In this edition of ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we speak with Gaurav Roy Choudhury of GRCA about his influences, practice, design thinking and pedagogy, and engagement with the discourse of architecture in India today.
Recorded on 24th May, 2017
Q: Was architecture your first choice?
Gaurav: Yes, it was. I was a kid when my parents decided to build a house in Salt Lake, Calcutta. And my dad was a naval officer, we barely had any money. So we just built a ground floor structure and I remember going there. I think I was maybe six or seven. I used to go there and ask them; why cannot we do a loft here, why cannot we do this here or that? And my mom is an artist. So, at that point only everyone kind of started saying that this guy is going to be an architect. It was very strange, and I mean I did not really know what architecture was or anything of that sort but it got fixed at that point of time that we were going to do architecture- this boy is going to do architecture. And we rolled with it almost till the 12th standard. The only thing about architecture which I liked at the time was that I did not have to really study for the HSC examination because everyone was studying and I just wanted to clear so that I am good to go. Of course, the course was completely different. It was nothing like what I had imagined architecture would be. And I am glad for that so to speak. I always had a very good imagination. Even as a kid I used to like drawing things out of nowhere. I used to be in my own world most of the time. So I would just draw, sketch, make things, stuff like that and people did not know where I was; in lots of ways, they did not know what I was doing. I used to sit inside the blankets, carve tunnels, I was always up to something and so I think that was something which I am actually going back to in practice in a lot of ways- just building your world, building your own thought process. So it just kind of happened to some extent. But it was not because I did not get into engineering that I did architecture. That did not happen with me.
Q: You studied architecture at KRVIA, Mumbai. Tell us about your experience and influences.
Gaurav: KRVIA, at least when we came in, it had just formed. I think it had formed in ’91. That was the first batch. Sen Kapadia was running it when we joined. I joined in ’97. When we came in we had a great set of faculty who were very young. There was a guy called Chaitanya who is an art critic. He was the first “impact person” in our college. He had this beautiful way of commanding us, he made us really think. The first six months no one knew where we were because we had just been exposed to something which we could not relate to what our lives were before. And so, KRVIA itself was a really nice experience. It was intense, very intense. We had a lot of mentors, all of whom were very young but they taught us how to be sensitive, how to be, how to think, how to question everything. I think that is the thing which I learnt from KRVIA– to question everything, every single thing. Even if you are really comfortable with something, question it.
Q: Was there a particular studio that grounded you at some point, during your time at KRVIA?
Gaurav: Yes, there was this professor called Manoj Parmar, I do not know if you have heard of him. He had this very intense Basic Design class, which was something we dreaded because we had to work like dogs. First year, I think we produced at least a hundred and fifty models or so. Our lives basically just revolved between Tuesdays and Fridays and Fridays and Tuesdays, which were our studio days. He just made us work. We got half of what he was trying to do with us- when we presented our work he would tell us why he liked something here or liked something there. We understood why he liked it, but slowly over a period of time, we figured out why and we began thinking for ourselves. He did not tell us because he would not spoon feed us. The hard work automatically made us think. Because we were making with our hands we were constantly thinking. So I think that became a backbone for the skill. You know architecture according to me is first a skill, like painting, like art or anything of that sort; it is a skill, which then goes beyond with how you choose to express it. That was the skill level which he had kind of imbibed through this idea of craft for us. And for me, I am still exploring it. It is said that you can do anything- we can create, we can make people laugh, we can make people cry in architecture by creating spaces; it the foundation where we learned what this craft is. Scale, light, all of it was very intense. And I think the intensity is what made us kind of made us go where we wanted.
Q: Is there a skill you honed during under-graduation that you still largely use in your practice?
