An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. Ahmedabad-based SEALAB has designed and executed projects that stand out for their simplicity, eloquence, rigour and social context. In this conversation with Anand Sonecha, we discuss the work, the ideas and important processes that compose their practice.
Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, and the ambitions it was informed by.
Mariana and I established SEALAB in 2015 to shelter the work we were developing in India and Portugal. We wanted to design with time, quality and reflect on the cultural and social implications of architecture. Eventually, Mariana started a project, Res Do Chao, in Portugal. And I further developed SEALAB, accepting projects that interested me. We still collaborate on some projects.
The practice is still in its formative years, with less than a decade. We are still exploring and figuring out our interests. Our practice started when Manav Sadhna, an NGO in Ahmedabad, asked us to rehabilitate a group of dilapidated houses into Volunteer homes in Sabarmati Ashram. This project led to more work, starting with Jai Jagat Theatre. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with people with strong visions in the initial years of our practice. It defined certain values of our work. The initial projects made us aware of the need to bring architecture to everyone and the importance of working with extreme constraints and frugal resources.
Before establishing SEALAB, I had an opportunity to work with Professor Balkrishna Doshi and Rajeev Kathpalia in India and Alvaro Siza and Carlos Castanheira in Portugal. These experiences have also influenced our work. From Professor Doshi, I learned the importance of working slowly, indecisively – not coming to conclusions fast. In our practice, we try to engage in rigorous design, testing works patiently before reaching final solutions. Experiencing the works of Alvaro Siza made me aware of the virtue of simplicity. His architecture is a patient craft – in harmony with tradition, culture, and place, where nothing is in isolation. In our work, we try to create spaces that are simple, humane and grounded.
What forms the basis of your practice now? What would you identify as the main intention of your work? What are the values or principles that the studio is grounded in?
Reflecting on the few projects we have designed, there is a strong will to organise the built environment to create calm and humane places. The tireless quest for harmony, proportions, composition and adequate light and ventilation is present in each project, irrespective of its budget or scale. We believe our profession should find new ways to bring these essential qualities to everyone, not just a small percentage of society.
Each project is an opportunity to investigate a topic, its historical evolution, and its cultural meanings. We try to approach the work with innocence, where questions are asked and opportunities are seen without baggage. For example, in the school for the blind and visually impaired children in Gandhinagar, we had the chance to rethink how spaces are perceived without visual ability. In Jai Jagat Theatre, we investigated the typology of the theatre, its evolution across civilisation and times. While the housing for a community in Vastral gave us a chance to explore different mediums of communicating architecture to the clients and the contractor since the standard technical drawings, models were indecipherable in this situation.
The initial ideas of the project are developed from an intuitive understanding of the location and not from rational analysis, but from a personal relationship established with the place – visits, sketches, speculative drawings, stories, conversations with people. Later the project goes through series of iterations, shaping slowly with the feedback of users, experts, and our closer study of the programme and place.
The projects are also influenced by our constant imagination of architecture triggered by memories, travels, readings, and discoveries. Jai Jagat Theatre is an example of synthesising personal studies and memories that tried to connect and articulate the surroundings, creating a new essence.
At the outset, how has it evolved, and what is the way forward?
We think that architecture has a social meaning, and we want to look at it carefully. With our brief work experience, we realised that we would not like to work on architecture that is a commodity, exclusively for profit. Working on the Housing for a community in Vastral, we realised that our profession is probably serving only a small percentage of the population who can access and afford our services.
In contrast, still, a large population in India has no access to Architecture services. We want to continue working and increase our efforts towards providing our services to the communities. Moving forward, we would also like to explore projects with different intentions, which may help us further understand society’s challenges and architecture discipline.
Some efforts of SEALAB have also been in broadening and encouraging dialogues in architecture, which we want to develop further in the future. We initiated “Forum” with a few friends and colleagues in 2015, which invites people to share their works or experiences. It soon became a meeting point for students, interns, architects working in various studios in Ahmedabad. Forum has become an integral part of our work.
Our practice has also been closely related to academics. We try to maintain continuity between the professional works and the academic studio, having the same research questions or the same site. Academics challenge our practice. Recently, I have been conducting design studios at CEPT University, which focuses on the Community in Vastral. We feel academics and practice are interdependent and develop one another.
What are the typologies and scales that 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 are currently working on a School for the blind and visually impaired in Gandhinagar and housing for a community in Vastral Ahmedabad (in collaboration with Manav Sadhna – Gandhi Ashram and De Montfort University, UK). We were recently invited to participate in the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism by curator Dominique Perrault. Our exhibition “The wall and the city” focuses on the wall as an architectural and urban element. We are investigating its dualities – interior/exterior, container/contained, exclusion/inclusion, division/connection, studying different wall conditions across Ahmedabad.
We enjoy working on projects with diverse issues and typologies in Architecture. We do not have a particular preference about the work; we take up each project as a unique challenge. The scale of the project matters less, but how it confronts us and what questions it raises is something that excites us.
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 your studio participate in the process?
Our process of design is slow, contemplative, and reflective. Most of our projects took many iterations, study models, speculative drawings, precedent studies, and context analysis until we were confident to start construction. The time of action is as valuable as the time for contemplation, reading, printing, looking at drawings, going to the site one more time, and discussing with others. Some of these pause moments help us going back to the projects with different eyes, more available for change.
As with any other architect, we build on existing knowledge. Without the influence of the vernacular and historical architecture of different regions of India or the great works of Michelangelo, Sir John Soane, Alvaro Siza, Balkrishna Doshi, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, our work would not be the same.
Each project demanded alternative ways of working. We changed our tools, methods of communication, and even engagement as architects. For example, we used the 3D printing technology in the school for the blind project to produce tactile drawings, which helps identify spaces by touch. For the Community housing project in Vastral, we made a model with dimensions written on it for the contractor who could not read technical drawings to build the prototype houses.
I appreciate working with a small team. Currently, our office is composed of three people Aneesh Devi, Aakash Dave (both architects), and myself. Mariana collaborates on some ongoing projects. Being small in number develops good bonding and friendship. It allows everyone to participate in various project stages, from precedent studies to making models, drawings and managing site visits. I believe this builds a strong relationship between us and a deeper engagement in the projects♦
Images & Drawings: courtesy, © SEALAB.
Citations for images attributed in their respective locations.
Filming: Talking Cloud | Editing: Gasper D’souza, 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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