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Fri 30 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Blurring the boundaries

Working on the interface between landscape architecture, architecture and interior design is the key to Strata's unique design approach, says design director Viraj Chatterjee.

Working on the interface between landscape architecture, architecture and interior design is the key to Strata's unique design approach, says design director Viraj Chatterjee.

Given the anticipated landscape boom in the GCC, it is no surprise that the region is attracting new entrants to the market. Not only are specialist landscape firms seeking to gain work in the region, but multi-disciplinary design consultancies and architectural firms are also expanding their landscape services and setting up dedicated landscape divisions.

One such firm is Strata, a division of international architectural practice RMJM, which announced via a presence at RMJM's stand at the Cityscape real estate trade show in Abu Dhabi last May, plans to establish a base in the UAE.

The company had been working for some time on regional projects from its headquarters in Hong Kong and the time was right to take that work a step forward by having a regional base, the firm explained at the time.

Projects that Strata has worked on in the Middle East include Palm Jebel Ali Hub with developer Nakheel and Silverene Dubai Marina with Cayan.

The Dubai office of Strata is still small at present with just three staff but has big plans, expecting to expand to 10 people in the near future, explains design director Viraj Chatterjee. Strata also recently consolidated its regional intentions with the appointment of Adrian Matthews, formerly of Sharjah-based landscape practice Shankland Cox, to head up the firm's regional operations.

Most of the work that Strata does comes through its parent company RMJM, although the company is open to working with other architectural practices, stresses Chatterjee.

Working together with architects and interior designers is an essential aspect of Strata's design approach, he states.

"We wanted to have a very strong relationship between architecture, landscape and also interior and the basis of Strata was that we can work on this interface," he says, adding that he thinks the real challenge is how you can blur [these areas] so sometimes you see the landscape and the interior ‘talking' to each other.

"My idea is to make this transition so blurred that you are coming from one space to the other so it is very subtle and seamless. This relationship is quite important and that can only happen if you work closely with interior and architecture. That is why we decided we are going to have Strata working with interior designers and architects and that's how we can influence each other," he says.

The firm claims that it takes a unique approach to design by combining art, architecture, ecology and nature in its approach. The inspiration for the company's award winning airport at Kolkata, India came from a poem, which became the graphic representation in the landscape, for example.

"Strata is a very design led office," says Chatterjee. "We do a lot of research and all of our projects are based on research of the context and working closely with architects and interior designers. You have a different approach to every project. You go through the process of analyzing the site, the history of the place, the culture, the art work. You pick up those subtleties," he says.

"The client can see there is synergy and that is what helps us to win competitions," he adds.

The difference, according to Chatterjee, between landscape architecture and architecture is the alive element of the landscape. "Architecture is creating a space which is using the brick, glass, concrete, aluminum, steel, while the landscape is creating a space where your building medium is alive. You create a space which is a growing medium and with seasons the colour of the space changes and it is important how you maintain that space.

Chatterjee, who trained as an architect as well as a landscape architect, says that for him the common component between the two professions is an understanding of space. "I think the key is to have an understanding of how space works. The basic point is you have an understanding of space and how it works and how you can create an experience," he says.It was this blurring of boundaries that attracted Chatterjee to landscape architecture as a profession, he adds. "I'm interested also in art and fashion design and I thought landscape gave a huge opportunity to integrate those together as part of the design process. It's about different ideas all coming together."

Strata was set up by RMJM approximately four years ago, and has been growing as a division ever since. Work that the company is currently doing in the region includes the masterplan of Al Ain, while internationally the firm is working on projects in China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. Its international project portfolio includes the Beijing Olympic Green Convention Centre, and winning the masterplan for the Huawei Research and Development Centre in Nanjing, China.

The Dubai office is the first branching out of the Strata brand beyond Hong Kong, and a major step for the landscape service division of RMJM.

Chatterjee says the time is right for such growth. "I think there is a huge opportunity here," he comments.

Having the backing of such an established architectural firm has undoubtedly helped Strata's entry into the region. RMJM is well known for its architectural work in the GCC and has a number of high profile projects to its name including the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in the capital, and Dubai Towers, Doha in Qatar.

Nonetheless, the arrival of the global financial crisis in the gulf inevitably makes it more difficult for a firm, however well backed it may be, that is a relative newcomer to the region.

Chatterjee says that to date the firm's plans for Strata have not been affected even though RMJM is rumoured to have cut a number of staff from its regional design division. "There is no change for the plan for Strata but we will see what happens," he says.

He is optimistic, he adds, about the region's ability to withstand the current economic storm. "I am very optimistic about this region," he says. "This region developed because of a lot of visionary people who took this whole thing forward. I think it's temporary, it's always ups and downs and I think the Middle East is resilient."

As for future plans for Strata, Chatterjee says the US is likely to be the next point of entry. "RJMJM has a very big presence in the US. I think there is a huge opportunity for us to interact further with colleagues there," he comments.


Viraj Chatterjee is design director of Strata and responsible for forming the Strata team in Hong Kong and subsequently Dubai. Chatterjee is trained as both an architect and landscape architect. Before joining Strata, Chatterjee worked for EDAW Edinburgh in the UK. He is based in Hong Kong.

Fact file Strata


Parent company:RMJM

Offices:Hong Kong, Dubai

Services include:landscape masterplanning, landscape design

Key projects in region include:Silverene, Dubai Marina, Dubai; Palm Jebel Ali, Dubai, Al Ain Masterplan, Al Ain


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