In this edition of ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we speak with Dimple Mittal and Vijay Narnapatti of mayaPRAXIS about their influences, practice, design thinking, and engagement with the discourse of architecture in India today.
Q: What made you pursue Architecture?
Vijay: It was architecture for me because I had told my father that I had no interest in engineering. He was an engineer, quite a creative one. But he told me that architecture would be good for me in the eleventh standard when I did not know anything about architecture. He introduced me to his friend who was a contractor and, he told me what architecture was. This sort of opened my eyes and I decided to attend NASA. I was in Hyderabad at that time, and there was a NASA happening at JNTU and I attended that. I do not remember too much of it, I do not think I absorbed too much. I just saw people having fun. That is what really got me into architecture.
I had given the entrance test in Andhra Pradesh but one of my friends was very interested in going to Delhi to give the architecture exam at SPA and I said, “I will also come along.” And at that time, there was communal unrest in Delhi so my parents said, “Do not go.” Somehow, I think it was fate. I went, I got through. But luckily, my friend did not get through. Lucky for him because he went on to become a documentary filmmaker and now he shoots for the National Geographic and I am stuck here in this office.
Dimple: I think I was in the 7th-8th standard; the house we were living in had a lot of issues. And I used to keep telling my parents to change things, to make them better. My father had a very handsome architect friend, who used to keep coming to our house. I would talk to him and he would tell my father, “Demolish this house. It is no good.” So it was kind of there that I started. And I think by 9th-10th standard I had decided that I wanted to be an architect. I did not want to be an engineer or a doctor- I wanted to be an architect. So I think that is where I was set and I told my father, “I am going to pursue technical drawing for 11th and 12th.” It was not taught where we lived, so I had to go to another town. I took technical drawing for 11th-12th , convincing my father that I had to give my architecture exam. So it kind of happened in those quite early years for me.
Q: Both of you graduated in 1994 from the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. Tell us about your time in Delhi.
Dimple: I guess I joined in ’88. And SPA had some really good teachers. But two-three years of mine did not have any. So it was kind of a mixed experience. But I think staying in a hostel and the hostel life- growing up with seniors, talking to them, working late nights till 3-4 a.m. The whole hostel was buzzing with music, people seated in the courtyard and discussing design – you know, things like that. I think that is what kept our energy and we learnt a lot from that. I think it was from our seniors and peers that we constantly learnt a lot. Teachers were on and off.
Vijay: I cannot say that. For me, there were a bunch of wonderful teachers. In every class, it was a good mix of teachers that I got. I remember the first two years I goofed off but still, there were a few who really got me interested in architecture. Until the third year, I do not think that I got it. I remember doing a collage in my second semester and I do not know why I had gotten the highest marks. Till that point, I had never got the highest in anything. And I was wondering about what they saw in it that was so good. Later on, in my fifth year, I was putting together all my papers and I saw that actually there was some sort of an interesting layering in that collage. I got why the teachers had liked it but I did not know why I had done that. Then there was Ranjana Mittal and I thought she was a pretty good teacher. But the best experience for me was when I actually matured into my understanding of architecture.
I had a similar experience as Dimple. There were all these other things that seemed to make sense – make architectural sense in Delhi and there were so many activities. Delhi itself had the old city, the new city; Correa’s new building was coming up that time – the LIC. But Anil Laul and Snehanshu Mukherjee were two teachers of mine, who taught us Housing and Anil Laul was a fantastic teacher. He would inspire us, he had so much of energy. And he would actually inspire us with the materiality of architecture. He had a Building Center and that is actually what I think inspired me to think about and love materials. And you know now I can see where that comes from in our practice. But I would always look at Anil Laul’s work and think it was just too experimental. And I would think that there has to be something to that that I should add on my own in our work. And then Vasant Kamath was one of our teachers. There were some really good teachers – there was Satish Grover who used to teach history, art was taught by Bhushan and it was quite nice. They were all these teachers who actually helped shape our minds. Malay Chatterjee was a very rigorous teacher who made us understand how disciplined a dissertation should be made. And finally, I think post-college, I worked with Gautam Bhatia. I joined him for making a magazine called Design Quarterly when I sort of became his Assistant Editor. And that was the real eye-opening experience for me. It enabled me to think about what architecture was – what is its nature, how it interests history and what is its place in the world now. That was very formative and I really admired Gautam’s lateral thinking about architecture, art, culture, and his critique on things in a very subtle, ironic way. And he was at that time a post-modernist in the way his buildings were constructed, the kind of artwork that he would do and finally, the book that he wrote, Silent Spaces. All those were sort of filled with irony – I should not call it post-modern, it would be wrong. He had a very intelligent critique of culture and the place of architecture in it. I really think that Gautam Bhatia gave me an understanding of what is the place of architecture in our culture. And then there were many others after. But I think I still consider Gautam as one of my key mentors.
