STUDIO: BPS ARCHITECTS

Studio culture 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 Rajkot-based practice BPS Architects led by Parth Shah and Brinda Shah.


Q: How long has it been since the completion of your studio space, and how has it transformed?

Parth Shah [PS]: Our studio was completed in August 2007. Since then, it has transformed in more ways than one. Some of the immediate physical changes are visible in the way the ‘green’ has become a part of the building over a period of time. We have cracked walls because of overgrown roots, and squirrels and ants making their homes in-between. A lot more bookshelves have been placed in the existing niches, but no formal changes have been made on the outside.

Brinda Shah [BS]: Earlier, we used to have an old Umro (Indian Fig) tree in the courtyard. When the new one was taking shape, we added a few steps around it and redesigned the entrance door with regard to the Peepal (Sacred Fig) tree next to it.

PS: We make space for the green and they make space for us.

BS: It is sad that we do not acknowledge it enough, especially at a young age, but all of us co-exist with trees. We were very lucky to have these old trees with us. And to save them we constructed our studio in a linear manner.  Some of these trees are nearly 100 years old, having a life of their own but also attached to the life of others around them. They keep the place the way it is, as you can see.

PS: We started out very small but today we have a strength of twelve people, and that is as much as this space can accommodate.  We have space to add a couple of computers and drafting boards.

BS: There is however the possibility of upscaling within the defined volume by creating a mezzanine floor at the lintel level. But I think it will take us a while before we reach that stage of expansion.

Q: What design principle informs the making of your studio space?

BS: The design of this studio is largely governed by what the land had to offer us. It was contextual in that sense. The plot already had beautiful big trees which were significant to Parth’s family, being their ancestral place. So, the trees in a way became the only memories for them to stay connected with. Everything around has changed so much that it was important for us to respect and preserve these good old trees. All the decisions thereafter followed with this in mind.

PS: The plot used to be much larger earlier.

Where the studio is now situated, originally used to be the outhouses of the Art Deco bungalow I used to live in earlier.  There was an urge to retain the inner court. If we had done it any other way, we would have had to succumb to the margin rules as per the new bye-laws.

Imagine this square shifted in by 3-4 metres! It would have been a loss. So, we decided to build over the existing plinth and foundation. The original roof was pitched, and it continues to be the same with brick walls to support it. This property never had an opening/entry gate onto the road since 1934, but the council allowed us to build on the street.  The property was granted directly to our family by the British – like a direct handover of land rights. In that sense, it was good that we decided to retain the character of this place.

BS: To achieve that, we had to tackle a lot of constraints since we could not change the division of the walls, foundation or even the footprint.

PS: Even the location of the windows had to be retained. And so, there is no logic to the asymmetrical character of some of these windows. This is good in a way though as it adds character to space.

BS: One important aspect we wanted to demonstrate through the design of this studio was the possibility of making meaningful spaces out of reasonably priced elements. So, the choice of material became an important aspect of how to design and what to design.

PS: In some way, we wanted to break this notion that good houses need to be opulent. We believe that a good building can be made from something local and accessible to the community.  We wanted to build for the community or society.  Illustrating this through the design of our own studio was important to us in order to develop that faith in our capabilities as architects.

BS: Also, the regional essence was something we wanted to investigate from the start. The possibility of exploring new methods and techniques while retaining the flavour of Kathiawar, Saurashtra was important. While conceptualising this, we walked around the old city studying original houses from the region. From here we were inspired by the kind of wood and metal work seen in the colonial structures.

PS: The studio does draw from the vernacular, I would prefer to call it regional modernism in terms of its conception. We studied the local planning but altered it completely to suit our requirements. While it does feel like a house, it does not necessarily behave like one. The structure is fairly modern in the way it spans the load. Generally, one span between nearby load-bearing walls, but we decided to span it differently. It departs from convention in the way the structure is resolved. A 28-feet span with a 6-inch deep beam makes the structure look delicate enough to be almost read as false. It is quite resilient with its pin joints to make it earthquake-resistant. Although these are technical aspects, they define the learnings of how the architect has perceived their own space.

The design is a result of a response to the climate and sentimentality of the place, which is true with any client (and their land/space). That is the constant we look forward to as one of our design clues.

