Studio culture – as with all manifestations of the human intellect – is the embodiment of a pattern of work that nurtures the craft of building. Architecture workspaces are especially readable in this context as architects are, in this case, designing for themselves. With every workplace as distinct and specific as the work it produces, the people who design and work in these environments reveal their ideas about space-making.
In this edition of the STUDIO series, we enquire about the processes, approaches, work ethics, and the trajectory of a long-standing Chennai-based practice KSM Architecture led by Sriram Ganapathi and Siddarth Money.
Q: The practice enters its 28th year in 2018. It will be 3 years since you moved into your new studio space. What has changed? How has the office grown?
KSM: The studio is in many ways an embodiment of what we are, what we like to do, and want to do. Our earlier office was situated in a multi-level commercial building where we had no control over the light and ventilation in the office. It was a hard sell for us to convince clients on the use of natural light and air when we ran our air-conditioners all through the year and had to put artificial lights on during the day. The clients who walk into our new studio get a sense of what to expect from us. Gone are the sheet glass- aluminium clad- Italian Marble- loving clients! Our office remains the same size, of around 25-30 people – this is a comfortable size for us.
Q: Tell us about the design of your studio space. What are the key considerations?
KSM: Our studio space has been our dream. We were looking for a parcel of land- about 300 to 400 square metres- where we could build a studio on our terms.
We have always wanted it to feel like a single workspace – literally have all of us under one roof. To have visibility, audibility and a sense of space were important factors.
Above all, we needed it to be naturally lit, make use of the cool ambient sea breeze that Chennai most of the times has to offer while keeping away the heat from our building enclosure. We wanted to use as much of local materials and skills that we have available. We like to keep things as simple as can be, so our studio had to be a ‘no-fuss-space’.
Environmentally, we are very particular about how much energy we expend, and our studio needed to address this. The trees and plants are as much a part of our built environment shading us from the sun while letting in the warm filtered light. With this traditional wisdom as the premise, we set about designing our studio space. This 380 square metres of land faces east and is situated on a typical Indian street that has multiple land-uses – our neighbours include a bank, a hotel, few residences, a small hospital and pharmacy, an office building, an automobile garage, a logistics company, and a temple.
The studio has been envisaged as a climatically responsive enclosure.
It has been designed as a single volume which is 12 metres high and has five distinct levels created on either side of a central atrium space that also acts as a contiguous link with the street in a visual and sensory manner.
These five levels house the architecture and engineering studio, cabins of the principal designers, a library, a meeting room and a workshop. In addition to these, a cafeteria is located on the terrace level. Keeping the hot and humid climatic conditions in mind, there was a need to wrap the building with a self-sustaining ‘skin’. A well-insulated ‘sandwiched’ roof keeps out the heat from the interior spaces. Three small glass skylights set in trapezoidal steel cones in the roof slab bring in diffused light into the studio.
An inclined bamboo roof over the verandah-like cafeteria along the eastern edge of the building directs the cool sea breeze through top-hung openings at the roof level into the studio. The eastern and southern facades are covered by a curtain of sliced bamboo culms, strung together along a steel rod. This arrangement cuts the glare from the sun while bringing in the prevailing southern breeze into the workspaces. Two motorized wind catchers are placed close to the roof on the southern side with flaps that open out perpendicular to the wall and help draw in the ambient breeze. The western wall is shaded by an evergreen flowering creeper which acts as a heat insulator.
We grow our own vegetables on the roof (about 15 kgs per month currently) as we are also big proponents of urban agriculture. Now with the installation of 8.5 KW of solar panels on the roof, we expect to offset 80% of our power usage.
To be honest, we are living our sustainability dream, in our own simple way in a dense urban environment.
Q: How important is concrete as a material to your work? What other materials does your studio experiment with?
KSM: Concrete is an indispensable part of the building palette in India, and our skills in working with it are improving. Being educated in the Modernist era of Architecture, we have grown up loving the aesthetics that concrete offers. We love the material and it is always an integral part of our work. We use any material that we can get after analysing its use and relevance to the context that it is going to be a part of. We have used brick, concrete, earth blocks, laterite, wood, stone, bamboo, steel, aluminium, plastics and glass to name a few. It is exciting to use the material in more ‘avatars’ than its traditional use. We are strong in engineering as well. This is necessary as we need civil engineers to follow through our experiments with materials to a logical conclusion. Similarly, we need to resolve all the issues related to services while we work on the design. What we design needs to be realised.
Q: Studio is a space that one designs around one’s work culture. What is your office process like at KSM Architecture?