Dimple: Actually till third year, I did not care much about the teachers and then I fell ill. For one-two months, I could not go to college and then I began thinking about what I was doing – Is this what I really wanted to do; was this architecture? And that was when I decided to take a break. I took a break after the third year and I worked. So we went together and joined architect Gurmeet Rai and we worked on the conservation of old Tehri town. At that time the Tehri Dam was coming up and the old Tehri town was going under water. This was a documentation project. I joined her and I worked for a year with her. During that time, I used to travel within Delhi, doing different things. I think, that one year break did a lot to me. When I came back to the fourth year and fifth year, I had somehow felt more grounded – I understood architecture much better. I think that one year break in between was a great learning experience.
Q: What were your initial work experiences like? Especially with Anant Raje and Revathi Kamath?
Dimple: I went to Ahmedabad for my training, under Raje. I trained under him for about six-eight months. And I think that the experience of working in IIM and working with him was great. Though his studio was very serious; I mean you could not talk, you could not look up the drawing board – if you looked a little bit here and there for ten minutes, he would ask, “Are you not working?” It was very serious but very rigorous. But I think the attention to detail which I learnt from that office is what I still carry with me. What I did in those eight months I think were fifteen door-window drawings and two or three staircase drawings – that was what I did for eight months where everything was drafted with a pencil. But the amount of care he took to each brick in that drawing, he was so careful and I had never thought it would be like that. I learnt so much there. And just being in the IIM campus was a heavenly experience – visiting it in the afternoons and walking around in the evenings – I think I learnt a lot. Seeing different things at different times of the day – I think that experience of being there for eight months at IIM was very nice.
Actually after that, while I was in Ahmedabad, the plague happened in Surat. So that was when I came back to Delhi. And that was when I joined Revathi. I came back in June. And with Revathi, it was a very different experience. I think she is full of energy, full of passion, and I think that inspired me a lot – how passionate she was about her work and I think she would almost take it personally to the heart and how she would put that into her drawings. I think that was what I really liked about her. Vasant was there in the same office, but I was working with Revathi. Vasant was this calm, quiet fellow and Revathi was brimming with energy – she would sometimes shout, sometimes throw tantrums but I think it showed an emotional side to architecture to me.
Q: Both of you pursued your Master’s in History and Theory from the College of Design Architecture, Art and Planning, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. What prompted you to take up History and Theory in particular?
Vijay: For me, it was quite straight forward. After working in Gautam’s office and while working on a magazine, I had read through a lot of people’s writings. I remember asking Prem Chandavarkar whom I meet quite often now, for an article; and also Edgar Demello. I actually wrote to a lot of them on behalf of the magazine and I read through their work, edited their work. It got into me that there is more to architecture than just the making of buildings, although I value that very much. So for me, it became an automatic choice that I wanted to think and write and read more about architecture – to debate and discuss. And at that time, I think there were no programmes in India for that. I applied to a few schools in Europe and in the U.S. and one of them gave me a full scholarship. Being from a not so rich family, I just took it. And it was a wonderful experience. It was one of the best things I had done and it really lent me and us a sort of understanding of the connection between materiality, making and thinking and philosophy of culture and life. It sounds big but it is not easy to explain clearly – this connection between the world and what you are doing in tectonic actual, real materials.
