Sanjay Mohe on Practice of Architecture in India

In a discussion with Sanjay Mohe, Principal, Mindspace Architects, we explore the relationship between architecture and the specific peculiarities of the Indian landscape to try and decipher a unique way of seeing that is at the core of our experience of the built environment in India.

Q: You practise architecture in India – a landscape of great diversity and multiple cultures. What do you think is unique about practising in India?

Sanjay Mohe [SM]: The immediate idea that comes to my mind is about multi-functionality. We have grown up with limited resources and a large number of people. We learn to share things right from childhood in a kind of a joint family system. In conditions of limited resources, the living room becomes a bedroom in the night. We have learned to play cricket with four matches in one field without any confusion. In India, we know how to handle these multi-functionalities. And that is what comes through as a very strong point while designing. There is a possibility of laying things on top of each other and seeing them change.

The second important idea is the understanding of our unique body language. If you compare it with the West where there is a discipline, in India, even while driving on the road, we just have eye contact with the person driving in the opposite direction and just by that connection, you know whether he is going to turn left or right. Everything happens smoothly. There is some kind of an underlying system that only we understand through this body language. Many times, there is no precise yes or no. ‘Maybe’ happens and there are a lot of ambiguities, there are a lot of shades in between. This ambiguity gives us a lot of space to play with different layers.

Our culture is about absorption, not about elimination. So, when you really start looking at our culture, we like to assimilate a lot of things, you know, we have memories latched on to everything. For example, we design some very sophisticated research labs, but we still have to follow Vastu. Sometimes, the discussion is about logic versus sentiments or technology against faith. And that is where we spend a lot of time in an act of balancing. These aspects of working in India are fairly vibrant and this directly or indirectly affects one’s work all the time.

Q: What are the core ideas that form the philosophical structure of Mindspace, your practice?

SM: Actually, the question is not so much about a defined philosophy but about the values. The way one has been brought up with certain values which if you actually start listing down, it might sound very mundane, even naive. But there are so many things that are intrinsic to this value-system; it starts from your body language, the way you respect elders and to the ideas of truth and honesty. These values and beliefs become a part of you and subconsciously get carried into architecture, reflect as simplicity, respect, care and humility.

Even in the office, we do not discuss this explicitly but knowingly or unknowingly, all of us are following a similar value system. That is why we are together. The central idea is to enjoy the process of creation. We have a lot of fun. We work very hard and we party hard. We strive to keep things more open-ended rather than defined. I think that is how we get the most out of the studio process work because things are open to questioning. We want our studio to be a place of learning with a spirit of enquiry. An important aspect of our work at Mindspace is to be able to learn from nature as much as possible – it never goes out of fashion. I believe that one can discover all the principles of life just through studying nature.

Q: You have talked about light as a material. Can you tell us the significance of light in your work?

SM: In the Northern hemisphere, the sunlight is more horizontal whereas, in tropics, it is more vertical. Hence as a response, we have a series of courtyards and one can see a clear sequence of light and shade. We also have a multitude of backdrops. Light in Rajasthan is vibrant and we can observe how it interacts with rough mud walls with great prominence. The fine carvings of Jaisalmer work as reliefs casting their own shadows, keeping the walls cool. A small internal court allows the right amount of light to illuminate surrounding rooms and keeps the heat away.

Whereas in Kerala, the roofs go all the way down very close to the ground and you take the reflected light into the space. Each culture has a different response to light. We also keep working with light as the architecture becomes very static without changing light. Our work considers these soft transitions and subtle modulations from outside to inside. This makes our architecture layered. With light, one can play with the transitions and sequence just like the temples of ancient India where the light intensity changes making way for darkness as one approaches the ‘Garbhagriha’ – the darkest and therefore seemingly infinite sanctum. One can weave the whole story of the building in this sequence – a space with emotional qualities and as you change the sequence, the associated emotion changes. The process involves taking a dark cube and puncturing it to bring in those rays of light. For me, it is not just about light – it is about darkness as well. It is important to create darkness to feel the presence of light.

Q: What role does landscape play in your work?

