An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. We discuss the core concerns and architectural preoccupations of Bengaluru-based BetweenSpaces; a partnership that designs buildings with restraint, and a keen focus on spatial quality and articulation.
Pramod Jaiswal, Divya Ethirajan
Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, and the ambitions it was informed by.
DE: In the ’80s and early ’90s, I spent a good part of my summer vacation as a child in my uncle’s house where he and my aunt had an architectural practice in the same building as their house. I was let to play there after office hours. A small intimate set-up with bar chairs and a few drafting tables with lots of stationery like stencils, pencils and drafting tools were very fascinating. I would sit on one of the bar stools and pretend to be an architect and trace with stencils. I always wanted to have an intimate and cosy office like that with the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and blue prints. My uncle also designed the house that I grew up in and lived for twenty five years of my life. Being a house that was built in early ’80s, it was different from other houses in the neighbourhood, very simple, devoid of ornamentation and a special quality that gave the house a life of its own. In a tight residential neighbourhood, the way this house would breathe and age is intriguing even to this day.
After graduating from R V College of Architecture, Bangalore, I interned with and thereafter continued working with Arya Architects in Ahmedabad for one year and then worked at Hundredhands for three years. The inception of BetweenSpaces was impulsive as events after the 2009 recession halted many of the projects that I was working on, and to begin a private practice seemed like a natural progression. Our first office setup was a small 10X10 space inside my dad’s office with a small drafting table and space for two computers was a good start to a childhood dream.
Although the inception did not have a strong catalyst, there was a naïve sense of hope and idea that being in the front seat would lend to shape a practice that would make a difference. It is that thought that we often go back to even to this day. It is that raw innocence of thinking that the purpose of architecture is to do more to the end user that allows us to eliminate the adulteration of maturity and focus on the essentials.
When we were thinking of the name of the practice, we wanted it to be simple and relevant to what we do. We discussed and debated for days at length and finally, we went back to the basics and asked ourselves a simple question – What does Architecture means to us?, and we wrote down our collective voices –
Architecture is about conversation, a dialogue between spaces. Between Spaces could be bricks in the wall, the mortar between bricks, glass, water, light or even air. Between Spaces defines the street between houses, the fence between the buildings, the stairs between floors, the space between walls, the wall between rooms, the threshold or even a fold between pages. The making of these spaces and something between spaces through simple strategies of orientation, scale, volume, proportion, spatial and material manipulations and manipulation of light to get these unique spaces should form the core of our practice.
Eleven years into our practice, we believe that this gave us a strong direction and we believe in them more deeply today.
PJ: I came to Bengaluru to pursue my higher studies with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about Art or Architecture. After graduation, I spent a significant portion of my formative years (slightly over 6 years), working in Hundredhands. Ar Bijoy Ramachandran and Ar Sunitha Kondur were great mentors and we still look upto them to this day. At Hundredhands, I learnt to appreciate a certain sense of order albeit with a tinge of discord, just enough to set off a small ripple. I call it a Controlled Disorder. Bijoy and Sunitha never spoke about deep philosophies or theorised much at work. There were certain ideas very specific to every project but the entire process was quite intuitive and personal, a little ambiguous some time. Bijoy would keep sketching till he finds the right answer. I enjoyed that iterative process, that ambiguity and the wait for the right solution to emerge through the sketches and models. That is something I have carried into our own practice.
While I was working there, I also had an opportunity to work on a few projects with Allies and Morrison Architects, London. The short encounter I had with Graham Morrison, Chris Bearman and Alfredo Carabello in a few of the design discussions made me see how they would approach complex design problems with absolute rationality. In the first glance, their work would seem quite structured, repetitive and simple but if you would look at them time and again, one would start noticing a similar strategy of using the idea of Disorder.
Their work is very layered, an amazing synthesis of past and present and that brought a certain sense of poise and familiarity, like it has been there for a long time and yet it seems so fresh and new.
