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 many dimensions of working with heritage – architectural, urban and cultural – with Delhi-based Aishwarya Tipnis and the people at Aishwarya Tipnis Architects. The discussion also focuses on the idea of heritage and conservation in a diverse, rich and complex landscape of India; and the numerous ideological positions that enable them to navigate the challenges of dealing with the past.
AISHWARYA TIPNIS ARCHITECTS
Aishwarya Tipnis, Hinna Devi Singh, the team at ATA
Heritage for us are those buildings that matter to the community, the day they stop mattering is when they lose their relevance. We see buildings as part of a continuum, each era alters and shapes buildings according to the needs of that time, adding one layer on top of another. Our idea of heritage conservation is not to take the building back to its glorified state, but to add a new layer that corresponds to the contemporary times while respecting its heritage value. Our job as heritage architects is to make sure that the buildings maintain their heritage value and, by sensitively employing our skills as designers, remain relevant for their users. Through our designs we work towards making them efficient, warm and loved spaces for people to live, work, study or hang out in. We are creating spaces that people delight to be in, that they belong in, a space they call their own and not some ‘touch-me-not’ kind of environment that would seem alien to them and their visitors. Our approach to heritage buildings is more pragmatic, for us heritage is a starting point of a creative design process rather than just preservation of what exists.
The larger vision or intention of our work is to demonstrate that with careful design and planning even buildings in an advance stage of decay or dereliction can be brought back to life and be integrated in contemporary society. Just because a building is old, doesn’t mean it is useless and should be demolished. In fact, it is now accepted best-practice around the world that recycling, reusing and repurposing old buildings is sustainable and our intent is to popularise that practice.
We see design as a solution to a problem, we are facilitators helping clients articulate a problem and then we come to a shared understanding of how it should be solved. Many architects have a signature style; we have chosen to have none. Our design philosophy is in being invisible, letting the building (including its stakeholders) decide what approach suits it the best. Our best work and results have come through collaboration between the client, craftsmen and the architect. We believe that with every project we have been able to make somebody’s life a bit better; for us the end user is more important than our accolades.
Our studio actively seeks challenge; a challenge to break a stereotype, to redefine practice, to change the way people perceive heritage and heritage architects. We seek to be cross-disciplinary in our thinking process, to improve our own methods and processes and to find better ways to do things. Our studio has grown brick by brick, it has been a journey that has been enthused with a lot of energy from the young practitioners who work with us. We look at our practice as a sort of finishing school, where young architects come and spend some time and hone their skills at being sensitive to the heritage context before moving on to other things in life. We like to nurture young talent, becoming the wind beneath their wings; it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of our growth as a studio.
Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, and the ambitions it was informed by.
AT: Growing up in New Delhi in the 1980s, heritage was an integral part of our lives; weekend outings meant going to historic sites like the Qutb Minar, Lodhi Garden and Connaught Place. My fascination with heritage led to my choice of architecture as a career. The five years I spent at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi (SPA) further strengthened my interest in working with heritage buildings and adapting them to our contemporary needs. At SPA, the curriculum was designed in a manner that heritage buildings became the learning lab for architecture. We ventured out to various parts of the country on study tours, documenting and surveying buildings, settlements and their construction. For me therefore, heritage became an intrinsic tool for understanding architecture and settlements.
In 2002, my undergraduate dissertation focused on listing and documenting the evolution of residential architecture of Mumbai; that may have been the beginning of my love affair with urban heritage. I strengthened that further by choosing to defend my undergraduate thesis on an integrated development of a derelict Mill in Central Mumbai, the premise being that conservation and development are complementary processes. For 2003, it was radical, I remember the jury telling me that what I had done, adaptive reuse was just a fancy word for interior design. Two decades later, it is considered the most sustainable way forward in architecture. I still retain that curiosity for playing with heritage buildings and I look forward to coming to work every day.