SM: We do not want to think of architecture and landscape as two different elements. The way one wants to bring light and air into the building, we want to bring nature into the building, making nature an integral part of the built form. There is an image that comes to my mind of the temples in Angkor where the trees have grown on the temple walls for hundreds of years and you cannot decipher whether the tree is supporting the wall or the wall is supporting the tree!

You always want landscape and nature to take that kind of active part in the built environment. We try and create enough porosity in the form of the building to create a place for nature to thrive. I had once seen a documentary about a Shani temple in Maharashtra where they showed a village where people do not lock doors at all. Some houses did not even have doors, and I thought what a wonderful idea to be able to design a building that is impossible to lock – one can create porosity to the extent that the door disappears and nature literally flows in. We are conscious of this whenever we build anything.

Another significant thought is the idea of homecoming when we deal with the landscape. From where does homecoming start? In an apartment, it starts when one opens the door to get in. This is where you feel that you have reached home. How can we create an environment wherein you feel you are at home much before opening the door, in the verandah or in the front-court? Can you stretch this feeling much further by creating a landscape or a spatial sequence that makes you feel that you have already reached home?

I think this is the success of creating a vibrant neighbourhood where the idea of homecoming is stretched and we strive to achieve this in every project we work on. This involves integrating nature into the built. Some of our buildings are thirty years old now and every time someone visits our old projects, the first question we ask is “How are the trees?” I never think much about how the building looks. The building remains the same but the way you look at building changes as there are these layers of nature and associated memories and this gives the environment a special quality. It is a delight to see the building change as the trees grow and complement the spaces. Though the building is static, nature takes over and keeps changing, through the seasons, through the years. The flora and fauna become an inherent part of the building and your life. We as designers have to just make place for them.

The ageing of a building is a very important aspect – the way it ages gracefully and gets assimilated in the environment it creates. We look at landscape not as a planned environment but as a natural process of absorbing the built. Water also plays a very important role. Water has the ability to touch all senses.

Q: How do you see your work engaging with the senses?

SM: I remember watching this film long back, called ‘Sparsh’ by Sai Paranjpye in which Naseeruddin Shah plays a blind man and Shabana Azmi is the actress. There is a scene where Shabana Azmi‘s character is in a sari shop and she starts selecting saris based on the colour and then suddenly she stops, closes her eyes and starts touching all the saris on the table. Finally, she feels the right one and chooses it. That, I thought, was a remarkable scene! One realises that how much we – the people with sight are carried away by the sense of sight, whereas to be comfortable, the surface, texture, temperature, smell etc has to be just right.

One night spent in a forest would sharpen all our senses because it is about survival. In Indian temples, the transition from outside to inside is also a process of sensitising all our senses by first removing our shoes and feeling Mother earth, thus sensitising touch, offering flowers and sensitising smell, ringing the bell and sensitising hearing, lighting the lamp and sensitising the eyes and finally, having “Thirtha Prasad” (holy offerings) to sensitise taste. Water has always played an important role in architecture and is a powerful element to stimulate all our senses. Subconsciously though, we are aware of these other senses but somewhere, our visual sense overtakes.

I think there is a strong connection between memories and senses. You remember things through music, through sound. You remember certain things by smell and when you get that particular smell, you immediately connect with it – like a visit to your grandfather’s farmhouse. These connections and memories are sometimes visceral. Sounds are also associated in our mind – when you hear a bike going at a great speed, you conjure the mental picture of the person riding it.

Therefore, the entire perception is in play between what you expect and what you see. This is how one is able to form a like or dislike for a space. It is about imagining, seeing and correcting. I compare these two works of Rodin: one is ‘The Prodigal Son’ where the person is on his knees with two hands stretching towards the sky and the other is ‘The Thinker’ which is a man sitting. While the first is about ecstasy and looking outward towards the horizon, the other is about looking inward. Between the extremes of deep introspection and expression of ecstasy, there are intermediate stages. One carries these ‘space bubbles’ with one’s body and when inhabiting an architectural space, the better this space bubble responds to the inhabited space, the better the ‘comfort zone’.

