Bijoy Ramachandran, Hundredhands

Architects on Architecture: Bijoy Ramachandran

In this edition of ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we speak with Bijoy Ramachandran of Hundredhands about practice, the books he likes and the works and thoughts that he admires and that influence him. 


TRANSCRIPT

Q What prompted you to pursue architecture? And why did you choose it in the first place?

Well, I do not have a profound answer for that. When we were in school in 12th standard, there was Brother George Kalangod, who was the mentor for the 12th standard students. And just before graduating, each of us would go and meet him. Then he would give us his feedback on ‘What we should do?’ after having seen us for all these years in boarding school. So, he is the one who suggested architecture. I had no prior understanding of the subject, or knowledge of it. We had no architects in the family. So, taking his advice I just plunged into it because George Kalangod usually knew better. You just did what he told you to do. The reason why he suggested architecture was because I drew well, even as a child and as a student in school. And I was very fond of biology and chemistry – chemistry particularly to draw those beakers and those chemical reactions – the diagrams that you make. So I used to do very very meticulous type of drawings, and a good hand in writing, calligraphy and stuff like that. So just based on that. I was good in Math as well so he said it was a good balance.

Q So, he precisely suggested architecture?

Yes, and with each student, he would give them that precise instruction. George, who is still around is a wonderful sort of person was exactly that – he was very very precise in his instruction. He would tell you exactly what he thought you should do and there would be no ambiguity about that instruction.

Q What was the school of architecture like in that time? What was it like studying architecture at BMS with a lot of people we now know as architects leading good practices?

Last year, we were at this meeting with Aniket (Bhagwat) and Samira (Rathod), and I was to talk about architecture and education and of course, when you write about it, academically, like if I was to, if someone was to ask me, what should an architecture school be like, you would do the usual stuff, right? Write about good teachers, the well-equipped library, you know, access to illustrious minds often you know, people coming in, and a place of exchange, BMS was none of that. Right? We had nothing. We had probably, a couple of really good teachers but by and large, the college sort of ran on auto-pilot. We had no attendance, and we were on a yearly scheme but there was something about the place when I was there and it reflects in a lot of young practitioners of my age – Architecture Paradigm and Nagaraj (Vastarey) – there is a whole bunch of us, Amaresh, Latha, you know, wonderful, all of them sensitive, good people you know, like Sandy and all of them, Vimal (Jain)… And I do not know what it is about that time at BMS where inspite of the fact that there wasn’t this kind of an inspired instruction, it was a place of incredible energy. So…and I think a lot of credit goes to Nagaraj and his batch of people – two years senior to us, who inspired that kind of exchange in the college and the main focus of that exchange was the NASA trophies. And for three-four years on a trot, we were winning all these trophies, you know, G-Sen and D Y Patil and whatever. We never won Louis Kahn (trophy) because it was just too banal to be thinking of just doing documentation to get a trophy. You have to have a design exercise, so you have to do G-Sen and win – that was the real thing. And so through that exposure at NASA, competing with the rest of the colleges, I think that was really the testbed for a lot of us. And so when I think back, I do not know how you install that as a principle for architecture school – that you have to have inspired colleagues, as students. It is impossible to institute that.

Q You had a word for it. . . I think it was ‘scenus’?

Yes, this is Brian Eno’s word, the producer of a lot of U2’s albums. It is no longer the age of the genius, it is actually the age of scenus where many people together, sort of there is this kind of a critical mass and a critical energy from that, that then creates the profound thing, as a society or as a group. And that time at BMS is really a reflection of that. When an incredible exchange that is completely non-institutional, without any involvement of the college, just because we happen to have been there at the same time and ready to partake of this feast. There were quite a few – I mean Nagaraj is one of them but there was a guy called Wills Warunny, there was Harsha, there was Arun A M, all these guys who were in some sense, they had seen something, they knew something you know, that this is the way. And then of course, yearly, a lot of us would make a trip to Ahmedabad. Almost every year, once you would make that pilgrimage to go and raid the library. And there was a guy just outside who would copy it in an hour so you would get the book out and then…So I still have bound copies of Christopher Alexander’s book, and Norberg-Schulz …so whichever someone in CEPT would say, ‘You got to get this book.’ And then of course, you would get it and copy it and bring it back. So, the time before internet where you are completely limited in terms of exposure, and it is just your friend who knows better than you who is telling you how it is. But I do not know the number of practitioners who have done meaningful things coming out of just maybe a period of five to six years at BMS, it is stupendous success rate for an institution without done anything to contribute to that success rate.

