This is an account of the monumental work that went into building the towering Statue of Unity – from planning, design, detailing, construction to completion.
By Rakesh Kaul
When Vinita Kapur was young, she would doodle and solve puzzles. That childhood dream led her to getting a PhD in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. After all, in her own words, “is architecture itself nothing but a ginormous 3D visual puzzle with an aesthetic slant?” Little did she know that she would have the supreme honour of working on the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue as director, India Projects at Michael Graves Architecture & Design in Princeton, New Jersey.
Michael Graves Architecture & Design (MGA&D), the global architecture and design firm, went into the statue bidding process as part of a consortium that included Turner Construction as project manager, and Meindhart structural engineers. It was the very first project that MGA&D would work on in India and it was a project that they knew was guaranteed to see the light of day. The team was filled with exhilaration at the prospect of designing a famous historical project of national importance and significance.
MGA&D’s brand statement, ‘We Create Designs that Strike the Senses’ gives the first insight as to how they approached this ginormous assignment. The ancient writer Narayana couldn’t agree more. He maintained that no sentiment (rasa) would arise if it was not triggered by a sense of marvelling by the self, implying that wonder (adbhuta) was basic to all emotions. Descartes similarly said that wonderment or a ‘sudden surprise to the soul’ was basic to all emotions.
In The Pursuit Of realness
In the interview, Vinita Kapur stressed that the priority in creating the Sardar Patel statue was to ensure that the experience was to be real, not abstract, not synthetic, not idealised. Real is what would lead to instant recognition of Patel’s towering idea that ‘Manpower without Unity is not strength unless it is harmonized and…. united properly, then it becomes a spiritual power’. The statue was to serve as a remembrance that Patel’s unification of the states into the Dominion of India was the single biggest achievement of the first Government of India. Even the naming of the statue was not after the man but after the narrative of unity that he was a symbol of.
Unity is always accompanied by universality. Notwithstanding the allegations of small minds that this initiative was aggrandizement on the part of a sectarian ‘Hindu’ government, the statue itself was designed shorn of all traditional mudras, religious and regional symbols or meanings, as befitted the great man.
Real also meant a search for the traditional garb of Sardar Patel, down to the detail of his sandal-clad feet and exposed ankles. Patel has been given the honorific of the Iron Man. So, iron was collected from citizens across India and laid inside the foundation of the statue. Then earth was collected from all the states and districts of the India. A rammed earth wall has been built with layers of this earth, and acts as a backdrop for the flagpole with the national flag of India and the motto engraved on it: United India Best India. Simple but true. If one wants to see Mere Desh Ki Dharti in one place this is it, this is it.
The search for real took the MGA&D team to museums. Ultimately, the Ahmedabad airport which houses the Sardar Patel statue by the sculptor Ram V Sutar became the model prototype. The team had found their man. Padma Bushan awardee Ram Sutar is a legend who has created more than 50 world-class sculptures. He and his son Anil joined the team, modelled the statue at a relatively small size and eventually worked up to a 30‐foot tall version. The statue is a made in India design and made by ‘superstar’ Sutar. From this physical model, two full‐size digital models were created.
This phase required skilled artists and fabricators to adjust the details of the face, body and clothing so that they could be read from a distance. MGA&D retained a conceptual digital sculptor, Joseph Menna, in the US. The statue was planned to be 182 metres (597 feet) high, nearly 50 storeys tall. Creating this digital model demonstrated in 3D how the statue would be viewed as a tall building and how the building elements would function within an envelope.
Inspiration From The Subject
During the interview, Vinita Kapur shared how the design team was inspired by Sardar Patel as they did their research. She said, “The statue is a unique expression of realism, the pole opposite of minimalism. It represents the reality of a wise man who fought for India’s independence, and the ravages of time are visible on the creases on his ageing face. Sutar’s sculpture is all about careful delineation of realism with fine details, of facial expression and creases, the attributes of the human body, and elements down to the folds in the dhoti.”
The statue had to be placed in a natural context that would do justice to the historiography of the man. Simultaneous to the design effort on the statue was the parallel effort to create the master plan and design the hub. Time and space elements thus became the next concern of the team. The location was centreed on the Sadhu Bet island on the eastern bend on the spine of the Narmada river as it turns to provide a grand vista of the Sardar Sarovar dam – the dam first envisioned by the great man. How apt that the creation of the metaphysical Sardar now gazes at his own creation! But when the design team created the hub comprising the visitor’s centre, the Bridge Museum and the statue, they were also looking to unlock the trifecta of the energy of that space, the electric power, the river power and the people power.
This energy will catapult the region’s economy. Vinita Kapur expanded on the vision: “In future phases, the Narmada river and its banks were designed to emerge as a central public spine connecting an eco-tourist resort to create a rich, contextual river front, spanning the entire stretch of the transit centre and Shreshtha Bhawan (a small hotel cum conference centre) to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The open space along the riverfront will host a continuity of plazas, parks, gardens, boating facilities, walking and cycling tracks, quiet spaces to reflect and view the Sarovar Dam, and other public gathering places. The recreational landscape planning will also preserve and restore the vital habitat of plants and trees. These public uses will blend with cultural, entertainment, residential, and educational areas such as museums, restaurants, lodges, hotels, amphitheatres and retail areas.”
