Hiren Patel, Principal and Director, Hiren Patel Architects writes about an approach to architecture where the question of thinking in detail is central to the idea of a project and the work reaffirms this belief when it endures inhabitation over a large span of time.
For me, designing a building is like creating a painting on a canvas. Growing up, I always had an inclination for the arts. As a student, architecture opened up a whole new way of looking at art and design. This, I think, in some way influenced my approach towards architecture. Back in the day as a student, I had the honour of learning from the renowned Indian painter and sculptor, Piraji Sagara. Under his guidance, I studied watercolour, landscape art, portraiture, and sculpture, apart from various techniques in painting and drawing. I think that this knowledge has helped mould me into the architect I am today.
I graduated in the year 1989, soon after which I setup my own practice in Ahmedabad. In the initial years, we focused mainly on architectural projects, but soon enough we were approached for interior design work. While architecture taught me how to work with scale and volume, with interior projects, I had the opportunity to explore the art of fine detailing. Fifteen years into practice, I decided to venture further into the field of landscape design. Ever since, our practice has been invested in various architecture, interior and landscape design projects. Having completed works across scales and typologies including residences, townships, hospitality, institutional, industrial and heritage restoration – a quest for a ‘timeless’ quality in architecture has remained a constant guiding factor in all our explorations.
Our process involves constant evolution of design, even during the stages of construction – until we have achieved that master-stroke. As someone who is very observant, I find myself curious about new things and ideas I can learn from. Every project poses a new challenge and we try to bring something new in the manner of finding a solution each time. Many times, it so happens that our client and design team are confident of a particular direction but I am still not entirely convinced. Therefore, I often continue to work even while the project is on site. Although it is an exhaustive process for the studio, at the end of each project, there is a deep sense of satisfaction.
After several years in the field, and many projects later, we still strive for that synergy between architecture, interiors and landscape. At the start of every design process, we try and work simultaneously on the interior lighting and the planting layout.
This, I think, is a truly holistic approach, wherein each phase of design complements the other. As a studio, we still prefer to work conservatively – form-follows-planning.
Although, the form has a subconscious presence in our minds, we first work on the functional aspects of the layout. At any given point, we are working on a variety of projects across diverse scales and programmes. I like to call this way of working a ‘mental gym’, wherein we have developed a skill of simultaneously working on large scale planning projects while figuring out small-scale design details for interior projects. This brings about flexibility in the workspace.
The quality of any architecture should ideally strive to bring out the richness of its context. We strive to achieve this in our projects in some way. As a country, India is gifted with a wisdom of ages and a rooted cultural heritage. It is important that we learn how to utilise this knowledge that is embedded into every context, with equal joy and pride. Working in different places across the country, it is our constant effort to integrate nature into our buildings just as much as it is important to integrate the ‘contemporariness’ of the form into its natural setting or neighbourhood. This is the underlying philosophy across all our work.
Japanese architecture is a good reference for a regional approach to architecture as there is much to be learnt from their way of building. It is modern but rooted – the adopted language and materiality infuse seamlessly into the traditional narrative. In India, while a few have already achieved it, it is still possible to keep the spirit alive with a little more conscious effort.
If we can successfully strike a balance between the known and unknown, the architecture of India can certainly inspire rest of the world.
Often, construction sites in India are found to be chaotic and quite disorganised. Additionally, each site poses a unique challenge in itself. The uncertainty of Indian sites brings with it a lot of potential opportunities as well. For instance, we had worked on a residential project in the old city of Ahmedabad with common walls all around the site. This meant that even if we managed to create an introverted house, what would happen to the privacy if the client decided to sit in the garden? Reading into the context of the site, we realised that the garden could infact provide the neighbouring houses with a sense of visual relief, each time they look out their windows. It has been ten years since this project was completed, and now whenever our client uses the garden, the neighbours respect their privacy.
Even after all these years as a professional, I think I still consider myself a student. There is so much one can learn every day from just observing their surroundings, neighbours, students, colleagues, and even the workers on site make for some of the best teachers.
There are many new ideas and thoughts that could be assimilated from such observations – not everything can be taught in a classroom. A lot of learning happens based on the practicalities involved in a construction site.
At the studio, we work with a unique philosophy on each project. This is something we establish at the start of the project and follow it through to execution. Detailing of architectural as well as interior elements – from the door knob to the stitches on the cushions – is of equal significance in the process of design across all our work. This means, we are constantly working towards design-development, once the project has taken off.
Execution of details requires good craftsmanship – including multiple samplings and mock-ups to enable fine-tuning of the end result. This back and forth process is an important assessor of the practicality and longevity of our intended design solutions. In a beautifully designed idea of architecture, it is the fine detailing that is very critical.