Dimple: After working with Raje and Revathi, and while he was working with Gautam when he was also editing magazines, so we would discuss things. And so I had this feeling that I wanted to read more. In college, somehow we did not do much reading; we were always drawing and designing. But we did not really talk about design so much or did not critique it in a different way. I think that was when I decided that I wanted to read history and learn more about things I did not get a chance to learn about during my Bachelor’s. I think that was when I also felt that I should pursue History and Theory. I really enjoyed the course because I think it was enlightening. Because when you are doing things you are just doing what you think is right. But once you have realized why you are doing something, how you are doing it, how it connects, what makes sense, or if are you doing it because you are influenced by somebody or influenced by your times, or you really think that is the right thing to do. So I think that way of looking at things kind of got through, through that History and Theory of Architecture course. I still did my thesis in ‘Detailing in Architecture’. I still wanted to work and I so did study a lot of buildings which a lot of architects had designed, with a lot of materiality and details. So it was a kind of a learning exercise of knowing, and still wanting to come back to practice. So I think that was how I looked at my Master’s.
Q: Upon completing the Master’s course, did you continue working in the U.S.? How and when was mayaPRAXIS founded?
Vijay: No, I think like everyone else we worked there for a little while. I think it was for six years. Initially, I had joined a firm in Cincinnati from where we did our Master’s and I was waiting for Dimple to finish and then we moved to California. My brother was in San Francisco and so we moved to the Bay Area. That was the ‘dotcom bubble’ at that time. It was difficult to get a job. So there, we got into firms that seemed to be doing a lot of these I.T. offices – that was what was happening at that time because that is where the money was. And I finally shifted to this firm – called API. There we learnt how things worked in the U.S. and how systemised it was when compared to India. Then I moved to a firm in San Francisco. It was a very big firm, quite reputed for their design, it was called SMWM. And so I worked there a year after which we said, “Okay, that is enough experience, let us go back.” And that is how we came back to Bengaluru which was another new city for us.
Dimple: I worked in a small firm called Stoecker and Northway Architects. It was a good firm but they refused to give me an H1-B Visa. They said they would not process my visa. After finishing Master’s, you get one year of practical training and after that to move to a job you need an H1- B visa. After 6 months when I told them that I needed a visa, they could not do it for me. So then, I had to look for another job. And that was when I found a firm willing to get me my visa. They were into a lot of interiors for all these software firms. So for two years, I worked there. I think it was a good experience; I learnt a lot about how professional people are, how ethical they are, how every drawing is done well and goes for sanction. We learnt about how the architectural practice works in the U.S., but when it came to designing or the work it was very boring. So I think both of us decided that we could not do it anymore. And then we had a baby. So, I took a break. Since we were anyway taking a break, we decided to move back. I think our baby was four months old when we said, “Let us just pack up. We shall go back; we shall start our new practice there.” And we thought about what the firm would be called. We had this one idea – ‘Rede….Redesign’ – as in no design is complete in itself; we are constantly redesigning something as there is always something that existed before. But then we wondered what it would sound like on the telephone if we said, “Calling from Rede.” And it did not sound good. We needed to get a better name. So then we talked about it and while were looking to name our baby, we decided that if it was a boy, then we would call him Arya, but if it was a girl, we would call her Maya. So we had a baby boy whom we named Arya. And we still had Maya left so we decided to call the firm mayaPRAXIS. And I think there is a story behind the word maya – it is a Sanskrit word that has meanings in many languages – in South American, Italian, etc. It is an international word and praxis is the Latin root word for ‘involved practice’. One Sanskrit word, one Latin word – it is similar to how we live today because we speak our Indian languages mixed with English. And it sounds good when somebody says, “I am calling from mayaPRAXIS.” So that was how we named our firm mayaPRAXIS. We printed the cards sitting at our home – then he went to his office and me to mine, and we gave them our cards. We told them we were going back. So that was what we did. We landed up in Bengaluru – though none of us is from Bengaluru. Actually, I was from Delhi. He was from Chennai-Hyderabad. I did not want to go back to Delhi and I think he did not want to go back to Chennai or Hyderabad.