Gaurav: I mainly sketch. I was never a model guy. Because somehow for me, my mind raced so fast that I knew what the model would eventually look like. Even while I was making a model I would wonder why I was making it! So, I would make models for my final submission which was a requirement, but I always felt that the model making process is too slow to keep up with my mind. I used to sketch a lot, and today I have reached a point where my sketches also cannot keep up with my thoughts, you know. But sketching is still something I practice and I read. I watch a lot of movies. I think that is something which Kamala Raheja got me into because we had a film club there. We formed a film club. We had a lot of filmmakers coming in from everywhere and talking to us. So it was not just an architecture school, we had artists who were a part of our faculty so that kind of diversity gave us an overall idea of design, of architecture, which is not necessarily what we are seeing today- this separate kind of a field. I am very grateful for my time at Kamala Raheja.
Q: After graduating, what were your next steps?
Gaurav: I trained under Dean D’Cruz as an intern which was a really good experience. Of course it was for just four – five months so I decided why not Goa! We had a lot of fun in his office. He is a very nice person. He gave me a lot of responsibility as a trainee and I have very fond memories of Goa. In fact, I have made a lot of good friends there. After that I did a fellowship at Kamala Raheja– a research fellowship along with teaching, as an assistant. That I did for a year and a half. From the end of 2000, till 2004, I was researching on how the perception of infrastructure had changed since 1991, since the time of liberalisation. So my research basically studied how today flyovers were more important than local trains and how they changed the city, how the city was restructuring, how they became another layer and how the roads are now agents for the private car.
So, therefore it is also where the buildings are seen from, the foreground you know. How the glass buildings and the shiny facades and all of those things followed the infrastructure and how the slums went under them- what I started talking about then, is very apparent today in Bombay. Whenever I go, I observe how these layers have been created, and how the city has just kind of gentrified. Even the slums which were in front, on the main road have now been pushed behind and you have these towers coming up. So you have this rich-poor divide which has been created.
That is what my fellowship thesis talked about. I was there till 2004 after which I moved to Bangalore. A couple of friends and I, in the meantime, worked on this project- a competition for NAAC, which is in Bangalore for which we got a commendation after which I moved to Bangalore and started working at Mathew and Ghosh Architects.
Q: When did you set up GRCA?
Gaurav: I always wanted to pursue a Masters and there were various reasons why I could not go, so I kept deferring it. My practice was actually temporary till 2010. I never actually embraced it until 2010 when I got a big project. The recession had hit and people were coming back because they could not get a job in The US. That was when I told myself, let us make this practice a permanent thing, be at ease with it and go with the flow. So till 2010 actually, it was more of a freelance practice. Only in 2010 I decided to setup something permanent. The practice was working for me, I had got some work out, I had finished some work and I was doing some good work, I had opportunities. I was a ‘nobody’, I mean; I did not know anyone in Bangalore. So it was more like I had gotten little nuggets of projects which I was surviving on, till I decided to go for my further studies. So I think 2010 is actually where I said, “Okay, this is a practice.”
Q: Could you tell us about your first big break?
Gaurav: It is very interesting because I have Mathew and Ghosh Architects to thank for that. I had worked on a project in their office for almost two years. It was a house for a very interesting client- a very difficult client also to work with, he will agree with me! He kept making us change the design, you know. He had a very low budget with which he wanted us to do a lot. So we designed and each time it was ready for tender he would say, “No, let us do again!” So we did it again and another six months went by, until a point when Shoumitro and Nisha took a call and said, “Okay listen why don’t you go to some other architect?” We told them it was not working out, because it had already been two years and we had gotten nowhere! And they really liked me since I was the one interacting with them. But somehow it did not work out. While I was leaving Mathew and Ghosh, they wanted to come back. They called up Shoumitro and said that they wanted to come back. They went to other architects but they did not like it there and so they came back. So Shoumitro kind of suggested that since Gaurav is leaving, why don’t you contact him and they were thrilled with that idea because, a lot of the reason why they were coming back was because of me. So that was my first project.