For example, when we modified a house in the old town, we wanted to retain an old wooden door that the client used to enter the house.  Thus, we designed the new metal door to accommodate the old door at exactly the same height as before. These are the associations we continue to make in the process of building.

Q: The studio is a space that one designs around one’s work habits. How does your studio reflect the same? What is the culture of work at BPS Architects?

PS: Our practice began a decade before we built this studio. In a way, our trajectory was already established when we were in Ahmedabad. We moved to Rajkot only after post-graduation. Having worked in villages at the grassroots level has helped us to formalise our intent of practice. In a way, this studio space is yet another response to our philosophy of work.

BS: While designing our studio, we already had an idea of the kind of comfort level we wanted to achieve in a professional environment. It was decided that there would be individual workspaces, giving us each a space for personal expression. The studio space, on the other hand, is kept away from the common workspace without any kind of surveillance. In this manner, everyone has their own work environment without the fear of being constantly watched.

A lot of our practice is hands-on and experimental. This is accommodated in the larger volume which is meant to hold more people. This space is dedicated for sketching, model-making, drafting, discussing, and sometimes it lends itself as a meditative space for key decision-making or conceptualisation of a project.

Rest of the time, we dive into our individual workspaces. In the way we practice, this segregation has proved to work really well without creating any mental disconnect between us and the people working with us.

There are different processes for different design projects. While working on rural schools, our approach follows a different mindset from the start till execution. It involves multiple site-visits at the beginning of the project, meetings with local school teachers, villagers, the Panchayat members, and the children- after which we arrive at a common consensus for the resolution of design. We begin drawing by hand only once a certain stage of clarity is achieved between stakeholders and collaborators.

In other kinds of projects, where we deal with individual clients, the brief plays a key role. The brief deals with all kinds of complex social issues and clearly defined requirements, leading us to the first conceptual sketch. This maybe in the form of a 3D sketch, a plan or simply a doodle, which is then discussed with the client. The conceptual drawings somehow always become the final drawing. We have realised that a concept achieves such clarity because of the thorough reading into the client’s brief. In the process, there is, of course, a lot of investigation that happens at various scales. Parth and I complement each other by simultaneously working at different scales. After this back and forth, we begin making construction drawings.

Another critical part of our process is that we prefer to make a complete set of drawings before breaking ground at the site. We request the clients at the beginning to give us enough time to completely resolve the design before construction. In this manner, we hardly have any changes on-site since design development is given much importance. It also ensures a smooth execution process.

Q: What is the consistent enquiry that drives the design and informs your decision-making process? How does this manifest in your studio space?

BS: We believe in creating spaces with the consent of clients. Without being skeptical, we enjoy taking on the smallest of the projects offered to us. We feel that they are as much in the scope of an architect as any of the other bigger projects. Secondly, it is our desire to work at the grassroots level.

We find that the participatory methods involved in the process of working in rural areas informs our architectural practice significantly. It opens up new directions, emphasizing what is critical for us as professionals working in cities, villages or towns.

It also gives us the opportunity to test our own abilities as designers by working in remote parts and in the process of creating something meaningful. There is a deep sense of satisfaction we get from such work despite its financial constraints.

PS: In the long run, it pays back in a different kind of cycle. The other day, Riyaz Tayyibji and I were discussing the fast and slow cycles operating in practice and their convergence. These cycles are not concentric but converge at some point. Some of the large projects come around after many years as learnings or with the need to make a new kind of intervention. This is a long-term process, where certain work brings in more kind of work, adding a new dimension to the practice. But to answer your question, the one consistent principle of ours is the ability to stay true to the client’s demands and respond to them in a straight forward, simple manner. We directly question the need of the client in our own architectural capacity, governed by what we believe in – judicious use of resources available with the understanding that we also serve the society as a whole, and value of time is critical.

BS: When this studio was made, our contractor who had been with us was almost ninety years old! Having worked on some significant projects, he would give us insights on how the stone and wood needed to be understood. In that sense, even when the mason was constructing these small windows, our contractor would give his suggestions which we did not overlook. Another person like this is our carpenter who is a Gurjar Suthar with tremendous knowledge of wood. We believe in working as a team, growing with our craftsmen. The practice only gets richer as details get refined over time. Being a tight-knit practice, teamwork is integral to every one of our projects.

In the process, we find that the building becomes more ‘knowledgeable’ than us as it has incorporated knowledge from everyone who has worked on its execution.