Vijay: No, actually there is another reason. Bengaluru, even at that time had some amount of appreciation for good design. And having worked with some of the Silicon Valley companies which were also set up here we thought we could get some I.T. interiors to start with. But that did not happen. It is good that it did not happen because we did not get stuck in the I.T. stereotype. We had to struggle and finally, we got our first project which was architectural, and not an office interior. I dreaded what would have happened – the trajectory that things take always have some beginning. It was providence I think that we did not do any I.T. offices. We had no idea of it but at that time there was a big crash.
Dimple: Actually, we decided to do a month-long road trip on our way from the U.S. to India. We were backpacking with our four-month-old baby throughout Europe. And we were in Paris when the 9/11 happened. It was 2001 September when we were on our way back. I think it was our luck that we decided to come back because my firm shut down after 9/11. My bosses joined Gensler. When we came back, the real estate and all the I.T. companies were down here as well. So we never ventured into the I.T. sector. And that was the only experience we had had in the U.S., so to say. So we started doing architectural projects. I think it was a good thing, maybe 9/11 happened at right time for us.
Vijay: One Mr. Ramamoorthy who is a friend of my uncle’s – a Chartered Accountant wanted his house designed. And I do not know how he accepted the house we designed. Coming to think of it, for him, it must have been a very different kind of a house.
Most of it was fine but the front portion, the living room was covered with a sheet metal roof with a false ceiling underneath and you could sit in a box. I remember trying to explain this to him and he said, “Okay, Vijay you do it.” And I think it was a really nice first project. That was how we did our first project.
Q: Is there a studio culture that has been inculcated by you since inception? What are the processes pertinent to your design thinking?
Vijay: I think there are two-three key things that we follow by default. It has become a habit now. One of them is that we begin with a critique of the title of the project involved and then the typology of the project in very simple ways – nothing lofty or philosophical. So that would lead to a conceptual beginning of the project. So if it is a school then we question- what kind of a school is it, what is the sort of teaching and from there we understand the site – together we arrive at a conceptual beginning. At this stage, we discuss the idea of material and light and in some depth gain a kind of material understanding. We develop images from that as well, not necessarily only from the site. If there is another project which is happening alongside, it is possible that it may influence our thinking in this project – it might be stone/concrete/steel and we love all these different materials, we have used them differently – but at the same time, we try to use them in a way that makes sense. Some kind of a response to the context of the project, even if it is just rudimentary – nothing excessive from what is required. So these are a few rules that we practice and the detailing then takes it over. The design at the stage of detailing becomes very critical for us because that is where see the concept come to life. We are able to translate the material, the intangible ideas into reality in the way we detail out the wall, the window, the roof, the connections, the structure – the structure is also very important for us. We combine all this while trying to keep the initial vision intact. If you see most of our projects, there is an improvisation but much of it will look very similar to what we imagined initially.
Dimple: I think we have a very rigorous drawing process. Most of what he described happens during design and while detailing, our construction drawing process is very rigorous. We try to detail each and every bit; we try to draw out each and everything. We keep at it by looking at it in different ways. The entire process may take a little longer but I am very particular about how we make drawings, and what will go to the site. Because I think for the making of buildings, the communication we establish is through drawings, and so it is very important to understand how it happens on site. I think we really push for that process in our office. We are very particular about that because it makes the process smoother. This is something we have learnt from U.S. – how to make good drawings and give them in before the due date. Things are ready and so there is a professional integrity to it. But we still have that Indianness when we go to the site, we are open-minded to change things – but that means we would make a new drawing again. Nothing is off the record as we try and document every part of the process.
Q: Is there a project from the past that you keep going back to as a reference or learning?
Vijay: If you have seen the type of work we do there are two very distinct trajectories – one is this kind of a material-rich, down-to-earth sort of building. And it all started with our ‘House Triangle’, I think.