Of course we did not redesign the house completely because we had already worked on it for two years. So within two months of getting that project, we started construction. Because we had already done so much work before you know. So that is the Ghose House. That is the first project which I did.
Q: What are the processes pertinent to your practice?
Gaurav: Firstly for me architecture is very personal thing. I hate saying this but I see myself more in tune with what an artist does than an architect. And I have always been like that, I have always been the guy who is sitting in the corner, sketching, no one knows what he is sketching, but he is at it, you know. And it is all happening in his head. So I have always been one of those people. For me, it has always been very difficult to design in a group. I have been in partnerships before, in fact I have partnered on two-three projects where it did not kind of work out mainly because of me- because I have found it difficult to communicate, to listen to the process. I have always seen my practice as a very small practise- always. I like intensity- more than anything, I like intensity. I am not a ‘top of the head person’ at all. I cannot look at a wall and just decide that blue looks good on it- I am not that guy. I need to think, I need to think about the light, I need to close my eyes, I need to see the whole thing, I need to think about everything before I do it. So, for me the intensity is very crucial. I am always looking out for people to work with who are very intimate with their designs. That is something which I always look for. I like discussions where you talk about the overall- I do not like talking about the edge and the detail. I feel that once you have the overall discussion and the person has the intensity, all these things get figured out. So, I am always on the hunt for people where the architecture shows depth, intensity and their involvement in design.
Q: What kind of work appeals to you? Are there any buildings you invariably go back to from experience or memory?
Gaurav: As a kid, my dad had bought me one of those encyclopaedias. In that, under architecture, there was this housing project in Toronto, the one with the blocks- I am trying to remember his name.
Gaurav: Yes! So that was something that just blew my mind. At that age, you know I wondered how could buildings be like this, how was it possible? I was thinking of all the spaces inside and that is probably the only kind of building which I have always been in awe of. You need to have tremendous imagination and vision to kind of create something like that at that point in time. Of course today it is a different matter but at that point in time, when we had not seen anything like that, let alone experience something like that! I would love to visit it someday. Once I got into architecture I think, Tadao Ando had a big impact on me. When you see his work, it is so simple- that it makes your shoulders go, “Ah! okay, relax.” Because he is just talking about what it is to be felt, what it is to be kind of realised and so Ando’s work from the start triggered something in me. That was the period of time in college when I started getting interested in my own work; it had Ando there, behind it. That was something which was very interesting for me.
Q: You mentioned you like reading. What do you enjoy reading?
Gaurav: I like science fiction; I like fantasy, more than architecture which I find a little dry. I like things which make me imagine worlds, make me plugin to all the details- like The Lord of the Rings, I remember every part of it! It is as if I experienced it! Each time I watch that film, I have my own rendition in my mind. I do not remember books which are story based, which do not have good imagery. I would not even remember it ten days after as I have a very poor memory, in terms of factual stuff. But if it is imagined, if I have visualised it- it will stay with me forever. I cannot remember dates- I cannot remember when or what. I simply cannot! But as soon as there is imagery, it will be etched in my mind. And same thing with my buildings, I know every building of mine, every corner- if a person calls me about a problem in a building completed five years ago on the phone, I would be able to tell them what to do because it is there in my head.
Q: Would you say films are something you relate a lot to?
Gaurav: I do see some really good architecture, I see a lot good Japanese architecture coming up, a lot of South Asian Architecture more than the European stuff. I and a friend of mine formed the film club back in our college days and we had a lot of directors and filmmakers visiting us. We would have talks at the end of every film, and it stirred something in me which I do not think architecture could have done you know, so I watch a lot of films. I am always finding out what are the cool, nice films, the art films, which are kind of doing the circuit- I watch it, talk about it and try and kind of gauge what they made me feel and why I felt strongly about them. Films I feel are, at least for me- they can blow your mind completely. I watch roughly around at least three films a week.
Q: Do you have a studio culture?