BetweenSpaces is a confluence of two very different personalities. My foray as the frontrunner of our practice along with Divya, started with this simple quest of whether or not I could do it on my own and would I be doing it any differently? Divya and I had worked on a few projects together in Hundredhands and we had established this sort of a quiet understanding and respect for each other’s views and opinion. It is very important to have that respect and trust on each other in partnership. We are like Yin and Yang and together with our own individuality and personal views on life, we had set off into the wide blue yonder.
I never had any profound plans behind starting the practice. As a matter of fact, it was my way to figure out my real purpose in this profession. Neither of us had any family connections or were very socially active people which could be the lead source for projects. In the early days of our practice, we got a few references from Bijoy and Sunitha and we tried to make the best of those opportunities. Our initial projects went painstakingly slow with very little money coming out of it yet we made it a habit to come to our small office every day without fail and wait patiently for our phones to ring. We made many proposals which never saw the light of the day and many just took initial schematics and never showed up again. We worked on small interiors, designed a façade of an apartment building and while we grabbed every little opportunity that came our way, there was always this nagging question – “What are we doing and where are we heading?”
We always wanted to design good spaces, good buildings that could be inhabited, enjoyed and remembered by people but when we started, we were not sure about the overarching idea about the practice.
What forms the basis of your practice now? What would identify as the main intention of your work? What are the values or principles that the studio is grounded in?
DE: It is important for our studio to have a warm environment where we are all approachable to each other. We hoped to set a practice that is open to various ideas and is receptive to client’s requirements and their values. We intentionally wanted to have a small practice so we can approach each project with the same rigour irrespective of the scale and monetary profits.
A lot of our values at work are similar to our life values. In many ways, BetweenSpaces has become an extension of who we are beyond architecture. Intentional simplicity is something I practice in all aspects of life which extends to the way our office functions and in the way we conduct ourselves.
PJ: After eleven years of our practice, I can comfortably say that we do not have any signature style. I feel working with a set style would be a bit limiting and we are not ready to bear the pressure of working to establish a visible and prominent identity for all our works. Every creative individual wants to be acknowledged for his or her works and our small practice has been consistently working on projects that has been conceptualised around the needs and aspirations of each client and the context. However, our focus has always been on how to design spaces that seem effortless, natural and purposeful.
It is our habit of questioning the appropriateness of certain elements, be it tangible or intangible in order to remove the non-essentials or superfluous ideas from our work, makes us look at our own work very critically.
We live in a time when there is a lot of chaos and distraction around us. Our work seeks to bring a sense of calmness in clamour that otherwise we experience in our daily life. We seek to bring joy and happiness in the lives of people living in and around our work. Traditionally, Indian Architecture was about sensorial and contemplative spaces. They were built in response to the climate and were very efficient and they were people centric.
Our studio and Divya’s house speak volumes about our intention of keeping the design to the bare minimum, simple and quiet. There is this strong sense of repose.
Our project Shanti Sadan in Mysore, is more about an enquiry into the imagery we associate religious buildings with certain geometries while keeping the simple lives of the sisters at the core of its design.
The Law College building for St Joseph’s institution in Bengaluru acknowledges the structural system it is composed of, and has a very masculine expression cladded in stone and grit finish. The large building is anchored firmly to the ground with a series of arches. The structural rigour and the arches establish a visual connection with the existing school building across the ground without mimicking it.
The residential projects like House of Voids, Cuckoo’s Nest, Cube House and Three in One house, though designed primarily around the aspirations of clients, each of these houses are designed from inside out keeping its focus primarily on space making.
The Indian lifestyle has changed drastically. Our aspirations have changed. While clients look for a trend setting examples or a global image, we at BetweenSpaces are working on architecture and design that could resolve the paradoxes between the clients’ needs, their aspirations and affordability through a very rigorous design process.
At the outset, how has it evolved, and what is the way forward?
