Road trips are one of the best things about having a car – wide empty roads, greenery rarely visible within the city, and the company of good friends and family. However, humans aren’t built for long-distance sedentary travel, and eventually we need breaks to eat or use the restroom. In times like these a restaurant by the highway is nothing short of a God-send, however uncommon or easy-to-miss some of them may be.
On one particular trip like this, en-route to Chennai from Tirunelveli for the first time by road, my friends and I were in a desperate predicament. We had already crossed about 10 stops because we noticed them too late, and that’s when I finally spotted the tall, grey structure in the far horizon – a building that heralded us to finally slow to a stop in time. What was to be a short bathroom break turned out to be 3-hour leisurely lunch complete with dessert, and a late evening chat in the peaceful plaza outside, with all the rush to reach home forgotten.
In July 2014, a young computer engineer from a small town in Kanchipuram had a worldly vision – to turn his father’s small-town restaurant into a flourishing hotel business. Vinoj Padmakaran is the second son of Mr. Padmakaran, a self-made man who used to once sell tea and rose-milk on his bicycle along the quaint old streets of a village, Maduranthagam. His business eventually grew into a 10′ x 20′ building with a floor above, and anyone who visited the town would ask to eat at “Manoj Bhavan”. After the family underwent a traumatic stint, Vinoj wished to take his father’s talent along with his small yet incredibly well-known restaurant from the small town of Maduranthagam to a wider audience. They bought a one-acre property along the Chennai-Tiruchi highway, about 4 km from the town, and called the office of a well-known Architect in the city to help them realize their dream.
“When Vinoj came to my office, he told me about his family and their present restaurant. We went over to place to understand what exactly are his requirements. They were not very sure about how the Highway restaurant should be, they were describing the many “Kumbakonam coffee shops” that you see along the highway” says Ar. Murali Murugan, principal Architect of Murali Architects, Chennai.
“I feel understanding people is most important when it comes to Architecture. As Architects, we’ve not really understood people, we only always idealize a client.”
After that first visit, for about three months, discussions took place – the Architect would share information and different types of projects from all over the globe to see Vinoj’s family’s reactions, their beliefs regarding Vaastu, the various problems of the land, site analysis, water management and so on.
“I feel understanding people is most important when it comes to Architecture. As Architects, we’ve not really understood people, we only always idealize a client. If you do not understand people, the Architecture may be very idealistic or something inspired from somewhere and transplanted” says Ar. Murali. This is why, he explains, they not only have a detailed discussion with the client about all their needs but make it a point to speak with every single member of the clients family to understand the tiniest details of everyone’s wants. “We learn architecture for 5 years. Yet we accuse clients of not having architectural taste or awareness.” he laughs, condemning the self-centered nature of the profession.
The intuitive understanding that he had of the family was noticeable from the sincere way Ar. Murali spoke. Once he became almost a part of the family, he didn’t have to work on an explicitly sequential sketching process of the design, rather, the whole design process turned out to be a very intuitive one. By the time the drawings were started, the firm was extremely thorough with the site and its context – how many vehicles will pass by, the issues of water, etc. – not in a systematic manner but more of an instinctual knowledge owing to the many hours spent around the site and talking to the local populace.Where exists a web of information and seemingly random facts, a record of phenomena accumulates over time and when seen with fresh perspective, patterns emerge to the attentive mind.
Conceptual sketches. Image source: Murali Architects
“We always do a rough drawing of all the requirements that we receive from the client and the building experts. The requirements, or facilities program, is planned for 3-4 months so that everybody is aware of what is needed. We don’t compose the plan until the client outright asks us “I think we are clear about what we want, so where is the plan?”, because only after that we know that the client will no longer interfere with the requirements.”
Site plan showing layout. Image source: Murali Architects
The most obvious requirements in a restaurant apart (restaurant, restrooms, kitchen, service areas), there was one very important factor that influenced the zoning – safety. Most highway restaurants, or Dhabas, usually constitute a strip of shabby buildings pushed at least 15m into the site with ample unsupervised parking in the front, while the restrooms are hidden in some scrupulous, shady corner at the back. “We didn’t want a woman, visiting perhaps late at night, to have a fearful experience simply using the restroom. The path should be clear and visible” Therefore, the restrooms were placed in the center allowing visitors to immediately recognize where which facility was with no dark, set-in spaces. To allow for clear and legible way-finding, a well-lit central plaza was planned, not too wide as to render it intimidating, yet not too narrow that it becomes nothing more than a slightly wider corridor. The plaza was also meant to subtly separate the diverse zones of the restaurant, restroom and a sweet shop.
