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 Baroda-based multi-disciplinary practice led by academician and architect Pratyush Shankar.
Q: Tell us a little about the initial years of your practice.
Pratyush Shankar [PS]: I started out sometime in 1998, a little over two decades ago. Initially, the practice had been through two to three stages. I have always been interested in academics. While I have been teaching at CEPT University in Ahmedabad since a while now, I have also been practising. Most of my initial projects were situated in Rajasthan. Here I got the opportunity to work firsthand with many artists. It was quite an experience, especially since I was a young graduate at the time. It was almost dreamlike to work in a place like Rajasthan with a specific kind of materiality, a strong sense of context, an interesting material palette and above all with artists who were willing to experiment with new things. Not that any of this was easy. It was quite challenging to work with artists. But this is where the practice really started.
At the time, we were also involved in certain institutional projects like schools, especially those that were built after the massive earthquake in Gujarat in 2001. Around the same time, some other projects in Gujarat took off. I also briefly stayed in Nepal while I was on a fellowship and that got me a few projects around that region. This was very satisfying personally for me because my core research interest was in the Himalayas. In some sense, my practice and my research interest came together during my time in Nepal. I had the opportunity to travel to the Himalayas many times while working on projects in that region. It paid for a lot of the time I spent on my research in the Himalayas. I had the opportunity to complete a lot of fieldwork at this time. This was the early phase of my practice.
Q: You recently set-up a new studio on the periphery of Baroda. Tell us a little about this new workspace.
PS: Up until recently, my workspace was based out of Ahmedabad for almost 20 years. That was also the time when I was closely associated with CEPT University as a full-time faculty. After I moved out of my full-time post at the University, I was free to set-up my workspace anywhere. With my family and friends based out of Baroda, it seemed like a conducive place to set-up base. Besides, I had also studied in Baroda, and it has always been this cosmopolitan city with noted writers, artists and historians. It just felt like the right place to be, even though I myself do not originally belong to Baroda. And that is when I thought that rather than setting up a studio in Ahmedabad, I would set-up base in Baroda. This was about two to three years ago.
Here again, there was a dilemma as to where do we build the studio really? Ideally, I would have loved to find an old dilapidated house somewhere in the heart of the city and restore it. But this involved a lot of looking and waiting for the right kind of property. At the time, there was already a small parcel of land that we had bought years ago on the periphery of the city. Instead of building our house there, we decided to go ahead and build our studio space in a scenic sort of location. Now, I live in the city centre because I realised that is how I truly enjoy Baroda. It is wonderful to be close to the beautiful M.S. University campus. I travel ten kilometres to my studio, which I think in hindsight was a good decision. While I am constantly on the move, I think it is a great environment for my colleagues who enjoy being out there in the middle of nowhere.
Q: You have a unique practice that is part design, part-research and part teaching. How is the design and layout of the space conducive to the idea of your practice?
PS: There was one thing I was always very clear about and that is I am always going to remain an academician. I do not see that changing anytime in the near future. My primary identity is that of a professor and a teacher. Along with this I also have a practice. While my practice does feed into my teaching, my teaching feeds a lot into my practice. It took me a while to realise that this is who I really am. Naturally, my studio is never going to be a place where one is only engaged in projects. Invariably it is an extension of who I am and there will be workshops conducted, seminars hosted and interesting people will be invited to interact with. I have imagined the possibility of the studio turning into a large gathering space for a few days as well.
So, if you notice in the plans and sections, the studio is designed as a large gathering space with one big community table. There is no fixed seating plan because the nature of projects keeps changing. Sometimes architects in my studio take over as research assistants, sometimes they help conduct workshops, or with the documentation for research. And at other times, they could be busy figuring out details for door-handles. Now the question is how do we manage these different engagements? I do believe that this studio is a reflection of my personality and I enjoy writing as much as I enjoy designing. I am comfortable and confident in doing both.
