Percy Adil Pithwala’s practice moves through intersections in art and architecture. While analysing his work at the Red Studio in Vadodara, we discuss and discover his way of looking at drawing – the abstract and the architectural.
Images and Drawings: Courtesy Percy Adil Pithawala
Author: Vedanti Agarwal
Curation & Film: Matter
Percy Pithawala has developed a unique approach to architectural practice over the years. Situated between pedagogy, art and architecture, his practice forages for intersections, unions and relationships between the three fields with ideas moving fluidly between the three. Percy Pithawala transitioned from working on conventional architecture projects to testing new grounds in competitions, abstract explorations and experimental pedagogy. While growing into both an artist and an architect, Percy closely engaged with ‘drawing as art’ from his schooling years at Pratt University, New York. His process engages with various modes, methods and mediums of drawing, some meant to bring about resolution in thought, while others: a vivid intuitive activity; each one producing expressive outcomes.
Russian constructivist paintings and artists like Malevich have had a great influence on Percy’s work. His process of drawing generally begins with a painting as a point of departure, which can be interrogated, inhabited and imagined in many ways. Over time and repetition, the drawings assume an intuitive and layered understanding of space – sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed in the iterative process. It is an intuitive process. It involves deciphering and decoding various aspects of the painting/graphic including its geometry, colour and intention. The subsequent explorations translate a two-dimensional field into a reinterpreted three-dimensional space. The intrinsic activity of drawing creates abstractions with a strong form, colour and geometry defining the evocative experience for the architecture to come. The gaze, if held longer may translate proportions and dynamics of the drawing into an architectural form or delve deeper into its artistic expression. Giving every drawing the potential to either remain as artwork or become a building, depending on what the eye wants to see.
The continuous activity of drawing is inherent to Percy’s manner of movement through design. His drawings portray an impatient search, a rigorous scribbling to disentangle his thinking process; which may trigger from a haphazard set of thoughts, a painting’s image or even arbitrary marks on paper. Beginning with a diagram of relationships in a project, then moving towards the energy of drawing and redrawing over the layers of the site, programme, scale, landscape; the design emerges. It is this synergy of drawing processes composed of bold strokes on paper, colour and form exercises and revisiting of paintings; that extract defining architectural elements of space and form. The work of art chosen as a starting point is constantly used as a tool to realign all layers while working.
The process of the drawing translates into a design methodology with the use of multiple media. A collage of images extends the potential of imagination to what can be seen. It is a coming together of seemingly unrelated images or objects which compose a picture conceived by the author architect but is left open-ended for its audience. Percy’s collages have an expressive quality, generative of multiple interpretations. When employed for a design project, this drawing becomes an extremely useful tool for visualisations.
This messy but dynamic way of working defines Percy’s process, a drawing generated by an existing painting or image goes through a series of iterations which then become an end in itself. Interpretations intuitively feed answers to questions in design or to the nature of the painting being revisited. In a non-linear fashion, eventually, his work opens up new ways of visualising by extending boundaries of imagination in architecture to processes in art, in turn, prompting newer approaches towards design-thinking.
For Percy, translations between art and architecture do not stop at his individual process but extend into the practice of teaching as well. This is where new ways of juxtaposing art and architecture are constantly evolved and experimented with through the design process. Student exercises are formulated as immersive and intuitive processes of finding geometry, form and a sense of proportion in architecture and design. Developing exercises like the one inspired by Artist Sol Lewitt‘s incomplete cubes form a part of the basic design programme in the foundation year.
Percy’s practice has fluidly moved between working on projects, national and international design competitions and teaching. Spanning through all of them, his search for the interface between art and architecture remains. His drawings probe new ways of looking at the architectural discourse.
In conversation with MATTER, Percy Pithawala discusses his drawing process in detail. He also talks about his inspirations and mentors who have helped him in developing an affinity towards the process of drawing, collage-making, model-making and abstract explorations.
