A Recorded Discussion with The Merit List 2018-19 Jury Panel at Goa.

The jury for The Merit List 2018-19 cycle in a conversation moderated by Mahesh Radhakrishnan of MOAD, discusses projects in the context of issues that concern practice, pedagogy and built environment that emerged in the evaluation process.

The Jury (2018-19 Cycle)
Brinda Somaya, Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, Mumbai.
Dean D’Cruz, Mozaic, Goa.
Riyaz Tayyibji, Anthill Design Studio, Ahmedabad.
Rajiv Soni, Communications Expert and Photographer, Kolkata.
Vijay Narnapatti, mayaPRAXIS, Bengaluru.

The following text is an edited transcript from the panel discussion recorded on August 18th, 2019. 

Setika Singh, Executive Director, Takshila Educational Society: Takshila Educational Society has partnered with Matter to not only recognise projects of critical relevance through The Merit List, but also to further the discourse on contemporary architecture in India. The Takshila Lecture on Architecture and Society delivered by Professor Neelkanth Chhaya at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai last August was a step towards this effort. It has been an extremely exciting journey for us to collaborate with Matter for The Merit List.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: I am here today since I was a jury member in the first cycle (2015-16) of The Merit List. All of you are practising architects, except for Rajiv Soni. When you are reviewing your peers, you are critically looking at what is good and what is bad. You are making a judgment to work around with your own objectivity. Is it possible to be objective and not coloured by your own bias? I am particularly directing the question to the architects in the jury. In the context of Modern Heritage which has its continuing effects on our ways of working, both in our cities and in the way we have been taught and practice architecture, is it possible to be truly objective, considering your role as critique or a juror? [01:56]

Dean D’Cruz: Each one would naturally come with a certain bias based on our own reasoning of what is good or bad, and our own experiences. It is this fact that there are a number of us and each one of us comes with, ‘Okay, this is definitely a winner, and this is definitely the best one’. We listen to each other. The ability to create a consensus engages us with the project. We start looking at the details and start imagining what it could do in terms of making a difference to people’s lives. It is the dialogue that takes place is what convinces each one of us to appreciate the building the way it should be in a broader sense.

Brinda Somaya: What was very different about The Merit List is that the jury is not a one-day jury. Secondly, we had two hundred and twenty-five entries. I am sure you have all been jury members before and can you imagine looking at two hundred and twenty-five entries while trying to understand each one of them fairly in your mind? I looked at the projects with my mind and with my heart. What we were looking for was the spark. What was something special in each one of these entries? That is how I was able to reduce it down to a more realistic number. [03:34]

Riyaz Tayyibji: The word judgment makes me very uncomfortable. There is a resonance to what Mrs Somaya is talking about. It was not a one-time moment where you said, ‘This is good, or this is not so good’. There is a huge amount of doubt. You come to this jury with a certain comfort of that doubt. I am not sure about a particular project or it might be something that has value and something that does not have value. To say that you are absolutely clear about how you are going to pass judgment is a misrepresentation of reality. You are coming to the jury with an attitude of – ‘let me see how to deal with it’. A certain resonance for a project and for certain types of issues develop through the conversations with the jury. You are convinced about certain types of conversations while you dismiss others which you may have come in very convinced about, but they need to be tabled. You might realise that it is a personal aesthetic and a slightly more subjective benchmark. What was interesting about the process is that you are willing to recalibrate that precisely. All of us had that clarity. There are certain things that we stand by very strongly on ethical grounds or certain issues that are important. Whether it is the site or whether it is the use of resources. It gets tempered in the discussion depending on the project as well.

Vijay Narnapatti: The first part where we had to sit in front of the computer and figure out, I did think that maybe I was being slightly subjective. Or, ‘how am I going to choose?’ I framed a few parameters for myself. Understanding all these are images and drawings and considering I have never visited the projects, I am responding to what is being offered. The response obviously is going to be like Dean said – biased. How neutral can you be? You are delighted that sometimes there are projects from all over the place with quite an amazing variety. You are initially overwhelmed and trying to bring it to that 70 projects and it is bit of a challenge. Once we got together, there was a looseness of categorisation. It became much easier to discuss, debate and come a consensus. Hence the process was initially more subjective in that sense. But the fact that you had a group of other people to discuss and come to a more balanced understanding with a certain set of common and shared want for some kind of principles guided us to filter out projects. Unfortunately, there are many others who could have been in the eleven or twelve. But to finally get to that number was much more challenging. And once we were done with that, we were quite relieved.