In some sense, the studio space also begins to reflect that. In fact, what has also happened is that this way of practice tends to attract like-minded people. The people who come to work with us also enjoy similar things. I think this is how things have kind of shaped up. Speaking of the design of the studio itself, we occupy a very small piece of land. I realised early on that if I lay all the functions on the ground, the space inside is sure to get compromised. Instead what we have done is designed the studio like a pavilion. The beauty of the plot is actually in what lies outside of it. And the fact is that while you may have a very small piece of land, you have a rich view that is all yours including the vast open skies.
As part of the design strategy, we decided to raise a part of the studio and create this very large terrace, rather a raised garden on the rear side. The moment you are on that level, almost three meters above the ground, your connection with the horizon totally changes. It is a whole new perception. I think I have always been very curious about this relationship between landscape and design. If you notice, a lot of my work is situated in the hilly areas. The studio, however, is situated on a flat parcel of land. There are no reference points in plains. It is in fact very tough to design on such a terrain. In plains, I think what is very important is that while you are on the ground you tend to lose your sense of orientation because of the tree cover. But the moment you ascend, the horizon begins to reveal itself.
I have realised that this is also a strategy used in a lot of historic architecture. For instance, in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, this is evident in the architecture of the Mughals. A lot of the built landscape elevates you to reveal the landscape around. I think I have used a very similar strategy in the design of this studio space. When you have a studio which is designed like a pavilion, what happens when you open up the doors is that it seems really vast. While in some sense it is an institutional space, there is a sense of vastness in the way it opens out. This is also the reason why it is designed under a single roof. If you study the section you will understand what I am saying. It reflects my ideology of creating a studio space that is as diverse as a place for gathering and learning but is also a conducive space to work on projects, make models etc.
Q: Could you tell us a little about the work-culture at your studio? How do you see this model of practice evolve in the future?
PS: Let us talk about the process of design projects first because they are distinct. I think the process is a typical one that any good architect follows. For me, every project begins with thinking about the fundamentals first. In some sense, this is a practice led by a single person and the team gets involved in developing the design as it progresses. The design-development stage is fairly substantial and rigorous. There is a lot of messy work that happens at our studio because what you develop conceptually needs a whole lot of articulation.
Typically, we prepare two to three alternatives, to begin with in order to explain the possibilities clearly. A lot of the initial work is done manually. Even though we might have a digital drawing, we prefer to manually draft because sometimes the right proportions come from there. We explore a lot of visualisation ideas these days, especially with the representation technique of drawings. A lot of our representational drawings are post-project reflections. We do a lot of critical reflective documentation. This serves as a useful archive for when we are working on something new. With research, it is a different approach altogether. It typically involves a lot of reading and writing, gathering of data, creating maps, and engaging with larger concepts of city planning, etc.
Q: In the past, you have worked quite a bit with stone. What other materials does the studio experiment with?
PS: I do not very consciously claim that I am the kind of architect who works with natural materials or very specific kind of materials. I think what I find fascinating with certain materials is their associative value. There exists a strong tactile or physical filter. Having said that when I reflect on my work, it has gone through phases. There was a point in time, where I was using a lot of stone. Today I am trying out new things with steel for instance. Perhaps it is a way in which I am learning to explore the limits to which I can work with these materials. It is almost a childlike fascination. I do not have any particular preference for a natural or industrial material. I have no qualms experimenting with cladding. So, I am not trying to make a statement of purity here. For me, it is important that the material serves the purpose well.