Gaurav: I think I am a little bit of an individualist. I enjoy getting people into their zones, getting them to understand themselves, to be honest with themselves- then I leave them. Even while I was teaching at RV College, I have always asked my students to be very honest with their selves. When you know that you are fooling yourself or when someone is making you do something without you knowing, first thing is to shake it off. You know, for me, that is the process. Because in terms of design, every person designs differently, every person has different influences. So I am not the person who would try and create a studio and then try and make them work like me. I do not do that. I ask questions at a much larger level. If I am giving them work, which is itself a big move for me, then it is to deal with them at that level and then let them take it up and I am not going to look at it after that, you know, I do not critique, and even if I look at it in detail, I will give a critique at the larger level. If they are fooling themselves, if they are forcing or if there is violence in certain things- those are the kind of things where you have to be relaxed. I see architecture, or architects as a medium. And as a medium we have to be very responsible. Our responsibility should be to maintain our state of mind, more than anything because as soon as we are stressed and tensed or eager or have certain ideas which we want planted in, then we are not doing justice to being a medium. So it is important to let go of all ego and then design. For me it is very important while designing, just to make sure that you are doing justice to hearing things, which you normally would not hear, it is important! That is the culture which I generally try to inculcate, it is a very individual based and not an architect based culture. It is a person based culture where you are reminding someone to listen, relax- and ask yourself those questions, maybe a hundred questions about why are you doing this, is this more important or is this more important? Having a clear agenda is the most important thing. If you do not have this then your design is going to show the confusion. I mentor people in that format where I do not really tell them what to do or how to do it.
Q: You used to teach at RV College in Bangalore. Do you consider teaching as an important contributor of growth as a professional?
Gaurav: There is a merge of two things when you teach- distance and proximity. I think the objectivity which you have in teaching- sometimes zooming in and zooming out. In our practice we are sometimes very close to what we do, but you need that kind of objectivity where you step back and be critical of yourself and understanding. Even at RV there was no problem with the ideas, the problems were there in terms of the skill which I talked about. You know, where I find the newer colleges lacking is, the lack of the skill. They have beautiful ideas but their architecture just does not do justice to that and that is where I kind of plug in. So I am always trying to kind of push them. The problem with these 3D tools is it takes too much time; they do not keep pace with your mind. By the time you are done, all your ideas which came while you are doing it, have just gone. That is something I always follow in my office- I do not let people do 3D or get onto the computer until we have reached a more detail based stage.
Q: What concerns you the most about the state of architecture in India, today? What would you like to see change? How do you think it can be salvaged?
Gaurav: There are a lot of which gets onto me, honestly speaking. I think the biggest thing which concerns me is that, it does not necessarily have to do with architecture but it has to do with everything- this hyper-realism we are living in right now is a result of the last twenty years. That is what happens when you open a floodgate to an economy. So, I think what has happened is our cities have become things which are just about to die. We have created this huge amount of money capital with these ‘western’ kinds of things we are aspiring to be and do. In construction we are finding it very difficult to get good workers, because they would rather be an Uber driver! I think we need to as a Nation figure out where we are, because it is getting more and more difficult to construct in India. I know at least ten carpenters, really good people, who have left their jobs and become Uber drivers because we do not reward them enough, we do not value what they do. They are as good as me, you, any one you know! They are really good at what they do and they are kind of leaving. That has become a big problem in terms of the practice, but in terms of architecture itself I think I am not very pleased with how it has become so image-based. Where we have so much we can do as architects, but everyone is trying to do things with very nice facades and pictures, all very composed. And that is something which is a little disheartening, because why would you aspire for a two dimensional thing, when we are working with three dimensions? That also has a lot to do with the teaching which is going on in these colleges, they do not have skill. You know you can make something beautiful out of a space like this. You can create all kinds of things with just a space like this and if you have it in your head that you can do it, then you will do it, but most of the people who are passing out wonder what can I do with a space like this? And that is the, the tragedy of it. Everyone is kind of losing out on this beautiful skill and medium we have. I think that is something which saddens me. When I see a lot of these architecture magazines, it is all two-dimensional, there is no spatiality, there is nothing! It is becoming completely compositional you know and that saddens me a lot. I am doing a lot of projects which is going away from that. I am projects which are not image-able.
