PRAXIS | 08 CASE DESIGN

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 practice, processes and positions of Mumbai-based Case Design; an office deeply invested in the potential of making in the diverse contexts of their work as they share their understanding of architecture and design as a question of culture. Their work touches upon a wide spectrum of concerns – from the fine detail to the large idea – within the ethos of the studio.


CASE DESIGN

Samuel Barclay, Saleem Bhatri



INTRODUCTION
We believe that objects and spaces deeply impact our relationship with the world around us and seek to create moments of quality inspired by observations from our daily lives. These experiences, both spatial and formal, are situationally grounded and are inherently imbued with content and meaning.

COLLABORATION
As an international practice rooted in Mumbai, we also believe that collaboration lies at the core of all good work. We engage with engineers, makers, farmers, artists, technicians, and craftspeople of all kinds from all places. We strive to generate and evolve new methods of practice in the hope that the learning generated by this process helps to bring awareness to ourselves, our collaborators, our patrons, and users unknown. Through intense dialog and active participation we seek to realign perceptions of value and beauty with all who experience both the process and its outcome.

TACIT KNOWLEDGE/CRAFT/SKILL
CONTEMPORARY CRAFT
We have an unwavering respect and appreciation for tacit knowledge and care deeply about creating work where tradition and skill can be applied, nourished, and ultimately celebrated.

We collaborate with artisans from all over India to identify, develop, and promote appropriate methods, be they centuries old crafts or more efficient contemporary technologies.

ENVIRONMENT
As designers, we recognise that our impact on the world is manifested not just in the spaces and objects that we create but also through the process and resources through which they are realised. Regardless of method or medium, the greatest form of sustainability is to produce work of lasting value. In that spirit, we create spaces and objects of all scales that deeply impact human interactions and our shared environment.

Democracy is inherent in the pencil, technology creates both opportunity as well as division.

While good design is not created through a democratic process, we believe it can and should be egalitarian and empathetic.

DESIGN
As a practice, we recognise that our greatest impact can be achieved in the design stage. Borrowing from the permaculture mantra of earth care, people care, fair share, we recognise that sustainability, in all forms, must be at the core of what we produce without compromising on quality. We contribute to the positive evolution of working practices in our field and can bring awareness to customers by realigning perceptions of value and beauty. We make products that we want to use ourselves, are proud to share with others, and will not compromise the lives of future generations.

PRODUCTION
Traditional craft and ethical production practices are critical factors in our efforts towards sustainable manufacturing. We care deeply about developing unique products in environments where tradition and skill can be applied, nourished, and ultimately celebrated. We collaborate with artisans from all over India to identify, develop, and promote appropriate methods, be they centuries old crafts or more efficient contemporary technologies. How our pieces are developed and manufactured matters to us and we believe it should matter to you as well.

OUR STORY
Rooted in the design and cultural center of Mumbai, we have unique access to a wide array of materials, methods, and production techniques. We are able to work with state of the art technology while still maintaining access to knowledge, skills, and processes that existed thousands of years ago and have been passed down through generations of craft and oral tradition.

Building on relationships with craftspeople and artisans stretching back over the past two decades, the pieces we develop are produced both by and with exceptional makers. Often family run organizations, several of these craft based collectives go back more than 40 generations. The tacit knowledge, deep understanding of materials and methods, and willingness to engage in an iterative design practice to achieve the best outcome make their contributions to both process and product invaluable.

Typically originating as a sketch, a moment of inspiration, or simply an object we would like to have and use ourselves, each product we make goes through an intense development process that considers performance, durability, aesthetics, and life-cycle. By engaging deeply and directly with the craftspeople involved in our production and integrating workshop culture within our own practice, we are able to turn sketches into samples and prototypes quickly and efficiently, increasing our ability to study, review, and improve each product and detail. Through iteration and distillation we strive to create products of exceptional quality that can be used and cherished for generations.


Tell us about the inception of your practice, the formative years, and the ambitions it was informed by.

SB: The idea of Case Design started in Los Angeles in the early 00s when I was a graduate student at SCI_Arc. Ironically, I had just come back from my first experience in India, a student exchange where I first met Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai. Upon returning, I started doing design build furniture and interior work with a friend of mine named Sandy Watts. We always talked about a practice where we could do interesting projects with all different kinds of people. One that was open and agile without the cumbersome bureaucracy that so many corporate offices seem to have. I started calling it Case Design and even made a simple website with some other friends that we had from school.

