An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. Based out of Goa, Playgroup Studio represents a pragmatic yet experimental spirit of working across multiple scales and typologies. The discussion touches upon the foundational principles of Playgroup Studio and the personal narratives of the founders, Harsh Patel and Bhavana Hameed.
Harsh Patel, Bhavana Hameed
At Playgroup Studio, we believe that every project has a potential for design. We have yet to come across a brief which would suggest otherwise. That is the most marvellous thing about architecture. It deals with such a large set of variables that there is always need for innovation and creation. Each building type, site, scale, or client comes with a new set of parameters and the game board changes. The rules, strategies and expressions need to be reinvented. This is what provides us with the life force. There is so much variance, flexibility, and scope for contribution that no two games are played alike.
Each project asks a new question and these questions stay with us through all our works. For instance, while working on challenging projects with very low costs and low tech one is forced to come up with innovative solutions. These learnings inevitably inform other distinct programs where similar concerns may not have been the primary agenda. This cross fertilisation of design solutions can only happen through a critical engagement of an architect who has practised over an extended period. At Playgroup Studio, we nurture this knowledge and establish a consistent vocabulary through all our works. We therefore seek projects with varying dynamics, projects that have more complexity than others, projects that can raise questions which will help address a larger spectrum of the work we do. These projects challenge our skill set and help us grow as architects and as citizens.
Working on fast paced and low budget public and institutional projects happened more by chance than choice in our case. However, we have come to realize that such projects are more valuable to the team than designing aspirational weekend homes which usually entail indulging in unique aesthetic expressions.
The approach to design in our studio is predominantly to resolve issues which are broader than the immediate requirement of that particular building. We are more inclined to employ ideas which are simple and clear such that they can be adapted as a prototypical solution, across a wider spectrum of projects. We are convinced that they can only have larger implications if these ideas are easy to execute within the framework of local materials, skills, and technologies. We have therefore considered this as a mandate in all our design solutions.
We also define these ideas as open-ended strategies so that they can accommodate and manifest in multiple ways depending upon the available materials, climate, client’s aspirations, topography, and other circumstantial factors, without diluting the core design intent.
We have learnt that it is integral that design ideas are appreciated and internalised by all the stakeholders and construction team members. Our role is essentially that of a mediator between the various stakeholders, contractors and consultants who come into play, rather than being at the head of the pyramid. This position has allowed Playgroup Studio to learn immensely from the other players on the same game board. In short, our studio is always trying to play the best game possible with the hand that has been dealt to us, aiming for design solutions that have a higher proportion of collateral benefits!
Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, the ambition it was informed by. What forms the basis of your practice now?
‘Practice’ being the way we do things; I would say our key influences date back to years before we founded Playgroup Studio. We both met and graduated from CEPT and during our student years we spent several months travelling less explored countries on shoestring budgets and engaging in work and projects in varying contexts like Beijing, Basel, Cairo, Morocco, Czech Republic and New Zealand. The work culture at CEPT, the rigour and commitment in our faculty, our life and travels in several third world countries, and some of the great people we worked with, already set grounds for the ‘idea’ of what we wanted Playgroup Studio to be.
BH: My introduction to architecture was through my father. In the absence of a professional training, my father’s works were mostly driven by intuition than method. He has a sharp problem-solving mind, and an in depth understanding of people. His clients invariably became his lifelong friends. I believe these traits became the foundation to the way I approach work till date.
I also had the rare opportunity of working with Mr Charles Correa and Ai Wei Wei (Beijing) both of whom left a lasting impression in our lives. The clarity of intent in Mr Correa’s works, the strength in his ideas and its representations, the high standards of ethics he maintained became goals we set for ourselves in our practice. We were greatly influenced by the simplicity and boldness that radiated from Wei Wei, through his lifestyle, his art work and his architecture. Working with him in his Beijing studio taught us the value of living, working, playing, cooking or dining together with the team as equals, it became the natural way to be, when we set up our own practice.
