Melbourne and Mumbai-based practice Young Citizens curates the transition of a derelict bus shelter into a training centre for WomenWeave with a hands-on engagement with the process, context and the users. Sian Pascale, Founder of Young Citizens elaborates on her ideas and experiences with the project in an interview accompanying the feature.
Devoid of the often introduced ideological complexities, the real architectural contexts in India are found often in between every other ‘iconic landmark’ building round the corner, the ubiquitous beautiful weekend home, the utopian and global institutional and corporate environments. As with architectural publications, imagery dominates the spreads. Expression, thus is primary – invariably, the quality of spaces comes a close second, and it must be said, that it is not easy to get an insight into the actuality of use considering our preference to the linear top-down design process.
Principled with a higher degree of collaboration and bottom-up design lexicon, the Training Centre is intrinsically positive – as a glimpse into a participatory process and its subsequent nuances.
WomenWeave, a charitable Trust which supports the role of women especially in rural areas in handloom weaving since its inception in 2002, approached Sian Pascale In the rurban town of Maheshwar, in Madhya Pradesh, Sian Pascale of Young Citizens was given the brief to transform an existing derelict bus shelter, attached to their current facilities into a multipurpose training school for young weavers. The extant building was being used by WomenWeave for starching cotton.
A modest intervention, the new façade seems to present a relatively quieter face to the town. The construct is not so much about the timelessness of architecture, but of detail, about a scale of transformability, capturing a particular demographic of users or simply sketching a narrative. With this, Sian has created boundaries, both technical and aesthetic, that people were allowed to work within. The thought framework for the brief was simply encapsulated in a few aspirations by the client such as wanting a temporary and dismountable mechanism, a low-cost solution budgeted within Rs 3 lakh, constructed with locally-sourced materials, low-skill labour potential with skill sourced from students and craftsmen, provision of restrooms, protection from insects and inclusion of elementary landscape design.
“Illustrated sketch plans, models and weaving became the concept behind the architectural design”
As a singular physical entity, the outcome is actually a collective of purpose and visions refined through cultural associations of objects and memory. The composite quality was a derivative of an open organic process initiated with a workshop with young weavers who would be using the space. The discussions shaped a plan gradually where a certain flow and sensitivity to the space was rendered. Eventually, the process may seem slow, but it creates a social coherence by enabling a voice for everyone.
The design concepts are deliberate not deterministic. “The concept exploration began with me physically exploring the idea of weaving, using my hands and using the waste yarn, “ writes Sian.
A ‘Kit of Parts’ composed of the Base Design, two Layout Options, Design Palette was developed by her to present a visual reference for the concepts.
The existing columns in the 14m x 10.5m area were the basic premise to be built on for two layout alternatives. “The first concept was about ‘wrapping threads’ using the columns to wrap materials around and divide up the space in this way.” This option was adapted to the most extent in the final execution.
In the second concept the columns were part of a system of the warp and the weft, the structure for a ‘flat weave’ of functional programming.” The consistency of simplicity and tangible hands-on ideas in the tactile palette serves to emphasise the general democratic approach to the project.
At the outset, extending the boundaries of recovering a context, the design focused on reformation and rehabilitation of the surrounding space degenerated under the relentless bus traffic. The organisation of the site plan is elementary with axial pathways – the main one leading from the entrance at the northernmost end to the Training School space perched at the southern edge of the site. The pathways connect the ancillary spaces such as the Meeting Area, temporary Exhibit Display stalls and wall areas and Restrooms.
Demarcated by a white diaphanous net curtain over an elevated threshold where people remove their footwear, the static character of the cuboid exterior dissolves into extreme flexibility in the interiors beyond. The layout is an open plan punctuated by existing columns to allow flexibility and eventually, placement of the equipment – strict in its structural rigour yet adaptive to occupational needs. Lightness and transparency permeates the compact scale. In that respect, the space is generous, allowing choices and providing versatility.
The rubric is to be more utilitarian and thus, the use of material is moderated. One of the allowances is the mud flooring, integrated at the request of the young weavers for their comfort despite not being an economically viable preference.
“Designing and building in rural India is a hands-on affair.”
It is not about reinventing the wheel but viewing the possibility of design as a rediscovery or regeneration tool. Adeptly, the design introduces defining moments for the place and experience by staging the ordinary anew. While none of the single attributes surrounding the inhabitants are unlike anything unaccustomed to, the familiar has been given refreshing connotations. The locally sourced net at the threshold controls the prevailing problem of mosquitoes in the area. Cylindrical metallic rat cages that Sian went scouting for at a local hardware store were remodelled as lampshades to infuse the volume with light. The monochrome demeanour was designed in anticipation of colourful fabrics that will eventually animate the space. The displays for the fabric are also devised economically with a frugal method of attaching black elastic belts to columns. The thought, ‘The goal was to find beauty through the clever use of local objects, detailed well,’ is evident in the low-cost washbasins for the students formulated from a metal bowl that labourers carry rubble in and a terracotta pot and multipurpose portable furniture low enough to be used for seating and/or to be used as a desk and moved around the space with ease. Supported by Ganga, her interpreter and ‘right-hand man’, the construction was systemised as an experimental and trial-and-error induced operation as a culminating reaction to the local and available resources.