Rajiv Soni: If you can even imagine my plight, not being an architect. To bring down that list, I had to look at it from my point of view as a brand consultant. That is what I do for a living. The best thing which happened was that all these entries were not put in any kind of compartments – big, small or private. The entries which we received, the first page was a small dargah while the second page was something else. You could not be judgmental. You had to judge each project on its own merit. That is what helped. It was a challenge to bring down two hundred and twenty-five projects into a shortlist. I made silos and I put the projects under those silos. It went from two hundred to a hundred, and then finally having around forty. [08:50]

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: Are you all trying to be too nice to each other? Did you have battles?

Rajiv Soni: There were a lot of battles. There were heated battles and a lot of discussions punctuated with humour. I always thought architects were boring people, but what came through was a lot of humour. We had a lot of heated arguments and had fun doing it. In the end, bringing it down to eleven projects was a really tough exercise. Especially the last twenty-five. We all had to fight. For example, in my case, I would put in seventeen projects which I had selected. I was the only guy who has taken seventeen, and fifteen got junked. I made four silos and they made the fifth one – ‘not accepted’. Having said that, two out of the seventeen projects I had selected are a part of the special mentions. I am happy about that. There was a large project and all four jury members had selected it while I was a lone dissenting voice. The point I am trying to make is that there were a lot of healthy debates. Even a non-architect was heard. It is a very democratic process and it came out very well.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: Does this mean that we need more representation from the non-architectural fraternity?

Rajiv Soni: I was a lone voice with a different perspective. I am also a photographer and I handle brands. I have handled branding for a company called TATA Steel for more than three decades. But we need one guy for this two-day crash course in architecture.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: Mrs Somaya, you mentioned in the small video clip about how it was difficult to decide. Hence, you have the lists of special mentions. What was it that led to these many special mentions? Is it the general scenario or a new narrative which we are normally used to? Things are becoming more granular and more local in context and their responses need to be looked at from that point of view. Is this why the number of citations and also special mentions have increased? [12:10]

Brinda Somaya: It depends on what was the philosophy of the people who have organised the competition. The jury was anonymous. Most of the award winners were relatively individual buildings and smaller projects. This was of concern to me and I did share it with Matter and the jury. I found it very difficult to compare a very small project with some of the large projects or the infrastructure projects that were included in the two hundred and twenty-five submissions. Very large projects and the type of projects that are being done and or needed to be done in India are not completely represented. Maybe it is difficult to assess them so fast. It is much easier to like something which is beautiful, which is smaller, which you can relate to, which is contextual, which is cultural than to give an award to something which might be a large building complex or an interchange in a big city or a traffic and bridge connection. This is of concern to me because we need to see a higher quality of design in large governmental and institutional projects as well. We have huge talent in the country. Most of the winners are young, which is great, and they have done excellent work. We do have bigger problems ahead of us. If we are going to make sure that our smaller towns and smaller cities along with our bigger cities do not go the way that they are going, we need awards to bring out some of these big issues. If architects do not go beyond buildings, they will always be peripheral to the society. A few of them might be of note, debated and discussed. But the impact on society and on the country as a whole is minuscule today and will continue to be so.

Riyaz Tayyibji: An important point and example of what Mrs Somaya is talking about is that there were just two housing projects that were submitted out of two hundred and twenty-five projects; as minuscule as that. I remember there was a traffic island and there was a bridge. They were reasonably poor in their articulation, if I have to be very frank about it. What was noticeable is that they must have been three to five entries that dealt with public toilets. One of the citations does go to a highway stop. The fact is that everybody recognises that infrastructure is important and that it is going to require a certain kind of attention through design. We are still looking at it at the scale of building. When you start increasing the scale, there is a limited amount of engagement that is possible because it has its own formal process by which you can get those projects. Perhaps it will require The Merit List team to go actively find practitioners in the realm of housing and infrastructure design to get them interested because they have been side-lined from the processes of architectural design competitions to an extent that now nobody is even looking out for this kind of an opportunity. That is why they would not even necessarily respond to putting in an entry. The whole culture of looking at these projects you put into a design competition or a peer evaluation system is important. But some amount of concerted effort will be needed for more of housing and large infrastructure projects to be included.

Dean D’Cruz: The commonalities of the projects that have been cited are been given for the directness of approach. That is what we really appreciated. An appropriateness of its use along with the social relevance it holds. All of them really talk of a way forward. Because most of our architecture is really superficial at times. We do not really address the core issues. That is because they are driven by clients who say they want certain particular things. They never really look at the end user or what their needs are. The citation projects show the way and they recognise what the user really needs and put that in their designs.