Officially, Playgroup Studio was instituted in the year 2010 when we moved to Goa and set up our home office in a village by the name of Sangolda. By this time both of us were already designing few reasonably scaled projects in Kerala through our association with Abdul Hameed Consultants, Calicut.
HP: Why ‘PLAYGROUP?’: There were a few concurrent ideas that we wanted to inculcate or integrate within the practice – we thought of the name ‘Playgroup’ as a pre-school group environment; a return to elemental explorations involving free play. The term also resonated with the investigation into the concept of ‘Play’, which I had undertaken during my research thesis at CEPT, and was keen to explore it within design processes. Lastly, but most importantly, the word had to have exactly 3×3 = 9 alphabets! … ‘PlayWorks’ came a close second.
Our ambition was to steer Playgroup Studio towards projects that had larger public/social implications. Having worked both in Calicut as well as Mumbai after graduation, we realised that for a beginner firm with limited experience, Tier-3 cities offered more opportunities and access to government/public projects. Goa seemed a good choice in this regard – amongst many other fantastic reasons to be here.
Having said that, we were never picky over the projects that came by. Blame it on the architect’s eternal optimism coupled with his unending enthusiasm we found ourselves saying ‘yes’ to every project enquiry that came knocking our way. One of the main driving forces at the time was the thirst to see our drawings taking shape and being built in the real world. We got involved in a range of projects varying from small scale public buildings to larger institutional programmes. It is only in the last couple of years that we have taken a conscious decision to choose our projects wisely and invest more time in the ones we choose. This decision was mostly driven by the peaking graph of projects on which the studio had put in so much sweat with no renumeration and to never see the light of day.
Presently, our studio is more focused on institutional and public works and we have been involved in some very special projects with unique programmes and typologies. We do work on mainstream commercial projects as well and try to strike a balance between our design ambitions and clients’ aspirations. These projects sustain our studio and team and make it possible for us to work on projects that simply cannot pay for an architect. It is this fine balance that keeps our morale and our energy towards design alive. There has been much learning in every single project we have dealt with, be it learning a new building technique from an ingenious contractor or learning the art of number crunching from a shrewd developer, the takeaway has always been rewarding.
What would you identify as the main intention of your work? What are the values or principles that the studio is grounded in?
Currently, the thrust of our practice is to engage with the section of society which typically does not employ the services of an architect and demonstrate the value of a well-planned building. We anticipate that such design endeavours would create greater opportunities for the architectural fraternity at large, to contribute to the section of construction industry which is currently oblivious to the importance of architecture.
Today, architects are mostly considered when it comes to designing objects of ‘desire’ rather than objects of ‘need’. We try to challenge this perception.
In terms of the values or principles we have harboured over the decade, the issues that have been central to our work are Ideas that are simple and not complex to execute. By this we mean buildings that do not require high skilled labourers or high-tech solutions but can be executed by any local contractor with local technologies. Many of our projects have severe budget constraints; in some cases, our role as architects is to merely draw out a plan, and the remaining course of the project is determined by various other agencies and forces. It is therefore utmost important to work with ideas that are simple yet powerful, ideas with absolute clarity that it cannot be misinterpreted even in our absence and ideas that do not add to the cost. Like Mr Correa had writtenabout the great advantage of life in a third world country: ‘The issues are so much bigger than you are. If nothing else, they give you the chance to grow’. The starting point for most of our designs have been hunting for that one idea which can allow for the creation of a strong and coherent architectural expression within the constraints.
Architecture that is inclusive/participatory – Our profession calls for a highly participatory process, born through collaboration between the clients, contractors, local materials, prevalent technologies, the site and the climate. We see our role as mediators between these various agencies and not as the head of the pyramid like we were moulded to think in our professional training.
With this approach, design takes on a more open-ended exploration which makes it possible to integrate the various stakeholders’ aspirations and/or limitations rather than being reduced to an individual expression.
Another important intent that the firm aspires to uphold is: Designing buildings that are responsible. We have consciously stayed away from using expensive details or materials in our designs. We believe one can achieve the desired expression using everyday materials and local techniques simply by putting them together in a more intelligent and interesting way. This is our understanding of what sustainable means. The true success of any design is when the design solution can substitute what the common man is currently making, along with reduced costs.