DE. When we started our practice, there were many practical aspects that we were unaware of. So, we started with a clean slate and were conscious to be receptive of what comes our way. We did not have the luxury nor the inclination to be rigid and we did not start with complete clarity of a direction. Four years into the practice, we designed our office and house building and for the first time this was an opportunity to explore a design process that could guide our principles. With a tight site and budget, we had to navigate accommodating two functions. The process was rigorous and we grew to understand the importance of expression for each material and small gestures and details that would guide us in understanding our values better.
Although the principles are inherent to the process and we have more clarity since designing this building, we would want to carry forward the practice in a non-rigid approach like we had when we started the practice. Keeping our minds open has helped us approach each project in its own way instead of forcing a preconceived guidelines that may not work for all projects.
This open mindedness has also made the two of us more patient and receptive to client’s suggestions. We have become good listeners and that has helped us to work with greater clarity on our projects. This has made the practice more explorative and collaborative in nature. We were quite handicapped when it came to decor but we have begun to explore spaces that challenges us to come out of our comfort zone.
What is the studio scale and setup like? What is the studio culture and dynamic like? How does your studio participate in the process? Is it influenced by any other external factor such as being in Bengaluru or because of the previous places of work?
DE. We are a very small practice with two architects (currently) besides the two of us and three-four student interns. I think the largest team we ever had was four architects and four student interns until Covid outbreak. Having a small team ensures better interactions among ourselves on all our projects. The studio is designed to accommodate 18 – 20 workstations but at the moment we do not see ourselves reaching that number anytime soon.
As a practice, we have never had any hierarchy in the studio so far. Everyone in the studio including the student interns is encouraged to participate in the design process. We discuss all our projects with everyone in the studio and seek their opinion or suggestions. We have had students handling projects on their own under our direct supervision. It all depends on how forthcoming an individual is.
The open office encourages good interactions between the principals, the senior architects and the student interns.
Life can be quite stressful in cities like Bengaluru so we encourage our team to have a proper work schedule and ensure they leave studio on time. It is important to have a good balance of work and personal life or else you will burn out soon. We do not have enough time to socialise during the office hours except for occasional office lunches or birthday celebrations or some presentation by students but we have never had a stressful work environment. As a matter of fact, when we see any of our architect or student intern under stress, we make sure to reach out to them to understand the cause for it and figure out a way to help them.
Although both of us remain involved in all the projects at all stages, but post design development stage, one of us tend to steer specific projects with the help of a project architect. Each project architect works on two-three projects at a given point of time and they are assigned to take an intern under their wing for proper grooming.
Does your involvement with teaching influence your practice in any way?
PJ. Back when I was a student, I had sensed this huge void of good teachers who could reach out to students and guide them properly and so I had this deep desire of going back to college to teach. I started teaching in a few of the Bengaluru colleges of Architecture in 2010. It was Bijoy, who encouraged me to do so.
Initially, I thought I was contributing to the pedagogy by sharing my treasure trove of knowledge gathered over the last six years of my professional life. But, few years into it, I realised I was going there to further my own education actually. I could see different ideas and approaches by students and they made me think of alternate ways, one could design same Architectural or an Interior project.
I realised the importance of having an open mind towards a design problem. In profession, we get so conditioned by the practical challenges we encounter that our design process tends to get hardened and becomes impervious. At times, it does not absorb certain things, that could really be relevant just because it seems small enough to be compromised. But sometimes, those small gestures make the biggest impact.
When I am teaching, I do not impose my own ideas on students. It’s important to observe the direction they are taking and then through a conversation, I try to show them the possible ways of improvising and work on their own narrative. Teaching has made me more empathetic to alternate view points and approaches to the same design problem.
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?
DE. We did not work on independent houses as both in Arya Architects and Hundredhands were primarily focused on public and institutional buildings. When we started working, we got a lot of enquiries for independent house design which was very new for us. Bengaluru being cosmopolitan in nature, has people from varied backgrounds who may not have even been here for long.