The emotional connection between senses and the architectural space is very strong. The same space may feel different depending on the time, the day, the light and the mood of the inhabitant. As an architect, one is trying to craft this space oscillating between the left and the right brain. While the left is about more measurable and analytical things, the right is about emotion, intuition and creativity.

The built environment is an amalgamation of the measurable – understanding the context, the site, existing features and its surroundings. It understands every aspect of functionality, elements of nature and technology. And there is the immeasurable which is multi-sensory and emotive. Architecture should play to all the senses. We can engineer the measurable but it is the immeasurable components that determine the way people react to a space. That is why I like the painting by William Blake – trying to measure the immeasurable.

Whether in a school or in life you are learning all the time. It is important to take a pause and allow that learning to seep in, to get absorbed, to create awareness of that is learnt. Can architectural spaces provide that pause?

Q: How do material and colour play a role in it?

SM: When I came to Bangalore in the 80s, grey granite was ubiquitous – kerbstones on the road, granite fences, granite steps and walls. It is such a wonderful material – wherever you dig, you find granite! If you polish it, the same stone looks like a semi-precious material. We started using it because it was the natural thing to do. The material was available and skilled labour was locally available. Grey granite could be used as load-bearing walls as it was as cheap as using bricks. Granite also has this amazing way of ageing gracefully. Slowly, we started experimenting using granite in combination with other materials like introducing concrete bands, stone chips, bricks, kadappah stone etc. We eventually moved away from using granite for load-bearing walls because of its absorptive and porous nature and started designing more composite walls.

Then came this influence of postmodernism as a reaction to modernism and we suddenly had a spurt of using colour. In that phase, we designed many plastered walls with a lot of variation of colours. But we soon realised that when the building gets repainted, ochre becomes yellow and the red becomes pink and the whole feel changes. The next phase was to restrict the use of colour in pockets with an understanding that even if the colour changes within the pocket, the composition does not change drastically.

Slowly we moved to using a lot of white. That phase lasted for quite some time as we liked the way shadows changed on the white walls. People, as well as nature, look beautiful against a white backdrop, hence making it timeless. When the end users have to repaint the surface, they do not have to think too much. In all these phases, you always question how to use the materials, how to fuse them and how to make them more humane.

Q: Is there an Indian way of looking at things? What are the visual attributes of the architecture of India?

SM: I think when you discuss aesthetics; you approach it as an outsider, looking at something trying to make sense of it as an observer. But when you are a participant, then you experience the space, you feel it. For us, the idea of the mother is never related to the way she looks – she is beautiful because she is a mother. This is about feeling, not about looks; it is the language of the heart.

Climate has always played an important role in deciding lifestyle, culture, and rituals etc. We remove the shoes outside the house because we sit on the floor and eat as our climate allows us to sit on the floor. This could not be done in Northern Hemisphere, hence the idea of chair originated as insulation from cold floors. So climate controlled the way one dressed, what one ate and the way one lived.

Again, speaking of climate and its connection with aesthetics, I want to point at the dresses of Rajasthan with bright colours and mirrors. The culture of that place celebrates these colours against the desert but if you look at Kerala where there is a lot of greenery, the palette contains a lot of whites and gold. Visual culture is also closely linked to functionality. I was highly influenced by the Masters of Modern Architecture: Corbusier, Kahn and the way they used materials. Carlo Scarpa’s attention to tactile details is inspiring. Most of these buildings exhibit machine-made aesthetics. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Geoffrey Bawa who redefined the language of aesthetics of Tropical Modern architecture. Instead of celebrating perfections, he celebrated flaws. Cracks on the floor, moss on the wall, and rough-cut edges of stone exhibited a language of handmade aesthetics. Bawa’s sensitivity and ability to carefully orchestrate vernacular models to suit contemporary lifestyle added a humane touch and created a sense of comfort while occupying the space. Despite the refinement, there was a familiarity to it as if the memories we carry are already woven into the fabric. Probably F.L. Wright used materials to create the same comfort for an American. To me, that is Indian aesthetics. It is about absorption and not about elimination.

Q: What about context?