There is a stereotypical bias in our field towards heritage conservation; they say that men design, women decorate and those who cannot do either conserve heritage. Therefore, heritage architects are viewed more as activists, preservationists, people who are more theorists and somehow less professional. My idea of heritage conservation challenges that perception.
The turning point for me was probably the training I received in the UK. I chose a course in European Urban Conservation at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Dundee is one of the most historic cities in Scotland, our University was located in a heritage building, the halls of residence were heritage buildings. The course was practical and every week we were exposed to real life examples through site visits, climbing on top of scaffoldings to inspect slate tiles; it was supremely exciting! Even today, when I climb up on scaffoldings on sites, most of the Engineers and labour force is gaping and wondering what I am up to.
For me, heritage is a marriage of the past and the present where I see design as an integral tool. When I came back to India in 2007 after completing my master’s degree, the market did not have any jobs for an idealist like me. Most people in the field thought that my idea of heritage conservation was too radical and some hoped I would run out of steam while others imagined that my utopia would end soon and I would fall in line. So my mantra has been, “if there is no job, create one”, and thus one day in 2007 I decided to start my independent 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?
AT: Deciding to set up a practice is a commitment in itself and there is the constant worry of sustaining the practice over time. I did not come from a family of architects, my parents were service class professionals, my father was an Engineer and my mother was a Paediatrician, so I did not have a ready social network to get constant work. In 2007, when I started practice, the kind of work available in heritage conservation was preparing documentation reports and management plans for heritage sites. There were such few projects compared to the number of trained professionals. The first few years of my practice allowed me to be an independent consultant to other practitioners, to learn from them. This provided me an opportunity to gain an insight into how the field worked, the caveats between theory and practice. These experiences helped me make my own choices on what kind of work I wanted to do and what paths I did not want to walk on.
Finding work in the market was a challenge in itself, additionally having made a conscious choice to focus my practice around heritage I made my work extremely niche. I have been blessed to find individuals who believed in me and who gave me my first few projects, wise old men who saw some spark in me and encouraged me to walk this path. It has not been an easy ride, people constantly writing me off as just a pretty face, charming people into giving me work. It was demeaning as well as demoralising, very often it was more about my social status, my family background, my husband’s occupation that decided if I should get the job rather than my talent. Being a female practitioner in the country, comes with its own set of challenges, standing up for one’s values has a cost, and it was a choice I proudly made. It takes a lot of courage and patience to sustain a practice, as well as a lot of hard work.
Not much has changed ideologically from our inception in 2007 to today; the basis of the practice remains rooted in remaining relevant. We see buildings as part of a continuum, each era alters and shapes buildings according to the needs of that time, adding one layer on top of another. Our idea of heritage conservation is not to take the building back to its glorified state, but to add a new layer that corresponds to the contemporary times while respecting its heritage value. Our job as heritage architects is to make sure that the buildings maintain their heritage value and, by sensitively employing our skills as designers, remain relevant for their users.
The larger vision or intention of our work is to demonstrate that with careful design and planning even buildings in an advance stage of decay or dereliction can be brought back to life and be integrated in contemporary society. Just because a building is old, does not mean it is useless and should be demolished. In fact, it is now accepted best-practice around the world that recycling, reusing and repurposing old buildings is sustainable and our intent is to popularise that practice.
Our core values are honesty, conscientiousness and authenticity. Heritage is always something that is valuable to someone and we feel that when we are invited by a client to take care of it, they are trusting us with their prized possession. To keep that trust we have to be honest. Sometimes clients want all sorts of things and I have learnt that instead of bending over backwards to provide it, it is better to be upfront and tell them whether or not it is feasible, desirable or makes sense. In the industry it is all too common to totally discard the old when we renovate a property. A lot of architects advise clients to demolish and rebuild new. Our approach to a project is always about evaluating what is special and worthy to retain rather than insisting that the client strips the whole building out and does everything new to increase the cost of the project and thereby our fees. I find vested interests are what is damaging the profession, it is common practice for vendors to offer kickbacks to architects to push their products; when we find ourselves in that situation, we always insist that they give the discount directly to the client.