When we build something like that, then the question for identity for a building relies heavily on what makes it a home for that person – is the context – Bengaluru, or their hometown or the countries they visit or the images they search online or we keep all that aside and design to express ideas of BetweenSpaces?
It is a little bit of all. It cannot be singled out and we follow a particular method or trend to place ourselves in a context that is beyond what is specific for that project. I think most projects in cities like Bengaluru are like that, to give it an identity of its own rather than to fit in a larger dialogue of what architecture is in India and that is what makes practice in today’s time so different and special.
We have enjoyed working on smaller projects with intimate spaces in the past and we still love to work on such projects but over the last two years of our practice, we got an opportunity to work on some medium to large scale houses and educational buildings.
Our practice has thrived on tight urban conditions sans scale. These constraints challenge us and bring the best of us. However, the larger projects have challenged our perception of spaces, our understanding of comfort and luxury on a bigger scale, our understanding of spaces that would be used by 1500 students and staff. Currently we are designing a 36,000 sqft large house in Bengaluru and a formation house for a Christian congregation in Mysore on a modest budget. Both these projects are in sharp contrast both in terms of the budget, clientele, design language, aspirations and expectations. It is this diversity that helps us to juggle easily between scale, cost, materiality and achieving individual authentic expression for each building.
We enjoy a lot working on educational and institutional projects, primarily because the nature of the project entails thinking beyond individualistic requirements like in private residences.
Having said that, we would love to explore different typologies like a building in wilderness or extreme climatic conditions and topography or a cultural space in urban context that is for a passer-by as much as it is for its users. We wish to work on campuses at a Master plan level so that we could design the in-between Spaces that is so wonderfully done in IIM Bangalore by Dr B V Doshi.
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?
DE. The process that guides our practice is to look at architecture in a fundamental manner where elements that is incorporated in the space has to evoke a meaning beyond the intellectual aesthetic process. If the story has to be beyond what we sell to a client, the process has to be internalised. If we remain true to the nature of elements, then an honest experience is consequential. It is that honesty that we attempt in each process as a core to our practice.
Our design process is guided by a relentless pursuit for clarity in our intent. We do not start with any specific image or agenda on a project nor do we start a project with form in mind. Forms start emerging as and when we get certain clarity in our intent. We gather information about projects pertaining to the building byelaws and our client’s requirements and then we just venture out picking cues from many external factors such as site, climate, context, budget etc. But most importantly, a series of discussion with our client helps us understand their aspirations. It is this information that guides us to build a strong narrative that is very native and unique to the project.
Questioning the brief and our own design intent has proven to be the most important tool to help us refine our design process. We start with an ambiguous position on “what should be” vs “what can be”, but as we start seeking the most appropriate solution, we get more clarity in our design.
PJ. The most crucial aspect of our design process is communication with our clients. We first have a long conversation with them to understand where they are coming from, understand their stories and then we go to site to collect the information the site has to give. So, we collect and collate the data and then we start weaving these information – tangible and intangible with our own narrative.
We both are very conscious and careful about working with natural light and ventilation. Those are natural resources and we prefer to harness them, rather than spending national resources. We are quite intrigued by the deep shadows and the layering of mysticism, beliefs and cultural practices embedded in the planning and built form of Indian temples. Be it the ruins of Hampi, the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the mausoleums like Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur and Humayun’s tomb in Delhi , Fatehpur Sikri or the rock cut cave architecture of Ajanta and Ellora, they were all designed as if to have certain conversation with sunlight. In our projects too, we love to engage with sunlight in different ways, sometime filtering it out through a system of screen or letting it into the core of the building.
We work on a number of iterations to seek clarity in our intent. Often, we get influenced by an idea or an image of a project we might have come across and these iterations helps us in identifying the most honest approach we have made in the project and then develop it further. We rely on both analog tools like sketching, physical model making and drafting and digital tools like CADD, 3D modelling, rendering and graphic design tools. The analog tools are more for personal enquiry while the latter is for the clients to understand our design intent.