Q An important part on the institution must be not to interfere. . . .

That is right. Yes, so for six months of the year, we did not do anything; we just worked on NASA and the rest of whatever four months we had, we did the required submissions and we got through to the next year and the next six months, we were doing NASA again, training or whatever. So, (there was a) lot of time to think, to travel, to discuss… Maybe, that is what an architecture school should be like – a place to just figure out whether this is for you or not. So, we started with 90 people in our class and I think, by the end of it, we were 35 or something. So not many people, I mean maybe one realises ‘I don’t think I want to be an architect’. That there is no compulsion. It is so inexpensive; one can do something else.

Q You completed your masters’ education from MIT. What do you recall of your MIT experience?

Yes, it was very overwhelming. But I think in terms of the environment, I mean I do not want to make a connection where there isn’t one, but I do feel that MIT was like BMS, sort of a very very open, non-interfering sort of place. So, as part of our Masters’ degree, we just had three credits that was compulsory in the two years. It was a colloquium in the first year, and a colloquium in the second year, and the rest of the credits you got whichever way you wanted from wherever, as long as you were able to convince your guide or your advisor. And so, this experience of BMS actually prepared me well for MIT because what BMS forced me to do was to evaluate for myself what the things that were valuable were – ‘What do I want to do with my time? What do I want to read?’ Everything is – I am structuring it for myself, you know, in conversation with other friends or…and MIT is like that, you have to decide what you have to get out of your two years there and there is no one there to tell you that you have to do all of these courses and you then get a degree. But it was very different – so that was a similarity – but the big difference between MIT and BMS was, I mean obviously, was the calibre of the instructors. A lot of them were the people who wrote the books on the subjects. So, if you were doing cities, you had Julian Beinart, who you know was an authority on cities and so all of these people, these incredible teachers who had a wealth of experience and who were really in it as academics, really hard core teachers, people who had spent a long time with students…and the second incredible thing about MIT was the calibre of your peers. I mean you go from BMS, and at BMS, I did fairly well, and then you go to MIT and it is a humbling experience just after that to see the kind of things that people are talking about, the awareness with which people approach the work. This idea of Correa that we were talking about yesterday, this kind of ‘Man of the World’ you know, this Western ideal of someone who is able to operate at any level, engage with the world at any level, in terms of politics or economics, or …MIT was full of people like that – these kind of polyglots, people who are gifted in every sense. Put them in any environment and they would flourish, these inflammable, incredible individuals. So MIT was that kind of a really humbling experience for me because it really brought to the foreground all of the limitations and forced you to then, either catch up or just give up, you know. Because you just were always behind, there were always better people everywhere. I remember Doshi saying that in the film as well that Corbusier always told him that there is always someone better than you. So you have to sort of be humble about that. And that is I think the fantastic opportunity everybody has when they do Masters or a graduate degree in the US, or in a good university abroad that it really brings to bear different opinions, different points of view in the world and also the great limitations we ourselves have as people and it forces you to sort of make sure that you approach the world gently and not wilfully and aggressively.

Q Tell us about your teachers.