The intuitive design speaks of inclusion, comfort and pragmatism. The architecture does not remain self-focused as an object but is simple in its outlook, outward reaching, more humane with the familiar more personified.
Addressing architecture at such a fundamental is discursive enough to raise questions about the practice of lucrative architecture. The method of architecture as a practice often more than not diminishes its work to the production of elaborate luxuries for those who are inclined to commission them. It is a ‘designed’ luxury – a design subjective to a monological process than a reciprocal one. Architecture as a practice is open to briefs, to inspirations, to influences, but is to the inhabitants? More often than not, our schema is declarative, rather than tentative or subjective. Working with a natural order verges as a perception of ‘jugaad’ – while it may be, in its truest sense. Colloquially, ‘jugaad’ is a word applied to an unconventional solution to resolve a complexity in an intelligent, flexible and frugal way. The design is the end, and the ‘people’ become the means to achieve it. The secondary notion that is emergent is of sensible adaptive reuse of these iterative structures, such as these abandoned bus-shelters, water-towers of which are informally occupied to create a meaningful new language and community spaces with measured simplification.
The transformation in this particular project is not only about architecture – it is about changing the modus operandi it is located in, about the idea of collaboration and the simplicity of purpose.
Project: Young Weavers’ Training Centre
Location: Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh
Architect: Sian Pascale, Young Citizens
Estimated Cost: Rs 2 lakh
Text: Maanasi Hattangadi
Photographs & Drawings: courtesy Young Citizens
An interview with Sian Pascale, Founder, Young Citizens:
MH: Maanasi Hattangadi
SP: Sian Pascale
MH: Please elaborate on your practice as Young Citizens? Could give us an insight into the philosophy it is rooted in?
SP: Young Citizens is a multidisciplinary design studio based on yoga and yogic principles which I founded in 2013.
As a yoga teacher, yoga naturally flows into every aspect of my life, almost like a filter on a camera, changing the way I look and do things. Yogic principles can be translated in so many ways – in the yoga sutras, Patanjali talks about the yamas – outward observances such as honesty, non-harming and non-stealing, these are simple attitudes that are brought into everyday business and also help me to decide on the types of businesses and people I want to work with. Are they good people? How do they treat their staff? Do they do work that I believe will have a positive impact on the world? I also ask myself these questions every day! Is what I am doing worthwhile? Am I supporting a craftsperson, keeping an idea alive, giving back to the world in some form? If the answer is no (and it does sometimes happen) then I can’t continue with it.
Also, I look at it in this way – The projects the studio focusses on are categorised into two realms – the Social and the Contemplative. Social spaces and projects are those that bring people together, create community and actively engage people. Contemplative projects are those that encourage introspective, thoughtfulness and going within. Both these aspects are equally important for balance in life, which is just like Ha-tha yoga which means sun-moon.
Also as part of the yogic path my meditations have had a profound impact on my creative processes and have helped to completely free me and get me into a creative flow, without that internal judgement or criticism. This has directly influenced my artwork and design work.
All of Young Citizens’ projects revolve around collaboration with other thinkers and the potential of being a truly global studio and taking on projects in any city in the world. I have mainly worked as a sole practitioner – even though this was never my aim! In order to keep my concepts and ideas fresh, developed and rigorous I have committed myself to collaborating with others on every project. Whether it is the client, the craftspeople I work with or the end users, I cannot claim any idea to be truly mine- it’s always a result of everyone I am working with.
MH: How did you get involved with the WomenWeave Handloom School? What was the impetus?
SP: I heard about the work of WomenWeave through a mutual friend. It was so exciting to me, the combination of traditional craft, modern design and working with community that I asked to be connected with them. I ended up being introduced to WomenWeave founder – Sally Holkar. I went in to the meeting expecting to work with them on designing something small like a handbag- but as always Sally had much grander plans. It was that day that we started planning the Handloom School together.
MH: How did the planning of the project span out? Did the users play an active role in the design? Was the project a collaborative effort?
SP: The site was in Madhya Pradesh in a rural city called Maheshwar and I was living in Mumbai, working for another designer. This meant that every three weeks I would travel to Maheshwar on my weekends to work on the project. During the initial site visit I conducted a workshop with the young weavers who worked on the space, to understand what it is that they wanted and how they would use the space. I had done this before during a building project with local people in Papua New Guinea in 2008 and also for different larger projects in Australia. The weavers involved were very excited to be involved and together created a list of what they wanted in the space.
From this list and my own site analysis, I created two spatial concepts in the following weeks while I was in Mumbai. I explained these over Skype to Sally and she printed them out and laminated them and the young weavers poured over the images deciding which aspects they wanted to include for the space.