To the extent it also becomes a residence of artists and will give a boost to local crafts and traditions. Little children vacationing with their families will play under the benevolent gaze of the Sardar. He will leave an indelible impression on their minds and the experience will birth hundreds of future Sardars, a force multiplier for society that will defy all return on investment calculations.
The Construction Challenges
The design elements had now taken shape. As Karen Nichols, principal of MGA&D put it: ‘’Our task was to create a concept design for the statue and the rest of the development in enough detail so that it could be executed by an EPC (engineering-procurement‐construction) team.”
This was the beginning of the stressful phase of the project. There were two types of stress: the first was of dealing with a relatively scarce and unknown typology and the process of construction. The second was about the construction problems and issues that arose based on choices made regarding the statue. The Turner‐Meinhardt‐Graves team provided the basis of design for bid to an EPC contractor that would further develop the design and execute the project. The selected project construction/delivery team was led by Indian engineering giant Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and included Woods Bagot as the executing architect and ARUP as the structural and mechanical engineers.
Two special challenges confronted the combined team. The statue is thinner at the base than at upper levels (the opposite of most monumental statuary). This challenged L&T’s engineering team to design the structure to withstand wind and earthquakes, necessitating two large tuned mass dampers (harmonic absorbers) above chest height to reduce vibrations and minimise sway.
The other issue was adopting a process of construction that was feasible. Hung on the two concrete cores are large steel space frames to which the bronze panels are attached. The bronze panels are assembled in a mock‐up area in a series of rings that are supported by the space frames attached to the concrete cores. The rings are each tested for fit on the ground, which allows the workers to make any final adjustments before the panels are craned into place on the statue. Once the section is measured, adjusted and approved, the panels are separated into manageable sections and lifted one by one into place. The most challenging aspect was that the statue is a double curve at every segment.
The Vista And The Visual Impact
The views out of the statute are carefully coordinated. The openings in the surface of the statue that allow the visitors to see out are coordinated in the pattern of the threads in his tunic in order to minimise the visual impact of this large opening on the exterior of the statue. One of the buttons in Sardar Patel’s tunic is purposely located within the open area of the observation level at an elevation of 193 metres so that visitors can get a sense of the scale even when standing inside the statue.
Another portion of the gallery is open to the wind and weather, enhancing the visitor’s experience and the sense of height, while providing a grand vista of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and river without any intervening glass. There would be an opening of the mind from the panoramic views of the Narmada River, the Sardar Sarovar Dam and reservoirs, the lush Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounding mountain ranges.
In Peter’s words, when he beheld the final complete work he was enthralled and filled with awe, “My first thought is always ‘wow’. I am continually impressed that the government built such a massive and impressive structure. It is imagination turned into reality. I will remember it fondly as one of the greatest achievements of my work as an architect”. The statue was an unparalleled effort, astounding in the caliber of work, the dedication that the team in India brought to the mission and the pace at which the design manifested itself into reality.”
Best of all, the statue is a living statue in the sense that it will keep on growing as more narratives and stories are added to it. Vinita Kapur said, “At the ideation stage, MGA&D thought of showcasing history in a manner that is visible in the facade, the podium and interior spaces in the first phase. In the future phases, the streets and plazas could also showcase some histories, including through India’s own special street theatre and dance mediums. On the skin – the shawl – MGA&D wanted to visually display the story of Patel
uniting 500+ states into a united India on a lighted shawl. On the podium, the team had discussed planting another narrative: The no tax campaign and returning land to the farmers by the Britishers; placed in objects at the feet of the statue. Finally, in the interior spaces of the museum more historical narratives were contemplated.”
The museum’s main level is a three-storeyed, large continuous exhibit hall, that will house interactive educational and entertaining audio‐visual exhibits focusing on the life and accomplishments of Sardar Patel. Currently, there is a 3D projection system that projects a rendered life image onto the surface of the bronze statue as well as one that shows the construction of the statue at different stages. Other narratives will be added as time and budget allow, creating a night life for the complex.
I asked Vinita as to how she had changed after this experience?
“On a professional level, an intense respect for collaboration in architecture, and a willingness to enter into relatively unknown territories,” she replied, adding, “on a personal level, a deep admiration for Sardar Patel and his role in uniting India at Independence.”
I could not agree more. In just three months, 781,349 people have visited and generated revenues of Rs 20 crore. I saluted Vinita Kapur and through her all her team mates and collaborators who have created a marvel for the ages. When you visit the Sardar’s statue, visit you must, and if you happen to see a young girl resting on the grass and doodling, pay attention. There is a future wonder of wonders ginormous dreamer there.