Where do your challenges lie?
A large portion of the projects that our studio engages in are for charitable trusts where the project becomes a reality only after potential benefactors are convinced about the design. Until such time our efforts are neither recognised nor reimbursed. In the current society, the need for educational institutions far outweighs the availability of funds, so one out of an average ten proposals gets the nod. For a practice likes ours, it means developing ten design proposals and being reimbursed for only one and that too, a couple of years down the line. This, combined with the extremely short design timelines, it becomes impractical to dwell on an idea to allow it develop over a period of time through sketches, model explorations. The mode of practice here is completely contrary to the academic model that we were bred in. Secondly, we need to keep our overheads to the bare minimum while delivering such large number of design proposals. The bright side of this is we are constantly engaging with designing a wide spectrum of projects. It is akin to working in a government hospital casualty ward versus a super speciality private hospital. It is undeniably a more professionally satisfying experience.
At the outset, how has it evolved and what is the way forward?
We have been engaged in several out-station projects, from the very beginning. While we have managed to remote control projects, at times we feel quite restricted in having to base our studio in one place. The gypsy soul in both of us often craves for a life where we could move and live in multiple places rather than settle in one. We are looking into possibilities of decentralising the studio and setting up a system where Playgroup can become a collective of remotely located studios independently handled by people aligned to each other. It is very critical for architects to spend extended periods of time where projects are located to understand the ground realities. It also becomes important for one to be able to speak the local language and communicate effectively with the local labourers. We have tried to push for this model, where our associates (past and now) who belong to that region, relocate for a project and eventually setup a small studio there. This would give us the opportunity to work more directly and effectively in different regions, have local studios and give everyone a chance to travel and live in different places.
What are the typologies and the scales you are currently engaged with? What are your interests and what kind of work appeals to you? What work does your studio actively seek?
We have been fortunate to be commissioned with a whole array of projects with very remarkable programmes. Some examples being, designing the first public Ferry Terminal for inland waterways and the Public Bike sharing Hubs across Goa; both re-using shipping containers. These projects were initiatives of the Goa tourism department. We worked with the Ministry of Women and Child Development on two of their wonderful programmes; The Anganwadi and the One Stop Centre (protection from women abuse). Both of these projects are prototype designs which must be replicable with ease.
In Kerala, we completed an institute designed for the specially-abled children with a shoestring budget that came in stages through various donations. We also recently worked on a rehabilitation centre for the Olive Ridley turtles of Goa who are battling to keep their species alive in the party beaches of Goa. Working on these projects and engaging with the people behind them have brought in a lot of insight to our practice regarding the complexities a country like ours deals with. These are project types which do not have a precedent and the design process begins from formulating the programme.
It is projects of this nature that hold the ’rasa’ for us as opposed to private weekend home commissions with generous budgets and scale where the architect works predominantly as an artist in isolation and the expression is often contrived and purely personal.
In case of housing and institutional commissions, one must design for a range of anonymous occupants of various backgrounds/age groups etc, and tackle with multiple other dynamics during its realisation. The complexity overrules personal aspirations and brings forth a challenge which is much more consequential.
From the onset of our practice, we have been engaged in designing educational institutions. We are currently working onprojects ranging from a 50sqm Anganwadi for 3-year-olds to a 25-acre university campus housing multiple graduate courses. We have realised that these projects have been of utmost interest to us since they entail creating learning environments. The role of architecture becomes very critical in designing spaces for young minds – a place where one learns to make choices, to express herself and to be social. Architecture can lend itself quite effectively in inculcating the right values within its users. While it is the most challenging design exercise, it is also the most satisfying.