My all-time favourite teacher was a person called Julian Beinart at MIT. Of course, in BMS I had a great teacher who continues to be my mentor – a person called Anil Dube who taught me everything. I mean I worked with him for a couple of years while I was in college as well as did my training with him. He continues to teach and is a wonderful teacher, someone who is very generous and willing to investigate with the student and take a student’s idea forward, very unlike a lot of the teachers who want to imprint their agenda on the studio or on the student’s mind. Dube was very open, and of course, critical when he did not agree in terms of a moral standpoint or in terms of an ethical standpoint. But he was open to investigate ideas of how you operate on a given site or in the city; always open, very giving, generous person. And then at MIT of course, there was Julian Beinart who was an incredible incredible intellectual – a person who was Kevin Lynch’s assistant and then took over Kevin Lynch’s class at MIT – ‘The Theory of City Form’ which was one of the great courses I took…I can remember a lot of those…I have those course notes too. It is just an incredible performance that Julian gave every week and then he would come and then there would be the set thing and it would be an incredible opening to all aspects of how cities are made: the business of making cities, trade routes, the economics, the politics, the social conditions… In a small span of the two hour class, he would have the whole history of the city of Jerusalem or the city of Chicago – what makes for that city to become that way, I mean a real comprehensive idea. It was a fantastic course. There probably are courses like that about Indian cities but it is illuminating for an architect to have that exposure because you understand operating in the city very differently. If you start appreciating the reasons for the way the city works, you see sort of a structure in the chaos. So Julian was incredible and then of course, I worked with Fred Koetter, a wonderful generous man, large-hearted, also a physically large person, very very tall, imposing, almost like Correa, a man with, we used to say, banana hands, like these massive hands. But he also had an amazing, again, a fantastic understanding of the city. A profound knowledge about Boston itself and so we worked in his office in Boston; he wrote the book, with Colin Rowe, the famous book ‘Collage City’. He was a great teacher, not only in terms of the academics of it but also in terms of the operations of how you do architecture work and a lot of the way we practise is very much the way Fred would like us to practise – making the models, doing the drawings, doing the investigation, this kind of an iterative process that is a frustration for a lot of our clients but it is immensely satisfying for a practice because you are sure when the thing is getting built itself that ‘yes, we have reached some level of closure on that issue’, like the canopy at BIC will go on till we actually build it to be just right. And so, Fred was very much like that. And it was also very frustrating for us while working with him but we always were forgiving of that process because we knew that it was not an issue of ego but it was his genuine sort of interest in making sure that we were being careful. And really making sure that we were doing something meaningful. So Fred was fantastic. He is still around. He is very old now and I do not know if he is practising. He was a great teacher and a wonderful person to work with. And then in New York, I worked with Jack Robertson and Alex Cooper. Jack, again, was a wonderful human being. He is still around, also quite old now. Jack and Eisenman used to have a practice together years ago but Jack was almost the antithesis of Eisenman, a traditionalist…a lover of vernacular architecture. Yes…so these were people I remember.


## In remembering my teachers I have missed to include a couple of important individuals in my response. In my fifth year of architecture school we participated in the G.Sen urban insert competition as part of the annual NASA convention in Bhopal. The project won a citation and Anand Bhatt, then faculty at CEPT noticed our entry and invited us to Ahmedabad. This proved to be a fundamental experience for me.

The work we did was presented in Ahmedabad to Anand and Prof. Kurula Varkey. A lot of what we had done took its cues from strategies already being developed at CEPT in terms of the analysis and representation of ideas. This trip also afforded me a chance to discuss my thesis project with Prof. Varkey and the simple clear sketches he made continue to inform the work we do today in terms of the idea of drawing to understand. This trip has had a profound impact on the way we work today.

Q Sunitha and you returned from the States and set up Hundredhands in Bengaluru. What was the experience of setting up a practice like? How did you get work and from where did it come?