Not too long after graduating, my wife Erica and I were married and six months later, I got an invitation from Bijoy to move to India and start working with him in the newly formed Studio Mumbai. It seemed like a good opportunity and one where I could see myself growing into for a few years before coming back to the US. Little did we know that we would still be there fourteen years later. Erica has had a  job working for an international school in Mumbai since we moved here and I worked on nearly every project that came through Studio Mumbai from April 2006 until August 2013. In that time, our family grew as we had a daughter Emelia in 2008 and a son Caelan in 2012. By the time I left in mid-2013 I really had no plan, but Erica and I knew that we wanted to stay in Mumbai for at least another school year so she could complete her term.

I started looking for work and applied at several local and international offices in Mumbai. At the same time I started helping our friends Roopa Purushotaman and Joseph Cubas who were in the process of growing their NGO with the eventual ambition of building a school. One thing led to another and eventually I had to decide between taking a full time job in another studio or being able to continue helping Roopa and Joseph. Coming back home on the Sea Link one day I called Roopa and put all of my thoughts, options, questions, and concerns on the table and asked simply if there was a way that we could make her project my job. Few months later we were well into conceptual design and I was working from a small space in our home in Bandra.

Having learned from Bijoy and the incredible collaborators that we had during my time at Studio Mumbai, I was eager to see if I could apply those principles to a project that was larger than anything we had ever built, one that was for the public good, and for a school that had an incredibly limited budget. In hindsight, I see that I was wildly optimistic, but I deeply believe that this naive approach helped the project in the end.

It was important to push the boundaries of what could be achieved both individually and collectively. I wanted to see if a truly collaborative approach could work under a very different set of circumstances than I had been practicing under.

How did the name ‘Case Design’ come up’?

SB: The name ‘case’ was chosen for the plurality of meanings. I liked that it refers to a container or an envelope in the architectural sense but also that it describes a context or situation, as in a ‘court case.’ We (Sandy and I) even joked about the more nefarious definition of ‘casing a joint,’ a term you hear in old film noir or mobster movies. Even there it refers to the careful study of a particular site or situation.

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? What kind of explorations have influenced the ideology behind Casegoods?

SB: Our studio is really driven by a passion for making in a variety of different forms. We operate on a tremendous variety of scales ranging from 20+ acres master plans to small intimate objects that you can hold in your hand. The underlying character that we hope to achieve with anything that we make or design is that it is simple, beautiful, functional and is produced in a thoughtful and responsible way.

Casegoods is a good example of that process. It initially started as a collection of sketches for things that I wanted to make when I had too much time on my hands. Slowly as projects in the studio developed we started making things specifically for those projects and accumulated a small collection of furniture, lights, and objects that we thought might be of interest to people other than our clients. This too is motivated by the desire to make things in a particular way that hopefully provide the people who use them with a certain kind of qualitative experience.

At the outset, how has it evolved, and what is the way forward?

SB: Both the studio and the Casegoods brand continue to grow in both planned and unexpected ways. Like any service based discipline, we are somewhat susceptible to the direction that our opportunities (projects) take us. Having said that, we also try to both anticipate and guide the practice in a way that will lead us to the kind of opportunities that inspire not just our team but also, hopefully, the people who will experience them. Casegoods is a good example of that, but we are also in conversations with a few organizations who are interested in doing nonprofit work in artisanal crafts. I have a friend who is an architect in New York who describes her practice as not having a strategic goal but rather a set of core values. I like that idea very much and really try to make careful choices about which opportunities we either generate or pursue based on that principle.

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? How does your practice engage with material explorations and research? What kind of opportunities does it lead to?

SB: As I briefly mentioned, we work on a variety of scales. The largest project is a 23 acre master plan for an environmentally sustainable sports academy in Goa and the smallest is our Casegoods collection. In between we do smaller scale public architecture, private residential architecture, interior design in Mumbai, exhibitions both in India and abroad, and bespoke furniture.

At all scales, we are committed to participating in the design process all the way through the completion of the project. Many of the details we develop, especially for larger scale projects, come well after the structures are erected at a time that we can actively engage at site with the artisans and craftspeople who are actually producing the work. We try to develop enough of an armature to enable the project to proceed while still leaving enough space for collaborators of all kinds to make meaningful interventions all the way to the end.