It seems like a very obvious thing to do, but I have seen others sell themselves out when powerful, influential clients make requests and have ideas that they do not feel able to say no to.
Being honest also requires one to be humble, to accept that there may be things we have no idea about, perspectives that may not make sense to us, but may be equally valid. Giving a patient ear and learning from others through our interactions is also very important to us as a practice. We believe in building relationships with everyone in the project; the craftsmen, the contractor, the supervisor and the client. We make sure we are approachable to each and every one of them. At the end of the day, we believe it is the people-to-people relationships that matter most and bring out the best results.
Being a conscientious worker, I rarely give up on something easily, failures lead to experimentation and innovation. Our collective curiosity as a practice, allows us to get our hands dirty in bringing our ideas and sketches to life. This entails exploring markets, salvage yards and sometimes employing jugaad to achieve a solution. Research, therefore, is the backbone of everything we do, it helps position the problem at hand in the wider context. I am a bit old-school, so I like to draw on paper, to think through sketches. While my younger team sometimes gets frustrated with me, I feel there is a special connection between analytical thinking and drawing that computers do not offer.
At the outset, how has it evolved, and what is the way forward?
AT: Sometimes I look back at my own journey and wonder where I got the strength and determination from to pull things off that seem incredible looking back. I realise that at the time I was just doing what I believed in; doing things right and making sure no stone was left unturned. I think it was essentially our dedication to show up everyday to work and keep at it that led to our collective achievements. There were times when it seemed like the world was crashing in and it was all over, but then the sliver of hope and self-motivation kept us afloat. I think when your values become your way of life, when they guide the decisions you make and you move forward on the right path. There have been many points in my practice when I have walked away from projects and people when it stopped making sense or someone asked me to do something which lay beyond my value system. It took a lot of courage to politely say no thank you, risking future projects, networking opportunities and my career just because it did not feel right. I know a lot of people, including some of my closest friends, call me an impractical idealist for doing this, but I have never looked back or wondered, ‘what if?’ It is their conscious choices that have led to our studio being boutique practice in many ways.
Something else that I have noticed often gets in the way of a project is the designer’s ego. I look at design as a solution to a problem, I see myself as a facilitator helping clients articulate a problem and then we come to a shared understanding of how it should be solved. Many architects have a signature style; we have chosen to have none. Our design philosophy is in being invisible, letting the building (including its stakeholders) decide what approach suits it the best.
Our best work and results have come through collaboration between the client, craftsmen and the architect. I feel that with every project we have been able to make somebody’s life a bit better; for us the end user is more important than our accolades.
The methodology that we have developed over the years is about taking a minute to pause, to think of what we are doing. We emphasise that the more thinking time we spend, the better the end product would be. We often come across clients, who want us to achieve things in impossible timeframes, pushing us to deliver beyond our capacities. I have learnt over the years to tell them that things take time and if we don’t give it the right amount of time, half-baked solutions are what are more likely to be generated. There are no cookie-cutter solutions when we are dealing with heritage buildings, what worked for one building may or may not work for another. Our studio therefore, believes in taking one more day if that’s what is needed, but refraining from incomplete or shoddy work. In this fast-paced world, a lot of people do not subscribe to this approach, but I feel it is sustainable and the only way we can save ourselves from missing something or burning out. Having made the choice to remain boutique, also allowed us the time to think, reflect and innovate on the job. Most of our projects have been living buildings, they have taken years to complete given the complexities of the project such as capital flow as well as ensuring minimal disruptions. The phasing of work allowed us the time to reflect, get feedback as well as revisit the design if we needed to. I cannot stress more on the value for thinking time, it is almost like the slow cooking process.