It is a project we keep visiting almost every year with our team and I am sure everybody needs to see that. It is really close to our hearts. The contractor brought these clients to us who wanted a cottage, like a village house. And we were up for it. So we began designing and it was still early you know around 2003-2004. They are really happy with what we came up with and I think anybody who goes there can relate to it – students, people in the village. So we really love the project because it has this kind of a richness that anybody can relate to and appreciate. So that is one project and then we also love Yoga Nikaya.
Now we do several projects in that trajectory. The other trajectory is visible in a design competition we did where there was a more free form, a sort of plasticity to the buildings and it was a geometric exploration of some sorts. I can recall some other projects in the office which relate to that process – they are sort of material-rich but they are more monolithic in their character. The material of the buildings is more monolithic and so sometimes it could be that instead of a curvy form, I get inspired sometimes by a shell or sometimes by a sea creature or sometimes by the nature of the buildings around it. These two trajectories we constantly keep going back to. One such project that identifies with this is a competition we did for a Lighting Museum which was a very interesting design. When I look back at it now I think it could have been much better.
Dimple: ‘House Triangle’, I think people relate to it because they feel it is traditional as well as modern. So I keep thinking that that is what is good about it – people can relate to it because the spaces are very traditional but the look is modern. Even a 70-year-old person relates to it! So I keep thinking maybe that is what we want to achieve in most of our projects – good architecture where we take tradition forward by giving it a new look. So with ‘House Triangle’ we started with this whole idea of a ‘village house’ and then we came up with this idea of extending the walls and completing the triangle. This rendered it a bit more modern and people do not relate to it as a traditional house. But it has actually come from the form of a traditional house. And I have to tell you that every semester we interview trainees on the phone, of which we train 10-15 students. Every semester when I ask them, “How do you know us or what project do you like?” They answer, ‘House Triangle’. So I think that project has that quality which touches hearts of a lot of people.
Q: Are you still actively engaged in teaching?
Vijay: Not now, anymore. I have taught for about eight years and I keep going back to this one college I really like – RV College. It is also because I have a lot of my friends also teaching there that I go back periodically. Last semester I taught pre-thesis which I really liked. But now I feel like I would like to figure out what is the kind of architectural programme that we need and how it needs to be integrated with different streams such as sociology, art, philosophy; and it still has to be really technical because, in the end, architecture is technical. But without the influence of all these, without absorbing and reacting and releasing all this into your work, you are not really doing justice to the project. So how does that feature in the teaching of architecture? The studio is a very good format but it can be much better if it is interactive. So that is my current interest and I think these guys, Prashant Pole and many others have started a school in Mysuru which is doing quite well. But I would actually like to make it an integrated programme and that is what I am working on right now. So in terms of teaching, I am not teaching directly but I am very interested in the academics of architecture.
Dimple: I think when we moved back I taught for about three to four years. I have not gone back since last seven-eight years. And I think it is because, with the practice and home and kids, I could not handle college. But now I want to actually teach History. When I interact with students coming to our studio, I realise what has happened is that we are still teaching history up until the 1930s or 40s in the architecture course. Whereas when students design they look at the 80s-90s or famous architects like Zaha Hadid. There really is no formal course of history in colleges which teaches the history of the last forty-fifty years. When I was doing my Master’s, my professor who was also my guide taught this course called ‘Architecture since 1966’. So I used to go attend it with the undergraduates. I think looking back at that I am trying to formulate a course which teaches students of architecture in India about our architecture since 1966 and the 50 years’ time period is also similar. So I am working on that course which I hope to formulate and actually teach some day.
Q: Could you describe what is it like working with young professionals?
Vijay: I think for us much of our energy comes from them. And our office is very young, the average age is about 26 and the fun is that they have new energy. They really question things in a way that does not directly seem like questioning but because you have to sort of negotiate their lack of experience with their wide exposure to ideas; you sort of start critiquing your own project with them. And when you start detailing and explaining each and every detail to them, the detail becomes better. So it is sort of a negotiation process where you are negotiating detail with them but actually, you have to improve the detail yourself because while you are explaining to them you realise where it falls short. So I think these fifteen years have been a great experience working with young people and every time we feel the need to have somebody senior, we wonder if they would enjoy the kind of camaraderie that we have with the rest of the staff and if they would be as keen to participate in the sort of dialogue that we have with the young ones.