Vijay Narnapatti: I do want to make note of an open-air amphitheatre and the auditorium. The idea is that they may be small, but they are a microcosm of what potential things have. Even though we may be limited by the type and scale of entries, there is an interesting approach to dealing with infrastructure, which is what is required. How do you make it more humane? The language of media now is to talk about infrastructure and growth in the same tone: then ‘development means infrastructure’. There is this kind of humane design component that is missing. When you look at these smaller projects, they seem to establish the humane quality of design which needs to be in the larger infrastructure projects. Maybe there is a possibility of reaching out to people that may be doing such large projects. But there is a microcosm of what needs to be done and the intent in many of these smaller projects. I hope that comes through in the list of citations.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: From the current set of citations, there is a sense of a few themes that are predominant. Local, handmade and soft infrastructure using materials which are easily available and also the same time that work. There was a certain temporariness in some of the works that came across. When you actually discuss, was there a sense of certain preoccupations with the short-listed projects? [20:15]

Riyaz Tayyibji: If you look at the citation list, you will notice immediately that there are larger scale buildings. What we did identify was if you were looking at more urban, larger scale buildings, they had their own set of responsibilities that tied back to the same issues that we had identified. Social or people related issues. There were some very beautifully articulated large buildings. The question was whether they tied back to the social issue at the scale and in the context that they find themselves. Not necessarily comparative to the forest or the garden that was in another project. That translation is where the disagreements and the discussion lay. How do you evaluate a buildings social content in at different scales? That interpretation is where the discussion is.

Rajiv Soni: Taking just a line from your question about the way the citations or projects were shortlisted. My silos which made an acronym – SIRE; in which E meant Environment and Ecology. I selected the Avasara Academy  for the use of recycled material and local material. The Ganga Maki Textile Studio only used the materials available in close vicinity. I thought there were a lot of concerns for the environment. You talked about locally made material and I think that was why these two really came out very well.

Dean D’Cruz: The purpose of these awards is not just to celebrate good architecture but also act as a template for others searching for good architecture. Because these show you how people have achieved something substantial in very simple means. If one is able to do that, one gets the message across. In India, we are constantly searching for what is the new Indian architecture and while that search is on, these examples would serve that purpose very well.

Brinda Somaya: I quite agree with Dean. What was very fulfilling was to see the huge talent that exists in the country. Young talent, which we have seen today on the stage. I am sure that I have confidence in the next generation of architects to take this talent which they have, their concern for the ecosystem, their concern for society, their concern for the history, the urban fabric – which they have shown in their projects to take it further into the next many decades ahead for our country.

Edited transcript of the open Q&A session with the audience held after The Merit List panel discussion. [24:00]

Q1. From the experience at an academic scale: We recently graduated and we have been a part on the other side of the table where the jury was happening. The only thing I probably missed out in the video which was shown before and I would like your views over it – That every time a design was discussed on an academic scale, it was an attempt towards your concern. But the projects put up here had also made an impact because they were executed. But it was never showcased in any part of the video or was it really missed out how the user actually used it, or what was the actual impact or the scale of impact that it made. Would it make a difference in the way you had your debate or the judgment that you delivered today?

Vijay Narnapatti: This is something we discussed and when you go through so many entries and you have not visited them – is your understanding of the project good enough to take a call whether it deserves merit or not? One of the things that we did discuss is that it would have been a good idea to visit the shortlisted projects. Having said that, there still enough content in what was presented. Many of them did present how they thought of the context, what materials they chose to use or who were the people who inhabit the space. But the last thing that you mentioned, was still a big gap. Are the people who are using the space think it is a good place to inhabit that building? That question actually is probably a common issue in almost all the awards that are happening nowadays. We did have a conversation about seeing what we could do about this.

Dean D’Cruz: A definite concern, because your ability to judge a building is based on good photographs and paragraphs the describe it. There are awards like the Aga Khan Award For Architecture that have a far more rigour built into it. You visit the building, you appraise it in terms of its performance, cost and its social relevance. Unfortunately, we are unable to do that. It would be great if we could actually see these shortlisted projects. I had the opportunity of being a part of the Indian Institute of Architects, Kerala jury where we visited the shortlisted buildings and it made a tremendous difference. Photographs at times can be big liars. They can show things in its pristine condition while in reality, the building performs very poorly. It is really used in a very inappropriate manner or the what is inappropriate to its users. This is something that we really need to look at. How do we actually create a far more rigour in the judicial process that we have? We did our best in terms of each one bringing a different perspective on board and really throwing it open for discussions.

Q2: Having travelled all over the country in a wheelchair and having seen a lot of well-designed buildings, I still feel that not enough thought has gone into the inclusivity part of the architecture. Many of the public places are barely negotiable on a wheelchair. For example, in Delhi, the Metro has been a huge project and it was touted to be totally disabled-friendly. However at most of the stations, to get to the lift, the gradient of the ramp is such that you simply cannot take your wheelchair on it. Has this thought process been instilled into the minds of the architects to look at architectural projects from that perspective? We are a very small percentage of the population in the country, maybe three or four percent. But then those three or four percent should be able to access spaces. [28:36]

Riyaz Tayyibji: You are completely spot on. There is not enough accountability for a barrier free movement. We do have guidelines. Just like many things in the country, the follow-up and the insistence on execution is weak. It is not that we do not have either the data or the details or even the laws to insist on it. It is just like you said, that the ramp slope is not right. How to hold the architect and the designer dealing with public bodies accountable is one of the challenges.