KSM: As I have mentioned earlier, our studio reflects the way we work. We are very design-centric and a lot of effort goes into evolving our design ideas. There is a fair amount of knowledge available in our studio and research is an ongoing process. We are very collaborative in the way we work and since there is no strict hierarchy in the studio, everyone is involved in multiple projects in various capacities. Ours is a very open work environment, where everyone can see and hear each other and there is constant engagement with one another. The office processes are very transparent – right down to client interaction and the fees we collect. Since it works both ways, there is no place to hide for anyone – everyone works!
We like to have variety in our work. At any given time one can find a range of projects – a factory, an office, a hostel, a school, an apartment, a club. Very often there is a learning from one design typology to another. There is also a freshness in design and our approach to each problem. We dislike getting type-cast into one type of project.
As a studio, we are also particular about our downtime and holidays. Everyone is encouraged to finish work during office hours and not spend unnecessarily long and late work hours. We feel it is important to have that discipline, spending time with family and friends, have hobbies, travel and so on.
Q: What is the most important design principle that informs your practice? How does this principle manifest in the design of your studio?
KSM: As mentioned earlier, we take environmentally relevant design very seriously. The fact that more than 75% of the office uses public transport (with the numbers likely to increase) is enough indication of where we stand. I would say that this thought has been consistent all through our practice.
While we spend a lot of time designing, we also like to keep things simple and minimal. The aesthete that this approach generates is in our opinion beautiful and mature.
We would hate to see an element or feature added to the design just because “it looks nice”.
Q: You have a unique legacy – a practice that is three generations in the making. How can we best understand this legacy?
KSM: Yes, that is something we have been truly lucky with. While Money and I were 22 years apart, Siddarth and I are 13 years apart. So it is almost like active architectural thought and sensibility continuing from the 1970s until now. We are very collaborative while designing – we have these design discussions, arguments that lead to many iterations and heartburns. There is also a deep sense of mutual respect and trust in each other’s decisions. Very often, one of us would have started the design of a project and another would finish it.
Q: How do you wish KSM to grow in the future? What are the ideas/domains that you would want to invest in as a firm, and what values would you like to preserve in the process?
KSM: We would always like to see KSM consistent in our method of design thinking, our values and respect for the environment. To my mind, the degradation of our environment is the most serious challenge that we humans face as a species. And as architects, we are directly responsible for many of the ills that are going on. Our fond hope is to see more and more architects in India be truly environmentally responsible in the way they design, and that really has nothing to do with mere certification. If KSM can inspire others, it would be most satisfying for us.
We have a strong base of research and experience, and we use this knowledge consistently in our design and processes. We are always on the look-out for new materials and methods and there is a constant experimentation that goes on. We would in the future like to reinforce this method by formalising our research processes. This, in our opinion, is integral to the learning and growth of any architectural practice.
At KSM, we have maintained a team of 25-30 persons all these years and have been able to efficiently handle projects ranging from the smallest to the largest, comfortably. We have scaled up our project sizes and numbers while maintaining a lean organisation. This has been our ‘mantra‘ and we hope it will continue to be. We encourage leadership within the design teams and hope more individuals in our studio would take on greater design responsibilities and remain invested in the Design-Content growth of the firm.
Q: Tell us about the way the design of the studio has changed/influenced your work. How does this building impact your architecture?
KSM: Actually our studio has helped us reinforce our design values and thought. We just followed our noses and did what we wanted to. That is how we designed and built this studio.
We have learnt to approach our work with a lot more calmness and maturity. There is no more the urge or need to prove anything anymore. Our work is right here for all to see.
I am also very intrigued by the term ‘Indian Paradigm’. We have so much construction and building happening in our country – one of the highest in the world. And all of it is so specific to our context that we really require domestic design solutions – an ‘Indian Paradigm’ perhaps. We have a rich architectural tradition and wisdom that one can learn from. There is also a lot of learning from architecture across the world, in how contemporary architectural vocabulary gets amalgamated with local contexts. This is a significant development globally that we have seen emerge in the last couple of decades. It is our endeavour at KSM to bring such contextuality into our architecture. We are invested in realising beautiful solutions that imbibe our environment, material resources and skills, economic relevance, and the ever-changing urban Indian culture ♦
Image & Drawing Credits:
Photographs: Sreenag Pictures and Sneha Vivek
Graphic Credits: Ammaar Chowdry, Mridula Shivashankar, Manjula Sundar
Founded in the year 1990 by K.S. Money and currently led by Sriram Ganapathi and Siddarth Money, the architectural practice of KSM over the last 28 years has evolved from a single project practice to more than fifty successfully completed buildings. Based out of Chennai, KSM Architecture Studio embodies the design beliefs and principles of the practice, that has been about environmentally friendly, climate sensitive-relevant architecture.
STUDIO is a feature that documents <work and workspace> dynamics of an architectural firm in-turn unravelling processes intrinsic to their practice.