When we first moved back, this was in June of 2003, we did not have many prospects. I mean, Suni’s sister is married to a developer, and so there was always the chance that there would be some work that we would get from his business. We moved back seeing that there was a lot of activity, there was construction going on and there was, you know, the promise of work, either through Gautam or through other developers who were doing. So we were open to doing commercial, sort of hardcore commercial work, we did not really have an opinion about doing only a certain kind of thing, we were basically open. But the great good fortune we had was that right after we came back, maybe a month or two months after, we got a call from a client we worked with while in the US, from Hope Foundation and they were setting up a new orphanage in Trichy in 2003…and Mark Templer called and said, ‘We met in US and we are reviving it but it is much smaller, the project, and we would like you to do it.’ And I said, ‘How big is it?’ He said, ‘It is 1 acre and 30,000 sqft.’ And we could not believe it. I mean this was a huge building for us, starting off a practice to the first thing that was that large and then to have all of these other complexities about this building, which was going to be cost-effective in an environment that was quite harsh in terms of climate, so in some sense, in hindsight when I look back at that project, I think it is great good fortune to have that project to start a practice with, because it tempers you. It makes you really sensitive to the conditions of cost which are paramount in any project in India. I think, by and large, cost becomes the paramount conversation with any client, whoever it is. But also to consider these other conditions of you know, which are also everywhere – this thing about climate, or the way you use prudently materials, the care with which one has to work so that you are not being capricious or wilful because there isn’t any budget for that kind of a thing. So, in some sense, I think that first project and then our work since with the Hope Foundation really informed our approach to architecture in a sense making us a lot more pragmatic and thinking about being careful and prudent rather than being wilful and capricious. So, it was a fantastic opportunity for us; we first approached them saying that we wouldn’t do the working drawings and we will get someone locally in Trichy to do it but they forced us to take it on and for the grand sum of 1 lakh rupees, you know, we did this project which we are very very proud of. Not only because of the way it turned out but also because we had a fantastic group of people working on it, this great engineer who passed away a few years ago – Mani Maran. We were introduced to a really fine group of people who were all interested in the same thing – in the sense, of making something meaningful. This thing that Richard Leplastrier, who was here last month in August, said about Utzon – there are two lessons one learns from Utzon – one is the way landscape can inform architecture, the way the land sort of is formed, there is something to be learned about the way land has been formed over Millenia, buildings can then take cues from how the land is, but the second – and much more important thing – is that the basic humanity of Utzon, the idea that the buildings that you make aren’t about the special form, or the special way you manoeuvre architectural elements, but it is about people and about well-being, and that I think, the building is a nice example of a lot of people coming together, just thinking about how people are going to enjoy here without having anything frivolous about it so just channelling the winds, just being comfortable in a very harsh environment. So it is a building that brings us a lot of a great memories, good people working together…hundred hands, a lot of people together. I mean we had a few months of a bit of uncertainty but once, and in India, once you build something, then you are sort of off the block, then people know that you know how to deal with a contractor, and you will deal with, you know, whatever… So having that as a built thing was a good thing for us because you could go on to…we did not actually actively pursue one but from that, we sort of got work from Gautam and things started moving a little bit for us.

Q You are a consistent reader. You also regularly partake in content-driven initiatives. What are your influences? What kind of work appeals to you? Any particular mentions?

Well, I wish I read more. I do not read as much as I would like to. I mean my heroes are all around me here, you know, on the table, you know from Fred Koetter to Charles Correa to Rafael Moneo to Pallasmaa, these books are always at arm’s reach so any minute you have a doubt, you know you can always open Moneo’s ‘Remarks on 21 Works’ and you will find that hypothesis that you need to then engage with the world. I am, of course, not rejecting the online content that comes rushing at us a lot. I mean, there are people who I read consistently online, there is Paul Goldberger who I always make sure to check out. He’s got a new book out on Gehry and he writes for the Vanity Fair, used to write for the New Yorker. I really respect what he writes about architecture. And then, in terms of the work itself, I think Doshi’s work is a constant source of inspiration for us. I find his work charged with a certain energy which is very difficult…Doshi and Utzon, Utzon is like that as well. There is some life in those plans that is difficult to describe, almost visceral. Even the projects, for instance, that plan of NIFT which is…it’s not a great building when it was finally completed, it is not one of his finest works but that’s a plan for the ages… and that plan for BDB. I mean you can make thousands of projects with that plan. It has got everything about it. The way you compose things, the way you balance it, the way you deal with coverage,…he has just got it right, it is almost like that perfect piece of art or perfect sculpture that is completely composed but completely asymmetrical, you know how do you get that incredible…and so, all of these things, I mean Doshi is a great example and Graham (Morrison) says that, (Graham is another great source of inspiration for us, Allies and Morrison’s work is always informing the way we operate. Because of their prudence and good sense; how do you operate in a way that is within etiquette and…) So, Graham said a beautiful thing about Doshi saying that he comes from that tradition which is concerned about composition, about how you make the set piece, it is really an important skill for an architect to just know the balance of something, to, of course, you need the ingredients but also you need a recipe – both together, but do it just right so that it feels like it is not man-made but it is designed you know, the quality that Bawa talks about. That you feel that the hand of man is gone, it is disappeared, and now it is just natural – Utzon’s idea what Richard talked about. How do you then respond to nature so that your building looks like it is the natural outcrop, like the Sydney Opera House, the land just became that at the end. It was this, spur of the land that just became… It is just so obvious. So that, I think Doshi’s work has that incredible quality to seem completely natural and yet, it is kind of, it is surprising always, his plans are just beautiful graphic ideograms, in a way as Correa would say. They contain in them a life which is – that book (Balkrishna Doshi: An Architecture for India) that Curtis made is filled with stuff that we constantly look at. I really enjoy, so we have locally, you know, I keep meeting, Soumitro (Ghosh) from Mathew & Ghosh, he is in a way my sounding board, I really respect his opinion but I also find his work has a certain quality which is also very difficult to capture, which we aspire to, a certain kind of restraint, but also playfulness which is very unusual I think. Soumitro’s work is quite sophisticated and he is a very very good critic. A person who can look at something and really get a sense of what you are going for and critique it at a very fundamental level. So we have, that way a wonderful set of people here in Bengaluru, and Soumitro’s one of the finest, to sit and just sort of talk about. This competition that we did also, the first few schemes I went and showed him you know just to get a sense of where we were going. So he is a wonderful collaborator.