We always start with small random sketches till we see some patterns emerging. These random sketches help us capture those fleeting images of an idea that could feed our schematics. We then start improvising on those sketches defining the spaces more clearly. This sketch is then vetted with the project architect to develop further either through sketches or by drafting it out in CADD. We examine a few other options simultaneously. A quick 3D model or a quick physical model helps in giving more clarity to various ideas that we may encounter. This process is quite iterative. We take a certain schematic or an idea to a certain level and may realise that it is not conveying the core idea properly so we restart again. We have a few discussions among the Partners and the project architect/interns and bounce our thoughts on each other. Sometime, those conversations give us a cue to approach the design in a certain way.
We encourage all our team members including the student interns to explore ideas, parallelly and through sketches before getting onto the computers. But again, they are free to work on any media they are most comfortable with.
Is there a consistent approach or enquiry at the core of the practice that drives the design and informs the decision-making process?
DE: We are both trained by architects (both academically and professionally) who were largely influenced by approaches that Indian or international architecture practices took during the 1970s and 80s. I think their work had this deep relationship with the sun, the earth and people. They were not behind creating sensuous imagery to titillate our senses but rather create meaningful spaces. They were more concerned about appropriate scale, materiality and certain rigour in the architectural expression. For example, nobody took a cube and started scooping out masses to create buildings. That process I feel makes the building very self-indulgent and could be devoid of any relationship with context.
Our interest lies in that rigour and rational in a project. There are numerous aspects to the start point of a project that could define the project. It is all the necessary and unnecessary ingredients that is then slowly stripped off of it layers to achieve the essential at its core. The design is not an intellectual process till the core essence is achieved. Once this core is achieved, then the detailing and development is a conscious rigorous process.
PJ: Our design response is largely based on a search for an expression, that exhibits certain sense of composure and quietude. We like the sort of elegance that is not too plain nor a potpourri of materials nor does it come from the use of seductive, self-indulgent geometry or forms. Rather it comes from sophisticated use of materials or an interplay of surfaces accentuating horizontality or verticality in a built mass that gets defined by the way light falls on it. We like buildings that are firmly anchored at its base but as it goes up, it starts assuming certain degree of lightness just like a tree. We are happy to work with gravity and not try to defy it.
We have realized that we enjoy bringing certain degree of contradictions or deliberate frictions by juxtaposing different materials in certain specific proportions. There is no conscious use of any specific principles of design to generate an architectural narrative for our work.
We design our architectural projects from inside out. That way, (say) the balcony we design is not just about accentuating a fenestration or looked at as a relief in the massing but is seen as a place to stand and enjoy the breeze or the morning sun or the view outside. It is an extension of the interior space and not an addition on the massing as a composition element.
In all our works, I look for a sense of familiarity and belongingness that I experienced on the streets of Kolkata, a sense of warmth and cosiness of a house even in our larger projects. It brings a strong sense of security and comfort. We look to establish this intimate connection between mind and soul. We need a comfortable space to feed our mind, to put it to ease and a contemplative space to feed our soul. We do not want our work to make a loud statement. It does not mean we do not want its presence felt but we prefer it to act in the background quietly. It is annoying when something keeps talking back at us.
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?
DE: The initial phase of design process where it has to reach a point where there is enough clarity in achieving the core purpose is the most critical and valuable aspect of each project
A project is successful if understated spaces create meaning in its physical representation. The joy is when materials are truly represented and brings in a quality of space that sublimely enhances the lives of its users. A project is also successful when materials age well and surprising experiences are generated from unexpected spaces. These small aspects are validation that the design process was not just an intellectual process but beyond.
PJ: I love to ponder overan idea, sketching over and over till I get certain clarity of the direction I wish to take or clarity in the spatial arrangement.