Another core value that we have developed over the years has been that of open sharing. Sharing knowledge in this connected world helps us learn from each other and allows us to contribute to a better understanding of heritage and Sustainism principles. We use the digital world for sharing everything; exercise routines, recipes and other hacks, then why not technical knowledge and process. When I started practice, I felt that most people were really secretive, they didn’t want to share much. Everything was a well-guarded secret and doing a simple job, like learning how to make lime mortar, would take so much longer. As a practice we decided that we were going to share our learnings, our failures and our journey in the digital world. We felt that just as we needed inspiration, so we needed to support others like us so that they could see how we solved similar problems to theirs; open source collaboration.
What are the typologies and scales that you are currently engaged with? What are the concerns of conservation that you deal with? What are your interests and what kind of work appeals to you? What work does your studio actively seek?
AT: Over the years our practice has focused on living buildings; heritage buildings that have a purpose, be it someone’s house, a school or even a Railway Station. Adaptive reuse is one of our key strengths, and the projects we are currently engaged with are mostly residential scale buildings. In the past we have worked with large forts, palace hotels, urban design and urban planning strategies for World Heritage Sites. In all typologies the primary challenge is always marrying the past with the future.
What we battle most with, to varying degrees in all projects, is the stakeholder’s sense of nostalgia and its romantic interpretation. The past is always such a nice, comfortable place… and can they go back to what it was like. Unfortunately, heritage architects haven’t yet acquired the ability to time travel.
My interests are in making buildings relevant to contemporary lives of their users, making them efficient, warm and loved spaces for people to live, work, study or hang out in. We are creating spaces that people delight to be in, that they belong in, a space they call their own and not some ‘touch-me-not’ kind of environment that would seem alien to them and their visitors. Our approach to heritage buildings is more pragmatic, for us heritage is a starting point of a creative design process. Unfortunately, the environment for heritage conservation in India is quite “conservative”, where experimentation with heritage is seen more as a crime than a creative outcome.
Our studio actively seeks challenge; a challenge to break a stereotype, to redefine practice, to change the way people perceive heritage and heritage architects. We seek to be cross-disciplinary in our thinking process, to improve our own methods and processes and to find better ways to do things. We are always seeking to be inspired by others and the wonderful work they are doing.
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? Is there a consistent approach or enquiry at the core of the practice that drives the design and informs the decision-making process?
AT: Our studio has grown brick by brick, it has been a journey that has been enthused with a lot of energy from the young practitioners who work with us. One thing I have been keen about from the very onset has been personal involvement with each and every project, this has limited the number of projects we do at a time and has an impact on the scale of the practice and thereby its revenue. We look at our practice as a sort of finishing school, where young architects come and spend some time and hone their skills at being sensitive to the heritage context before moving on to other things in life.
Most people who work with us are relatively young, early career professionals and sometimes short-stay interns. Our inbox is flooded with internship applications and we are looking for authentic people who want to learn from us, who want to grow with us and who have more depth that the ‘right’ answers. We feel very proud of the young professionals who went on to study further in various disciplines of urban design, urban planning, conservation and even industrial design after working with us for a couple of years.
We like to nurture young talent, becoming the wind beneath their wings; it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of our growth as a studio.
We see design as a process driven tool for problem solving. Therefore, our methodology of design is rooted in research, with every project that we have undertaken beginning with extensive survey of the site, its design language, materials of construction and literature of the time it was build. Research may be in terms of what exists, what lies behind or what should be the future.
The second most important tool that we use is that of collaboration. Our clients and their visions are our guiding principles, our contractors and craftsmen with their practical hacks, as well as our engineers, then help us to cultivate and carve our bespoke solutions. My training in urban design, conservation and architecture has helped me develop a unique lens that goes from the big picture to the micro detail. Analysing a heritage site through that lens is not only fascinating, but also very revealing. It has taken years to develop and improve this lens, each project adding another layer of experience.