Central plaza looking towards restaurant block, Manoj Bhavan
“We needed something that can be seen from about 1 km away.”
Being a restaurant in the highway, water supply and availability was another major consideration as there is wont to be high traffic for toilets and kitchens and for maintaining cleanliness as well. To achieve uniform water pressure to all zones without escalating the cost was a challenge, and after numerous consultations with a plumbing expert, it was decided to use a tall overhead tank which uses conventional gravity for water supply. That’s how the iconic central tower came up, which also doubled as an identity to the architecture of Manoj Bhavan. “We needed something that can be seen from about 1 km away. In highways, the people usually drive at 100 km/hr, and it was necessary to make them slow down a safe distance away lest they miss the place.” This was the major criteria that influenced the dynamic and sculptural form that is visible from a good distance away. The cuboid volumes angled in opposing directions, like a jumbled cube, were meant to induce the curiosity of even the most focused and fastest of passers-by.
Manoj Bhavan under construction, showing first-floor office and Tower in the background. Image source: Murali Architects
For the very same reason, the materials used for the building were chosen for simplicity and visibility even at night. The Grey of the exposed concrete juxtaposed with the white plaster in certain places was to facilitate form-reading. For an overall earthy look, Kota stones and rust-coloured vitrified tiles were used within the buildings, while the plaza was graced with green carpet grass. Textures and colours complemented each other.
The roof was made with metal lightweight sheets instead of concrete to cut down the cost. Parking space was one of the major design considerations with a requirement of at least 20-30 cars to be parked at one time. “Unlike city parking, the visitors will be in a rush to just get in and out. So, we needed to limit the landscaping area to allow for easy parking to encourage more people to come here.” With a well-lit parking space and wide and inviting transparent restaurant, the language of a highway restaurant as we know is now altered for the better.
Manoj Bhavan at Night. Image source: Murali Architects
Although contemporary in expression, Manoj Bhavan was designed weaving in the tangible essence of certain traditional elements. “You exist because of your older generations. All their beliefs – their words, culture, lifestyle, – it transcends time and reaches you; you are a small reflection of your previous generations. But do you look the same? No. But in terms of your inner feel / character, there is a continuation in your embedded genes.”
During the times when there were only mud paths and bicycles, there used to be a Sumai thaangikallu (literally translates to Burden-relieving stone), a 5′ tall stone under a tree for every 4-5 km, onto which one traveling for a long distance with a basket of goods on their head can rest the load by leaning against it.The idea for Manoj Bhavan was to adapt this concept to the present needs by creating a place where everyone, from the father driving the vehicle to a restless 7-year old strapped into the back seat, can take a break in between their long journey and relax. “This shall not be just a restaurant; this should be a place where everyone can unwind, take a break, take photographs, rejuvenate, have good food and rest. This place should create an indelible memory.”
If you walk around the plaza, you will notice that there is a platform to sit in every corner of the place hidden as parapets or landscaping demarcations. This is an adaptation of the thinnais of olden times when a continuous platform would run outside the homes, along the street allowing anyone and everyone to sit anywhere and converse about the day’s happenings. “Our Architecture has become so western; the concept of a chair makes one’s close friend sit farther away, killing the emotions of nearness in relationships.”
(Left) Ambiguous seating run throughout the site. (Right) Playground in the plaza.
The initial proposal of 20,000 sq. ft. was culled to 8000 sq. ft, along with several other innovations – such as a floating sculpture ATM and a small amphitheater to accommodate outdoor activity that complements the good weather prevailing in the city outskirts during evenings – to maintain cost efficiency. Some of these shunned ideas are now back under discussion since the project turned out to be a huge success for the family’s business.
Ever since its opening in July 2016, Manoj Bhavan has brought phenomenal exposure to a latent family restaurant in a small town on the city outskirts. Effortlessly imbuing traditional space-making values into a proudly contemporary form, it represents how good planning and appropriate design can bring enormous prosperity to a family’s life, and a much-needed oasis for many a traveling party that has driven the long, tiresome journey across the Chennai-Tiruchi highway.