Our material palette is quite diverse today. From synthetic materials to the naturally available palette – there is a huge variety. It is quite similar to a rich palette that an artist works with. With our kind of architecture, the most important aspect is whether the chosen material would help create something timeless. Natural materials are generally the preferred choice but we also find immense potential in the man-made palette. I think striking a balance between the two is critical. Different projects demand different approaches, and hence the requirements vary. While few projects may require a very minimal palette, there are others that are complex in terms of materiality. In the end, the challenge is not very different once you have the experience and with it a certain control over application. Using a material for the sake of it, will fade away in essence, if the same had no established purpose in the first place. Today, our practice has grown fairly from when we started out.
I think beyond materiality, the essence of each project is reflected in the governing design philosophy. A strong foundation can help a project by providing clarity in the materiality, limiting our choices by design and resulting in a well-articulated project.
Today, we operate in a fast-paced economy where the quantum of construction is huge and access to information and know-how about anything is abundant. The impact of the visual media is immense on an individual, and we need to be aware of this as designers while guiding clients through the process of design. It is all right to falter but it is important to realise when we do. Being distracted by the numerous choices that are sometimes demanded by the client, is then not an option unless there is some significant bearing on the design. I have learnt that only practice gives the best results – images can be distracting, and sometimes – deceiving.
India is a land of diversity in arts and crafts. We are a land replete with skilled communities of artisans across cultures. As designers if we do not acknowledge this, it is truly unfortunate. Collaborating with artisans is an important part of what we do as a practice – something I am still discovering and learning about from significant Indian practices such as Abhikram Architects led by Parul Zaveri and Nimish Patel. For instance, a traditional craftsman or a carpenter can teach us much more about a material they work with. I have learnt over the years that constraints in projects help one to push boundaries while finding solutions that may have not occurred to us otherwise. The basic elements of light and shade on any given site present in themselves the possibility of creating something beautiful. For us, the idea of exploring and reinterpreting traditional art and craft forms into our contemporary buildings has resulted in wonderful architectural possibilities. That said, we still have a lot to learn. We have formed a small team of craftsmen including carpenters who work closely with us on all our projects.
There is a lot of mutual respect and understanding that we have developed for each other, and we find that there is a certain consistency and finesse across all our work because of this exchange.
I feel that good workmanship that adds quality to a project, is important for the eventual outcome since our intent as designers is to create something that lasts. There are two kinds of workmanship in my imagination – the first affects the quality of the building where one cannot compromise, and the other kind of workmanship is ingrained in the design philosophy. The latter, I have come to understand, is inconsequential to the larger idea of any design project. Years ago, when I first visited the British Council Library designed by Charles Correa in New Delhi, I felt that it was so simple, and I thought to myself: Is it possible to design ‘simply’? At the time, I was only a student, and years later I realised that such simplicity in a building is the toughest to achieve. It requires one to work their art with the discipline of a ‘Zen Master’. It is a kind of simplicity that takes years of practice and dedication, and sometimes even a lifetime to achieve: the kind of architecture that transcends workmanship! Today, I aspire for such quality in our work and this I know will take more practice and patience.
As architects, I would like to think that we are mostly optimistic (although critical) but at the same time, as professionals it is very important that we are accountable for whatever it is that we create or propose as design. We are trained to design buildings that would hopefully outlast us. Thus, it is essential that we keep reminding ourselves that whatever we create will inevitably have an impact on the environment and society it inhabits. If we design with the intention to spread happiness through our architecture, I believe that the positivity will reflect in our present and future societies as well. My question to our practice has always been the same, “Will our work spread happiness?” Subconsciously, I think my process is much deeper than just designing a building – it is more like worship. I firmly believe that architecture cannot be taken for granted ♦
HIREN PATEL is the Principal Architect of Hiren Patel Architects. Starting out as a small firm, HPA has grown exponentially over the last two decades working on projects of great variety and scale. From initial success in designing high-rise buildings in Ahmedabad, their work spans multiple geographies from the plains to the tropics. Today, HPA’s palette of work spans from small residences to large commercial developments. Highly acclaimed, HPA’s work has been recipient of many national recognitions. Their project, the ‘Dadamiyan Masjid’ in Ahmedabad was short-listed and recognised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture Jury. Their work has an artistic inclination and their office is committed to open and continuous learning with the understanding of change as the only constant in life. Hiren’s architectural sketches and his travel drawing are a glimpse into his thinking and influences. He lives and works from Ahmedabad.
KEYNOTE features an essay / text by an architect / designer about a particular aspect of their practice.