SM: Buildings cannot exist in isolation. They are conceived to house and inspire human activities and are set amidst natural/built environments. For us, design evolves from the context. It is a response to the site, climate, functionality, client’s aspirations, and technology. There is no preconceived image. The building has to grow out of the soil. In few instances, you can actually go to the site and feel how the built form assimilates with the site observing the way the sun moves on the site, the way the water flows and the way sound works on the site. We do not seek to plant something in it – rather, we try and look at context as something from which design evolves.

Q: In the last few years, images have dominated the discussion on architecture. What do you think of this way of looking at architecture?

SM: I would like to compare this idea of imagery with memory. The eye collaborated with other senses becomes a memory. Image is normally an image of an image seen in a magazine, whereas memories are based on experience and have many feelings overlapped. Images are static and two-dimensional. Memories have many overlays on the image – they are three-dimensional. One can relive a memory in all the senses. I feel that the memory of a place is more potent than the image of the place. For example, when we design schools, I refer to a memory of our visit to Rameswaram. In one of the temple pavilions, on a hot afternoon, there was a strong breeze and we could observe a group of 25 students in the pavilion with a teacher wearing white dhoti and a shirt and students totally immersed in learning. The students were not even aware that we were watching them. This memory and the images from this memory come to me whenever I am asked to design a school. You do not just collect images but feelings over a period of time and you build on that.

I find pictures problematic. When you photograph, you choose to frame a composition out of a larger context. That frame becomes the photographer’s creation and his decision to separate it from the rest gives it a different meaning. When you place it next to another frame, which is chosen from a different context, it gains a totally different meaning because you are creating a third context. When you see a photograph, you do not know if the place is hot or cold. You cannot say if it is breezy or dusty or noisy or if the place smells good. It is difficult to judge an architectural space by looking at an image. When you look at images, you are an observer – not a performer or a participant.

Q: What is your view on the state of profession?

SM: What you liked before joining architecture is very different from what you like now. When I was in the first year of Architecture, I used to love the Corinthian Order with ornate capitals. I would not believe that someone could like any other order like Doric or Ionic. And as I learnt new things, preferences changed and the idea of the capital itself disappeared.

This makes me wonder if we are getting alienated from the mainstream. Why do we lose that connection? This happens in Art, Music and Dance as well. Do we lose a sense of a larger picture
as we get into the pursuit of finer details? Do we get caught up in the reaction from a peer group that the mainstream reaction goes into the background? Do we ever think if our parents or siblings like what we design or do we just judge their ignorance comparing with our knowledge about the subject? The mindset is that most of the award-winning work has to make a statement and has to be different. You believe that the contrast always exists. But then you look at Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings; he never bothered about winning awards and probably he would not have won if he had competed. His architecture communicated with the common man and celebrated the environment. F.L.Wright could do that. In the world of cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s works can touch a common man and can still be a classic cinema. In the world of music, Lata Mangeshkar could do that. Is it possible to make architecture that operates at these two levels or at multiple levels? This is what we aim for in our practice. It is a difficult proposition but for us, but it is an important thought – an architecture that can be appreciated at a classical level and at a popular level. The achievement of this balance would be, I believe, the real story of creating good architecture ♦

Images and Drawings: Courtesy Mindspace 

SANJAY MOHE is the founder and a partner at Mindspace – a Bengaluru-based architecture firm with extensive experience in designing residential, institutional, cultural and of office projects of varying scales. Mindspace was founded in 2004 and is presently led by Sanjay Mohe, Medappa, Suryanarayanan, Amit Swain and Swetha along with 21 architects, engineers and support staff, all of whom work as a team. Projects by Mindspace have been featured in several national and international awards and are consistently featured in architectural journals. Sanjay Mohe also regularly lectures in architectural forums and schools of design across the country.

DIALOGUE chronicles a conversation with an eminent architect/designer/ thinker on an idea or issue pertinent to contemporary design practice in India.

The Team at Mindspace

[IN]SIDE is a series of bi-annual journals published by Matter in collaboration with H & R Johnson (India) on Contemporary Architecture and Design in India. This interview was recorded as a part of the editorial process for [IN]SIDE Volume 1, Issue 2. 

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