In this way, a small practice has the advantage of being selective in their work.

Q: What do you mean by participatory design and how does this contribute to your design process?

BS: Working with the grassroots was our ambition from the beginning. The only restriction we face as designers while working in such conditions is finance. But once you are ready to work around that, then there is really no barrier. Many times, clients approach us for material explorations to achieve tailor-made spaces. Since we enjoy a close rapport with all our clients, we are able to accommodate their needs better over multiple conversations, making their role as important as ours.

We have worked for around 450 villages, mostly in government primary schools each having approximately 65-400 students. The participatory methods have mainly experimented in the Anandshala projects (design of government schools). This has two parts to it, hardware and software. For example, if you ask a child what he wants in his school, the answers are never architectural. They express things they aspire, which may be as simple as drawing on a wall, or having a big playground, or having flowers in the school. We generally hold workshops with children, to understand what they want. It is never done as a surface level inquiry, there is a lot of time spent on dialogue with children and teachers.

There are many practical and theoretical issues, where answers are larger and not just architectural. We have a team that is not just composed of architects, but who have worked in other fields like education, sociology, and anthropology, primary school education experts etc. The entire team looks at the problem at different levels, and not just the built environment. When all members believing in certain ways of improving the school environment put concerns and solutions on the table, it becomes real participation. Inputs from architects, educators, children and even parents are amalgamated into a design.

So here the design principle is the process. Hence the answers are also very simple, because they might not always require an elaborate architectural resolution. However, it is not limited to just its physicality, but it goes deeper into how it affects the meaning of the space through its operational quality.

PS: In the process of participatory works with team members from different fields, we have acquired some knowledge of each other’s expertise over time. The solution that we arrive at is thus open-ended. We do not intervene in the final decision of another’s task, each of us only offers suggestions. Sometimes the teachers involved learn how to read foundation details to look over the construction in our absence and convey any discrepancies from the drawing. Today, even the villagers have learnt how to become aware of issues. It is a very synergising process!

While working on so many schools simultaneously, it is impossible for us to visit each of them. And in each case, the drawing changes, the method of communication and site-visits changes. While the idea is mass production, the result is not necessarily mass produced. Like some schools may use kota stone, another may use waste tyres. But the notion of being under the tree or using waste for construction is the same.

We have devised a kind of kit of parts through these participatory design exercises.

We are also in the process of interconnecting different facets of the office. One kind of project involves working with many unknown clients (school children) and various stakeholders, while the other end of the spectrum involves us working with an institution or an individual house-owner. When we span across these approaches, we start to intermingle the ideas. For example, in a house, the design is essentially the same, i.e. there will be a bedroom, a dining room, so on and so forth,  these are designated spaces for specific activities.  But then you also include an in-between multipurpose space as your addition to the program, your signature to the space making. This comes about by standardisation of thought process and not the architectural detail.

So, two houses will never have the same kind of staircase, but how to bring about the correct and appropriate idea of a staircase can be standardised. And this is what we use to develop, a kind of operating system for the process of designing.

Q: What are the materials you work with? How do they inform your work and to what extent do you detail a project?

BS: When we work in remote or rural areas, we prefer to work with locally available materials and skills. We feel it contains the local character of the place. As part of our process, we generally inquire about materials available and the techniques to work with them. There is no precondition to work only with glass, steel or concrete but it is the appropriation to the context and functionality of the project that we cater to.

PS: In that sense, we do not have a specific style because we do not have a set of constant team members. If you look at the way our practice functions, we do not encourage people to stay on for more than two years. This proves to be counterproductive since we have to put in an effort to orient a new set in constant rotation, but the idea is that each one must be able to explore and pursue the profession in their own way. It is similar to a school- you cannot give your students all the learning, but you can impart a few of the tips and tricks once you see the commitment. This happens in the projects in rural areas because of a participatory process. It takes a lot of courage to design in this manner because you are open to enquiry all the time.

Similarly, we do not have a set of masons and carpenters for all our projects. In fact, we prefer if sometimes the client gets his own team on board. The only precondition we have is that they should be able to read our drawings and converse with us on the design before execution. They must possess the wisdom of working with a material.