Q What is the daily grind like? How do you produce buildings? How do you make architecture? You have written somewhere that you are traditionally a slow practice. How does a slow practice work?

Suni does not like to use that word at all – ‘slow practice’. I think maybe the better word to use maybe is ‘considered practice’ something that you are putting in enough time – a ‘reflective practice.’ Something that you are getting a lot of input from everywhere so there is, of course, a lot of the people who work with you, your clients, your contractors, they are always feeding you with information, concerns about the cost, requirements, the programme, limitations with regards to skills, these are all sort of impinging on the work itself; impinging in a constructive way, if that can be possible. So the practice, I mean, of course, we do not have any formula by which good things get done but we hope that by just doing the drawings, making the models at every stage, and making sure that you have seen what it is you are going to do, carefully enough, that nothing will go terribly wrong. It will have a certain, sort of, meaning, and a certain quality, but that takes a little time and it takes a collaboration between the client and the architect. And I think that is a negotiation one has to learn as part of the course of being an architect – this negotiation you have with the client, with regards to the time that things take to get done – this time for gestation, you know that we have to work to make sure that both of us are comfortable with what gets produced, and it is not…I mean, of course, a lot of people are in a tearing hurry to get things done but it is an argument that one can win and it is an argument that needs to be had because that tearing hurry otherwise will produce something of an incredible disastrous consequence. And it is not to say that we have not produced those disastrous buildings, there are some buildings that have not really sort of worked out you know, for whatever reason but by and large you try to, at every step, try to make sure that whatever we are doing is considered and we are trying to mitigate the requirements with the thing that we want to make. So it is slow. I mean we get the project, the client explains the brief to us, we get the site conditions, we visit the site, it is the normal…I think most architects…I guess it is just the model-making that maybe you know is unusual, people don’t do that (models) anymore but we really enjoy that. And it gives us a real cue on to whether we are going the right way. I mean this model that we are making for BIC, it is constantly changing and sort of informing the process, and it is not the end of some…that at the end, ‘chalo model banayenge’. It is informing our work as we go. And there will be a new one made again to make it a little better till the real building is made.

Q If you were to choose a project that you want to do, what would it be? What is that one project that you always wanted to do?