Dimple: Yes, I think when you are working with young people, expectations are lesser. And so you make an effort to explain everything – you get a drawing and you work with them and that works. Sometimes working with senior people, your expectations are more and so are the disappointments. With the young guys, we are working from computer to the drawing board and vice versa. I think that is fun.
Vijay: It is like a crafting experience. Well, it is not fair to call it craft because you are not really doing it hands-on. But every little sketch, every drawing becomes an act of doing something towards the final output which will then emerge as a building. So I think that the whole drafting process is possible only because of the way that we are able to take it forward.
Q: As a studio, do you consciously invest time in architectural discourse?
Vijay: That happens in spurts. For three months, it was really intense and we had this ‘every Friday’ thing and then there is a lull for another three months and now again, we are waking up. It is a mix of things for one season, it is called a season. We had this kind of community-oriented thing where some of the residents participated in a workshop that our young architects – Fidha, Arindam, Harsh and many others from the office put together as a format.
Dimple: We created a game of sorts about the neighbourhood, community and invited our residents.
Vijay: Yes, community design. Basically, a bottom-up design approach. Actually, this idea also has to do with the other projects we are engaged in. Right now we are looking forward to a couple of public projects where there is a street design, a couple of foot-over bridges cum junction designs. Then there is some kind of hospitality work. So these things also trigger the kind of discussions we have. Sometimes, we discuss a thesis of the young ones who have joined the office and the issues they have encountered in the process or sometimes, we discuss a movie. So these things actually enrich the practice a lot more than anyone realises because it gets them thinking about the work that they do at the office. And so combined with that we do some amount of research for each other’s projects. We would like to do much more but it does not happen because of the pace of work and we are a sort of lean, mean team. We do not have too much time to spare but we do some amount of research for different projects and we do one or two competitions a year. This is all sort of food for thought for our current projects.
Dimple: Also it depends on what the team is like during that semester. So depending on the trainees we have, the amount of engagement varies. Since the energy comes from them if they take an initiative things happen more often. Since we are so busy with the practice, you need somebody else to take the initiative to organise things and make them happen. So depending on our team, we keep experimenting.
Q: Do you enjoy reading? What kind of books interest you?
Vijay: I read a lot of books. I love reading. Every night, I have to read a few pages before going to sleep. But during office hours I do not get any time. I would like to write a lot more. Even she keeps telling me to write more. But I kind of have to break even. Somewhere I have to see to it that my work is done before I can relax and write. But I read a lot of things – not necessarily architectural. Because there is so much architecture throughout the day that I like to read something else. Currently, I am reading a book on world history as I love history, not only architectural history. I like the idea of different people interpreting the same situation differently in the current context. And I love to read mysteries too. Now and then I read some really down-to-earth, a nice detective story. I watch only one programme, maybe twice or thrice a week, like Sherlock Holmes. That is about it. And then I like to read the newspaper and a few magazines. Reading keeps me energised. There is something I often bring back to some of our discussions with folks at the office and Dimple.
Dimple: I am not much of a reader. Because he reads, I discuss with him and so I do not have to read. It is not that I do not like to read but the newspaper I read every day along with magazines which come to our office. Now, I get time to read books only during holidays or trips and I guess it is to do with the daily routine I am part of. But I would like to read more.
Q: Who would you consider as your constant mentors?
Vijay: Actually I have been thinking about it – if I do have a constant mentor? I do not think other than Dimple, I can think of anybody still being a constant mentor. Dimple is my mentor. I do constantly go back to Gautam Bhatia whenever I see him writing, I read what he writes and that really adds to my energy to do certain things, especially in terms of making our city sort of better. I do not want to just critique the city and the way it is governed or its run or it is administered or it is designed – I would like to be part of making that change and so I keep looking for inputs from different people who are actually acting on what they preach. Especially in terms of the way our cities are being shaped. Other than that, Dimple is my constant mentor and she critiques all my designs, although sometimes she critiques me too much but, that is part of the game.