Last year we got involved in designing three housing projects in Goa of three different scales, budgets and locations. With the inflated land prices and the cut-throat competition in the real estate markets, we realised the role of the architect in these projects is very different. These projects are driven by maximising saleable areas within the TCP parameters to make the apartments affordable. In this vicious battle of saleable versus commons versus cost, it becomes a struggle to escape the omnipresent apartment block that we see dotting our highways and new urban centres. Our studio has been exploring ideas which can work within such stringent parameters and yet take a step beyond the typical model.
What is the nature of the design and thought processes pertinent to your practice? What are the tools of your practice? How have the processes evolved over this decade? How does the studio participate in this process?
HP: Playgroup is a collective which is constantly evolving through the merging and dispersal of different players who come on board at any specific time. Each project becomes a manifestation of one or more such transitory associations, just like each time different players sit down to play a game, it takes on a life of its own. And in our case, the game board itself keeps changing, similar to many contemporary German board games (like CATAN) … and then there are the extensions! Playgroup as a practice gets defined as a collection of distinct strategies employed by different teams over a period of time.
Our team has never been very large, usually ranging between six to ten people at a time, and we prefer it that way. It allows for a more personal engagement with the team members. The studio setup is such that everyone lives right around the studio so everyone’s workspace and living space becomes linked into one complex.
We understood the importance of co-living and working during our time at Ai Wei Wei’s FAKE design studio in Beijing which comprised of his residence, art studio, workshop, design studio, community kitchen, staff residences, all within the same premises. Everyone ate, partied, worked together along with the nine cats, eight dogs and two goats. Ever since, we have aspired to have a similar studio setup where everyone lives and works like one large family, where professional, personal and other social boundaries break away. It is only in such a community space that ideas can be freely debated, without any inhibitions or hierarchies.
Apart from that, in the studio we have a collection of puzzles and board games which we play frequently. I believe actively engaging in games hones analytical and problem-solving skills and helps in formulating strategies during design processes. And, needless to say, it is a lot of fun.
Typically, when a project comes to the studio, we present the programme, the challenges and site to the whole team. Everyone on board including our interns is part of this discussion. Each person is free to work on potential strategies and design expressions independently. Most often than not we push for these strategies to be conveyed through a 2-dimensional thumbnail sketch or an abstract block model. All of these individual ideas are brought on to the table over brain storming sessions. It is really during these sessions that ideas get tested against one another until one or more promising strategies emerge. These are then taken forward by one of our associate architects to board for further refinement and testing.
Is there a consistent approach or enquiry at the core of the practice that drives the design and informs the decision-making process? For example, one of the processes that you have consistently made a reference to ‘shape grammar’ as a tool of exploration.
Our design approach to a large extent aligns with the concept of ‘Systems Thinking’. It is defined as “…. a discipline for seeing wholes and a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots” (Senge, 1990)
Instead of designing a final end-product, the intention is to break down the design requirements into a set of abstract elements and devise a system with a basic set of ‘mechanics’ or ‘gameplay’ – such that no matter the final outcome of the project, it retains the core architectural expression. This usually involves playing with a certain set of abstract ideas which develop intuitively through an overall understanding of the design challenge. The eventual manifestation of the design concept may take on different forms with respect to the climate, the region, client’s aspirations, preferences of style, available materials or site constraints but the essential gameplay retains the desired core spatial relationships thus ensuring execution of the architectural agenda. A good illustration of this methodology is the graphical game called ‘Morpholo’.
The concept of shape grammars has also been frequently applied while designing such systems. Few of the projects where this method has been explored are – the Horizon school, Nilambur House, Guirim resort and St Mary’s Kindergarten. It essentially involved deriving a system where a set of shapes (abstracted spatial elements) were defined and relations between them set-up, ensuring a certain flexibility within the system. The clients were then directly made to engage with the system to decide on the final configuration. The final form of the building emerged due to several site-specific factors, local materials, found objects, local skill sets, etc.
If you engage with rule-based systems, you will soon realise that utilising pure geometrical forms allows for a greater flexibility in shape operations. This explains a certain preference of pure geometric shapes and forms in most of our designs.