Well, an institutional project is always something that we think has a lot of potential, schools, colleges, IIM Bengaluru, you know, this is a great commission to have. But it is intimidating to think about it like that because though the requirements for something like a school are very limited. I mean they are not very imposing, in terms of doing rooms and classrooms, corridors and…it is not a very demanding imposition on an architect’s calibre. I mean, anybody can do it, it is not like doing the sophisticated apartment building or the house. The house and the apartment building are tough, tricky, assignments, because the requirements are very complex, they stand for a lot of…the meanings are compounded, the house is the start of everything whereas the institution has this kind of, easy, sort of but then it also has this other component which is more metaphysical about how people congregate, how people are learning in an environment which you are not defining. It is this whole BMS condition again you know – how do you create an environment?. And IIM is a fantastic example for that. Though it may have been the right building for the wrong people, if it was an architecture school, or some such thing, a place of creative endeavour that would be a flourishing environment for exchange, but as a management school maybe, it is just the wrong thing for them. So an institution would be nice to do but it does throw a lot many more googlies which are not apparent right at the beginning because you are really talking about a place of learning which you do not want to control too heavily so these two schools I have been doing – one of them – most of the programme is actually in the stuff they did not give us on that sheet that you get at the beginning of the day you know, ‘I need 8 classrooms or twelve classrooms, so many staffrooms’ but then actually that is 20,000 a square feet but there is another 20,000 square feet of stuff that was never in that list or another 10,000sqft of stuff that is not in that list which is actually where the life of this project lies and to define that is actually the challenge of the institution – like what is happening between all of this stuff which, ‘Okay, chalo, everybody will do the room and the corridor’ but then there is this little – the corridor gets a little wider there and that is actually the heart of the institution. I think institutions are really challenging but they are incredibly exciting to do, and when you get, and of course, so that is one thing – what kind of project would you like but there is also the other thing that – what kind of a client do you want to work for? –I think clients drive projects, and clients get the project that they deserve. It has got to be this kind of conversation with a good client who is really pushing you to consider what you are doing.  Alila was a great example of that – this kind of informed, inspiring client, someone who is really challenging you to step up, ‘C’mon, is this the best you can do? Think about it, you are in Bengaluru, these are the conditions… How would you do it?’ You know, always posing a question that is existential – ‘as an architect, what is it that you want to do?’ Same thing, with this school, the Neev School, someone who we were not sort of gelling with initially but who we found to be a great collaborator – a person with a profound sense of how to educate children, informing that process in a fundamental way, redefining with us that ‘this is what we should do’. ‘This is amazing, this is what schools are about’. And it is almost like what Kahn says about Salk, that Salk wanted a place where Einstein could meet Picasso, where you have the meeting of the arts and science so that you get…that Plaza, is that right? It is this meeting point of that these different worlds. And so if you get a client who poses a question like that, you need to now step up you know and do something that then meets that expectations, that aspirations. It is very rare and often times, we as architects are producing the brief or producing the kernel of what would then become the project and it would be much better if that was a conversation that you had with somebody. So on one hand, it is the kind of project but it is also the kind of client we dream about – someone who comes in here and shakes us up and says, ‘C’mon, what do you really think about housing?’, ‘What should be done?’. It is rare.

Q Is there a building that has moved you, as a young person – perhaps when you were not an architect? What is the benchmark; a constant reference?

Of course, traditional buildings one sort of sees as a young boy, such as the traditional temples in Kerala. One is exposed to that, but the contemporary work, I think even my first awareness of something that is unusual is also Correa and is the Kovalam Beach Resort, and my grandfather used to live in Trivandrum, my parents were in the Middle East, I was studying there so I must have been, maybe 12 years old or 10 years old, and we were visiting Trivandrum, and my dad said that, ‘Let’s stay one night in Kovalam’ and we stayed at this hotel and it is unusual. It is an unusual hotel that it is, sort of, almost cave-like. You come enter under a very deep canopy, sort of work your way down that section and you are always aware of the ocean. So I think even my first awareness of something contemporary like that is Correa’s building. Also, the Church in Dadar which I have seen as a young child. My dad was in Bombay before we went to the Middle East so I have been to the Dadar Church as a young boy as well. And of course, Peddar Road Kanchanjunga is something that I have seen as a child, as well. I have very seminal memories of those buildings…seminal sort of moments. But as an architect, as a practising architect, I think the building that we think about a lot is the Management Institute in Bengaluru. I think Doshi’s building is a fantastic lesson for all kinds of things that one can do. Specially working in Bengaluru, in the city, working with this climate, it is a fantastic example of what can be done…and in every way. I mean the great thing about Doshi’s building is that there is of course, a sort of a big idea, the big idea of the structure of this building as a campus, but there are also minute ideas, the way the railing meets the concrete, the way the windows are done, the way the stone work and the concrete are sort of working. Doshi’s work has that sort of incredible ability to jump from a diagrammatic condition to the sort of minute details which you do not see as much in Correa’s work. Doshi’s work is also incredibly well-detailed, I mean, thanks to some fantastic people he had in his office, so some of those things are…you appreciate the building at any level, you go there, if you are a person who is interested in detailing, there is enough there to keep you busy and if you are interested only in the grand idea of human habitation, there is enough for you there as well. It is a fabulous example for a campus – one of my all-time favourite buildings.