Thus, a mason should not only be able to build our walls, but also be able to interact with our walls and with us. We have been open and accessible with our masons and their team, instigating them to clarify the appropriateness of any architectural detail along the way. Many times, they suggest a change of material for cheaper and/or more appropriate options. Some projects may be built for temporary use and thus do not require expensive fittings or materials. We share this information with the plumber/mason/worker so that he knows why we are choosing an alternate course of work.

BS: There is a refined way of going about it. Using local materials or fittings does not devalue a project in any way and this is well understood. So, when we choose a low budget requirement for a certain project their alternative details lead to much richer outputs.

PS: Our team generally approaches us with the alternatives to clarify if it is in sync with the overall scheme. For instance, they may show us a particular hinge design which may not have a big impact on the overall budget, but at the same time, it functions better. This openness is never taken for granted. This is something we have inculcated along the way. In any rural project, the entire execution team discusses the project while in most urban projects it is just the client and architect conversing. We have been able to bring about a change in this approach with our clients in a large way. We believe in being assertive to the suggestions of the client, keeping the drawing flexible. Their involvement in the design brings about a sense of ownership of what is being created.

BS: Certain kinds of hardware which are non-structural may require a lot of experimentation but no compromises are made to the overall structure or for that matter to the spatial experiences.

PS: We are open to changing the overall space of a project at the drafting stage if it is deemed with enough merit by the client or contractor because of their awareness of the site and context. For example, if there are two rooms of different sizes, a client may suggest we combine it and partition it by other methods. This may result in the design of common space with a differently worked out roof or axis. This is where Brinda is very good- abstracting an idea to a level from where architectural detailing can begin. She dusts off all the noise to clarity where additions can be made in terms of architecture. Thankfully that is a good ability we have in-house, and it helps to take the design forward.

BS: The two of us are excited to experiment with new ways and materials. Recently we executed a project with a wooden mezzanine, and the client is a bit on the heavier side experienced some springing on the floor. He asked Parth if he could get rid of the springing. On-site, Parth very spontaneously got a steel bar and created a small truss below the wooden joists. This is what works! This kind of openness is very important, it was not part of the design when we started but it worked so well on-site.

There was once this charcoal sketch Parth had made representing a particular spatiality. And a very similar space has now been created for an office after many years without even referring to that sketch. Over the years, we have found a lot of such connections, leading us to realise that we do have certain constants to fall back upon or progress further.

PS: We have realised that if we are true to ourselves and design, there are certain constants and continuity we will find in our work. Relating back to that idea of a big circle, which will come back and merge with the smaller circles. We are not limited by materials, but it depends on the context primarily.

BS: While working in villages it is most important to empower the villagers and stay detached from the place and the project so that you can look at the project and intervention from a distance and know if it has really made a difference in their context. It is because you do not want to own the project!

PS: Sometimes in the village projects, the villagers feel that they themselves have built it. We never introduce ourselves as architects; in the fear of being looked upon in a set filter; but as people who have come from outside to try and make a difference.

It is not that we choose certain materials for exploration, but it is the other way around. Our intent is to use every material judiciously.

For instance, you will see a lot of wood in our design, but it is not because of our insistence to use only wood. It is because of the primal nature of the wood to be there. It is not even about the environment. At one point, one cannot be so crimpy about using a natural material. So, it is about the tools and skill-sets available for using that particular material.

BS: For instance, in this region because of the quality of soil there are no good bricks available, and so there is hardly any exposed brickwork to be found. To avoid using brick cladding, we plaster the walls. We do a lot of exploration in the kinds of plaster applications possible in the region.

Q: How do you wish for BPS Architects to grow in the future? What are the ideas/domains that you want to invest in as a firm and what values would you like to preserve in the process?

BS: The thing we have realized over the years is that there is a generation development. I really wish to develop an office space where different age groups are working together. Even though we have our own ways of thinking, we have younger people who have as much clarity. In this way, we can strike a balance with a 27, 30 and even an 80-year-old working together in the same space. This is one thing I would really aspire to have. As far as the trajectory of the practice is concerned, we are happy with the way we are growing. We do not wish to double our staff or increase the office space or compromise on the directions we have taken so far.

PS: It is not just about the staff, it is the nature in which we are made and that is what governs you and lets you continue with what you are doing. I feel that I am more of a drifter, where things happen by chance and I need to pick them up as and when they come to me.   Your ability here is in the way you convert the chance to reality.  A lot of things are happening around you, in your ecosystem.  There are things that work for you and against you.  This may be dependent on my location, abilities, clients who either end up with me or and those who should have but do not, etc.-  a sum total of myself.