Even if you went there and spent hours and you came back, and you try and give yourself a snapshot of the house or building, you cannot, but you can feel it! When you go somewhere, you cannot describe it in a physical way but you can describe it in- what it made you do or how it made you feel. So I am trying to push myself to create those kind of buildings which are all about the feel, where you come back and you cannot go and say that they have a unit there and I want to make the same unit in my house- no, there is no unit, it is all one thing. So there are no separate things there, it is one thing which cannot be imagined, which can only be felt. So I am really trying to push architecture to a level where, where no photograph is composed. It leaks, because that is the experience also and at the end of the day you have a project which, it kind of has had an impact on you, but at the same point you cannot recollect it.
Q: What is it like working with young professionals?
Gaurav: Firstly, I am just trying to become a better a person, number one, and do better architecture, number two, by being a better person, you know. And trying to get all the arrogance out, I do not really put any other trait into my practice. I am not trying to achieve anything, I am just this quite guy who is trying to do his work, trying to be a better person and do it in the best way I can. Being as honest as I can to myself, and that is what I continue to do. So that is my practice and that is separate. That is going to be right till whenever. Now I am not really looking at an audience in terms of what it does but I would always try and, if I interacted with younger people, I would always say that, listen, you know, because we have all these fixed ideas, where is it coming from? Why is it there? Is it right, is it wrong, and is it okay? Those are the things which I ask. I had gone for a thesis jury recently to RV College and one person was building a big giant structure in this town in Karnataka. It was in Aihole. It has some ancient ruins and things like that so the structure which he was building was supposed to make the ruins look good, make it a tourist spot and so on. Perfectly valid as an exercise but, for you to do it in a sensitive way, or to do justice to a project like that you have got to go there, stay there for a month maybe. Do not be an outsider; if you are an outsider, doing a place, in the village, your structure is going to look like that. It is going to look like a UFO. Which is what it looked like – it looked like a UFO had landed! And I said, “Listen, what are you doing? Why are you doing this?” Those are things which we have to ask. Why are we going to these villages which have been fine without our influence? So the architecture comes from a point of view of power, you know. And that is something that troubles me. Even when we are doing a slum rehabilitation, there are these grand proposals which want to better these people’s lives, but again, why are we thinking of it as ‘them’ and ‘us’? So that power structure creates a kind of architecture which will only enhance difference. And that is something which I always try and tell my students that where you are has everything to do with what you do. If you are seeing yourself as this educated, well-informed thing and it is your job to help poor people then you are not really going to be doing too much help. If you feel that, “I need to help people.” And then you go and do it, that’s a different approach altogether because you see yourself at par. If you are doing it from a level then you are not really doing anything, you know. So that is something which I look at a lot. Even when I am analysing projects in a magazine, I am always trying to look at what is the process. I had done one workshop in Kamala Raheja two and a half years back, where we had a group of people and we went and studied random buildings, like four-five buildings on random streets. And they had no consequences; as in we did not choose things along the edge or things along a periphery. We did not choose, we just went with normal buildings, and without asking anyone gave a report where we looked at the boundary wall- if it was really high, okay, maybe do not like each other, or if you had a God’s statue somewhere outside or one part of it was built later and something was built later, so then you see change over a period of time, the styles, and the chajjas and the sloping roofs of the 80’s, et cetera. So we kind of assessed everything, based on just looking.
And you’ll be surprised to know that almost everyone could make an axonometric, starting from the 1930’s, showing all the layers, without talking to anyone, deciphering what was he thinking at that point in time.