Q Which are the books which you keep at arm’s reach? Who are those authors and architects who you keep going back to?

Related to architecture, of course literature I have a few, but then architecture, I really enjoy reading Moneo, and I always re-read, particularly ‘Remarks on 21 Works’ I really like and that one essay in ‘Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects’, the one on Siza, I think that is probably the best essay on Siza, anywhere…I mean and Siza is so difficult to comprehend as an architect. What is really the driving force of that person? It is really like describing an artist; you have no way to start…How does he work? He is so enigmatic, as a creator of something. I think that essay that…and where he relates the poet to Siza, the Portuguese poet (I forget his name now) but he makes that connection between the poetry and his work and Siza’s work can only be appreciated like that, like Correa talks about architecture as poetry. This enigma, this ambiguity, ‘communication through ambiguity’, Correa says and Siza’s work is so… At one level, it almost seems child-like, playful, almost like a child made those architectural buildings in that campus with faces but it also operates at some other level which you do not even know how to begin to describe. So Siza’s essays, it is a seminal essay I think, the way he presents Siza, and ‘Remarks on 21 Works’ is the way all of us should talk about our work – to set the work. And a lot of it probably is something – and Moneo probably works like that – where when he gets the commission, he tries to write the hypothesis of that condition, ‘How do I engage in a geographically singular location?’ And then he makes those beautiful conventional rooms at the end, at the delta, looking at the mountain and looking at the city. How do you do that? So the diagram is already, you are already talking about the diagram, because you have framed the question succinctly, perfectly. And that’s 21 Works  – 21 hypotheses – here 21 projects, for those hypotheses. And so if we approach the work like that, if we were to frame, I mean it is a work of a genius to frame – you met the client, you have seen that site – now, let’s frame the question – ‘What’s this project about?’ So that’s a fabulous book. Then, Pallasmaa’s books are always handy. ‘Thinking Hand’ is one of the great books and I identify with the book a lot because he talks about and I do a lot of my work by hand and I find that there is a certain, Chhaya calls it a ‘muscular memory’, that you are able to, your hand remembers things that you have completely forgotten. If you have drawn it enough, the hand will make that curve that Aalto made in that Church unbeknownst to you, if you have drawn it enough times. So I think ‘Thinking Hand’ is a fabulous book. So is ‘Eyes of the Skin’ where he talks about the other senses and this kind of sensory architecture. And then I also like Sennett a lot. So I read a lot of Sennett’s books and ‘The Craftsman’ is something that we often give our trainees, as our parting gift. I think it is also, again like the ‘Thinking Hand’, this idea of what it is to make things by hand and to sort of…it is fabulous. And Sennett’s books are all sort of incredible, ‘The Fall of Public Man’, or ‘Flesh and Stone’ because he sets into the context of architecture and urbanity, this issue of either economics or society, and it is very much Julian Bienart’s kind of way of looking at cities not in terms of just one thing but in terms of everything that makes those cities the way they are. So, Sennett is a very important author for us. So I think, these three – Pallasmaa, Moneo and Sennett. And Correa, I mean for the past few days because preparing for this, I had read a few of the essays in ‘A Place in the Shade’ in preparing for the event in remembrance of Correa. And it is like I said yesterday, I think we have forgotten as architects to lucidly explain the value that good design brings to our lives. In mainstream media, to get out there and write about architecture in the way that it should be because I think there are gross crimes being committed in the name of architecture across our cities, and Correa wrote eloquently about the place of good design and the qualities of just looking at climate as the source of everything, as the source of form-making but also as the source of myth in his essays. I will now continue to read many of them again.

Q You interact with a lot of students. What is your reading of the kind of work that is coming out of schools these days? What are the merits and demerits of this new system?