Dimple: I think we are mentors to each other. I guess because we are together, and we are discussing architecture, I think we critique each other but we also add and complement each other in what we do. So I think it works. But I have learnt a lot of things, different things from different people. So what I have learnt from my guide in my Master’s programme or what I have seen with Raje or what I have learnt from Revathi, this learning just becomes a part of you, you have imbibed it. And I think it is more about putting this learning into practice, into what you believe in, how you lead your life, how you do your work or how you deal with clients. Whatever it is that you have picked up from everybody should all fall together in what you do.
Q: How do you feel about the state of architecture in our country today? Do you think there is a need for change?
Vijay: I really feel that there is a need for people to rethink how they build. And that lies also in the growing fact that much of what we are building in India today is designed by architects, structural engineers or by other engineers. And there is a casualness to the way in which things are put together. It has become more of visual art and I think we have to move away from this idea of architecture being a visual art-form. This idea is largely prevalent now because of the internet and it is so easy to get images that you can use while you design. But I think a change has to come from the way we practice things. Yesterday, I interviewed someone who said, “What I was taught in school and what I saw around me was very different when I started working. I realised that it is completely contrasting to how practice actually is.” But at the same time, you can fool yourself that practice is easy and you can just make buildings with five drawings. We have to struggle with the materiality of the building, what the material tells us, how eco-friendly it is, how safe it is to use in buildings now, what is the minimum you are investing in terms of energy and money to get the most out of it. This is the sort of a demonstration in our buildings – we have used the earth that we have, we have used steel in a way that it is effective and you can get a beautiful space. We keep telling our clients that it is all that we need. We do not need to use Italian marble or any expensive stuff – all you need is a crafting of beautiful materials in a sensitive way that makes sense to the ecology. That is the way that things have to change. But in addition to that, we have to make sure that we transition from a very site intensive process to something which is less site intensive, something which still uses people’s skill and the labour and the craftsmanship but it does not all have to happen on site. It can get done somewhere else and be assembled on the site because we are messing up our cities because of the way we construct things. There is so much of environmental dust and pollution because of the construction industry. Not just in the air but even in the neighbourhood of the construction site and I think that really has to change. And lastly, I think one has to think about the place, not in terms of the visual connection to the place but more in terms of how the building can sit comfortably and connect to the surroundings it is located in. I do not know how this change can happen but I feel that the way we teach architecture really matters in schools. And that is what my current effort is – to see if I can take up one college and one place and see if there is something that I can do to change the thinking of students there.
Dimple: What I think is that when we were studying in the 80s-90s, there was much less choice. Today for students and for architects alike, there is more choice in everything and so there is not one ideal in architecture. In a way, it is good that there is a pluralism and people and students are looking at different kinds of things and there are different streams to follow. But what is happening is that they are also so confused that they need more time to get that clarity about what is it that they really want to do. And I think everybody wants things fast now. I think there was no urgency to achieve the things we wanted when we were growing up. We were okay to wait and do things at a slow pace. Now whether it is in practice or the people you are working with – everybody wants it fast. Somewhere I think that is also affecting the kind of architecture we see happening in our cities. What software companies want is also a building in just four months. So that is the kind of architecture that happens. I think it is affecting the way people are designing. There has to be a balance established if we must design things with rich materiality. These buildings do take time because design takes time, the process takes time, the construction takes time and to find clients like that who are ready to give their time is also not easy. I think it is this speed of architecture that is largely responsible for the change in things.
Q: Would you say that there is a better understanding of our profession in the society today? How has this changed the way we work?