Q: Since when have you been drawing? How did your engagement with the hand start? How did you continue this practice of drawing by hand as a professional?
Percy Pithawala [PP]: I was initiated at a very early age in the process of making drawings and paintings since my mother was an art teacher. She was extremely conscientious not to restrict the flow of my thought process and allowed me to choose a subject matter of my liking.
I recollect as a child my early doodles and drawings were laden with marks, blotches, scribbles layered one on top of the other. A technique that I continue to follow till date. Growing up in our ancestral home at Navsari, I carefully observed cracks, fissures, textures on wall plasters and flooring. This notion of things in a state of flux, constantly evolving and mutating made a lasting impression on me.
With regard to my practice, I tend to drift between multiple layers of thoughts and points of departure in search of newer meanings and revelations.
Q: Who are the mentors that inspired your attitude towards drawing?
PP: My mother has been my earliest mentor. She always encouraged me to represent my thoughts abstractly. I still recall my earlier series of drawings which I nicknamed as, ‘Strawberry Drawings’. They were richly layered dabs of colours without any predetermined subject matter in mind.
At Pratt Institute, Prof. William Menking and Prof. Lebbeus Woods became my mentors. While Prof. Menking’s elective class on ‘Architectural Futures’ made me aware of the interconnected nature of various disciplines being a rich resource for a new tomorrow, Prof. Wood’s visions of Urban war-torn Utopias and the expressive energy with which they were drawn left a lasting impression on my mind.
Q: What is the nature of your design and thought process? How does hand drawing as a tool participate in the design process?
PP: My thought process has largely been guided by Art (works/ objects of Art). During my years in New York, I came across opportunities to further my interest in the Arts. I attended education classes at the renowned School of Arts and Architecture ‘The Cooper Union’.
Whenever I undertake a professional assignment my mind spontaneously recollects artwork appropriate to the given site. It is almost as though I have made a data bank over the years with regular visits to museums and I recollect them at my will as and when an opportunity arises to kick-start the design process. While working further, a diagram of relationships gets woven together out of a concern for site references, visual connections and accessibility. During this entire process, the work of art serves the function of a compositional matrix which helps me to tie up various layers of the design process such as site, programme, circulation, structure, landscape, etc.
There is always a possibility that once the work of art has outlived its function, it may further disintegrate leaving a faint trace of its existence.
Q: How do you decide when and which medium to use to draw?
PP: As such I do not have a preferred tool. I have observed that as and when I feel the urgent need to draw, it inadvertently starts manifesting itself by drawing over a scratch, a tear, or a mark left on the surface of a backing sheet from a previous project. I remain open to chance occurrences and allow the process to take over. A rich multi-layered drawing emerges out of a churning process of various thoughts and assumes a life of its own.
Q: Is there a consistent technique of drawing that you use while working? How do they vary through your explorations?
PP: Now that I look back in time, I believe that I have consistently relied on a recurrent technique to represent my drawing process. It is a spontaneous activity which is initiated by making random marks on paper, which in turn helps me to weave my random thoughts together into a continuous thread.
Subsequently, as site layers build up, architectural forms, elements, spaces and connections make their appearance and engage in a dialogue with each other.
Q: What is the relationship between hand drawings and collages or models?
PP: Participation in design competitions has been critical to our practice. Restricted submission requirements for most of these competitions enables us to present our design ideas succinctly within the format of a single A1 or A0 Sheet. Throughout these competitions, we have consistently explored the notion of a part drawing, part collage, part model, part bass relief expressed in multiple layers, juxtaposed one on top of another to articulate our proposal effectively.
One of our earlier competition entries for Indian Architect and Builder – Vision 2050 provided us with a unique challenge to represent four themes – ‘Unbuildable, Unbelievable, Timeless and Sublime’ – through an architectural construct. Our submission was in the form of four lightboxes inspired by memory boxes of Artist Joseph Cornell. Each lightbox comprised of three distinct components- original artwork by a master artist appropriate to the given theme, everyday found objects superimposed on to the original work and a layer of improvisation as my interpretation of the original artwork. All these layers were subsequently sandwiched within two acrylic plates held by bolts in the four corners.