I think there are, maybe I have been quick to categorise, but maybe there are three kinds of kids we get, three kinds of candidates, eligible candidates; there is the traditional, say someone from (atleast till recently) CEPT or Rajkot or one of these schools, that have a very, Baroda also, maybe to a certain extent, Vallabh Vidyanagar – there are some schools which are still producing people of a certain kind you know, who are skilled with their hands, who can draw well, they make good models, and there is some inherent understanding of a way that architecture is made, which may be outmoded, maybe a bit irrelevant but it is the stuff that I like. That they are doing a certain kind of work which I am also from that generation but they are being taught by people like that. Now that doesn’t make it valid. I am not trying to make a value judgement but it is the stuff that I identify with. And there are some schools still producing people of that kind. I do not know if CEPT is any more the case but atleast till very recently the students we got from there have a basic knowledge of skills that I am comfortable with and are able to converse about architecture in the way that I like to converse. That is the first kind. The second kind of student is someone who is completely sort of embedded in this idea of technology and the idea of the internet as the source of everything, in terms of information, and so, we found great difficulty in jumping that gap between the virtual condition and to physically make something. If someone is very skilled with the presentation of information – let’s say that he’s made some sketches, and he’s then put it in his SketchUp (sketches as in on SketchUp, not physical sketches) and then he has made a 3D rendering, and he has sort of made this incredibly seductive sort of image of something – and so, we are all sort of taken by that initially right and we are saying, ‘Wow, that looks pretty super, you know.’ And now, can you make me a plan of that. Now can you make me a section of that? And you find a huge gap, between the making of the three dimensional artefact to the actual workings of the bare-bones of how you draw this thing, the sort of banal two-dimensional information that one needs to produce to make something and they really struggle to do that – detailing, the way you do drawings, etc and that I think is always… A lot of schools are actually, unfortunately stuck in that because students are exposed to a lot of this, of their own volition as well, because it is seductive and it is easy access. And so we struggle to see how to make use of those talents in an effective way. And the third kind of student that we have seen are the ones that are neither here nor there, the ones who do not have a stake in the game, who have no blood in the game, they are like, ‘We will do whatever you tell us to do.’ Or ‘We will work any which way you want us to work.’ And that third kind of person is actually the most, sort of, dangerous kind of candidate we get because they can go through their training here without having done anything of any value. And dangerous in the sense that they themselves will not see any benefit in having a engaged in private practice because they have no opinion about anything. And so the first two types of candidates we willingly take, we want to see how to engage with that second kind even though we are not talking in the same language but they have an opinion and they are out there sort of finding their way in a world which I am unfamiliar with and so I want to know how we can make that marriage work whereas the third category and a lot, in fact the vast majority of the kids are in that third category who come from a lot of these colleges that are springing up you know everywhere. Well, they are completely diffident, they have no opinion, they have no take on anything and they do not engage in a conversation. And that is the kind of person who sets up practice and then does whatever the client tells him to do. Because he has got absolutely no way to negotiate with the world. There is a great danger with the rush with which the Council of Architecture is granting recognition to colleges with a huge deficiency in the supply of teachers, good teachers to teach architecture. And the vast majority of students who come out not knowing that architecture is actually an ethical and moral… you have to have a take on the work. You have to have an opinion on what you doing. You have to have sort of a stand on something. You need to be engaged in that conversation with the client. You cannot come at it without an opinion. So I think that is a grave danger that our profession will be filled with people who do not really have an opinion and who do not care and they are just doing a service, they are finishing their job at 6 o clock and going home and they do not really want to do anything else. There is a huge rush to make architects and unfortunately, not everybody is doing the right thing. Which is why, I think we are consciously trying and I think also the Charles Correa Foundation is doing the same thing that outside of this rigmarole of getting the Council to give you accreditation, hearing about a lot of those licenses to run colleges etc, we are thinking as part of the Vimal Jain Foundation, as part of Hundredhands, that we are saying, ‘Okay, once a year, we will host a workshop of something, and we will expose as many people, over the course of many years, we will expose a lot of people to these incredibly mature individuals. We will get a group of individuals together who have a very evolved understanding of the world. You get into that workshop and you come out refreshed and thinking about, thinking again about your own responsibilities as an architect. And through that, I mean, of course, it is a very minuscule effort compared to Council’s effort to do 500 schools in the next whatever so many years. We will do maybe 30 kids every year. I do not know what that means in the long term. But it is essential that the people who are teaching are people of that calibre because it is a great responsibility. And you cannot have anybody teaching architecture.


The discussion was curated by Ruturaj Parikh on 11th October 2015 at Hundredhands studio in Bengaluru.

 

 

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