Brinda Somaya: The ramp is just one part of the Disability Act. We have people with different types of disabilities. It could be hearing, it could be sight or it could be physical disabilities. You have the American Disability Act (ADA) which is very strict. They have to enforce it. Architects are severely penalised if they do not adhere to it. I work out of Mumbai and we do have to fulfil these requirements. As Riyaz said, it is really how these requirements are fulfilled, maintained and how the client looks at these things. It is extremely important and most of us who are here certainly take this very seriously.

Vijay Narnapatti: I wish to speak about this in the context of The Merit List. If that was your question, we did consider if the projects were barrier-free or accessible. I cannot say barrier-free completely because we did not have enough to go by. I think most of them would fit that criteria which is a very encouraging thing. The absolute necessity of it is still lacking in the entire range of projects. We keep letting it go constantly. Maybe sometimes is that just pure ignorance perhaps, which is wrong. The other thing could be the privileging certain other architectonics, will which I think is to change.

Q3: Were details such as digital technology or construction methods discussed?

Riyaz Tayyibji: A lot of the construction and the technical issues that you mentioned were discussed. You can look at it as a problem with time that we could not take up everything. At one stage, we looked at the quality of representation and the way that the kind of photographs mean to that kind of project or if there was a chance of over-representation of the project. All these issues were discussed when we were evaluating and looking at making that judgment.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: I am sure architects use lenses to look at projects. We were given less than 20 minutes to elaborate on a few preoccupations the jury had to give a framework of the kind of work currently happening and in what kind of context is it currently being worked out. In the context of this conclave, which actually talks about post-independence architecture and which is primarily state-funded in a top-down structure, we now have projects which are largely in a private realm, working in multiple different contexts. Almost 30 years of this post liberalisation period we are still trying to figure out how to build a narrative. This discussion and The Merit List for us and for me particularly frames that context. It builds a discourse to frame a narrative of the possible future. Today, a huge number of projects, especially large housing and infrastructure projects – a number of students actually end up working in the real-estate driven projects. How does one bring that into a mainstream to build certain sensibilities and how can The Merit List look at that? [34:26]

Riyaz Tayyibji: It is not only about the that particular type of building, but it is also the certain types of practices and the way that you configure a practice can deal with those types of buildings. You also acknowledge those in particular.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: Definitely. I am looking at the forces that are used. The practice actually follows these forces. If I use Ranjit Hoskote’s Grand Modernism, super grand globalisation where granular local context, one follows the other and constantly negotiates it. So how does one include such work and practices so that it is more representative and more democratic in the way we look at architecture that comes out of these different cities and towns. Any concluding thoughts on that? [35:20]

Vijay Narnapatti: There are about hundreds and thousands of awards, right? Not that The Merit List is not open to this whole big community of big practices sending their entries or sharing their work with The Merit List, but there seems to be a big divide. I see these construction awards – which you see if I have seen the winners, they are these big, huge, large infrastructure projects. And here the whole array of projects much of them are smaller like you said, private commissions. And so maybe there is something to that we can do and whether we can initiate it from this side, maybe a big question.

Dean D’Cruz: As Dr Bimal Patel mentioned in his lecture, 99% the projects are developer driven. The challenge is, how do we influence developers to creating better architecture. Architecture that really responds to the need of the people. While these projects are great, how much they reach out into the real world is a question. Eventually things are market driven. How do you sensitise these people? There are people making efforts through interventions of sensitising. There is Prathima Manohar who co-founded the Urban Venture Labs and she takes developers to foreign countries and shows models where you can actually create mixed use developments. Not just for the rich but  to create a Robin Hood model of development. We can get these showcased and influence other developers who do not want to take that little step forward to bring about change in the way they design. That would make a big difference.

Mahesh Radhakrishnan: Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to the jury for this wonderful and enlightening discussion♦

Mahesh Radhakrishnan, MOAD
Mahesh Radhakrishnan is the founding partner of MOAD – The Madras Office for Architects and Designers. Mahesh received his bachelors degree from National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirapalli and was an urban research scholar at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Germany. He teaches as visiting faculty for the postgraduate and undergraduate programs at the School of Architecture and Planning, Chennai. He has been a guest critic at the University of Sydney and New South Wales and several other architecture schools in Chennai. He is also involved with Urban Design Collective (UDC), a non-profit organisation that works as a collaborative platform towards the creation of livable & sustainable cities through community engagement.


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