Today we cover all the space possible, right? So you will see the buildings on this road which you were coming from (Cox Town, Bengaluru) – there is so much space on either side. The thinking was different then you know they all have these sloping roofs. So first thing which I try and teach in design is the ability to read architecture- I should be able to see insecurity immediately, I should be able to see a person trying to outdo himself, I should be able to read what are his aspirations, what they want to do, where is it coming from, all of those things, just by seeing a building. Similarly once you know that architecture can be read to that level, then you have far more responsibility to understand what frame of mind you are when you are designing, something which I always do. I try and see if you are trying too hard, maybe go back, try it again and stay honest with yourself and next day you should wake up and really love it. That is when you know you have kind of achieved something. I am trying to, in my own way, trying to get back to architecture in my own practice as a human being. How you work, how you think, all these pretences which are there, you know, going through it, deconstructing it, because the more you deconstruct, the more genuine you can be, the more you question why it is there, you know more layers erupt as you remove, and your vantage changes to propose something which is more meaningful. So that is basically it.
Q: Do you have a wish-list project?
Gaurav: I am very careful today of these traps. I call them traps because they are us just dying to do something and you are probably going to mess it up, you know. And that is how it works. I think for me, every project, even if it is a toilet, if someone comes to me and says they want a toilet, I am going to put in everything I can and be as honest as I can. And that is how my practice has been, it has been very small. We started off with toilets. So, I love all kinds of design and I give it the same amount of importance. Of course, as you grow as a practice, you get more power and you can do more, but I am really very content just as an architect. I do not feel that I have to prove anything. I think the only thing which I need to prove is to me that I am being honest with my work. I do not apply for awards, because I do not like the way the industry is heading. It has become like this corporate cum architecture kind of a nexus, and everyone wants to put up an award and we architects, because we need to win an award, take prints and send it to them where someone will be dancing on the stage and somehow this does not appeal to me at all. I am very happy doing my work in a small setup, doing what I think is good work, what I think is relevant work. I keep on making sure that my mind is continuously moving, continuously thinking, continuously assessing, continuously analysing what we have, being critical of everything we have and making sure that the architecture I am doing is well-informed and relevant. That is basically it.
Q: What would you say is the vision for your practice?
Gaurav: I think the biggest mistakes architects do, is the scale thing. I have seen and worked in practices where people have not understood their own work you know and they have gone beyond it and they have been dishonest to themselves, that is one. Mine is a four-five men office and they have gone to twenty – twenty five and they are trying to do the same kind of work and it is a struggle, it is a crisis every day. That is my worst nightmare. Actually, my worst nightmare is too much work, you know. I would hate it, because I would have to come up with things which I am not happy with and that is something which I will lose sleep over. So, for me it is about what you do. A big practice today gets the best projects, but what do they do with it? For me growth is being able to grow to a scale where I get those projects which I can give my maximum to. So the growth is in terms of what you do, rather than the scale of how many projects you are taking in. That is something I have always been trying to push, across all my projects, whether in terms of budget, complexity or how difficult it is to build. I am always on the edge of that because, unless I create an exercise where I am in this space which is taking up a volume and it is continuously pushing, more the freedom I get, I will push my architecture further and further. So what I am basically training myself to do is to not leave an inch of gap. That is a shame for me. If you have got this much space, take it! As and when you get a larger space, take it all in and do the best you can. So that’s my basic thing. It is not to put myself in a position, in a circumstance where I am unable to do it or deliver the best, but be truthful to the context, giving myself enough time to analyse the project to the core. And that is my oath, as an architect. ♦
The discussion was curated by Hrushita Davey on 24th May 2017 at GRCA‘s studio in Bengaluru.
GRCA, a Bengaluru-based architecture studio is a young firm headed by architect Gaurav Roy Choudhury, which strives to absorb all domains of influence and exposure, with the hopes of redefining an honest architecture- taking the project brief from the “said” to the “unsaid”.