Some of the projects that we undertake do not afford much scope for developing a system due to the nature of their programme. Nevertheless, we try to employ the use of pure geometric forms as a tool to accentuate the clarity of architectural intent. As Louis Kahn said “… the square is a non-choice, really.” And the same thing can be extended to a circle, a regular triangle and in lesser degree to say diagonals, and so forth. In these pure forms there exists a definite aspect of non-negotiable objectivity making them almost sacred. These forms tend to become strong anchors or datums around which other inconsistencies get organised.
Conception of any system neither occurs sequentially, nor does it develop in a linear manner. Like Prof Anant Raje used to say – “Design always develops through quantum leaps” We have consciously re-employed the same systems and form explorations through various projects so that they are churned over years and gather enough momentum to make a quantum leap.
What is the aspect of work that you value the most? What are the critical parameters of a project that make it successful for you?
Clarity of the design expression and an unambiguous communication of the architectural intent is something which we try to achieve meticulously in our projects.
Adaptability of the proposed spatial mechanisms across various scales, climates, materials, cultures and styles, is something which lies at the very core of our work. The design should address issues faced across a larger section of projects undertaken by the society rather than the design intervention becoming an individual expression of a specific programme. A project becomes successful when, we are able to develop a more efficient and clearer expression without altering the basic parameters within which buildings are constructed in that particular region. Through such minimal interventions, the intent is to communicate the strength of the architectural discipline.
What is your reading of contemporary architecture in India? How do you seek to position your work and your practice within the larger conversation on architecture in India?
It is a great opportunity for architects, to engage with the society during this era of large-scale urbanisation and to drive it in the right direction. Unfortunately, the bulk of the architectural work, outside of the few major cities, lacks any critical engagement with the architectural discipline, resulting in largely banal and mediocre constructions. One of the main reasons being that, while the clients’ priorities lie in maximisation of quantity (built-up area) coupled with reduction of costs (which is a fair demand), they are completely unaware of the role architectural design can play in delivering this. The way discipline of architecture is projected in this country – with expensive materials and seductive imagery, it becomes solely an object of desire which is inaccessible to the masses. So, clients may seek an architect for their own personal homes but not for designing schools which they may be funding. Substantial number of buildings are being built through engaging civil engineers or contractors directly, due to the preconceived notion of them being more pragmatic and cost efficient.
Secondly, especially in Tier-3 cities and other smaller settlements, there is a complete lack of access to critical practices or professionals working within such parameters. Here lies a great challenge and an opportunity, especially for younger practices to engage in creating a more meaningful and relevant architecture.
A large portion of current conversation on contemporary architecture in India revolves around unique architectural expressions, arrived at, through highly contrived formal and material explorations. Most of these projects involve significantly higher construction costs and embodied energy than the ‘average’ building made in the country. Current architectural students are also largely influenced by the formal and material developments in the west driven by technological innovations and supplemented with seductive imagery. Computer-aided manufacturing techniques largely undermine and reduce the labour component within the construction process, making it an unsustainable solution for this country at this time. While the innovations and explorations may be worth recognising, the factors of cost, embodied energy, adaptability within the current society, time-lines, material vs labour cost equations, rarely surface within the architectural discourse.
What is required here is for a practice to invest time and actively engage with this sector, understand the ground realities and plug in as a mediator within the existing gamut of operations. Limiting one’s role to the essential schema while actively shaping the rest of the expression based on circumstantial factors, would qualify as a more relevant and critical practice in this country ♦
Images & Drawings: © Playgroup Studio
Filming & Editing: Gasper D’souza, Shrinivas Ananthanarayanan, White Brick Wall Studio
Praxis is editorially positioned as a survey of contemporary practices in India, with a particular emphasis on the principles of practice, the structure of its processes, and the challenges it is rooted in. The focus is on firms whose span of work has committed to advancing specific alignments and has matured, over the course of the last decade. Through discussions on the different trajectories that the featured practices have adopted, the intent is to foreground a larger conversation on how the model of a studio is evolving in the context of India. It aims to unpack the contents, systems that organise the thinking in a practice. Praxis is an editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass.
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