I took on board this feedback and got to work designing the final plans and each time I was in Maheshwar I went about putting them into action.
I would still describe the process as a design and build, meaning that I was not completing many drawings or planning too much ahead, most of the design I did was at a 1:1 scale and I was always reacting to the materials and available resources in order to create a beautiful and functional finished product.
MH: Did the existing derelict structure act as a precursor to contribute to the compositional and functional order of your design?
SP: Most definitely! When you are working with existing structures and tiny budgets there is truly no way around it anyway, even if you were the type of designer who chose to ignore the existing context… which of course I am not! I love using my surroundings to inform my creative concepts.
In this case the existing columns became the basis for both of my initial concepts. The first concept was about ‘wrapping threads’ using the columns to wrap materials around and divide up the space in this way. In the second concept, the columns were part of a system of the warp and the weft, the structure for a ‘flat weave’ of functional programming.
MH: What kind of local techniques and influences did you encounter? What did you react to?
SP: The local market place was a huge source of inspiration for me, I would spend hours in the scorching heat with my right-hand man Ganga wandering through the market, stopping in the most unlikely of places to look at materials and objects that were so mundane to most locals and so beautiful and exotic and inspiring to me! I have always found hardware stores to be inspiring places, even more so I think than art stores. So finding local objects and putting them to unusual uses was all part of the fun.
Everything was local – except for the vintage light switches which I sourced from Mumbai. For example, I found these beautiful ‘jali’ bronze rat cages and turned them into light shades. I also created hand basins out of terracotta pots and metal bowls (usually used for carrying refuse). In this way, I could react and respond to the existing local materials.
This wasn’t the only way I worked. In many ways, it was also about taking local talent and exposing them to new ideas and ways of doing things. There was a local carpenter and a metal worker that I worked with to create the low desks. This was an interesting and eye opening experience. I first drew them pictures with dimensions of what I wanted – they came back with a completely different desk – in fact, it was the exact same desk they had always produced! So in order to get the outcome I wanted I did not show them the final product, I asked them to bring me each part of the desk in pieces, first a metal square this dimension, then a second one, then three lengths of steel, then we connected them. By breaking down the object into pieces the craftsmen were not overwhelmed, or confused or embarrassed about not being able to understand or conceive of this new shape I was asking them to do. With the carpenter we sat together in his workshop and I showed him how to use the tools he already had to create a miter joint and hidden joints in the wood. When the piece came together, we were all so excited and proud of the outcome, as it had been this combined effort. What looks like a simple table was a whole learning process for all of us!
MH: The project transcends a unilateral approach – it is not about restricted to architecture or product design solely. Did you anticipate the holistic view you would have to take?
SP: I think that was the most exciting thing for me as an architect and interior designer working in India. I love being able to design everything, in fact that is the reason I became an architect, I wanted to be able to design everything from buildings all the way down to door handles and fabrics! I was able – and infact expected by most clients – to have this holistic sense of the whole project and take part in every single detail. I think that this unilateral approach is a product of two things. Firstly, very often clients are unwilling to buy readymade – they are so used to cheap labour in India that they would prefer the product to be handmade by a local craftsman than buy it off the shelf and pay extra for it. In this case it was more about working within a tight budget as the project was for a charitable organisation, where every rupee counts, and there is no room for waste. The second reason for this holistic involvement is due to not having access to designer items that I would normally have in the West – for example, lighting and furniture shops. What you can find in India, and in particular rural India, is limited and so when you want a specific aesthetic you have to create it yourself. This is exhausting but also extremely fun, as an architect it is something of a dream because you can basically curate the entire space – you don’t have to be worried that the client will fill it with ugly furniture once you are gone!
MH: In view of the participatory process, were you creatively bound by any limitations? Was there an underlying formal design methodology you followed in guiding the local workers?
SP: Well, language was at times a huge barrier, as was my Australian expectations of work ethic and timing. We had a short time frame and I expected people to work in the times when I was in Mumbai, which didn’t really happen. Things only got moving every three weeks when I was back in Maheshwar and even then not a lot would happen unless WomenWeave founder Sally Holkar, who garners a huge amount of respect from all of the locals, was there. She had a magic ability to get things moving and people motivated.
There was nothing formal about any of my approaches to getting work done, it was a combination of them understanding how passionately I cared about this project, showing them that I was working hard, drawing sketches, making 1:1 models and also just miming and joking about.
MH: As opposed to a studio engagement – was working onground and the manual form-finding that consequently took place a new and/or liberating design experience?
SP: Oh 100% ! It has made formal drawings and the idea of working behind a desk now a complete impossibility for me! I think I am now completely unemployable by any formal architectural organization, because designing on the ground is far too much fun. Sitting at a computer all day is my worst nightmare. Get me on the ground, in a market and with local craftspeople any day of the week .