One of the things we have been very consciously doing is making sure that each member of the team is contributing their observations to the design table. Being a small studio, I get to interact with every single member of my team each day. Physically, our space is small and we have designed it as an open environment. There is no hierarchy as such, no walls or partitions and I am fully accessible to my team at all times. This was again a conscious choice, very often we see that hierarchy brings a power play into action, where it is assumed that the senior members know better, the younger ones don’t speak up even if they have good ideas. We also work in a very transparent way, so everyone knows what’s going on, good, bad or ugly. Also, being a small team allows us to share all responsibilities, even boring administrative ones. I have seen that this has led to a shared sense of ownership within the team.
Over the years, we have developed a method of conducting workshops with the communities we work with, as well as amongst ourselves, to help articulate the problems to be solved. We have developed our own unique way of integrating design thinking with heritage conservation and we are very pleased with the depth of understanding we have been able to reach through this approach.
I usually curate the workshop, but it is the studio team that gives it form and executes the workshop. We keep pruning it, reviewing it after each iteration which helps the young architects take responsibility and teaches them to think and not just follow instructions. We do follow dead-ends sometimes and the process can take longer, but our learning is richer. We trust each other enough to make mistakes and we have developed a culture of blame-free continuous improvement; that’s what we think maximises creativity. The feedback from the students that have attended our workshops has been very encouraging as well. I believe that architecture is a profession of observation, and experience helps sharpen those skills. We have been able to fill a gap that existed in academia through our hands-on approach enriching not just the students’ knowledge but also the widening of their perspective about life and the profession at large.
Each project requires a bespoke approach, given that its challenges and requirements are different. I also believe that each project has its own personality and through our mapping process we try to find that thread, that pulse of the building and its stakeholder that defines the look and feel of the design. In this respect, two state-of-the-art classrooms designed by us for The Doon School and for Woodstock School, might be technically similar but their aesthetic expression is totally different. Each belongs in its own context; we have designed and executed what works for the community. Finding this pulse is a very complicated process, involving all kinds of personalities that one learns and then deals with, with some people taking discussions in diametrically opposite directions. Every experience has added a new tool to our toolkit, it helps us develop new perspectives and lenses that makes our work much richer in the end.
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?
AT: The aspect of work that I value the most is having made a difference to the way someone lives, studies or works, allowing them to become better versions of themselves through our work. What is most important to us as a practice is the end user feedback. We have often gone back and modified our designs based on end user feedback and the quality of the relationship that we establish in working together determines the quality of this feedback. When I visit a project years later and they still appreciate what we did, that’s my yardstick for success. It is quite important for me that the end user or the client is happy and satisfied with what we have produced. There have been instances where a change in leadership has changed my entire design brief. This can become incredibly frustrating, but it has taught me many lessons about the process of capturing ideas and about accepting that sometimes your best may not be enough; realising when and how to gracefully let go is important.
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? How is an urban conservation practice located in this discourse?
AT: Contemporary architecture in India to me is like a kaleidoscope, everyone wanting to put down their ‘I was here’ mark on the urbanscape. Some designs are brilliant, while the majority of the urbanscape reeks of mediocrity. Mediocrity is problematic for me; it doesn’t aspire for anything, sab chalta hai is why our Indian cities have eroded much of their inherent character over the last 25 years. Urban conservation is about a sense of place, about making sure what is special continues into the future. The urban conservationist then becomes that person who provides the lens through which others can look at a city, so when a designer is intervening they are sensitive to the context.
Our practice is about helping people understand what is special about a place through our interventions and our outreach programmes. We hope that we can demonstrate through our practice that looking at an old building creatively can lead to wonderful, useable and beautifully designed outcomes.
We always seek to share our insights and knowledge that would help other people. My dream is to be able to develop a collaborative methodology to help design better buildings, to experiment and to rise above the mediocrity. It is time our perception changes from conservation architects working to maintain status quo to being heritage architects creatively engaging with heritage as part of mainstream architecture ♦
Images & Drawings: courtesy Aishwarya Tipnis Architects
Filming: Pinhole Media | 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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