As far as the studio is concerned, I visualised the same space in three different materials. Honestly, I do not think it would have been any different if I would have used different materials. I think the entire studio that you see in black stone could be done in brick as well. In my mind it would not change too much since across my work, the material is not the central idea. I think there is something larger that is happening. For instance, with this studio space, it is about how I am engaging with the landscape. The nature of the pavilion was the most important, and all I needed were two walls to contain the whole studio. It had to be something thick, something solid, something you can touch and feel. That was the only brief I had for myself. It could have been achieved with thick concrete, rammed earth or brick. I liked the idea of using stone because I was surprised to find such wonderful quality of stone here in Gujarat. In some sense, you are also questioning the stereotypical brick structures that you see across Baroda. One can find enough of that happening. Whereas this is the same stone that is used to make kapchi which is used in our slabs. I have observed many compound walls and foundations done in stone across Godhra in Gujarat. But I always wondered why it had not been experimented with for something more ambitious by contemporary architects.
We have used black trap Deccan stone, a type of black basalt stone which is a very hard stone. It is difficult to achieve a dressed masonry finish with this. This was something I was looking for. I wanted the surfaces to be a bit rough, uneven and unexpected. This is combined with steel which is a very precise material. I think I was looking for that binary play between something precise and something uneven on top of it. So that perhaps explains the choice of material. A lot of people like the blue floor in our studio. It is actually quite photogenic. Honestly, it looks alright in the studio but in photographs, it does look quite seductive. The strategy behind the flooring was simple. I wanted a monolithic floor across all surfaces- including the steps and split levels. Anything that demanded tiling or piecework would not have worked as it would have gotten quite messy.
The preliminary idea for the overall space came from a piece of rock. In some sense, we were trying to recreate our memories of the Himalayas and forcing them onto flat ground. Here cement flooring seemed to be the most practical and feasible option. Mixing of a coloured oxide with the cement floor is a well known traditional practice and our team of masons knew how to do it. Being a manual process, what it does is, it sometimes lends a different colour at different places. This is an imperfection we like. That is how the floor happened.
For the roofing, we have used flitched beam. Professor V.R. Shah was the structural engineer. It was actually brilliant working with him. One of the options was when you have a 6-7 meter span, you insert a steel box section which sometimes can look very industrial. But we wanted to work with wood. And if you do a wooden truss in a span like that it can become very heavy. So, we decided to combine steel and wood. Utilising the strength of both materials, we designed a composite beam or a flitched beam. So there is an 8 mm steel section inside and 35mm wood is sandwiched on both sides and bolted. It is simply supported on a point. This was how most of the material choices evolved.
Q: Tell us about the way the design of the studio has changed/influenced your work.
PS: I believe that one of the significant things that a well-designed space does is that it allows you to think of the possible things that can happen within. For instance, the Citylabs initiative that we have been conducting since the past year as a studio, the workshops on urban issues would not have been possible if we did not have this space. This space has allowed me to think of other possibilities of pursuing my interests. Secondly, psychologically it is a huge anchor. It does become a place where you can just sit and do nothing for a change! That said, I have not yet had that kind of time to enjoy the space as often as I would like. But I think what has happened is that for the people who work day in and day out of this space, they are quite connected it.
Also, there is a sense of collective ownership to this studio space. All of us take care of it together and it has become the symbol of the team in some sense. There is a strong associative value. We also have built a small earthen oven for ‘pizza nights’. I always wanted to develop that sense of community where one can relax at the end of the day. So in that sense, I think what it has done is helped to create a sort of ‘fraternity’ if I may use the word. For me, this is very important. We enjoy hosting reunions with people who have worked with us in the past whenever they visit. This studio space has helped in creating a fraternity of like-minded people who want to come back and work with us. And I think ‘space’ plays a huge role, it cannot just be an individual. There must be something more♦
Image & Drawing Credits:
Pratyush Shankar is a practising architect and an academic. He is an Adjunct Professor at Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India and Visiting Professor at the Mundus Urbano Program at Architecture Faculty, TU Darmstadt, Germany. His practice is critical and innovative and tries to look at questions of architectural production especially concerning a new relationship with nature, the idea of light and poetics in space.
STUDIO is a feature that documents <work and workspace> dynamics of an architectural firm in-turn unravelling processes intrinsic to their practice.