Dimple: Yes, I think people have more value for design today than maybe twenty years back, which is a good thing. But I think the flip-side of it is that because it has become so visually oriented and ‘Google’ is just so full of images; everybody has this very image-centric idea of design. So I think for them to understand that it is not just the image but how the whole thing – the space, the material, the light, the structure- how it all comes together and makes the space. If we want to do architecture like that I think you have got to get clients who are willing to understand that. I also feel that design is now becoming more and more of a commodity in a way. Now we even have websites that can get an apartment designed by letting you choose from ten different designs, along with the drawings! So I think that is also happening.
Vijay: There is a reason for everything though. I think what has happened is I feel we have become much smarter in the way we now communicate our ideas to the clients. In the past two-three years, I have noticed that I am able to actually communicate to the clients what is the value of what we value. It has actually made a big difference when they come to this office and they see it as a very tectonic, but low key, rich space that they can also get.
And in a way, I am able to also imbue in them the importance of actually seeing. I also use reference images to communicate with them in the same way but I have become smarter – I think we have become smarter on how to give them a sense of how we make architecture with simple materials, good detailing, and a sensible critique of the function that they have, the volumes, spaces, light and they do understand. And sometimes you have to go with them. Recently for a farmhouse, we went to Auroville because I decided we would build with rammed earth and I have never done anything with rammed earth but we went there. The clients loved it and then we struggled to find who would build it for us. I finally found an architect friend, who has agreed to do it. So, it is a struggle all the time but I think it is easier now because we have become a little bit more mature and I think we have learnt how to play the game. So that is how it works.
Q: Is there a project – programme or a typology- that you have always wanted to take up?
Dimple: Yes I have been thinking for the last six years and I have been asking around if anybody is interested in designing a modern temple. I keep asking my clients if they would like to invest in a temple. I guess what I would like to do is a nice modern temple where just the quality of space is spiritual.
Vijay: I have these kinds of mixed-bag ambitions about different projects. One is I want to, and we are probably getting close to that, is to do a project that demonstrates how design can change public space and not necessarily a public space which is like a plaza. But a more intense public space like a market or a street and I think we are very close to getting a project like that. And then extending that to other public projects which sometimes are very low-key in design but effective. In other cases, it could be an overt but enjoyable design like in our foot-over bridges. We would like to do some stadiums, maybe a railway station where this idea of infrastructure becomes really enhanced by design. The third is to design something in the hills. We are not from the hills ourselves but I love them. I want to tuck this building inside in a way that nobody notices it. It disappears but it is there. I want a project like that. So I have two-three things that I want to do where architecture is not seen but is felt when you go in to experience that space. I am sure there are a lot of people who have done this already.
Q: What do you think defines mayaPRAXIS as a practice?
Vijay: I think mayaPRAXIS has to show that crafting architecture from concept to detail takes a lot of rigorous effort and negotiation but you can still do good architecture without compromising everything that you have started with. The widespread context that we experience in our culture, should be addressed with an ethical responsibility of doing the right thing for that particular project. And we want to do that with a variety of projects. We do not want to restrict ourselves to a few typologies. When a designer faces a challenge, the process has to be rigorous in engaging others, not just the stakeholders but others who can critically think things through and bid on a solution. So I think we would like to integrate with other professionals, artists in our practice in a way that they may not be built projects but they can be research projects. We want to sort of develop mayaPRAXIS into a workshop that can demonstrate how good design can work in various different contexts with a rich material presence.
Dimple: To add to it I would say that what defines a practice depends on the projects you get. So sometimes what you want to do and what you get are different. But still, I think whatever projects we get, we do them with full honesty, in keeping those ideas of making of architecture, design, what is the right thing to do, putting our heart and soul into the project seriously and doing it well. And if we keep working this way, I am sure mayaPRAXIS will end up leaving a mark that can make a difference to this world. ♦
The discussion was curated by Hrushita Davey on 21st May 2017 at mayaPraxis‘ studio in Bengaluru.
mayaPRAXIS, a Bengaluru-based architecture studio is a synthesis of Dimple Mittal and Vijay Narnapatti‘s sensibilities, which endeavours to attain a deeper understanding of time & space, and light & materiality. With a distinct process, every project signifies individuality and stylistic variety.