in that particular field. But I couldn’t disappoint my parents who had helped fund my education, so I decided to stay on.”


And that decision eventually turned into a 10-year journey in which he became the youngest chief officer, just shy of 24, to head a super tanker. Meanwhile, the niggling sense that he should be doing something else with his life continued to persist and, in the year 2000, when he was overseeing the construction of his own house in Hyderabad, he got a glimpse into what that might be. “The architect working on my house left midway, and I worked with the engineer to complete the project. Everybody who visited the house appreciated it. For the first time, I started thinking that this might be something I could parlay into a career.”


He continued working with Maersk for the next eight years, and when his daughter was born in 2005, he decided to go to The Netherlands and study port design at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He completed the course with flying colours, made the Dean’s List and was even asked to lecture students at the same university a year after his graduation. After a brief stint at a company working in this field, where he went on to become Managing Director for the Asia Pacific region, his work in designing ports and harbours gave him more confidence about construction and his ability to do well there. That’s why in 2010, he decided to pivot. “I didn’t want to die thinking I hadn’t given architecture and design a shot. I thought I’d rather do it and know that I tried and failed than not try or know at all.”


Faith, freedom of expression lead to good design 


For his first project, a house in Hyderabad, he came in as a contractor for another designer. “That was my first break. The client started noticing that I had a keen eye for design as I used to suggest changes to the design made by the chief architect. Slowly, the client became so confident about my capabilities that they decided to hand over the house to me and moved out that architect.”


From a one-person firm in 2011, today Urban Zen employs over 50 people, with their projects dotting the cityscapes across India, Middle East and, recently, Europe. 


“Starting with that very first 2,000-square feet residence, we have grown into a multi-disciplinary firm covering residences, retail, commercial, hospitality, institutional and urban developments across architecture, interiors and landscape. We are currently employed on over 70 projects and designing in excess of 15 million square feet,” he says.


A number of Urban Zen’s projects have won critical acclaim as well, including the House of Tropics, a residential property in Bengaluru and A Sky Full of Stars, a commercial project in Delhi. According to Rohit, “My best projects have been the result of clients having complete faith in me, having the same vision and spirit.” And he says this kind of cohesion is important because architecture is about structures conversing with people. “Buildings speak to you, they have emotions. Design is what sets the mood and tone of a place.” And when allowed to exercise his imagination freely is when the magic happens, he adds.


Shaping cities, shaping society, shaping the future


Rohit believes his work is exciting because architects are in a position where they are actually shaping cities, shaping countries and, in many ways, shaping the future. “For architects, just like artists, their work lives on after them. Leaving a mark even after you die is a huge sense of achievement, when the built environment transcends and takes on its own identity,” he says, adding, “While doctors are in the profession of saving lives, architects are in the profession of building lives and that is also a great responsibility.”


On how they work to balance the aesthetic and functional aspects, he says, “It is important to know that a building will be remembered as much for its aesthetic element as for its functional element. We don’t necessarily start on the drawing board setting out to make something sexy. We see what kind of functionality we need in terms of the utility of the building, and only after that do we start building the skin around it.” Apart from his theory of framing the plans around the 4Fs, namely ‘Form, Function, Fiction (telling a story through the building) and Finance’, the design also focuses on energy conservation as best as possible. 


At the same time, challenges due to the unorganised and fragmented nature of the sector are things they need to contend with. “People in India are okay with paying for materials, but reluctant to pay well for services. As a result, the average labour working on ground has very little motivation, which makes them unprofessional,” he says. “The situation can change if the mindset of the people changes.”


No substitutes for patience, hard work and perseverance 


Continuing in the same vein he mentions yet another challenge, which is common across a number of sectors - finding a committed workforce – especially in this age of instant gratification. “Finding people who are in a profession just for the love of what they do is difficult. Unfortunately, in architecture success has a long lead time. A number of young people coming into this profession don’t realise that. Colleges don’t prepare them for the real world. This profession is governed by intuition or the sixth sense, and that cannot be taught in any college. It is intangible and more difficult to find.”


However, he adds, these challenges don’t pose a threat to his company’s and team’s work ethos which is, “To commit to do exactly what we can do and deliveron our word. We want to be dramatically different with everything that we do. Every single project, we start off by thinking ‘how can we challenge the status quo?’ ‘How do we get this to be remarkable?’ and ‘How is it going to add value to people’s lives?’ “


A self-confessed workaholic, when asked how he unwinds, he predictably responds with, “Work. I do little else other than work. In fact, for me putting together a concept is like listening to music.”


Sharing his vision for the future, he says, “It is important that this company of mine is recognised for the right reasons—for its integrity, for making a difference, and having a sense of pride in the tokens that we leave behind which will shape the next few hundred years.”

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