I love architecture or spaces that are not pretentious or curated to make it look beautiful. I think a project becomes successful when it can sustain by itself and does not need extra embellishments. And that is why our interior projects are in a way very architectural in nature, more of an extension of the aesthetics of the architecture. I like architecture vocabulary that acknowledges a strong structural system the design is based on, responds to the site, the climate, the socio- cultural background of the client.
Having said that, we have realised that at times, this sort of limits our vision for interior spaces. In a few instances, we have faced challenges when we tried holding back onto our approach towards interior design. Clients look for “something different” in their house or flat interiors. Most clients cannot comprehend or visualise the architectural project but when the walls and roofs are done, they get some sort of spatial clarity and then starts a very active exchange of thoughts and ideas. It takes us a while to bring some sort of balance between what we have envisaged and what our clients aspire. It is a lot of negotiation between us and the client and this process although gets overwhelming at times, brings in a certain sense of freshness in our design and approach.
As much as this negotiation process frustrates us, it does challenge our design intellect and our notion and understanding of our client’s requirements.
We measure the success of a project against how well our interior spaces are lit and ventilated and climatically comfortable and the degree of satisfaction and happiness of our clients. It depends on whether the built spaces bring in the sense of respite and refuge from the daily dose of chaos we encounter.
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?
DE: Large part of contemporary architecture in India comprises of private commissions where each architect is trying to come up with a unique expression using materials and construction technologies that were out of our reach until 5-10 years ago. A lot of the new practices say 5-6 years old are run by very talented architects who have got international exposure either through their higher studies or through working abroad. So, there is definitely a huge influx of ideas and approaches of international firms.
I personally seek to have our projects go through a rigorous process of understanding the context we build in, the people we build for and the cost of building so that the projects are very place specific very contextual.
PJ: India has a huge pool of some very talented young practices at the moment. We see some incredibly well-crafted and well finished buildings being executed throughout the country. There is a vast and varied range of practices.
I feel Architecture and Interior design in India is going through a state of flux. On one side, there are practices engaged in a more contextually driven designs, producing some meaningful work, asking relevant questions beyond style or trend and on the other hand, we see practices that are engaged actively in some glamourous and tantalizing works, perfect for high society magazines. As a practice, we wish to anchor ourselves on a firm ground of logic and rational that seeks to establish an identity in Indian context with a very contemporary expression but rooted to traditional wisdoms in spatial planning or construction systems. We want to do more place specific designs, more people specific.
Besides, we wish to take our practice beyond an identity search, to engaging ourselves into addressing bigger challenges that Urban India, small towns and Indian villages have been facing. India being a developing country, with the 2nd largest population in the world, we wish to make our practice accessible to smaller towns, villages and urban poor. The deplorable conditions the urban poor live in our country actually prompts me to question our importance and existence as an intellectual section of our society who is responsible for giving an identity to contemporary India. After all, I am still a part of that section of Indian society, where great ambitions and aspirations flourish in an 8’x10’ rooms.
I wish, the Indian Government makes all the public projects more accessible to Indian architects and keep a very transparent process of selection. There should be more competitions floated in the country so that the huge pool of talent in our country can be engaged in designing those projects. The national identity building exercises of 60s and 70s after the great masters works, is a passe. The over populated cities in our country are going through a huge crisis of congestion and mass migration of people in search of better livelihoods. The Government’s response to housing development or redevelopment of slums in Bengaluru is quite deplorable. The redevelopment projects have become more like pigeon holes stacked one above the other with absolutely no relief or community spaces. As a matter of fact, Indian colleges could be engaged in researches to develop such societies which provides a good and respectable living condition. I think the critical thinking could be inculcated at the grassroots level so that no matter where you study, practice or work with, one is always conscious and aware of the larger picture irrespective of the architectural expression one seeks ♦
Images & Drawings: courtesy, © BETWEENSPACES
Filming: Dhanraj Raju | 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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