Ar. Stephen Roberts Chairman, Bentel Associates
"Architecture is the one fine thread that interlinks society, environment and economy thus affecting lives of people across social strata."
Like most children, Stephen never gave a lot of thought to a "real" career, beyond being famous as either a film or sports star. However, during high school, he took interest in art and technical drawing, and it was this combination that made him choose architecture as a career path.
On leaving high school in 1967, he enrolled in a School of Architecture as a part time student and at the same time began working with a large firm of architects, so his studies went hand-in-hand with practical experience. During studies, he was able to gain much experience on the drawing board, working as a junior team member on a variety of projects between 1967 and 1970, including a new wing for the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and a Naval Base.
He studied architecture at an established facility called the Brixton School of Architecture, which has since then been joined to the South East London Polytechnic. He graduated with a Higher National Certificate in Building, with an Architectural bias. Though he could have pursued full degree, however, another offer that he could not refuse, changed the whole course of his career.
After college, he continued his employment, where he received a request to join the branch office in Botswana, Africa on a two year contract. He saw this as a great opportunity not only to expand his skill set, but also to visit a part of the world that he would have ideally never ventured in to otherwise.
He arrived in Gaborone in September of 1970, where he became only the second staff member of a full complement of two. Being part of such a small team enabled him to jump in the deep end and become responsible not only for design and documentation, but job supervision and administration.
The experience proved to be better than a five year degree course, and he was able to see through the completion of a number of different buildings, including offices, medical suites, university buildings and residential schemes. It was also during this time in Botswana that he met and married his life partner. At the end of the contract he returned to the UK, and was again offered another two year contract overseas, this time in Tanzania.
The office in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) was far more established than that in Gaborone, with a staff complement of more than twenty, including other disciplines, such as structural and MEP engineers. He was placed in a leadership role to take over a number of projects, which were mostly Government funded, and included schools and colleges of education. After Dar es Salaam, his intention was to return to the UK to complete his degree, but again a further opportunity saw him take up residence in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his journey with Bentel Associates began in 1976.
Joining Bentel was also the beginning of his relationship with retail architecture. Bentel was already well established as specialists in this asset class, and he was immediately put in a team working on one of five new hypermarkets throughout the country. These were the first hypermarkets to be established in South Africa, and were developed for a new Retailer, who quickly became one of South Africa's premier retail chains, and it is a relationship with Bentel that still exists, even after forty years. In 1978, he was appointed to lead the Store Planning team, and for the next 28 years the design and development of supermarkets and hypermarkets became his primary focus, along with specialist knowledge of retail architecture in general. During those years Bentel pioneered the design of retails' centres in South Africa, including the first enclosed mall, the first regional centre and the first themed centre. His appointment to the board came in 1988, and subsequently he became the Chairman in 2003.
Stephen opines that architecture is beyond science. An Architect needs to think beyond buildings. His/her vision needs to be not only wider and global but also needs to touch human emotions. 'Architecture is the one fine thread that interlinks society, environment and economy thus affecting lives of people across social strata.'
His Journey in India…
Bentel's relationship with India began in 2003/4, when they were recommended as retail specialists to ICS Group, who were looking to add to their portfolio the design and development of shopping centres. Thus the Joint Venture was established, and the past ten years has seen Bentel become a preferred brand with a number of the top developers in India. Their portfolio has also expanded, both in South Africa and India, to include other asset classes, such as commercial, residential and hospitality projects. He has had the privilege of spending a lot of time in India, visiting all of the major cities, and he admits that a love affair now exists between India and him. India has become like a second home, and he is a great ambassador for the country.
Bentel's reputation in India grew quickly after the completion of its first full scheme, the Oberoi Mall in Mumbai. Following on that success, the architecture firm became involved in large centres in Bangalore, Kolkata, Bhopal and Hyderabad. The portfolio has now grown to include award–winning projects for offices and mixed-use developments. There has also been an expansion into the residential market. The ties between Bentel's office in India and South Africa have grown ever stronger over the years, to the extent that they are now working as one office, complementing the skills of both to create an efficient and experienced team that can offer the client a great value.
Stephen believes that India stands on the threshold of a vast opportunity in the property development market. Whilst the retail sector may currently have slowed down, it is only a matter of time before the boom will happen. In all other sectors, India is in need of more residential, commercial, and hospitality projects, not to mention infra-structure, which has already begun with new airports, roads and inner city metros. He has no doubt that Bentel's prospects in India are huge and hence they intend to use India as a base for further expansion globally. Since their first arrival in India, he has witnessed the property development industry become more discerning and more knowledgeable and more sophisticated with each year that passes, which only bodes well for the future.
The Work culture, people, ethics, and plans are a few impressive qualities he found in India. People are not just skilled, but diligent and hardworking, and display a respect for each other that is not seen anywhere else he has travelled. The diversity of cultures across India makes traveling an exciting and pleasing experience that together make India truly incredible for Stephen.