Q: How do you use drawing as a medium of abstraction? How does that translate into practice?
PP: New York offered me a fertile opportunity to nurture my interest in art through visits to world-class museums such as The Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art. I was particularly drawn to avant-garde Russian Constructivist artists like Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Rodchenko, Chernikhov, Leonidov to name a few. They were, as a matter of fact, the earliest abstract artists well before the conception of the Abstract Art Movement in post-war America.
On my return from New York, my very first solo show at Faculty of Fine Arts comprised of a series of artworks and installations entitled ‘Improvisations’. Discourse for these artworks was initiated by placing an art postcard of Malevich‘s original painting right in the centre of the page format. Taking inspiration from the structure and compositions of Malevich‘s artworks, I attempted at evolving my own interpretations by extending reference lines, colour and energy fields. More recently for the ‘Constructions’ exhibit, the chaotic growth of our cities was represented metaphorically in an abstracted manner by compressing scrap metal cuboids as installation pieces within gallery spaces.
With regard to practice, a similar process of abstraction through artworks has been implemented with varying degrees of success.
Q: Do you think your technique has evolved over time?
PP: I would say that my technique has remained consistent over the years, except that I am now able to collate additional layers simultaneously within my thought process with better effectiveness.
This particular thought process and technique of working with layers has also offered me the advantage of switching or prioritizing between different layers and controlling the sequence in which I intend to make their presence felt during the thought process. Reshuffling the order of layers at my will also offers immense room to explore alternative approaches towards design solutions.
Q: How do you interact with your students, when it comes to the drawing process?
PP: I connect with my students through the activity of making drawings. As I negotiate my way around a studio class in progress, I observe their working process and attempt to understand the same. Sometimes an urge to intervene takes over and I make a mark, dribble, doodle on their drawing underway; whether it be a conceptual sketch, design development or a process model. This mark or scribble may be rather unintelligible, to begin with, however, it certainly induces an element of rigour amongst students to passionately involve themselves in an independent thought process.
As a teacher, I remain flexible while working with students on projects. There is no prescribed method that I follow. My duty is to inspire and provoke fresh ideas amongst students. Within the studio, it is of utmost importance that the process of critique and internal discussions enables them to develop necessary confidence in their individual thinking capacity and defend them with a rationale♦
Gallery A: Competition Entries
Gallery B: Exhibition of Artwork
Gallery C: Projects
Gallery D: Explorations and artwork
Gallery E: Teaching, student workshops and exercises
Percy Pithawala’s explorations rest on the constant movement between art and architecture, both of which inform each other. His architectural drawings are extremely vivid, eliciting imaginations similar to an artwork. He uses drawing as an activity to flow through his thoughts and layers in the design.
‘Drawing to Find Out’ is a curated column on drawing in architecture and the techniques and ideas therein.
Prof. Percy Pithawala is an architect, Urbanist, educator and an artist with over 28 years of professional and Academic experience. He studied architecture from M.S. University, Baroda and Masters in Urban Design from Pratt Institute, New York. After studying he worked at several practices namely James Stewart Polshek and Zaha Hadid. After returning to India, he worked for a long period at Karan Grover and Associates as a designer.
He has been the Principal at Institute of Environmental Design at Vallabh Vidhyanagar where he taught a seminal studio “Architectural Futures” which enabled students to develop a lateral thinking process in design. Thereafter he has served an academic coordinator at School of Environmental Design and Architecture at Navrachana University. His artworks and installations which are largely extensions of his design thinking have been widely exhibited at reputed galleries in India and abroad. Percy has recently founded The Red Studio at Baroda with a view to further the discourse between design education, research and practice.