In this scenario, if there is a need to swell, we swell, if we need to shrink, we shrink. But this elasticity is important, and we do not need to do all of it. Personally, there is no wish, I am happy with whatever has happened, and I am not waiting for anything, but I will not miss opportunities crossing me. Sometimes we realize that a project we took up may have come to a halt, while some other projects that we had to refuse due to lack of time might have been a better option. So, we are learning to not completely refuse any project.

BS: In the beginning when we had to shift to Rajkot, I was hesitant. Having been brought up in Ahmedabad with a little bit of a design background, I always wondered how much a small city could offer in comparison. Looking back, I am thankful that I shifted here, as it has given me the peace of mind I always aspired for. I have realised in terms of projects the place is not a limitation.

PS: But on the other hand, there are certain limitations of the place which come with its context. In a capital city, you get to deal with more complex scenarios, but you also have to keep up with the ever-increasing competition.

If you take the analogy of a tree, say a champa (plumeria) tree, it is never associated with its location but with its flower or its fragrance. In the same manner, I do not look at myself as a singular architect, but we are a community of architects. So, where we flower is not important, but it is important to flower. We need to look at ourselves as a species, at what we can collectively do and not as detached individuals.

BS: In this manner, you can focus more on the community and their problem rather your own individualistic approach. Normally this is not the case with our profession, and we do feel very unfortunate about it because we really do not have all the answers.

PS: A Champa is a Champa, is a Champa, and no matter where you plant it, it will grow in a certain way only and those are its non-negotiables.

Similarly, if you are an architect, no matter where you grow, you grow to become an architect. Unfortunately, we end up spelling out our values, without realizing that they are by and large the same in all of us. If you scratch a bit on the surface, we will discover that we are all concerned about the same things.

There is a place for each one in the ecosystem, and sometimes the relevance of that place needs to be expressed to others. This can be a wonderful way to engage as a profession, as a whole, but only if everybody is a part of it. So, our expansion for the future will really come from a genuine need for it.

BS: There is so much satisfaction in what we are doing, that we do not really aspire to grab everything. Expansion is more exciting for me in terms of the scale or variation of the project and challenging our abilities to solve certain problems, like handling a large number of people on site within a small timespan.

Last year, I received a research scholarship which opened up a new window of doing research, opening up so many new fields of enquiry which we were unaware of. This expansion in terms of research and knowledge base excites me.

PS: All said and done, if you enjoy doing certain things you must be able to find the time to do it, otherwise why expand at all. The balance is most important.

Our existential urge is not to disturb anybody and keep flowering. Because to flower is a serious metamorphic change. And to flower is necessary!

Q: Has the design of the studio influenced the way you work? Tell us about it.

BS: Absolutely, the building is very dynamic. I am filled with gratitude to live in this environment with trees and nature. It gives us such joy to just stroll around and look at a new plant or insect. This is not a boring place, it has all kinds of stories attached to it.

PS: The building responds to you in more ways than one. Sometimes I feel like that because we are far way, people drop into our studio or I make sure to visit them in Ahmedabad.

BS: This place is in the middle of the city, with an attached road connecting to many places. But because of these trees and the scale of the compound, when you enter the space you feel you are in a different world. So many times, I leave everything I have in my mind outside as soon as I enter here. It is truly magical!

There is one big impact that clients have when they come here. One of our old clients told us that, the reason why no one dares to tell us anything is that the land we are sitting on is not everyone’s piece of cake. It is very highly priced, and so if we were money-minded we would have sold it and left, but because we chose to enjoy it in a different manner, we have only earned more respect ♦


Gallery


Image & Drawing Credits:

Photographs: Aman Amin, Parth and Brinda Shah
Drawings: Parth and Brinda Shah
Editorial: Vedanti Agarwal


OurPeopleTree founded by Parth and Brinda Shah began as a design practice in 2000. They have been actively engaged in participatory design methods at a grassroots level for government and non-profit schools driving the practice to a context and material-sensitive design process. Both of them are also involved in teaching and research alongside their design practice.


STUDIO is a feature that documents <work and workspace> dynamics of an architectural firm in-turn unravelling processes intrinsic to their practice.


 

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