Avasara Academy is a good example of that process. Early in the conceptual stages we worked with Pratik Raval from Transsolar on the climate engineering systems because that was where his contribution could make the most impact. In later phases we worked with Hemali Samant and local farmers to develop the landscape and agriculture for the campus, Malene Bach from Copenhagen developed the colors using local pigments, Rameshwar Bhadhwa and his craftsmen created the mosaic floors and paving from reclaimed stone, Punamchand Suthar produced the furniture using timber and industrially salvaged thread, Malekar Mama designed the well and the prototypes for the bamboo screens. The list goes on and on. For me, it was proof of concept that an open ended process that was driven by deep collaboration and shared values could work on an incredibly restricted budget and at the scale of massive public architecture.

What is the nature of the design and thought processes pertinent to 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?

SB: We try to design as much as we can by creating drawings, objects, and artefacts that enable us to engage in conversations with all of the stakeholders. This includes clients, masons, carpenters, artists, engineers, farmers, etc. When I was practicing in Los Angeles, we had to produce mountains of drafted design details that became written legal contracts given to the builders. If they did not make what we drafted we could sue them. If they made what we drafted and it failed either the builder or the client could sue us. There was very little exchange between the people designing the building and those that were making it that was not contentious. The drawing was an explicit instruction rather than opportunity for dialogue and exchange of ideas.

Because of the informal nature of building and the strong tradition of craft and master builders that India has, I have intentionally framed the practice in a very different way. The concept of ‘architecture’ as academic discipline only came to India with the British and Portuguese. Before that, master builders came from a tradition and heritage that was passed down through generations.

The entire concept of design being an autonomous act or having a singular author is completely foreign to the culture here. For us that form of collaboration becomes interwoven to not only the process but also the product in ways that make them inextricable from each other.

We are currently building a farmhouse outside of Mumbai and one of the important decisions we made was to involve the team of carpenters that would be constructing the roof at a very early stage. We made small, medium, and then large scale physical models with them to both develop our own ideas and architecture language along with the structure and detailing. Their input informed our language and the dialogue throughout empowered them as critical stakeholders in the decision making process. The natural product of this method also generated a collection of artefacts (models) that enabled us to more clearly express our ideas to the client in a way that better enabled that conversation to progress in deeper and more meaningful ways.

In this particular case, I have known the teams that we are working with for almost fifteen years now. When we are starting a project with new collaborators or even clients, regardless of their discipline, this process becomes even more important. There is always an inherent trust deficit whenever you begin working with somebody new. We spend as much time focused on overcoming that trust deficit as we do making drawings. I have found that it is the only way to truly collaborate and engage with another person or team in a meaningful way. Having seen the results of both methods of practice, I don’t think I could go back to a more autonomous approach.

How do designs and projects develop within your studio? How does your design process emerge?

SB: Every project is different but I always start with context. This includes site, climate, gravity, program, budget, local building materials and methods, environmental impact, aspirations of the client, etc. There is an unending list of forces acting on any given project and I am always trying to understand as many of them as I can. Once we do our preliminary research into as many of these elements as possible I always try to develop a kind of hierarchy in order to place them in some kind of relational context.

It’s fair to say that this is a subjective process but I do try to understand the context and implications of each aspect and develop a set of solutions that are both relevant and appropriate. If all of those disparate forces can be studied, understood, coalesced and distilled into a collection of spaces, objects, or artefacts that are simple, beautiful, and functional then we know that we have achieved something impactful.

Your studio extends into an in-house workshop. Tell us about its inception. How is it a significant part of your studio? Does having a workshop in this proximity add value to your thinking process?

SB: The workshop for me has always been an important part of my design process and practice in general. My friend Geo and I constructed the metal shop at SCI-Arc and I grew up loving to tinker and make things with my grandfathers in each of their workshops. It does not take more than a few tools and a place where you can make a mess to have a workshop so I have never really not had one. When we moved into the space in Sakinaka we had ¾ of the studio as a workshop and ¼ as an office space. This ratio felt pretty right to me but we quickly outgrew it and needed more places to sit. We took another ¼ of the space for the office making it half/half but that really didn’t work well. We didn’t have enough room to store the materials and tools that we use and making became more trouble than it was worth. When a space on the ground floor became available that would double our studio and restore the workshop to its rightful balance it was an easy decision for us to grab it.

Can you shed some light on what a client’s engagement with your projects or practice is like? Is there an emphasis placed on a particular kind of approach or a way in which they are introduced to their project? 

SB: This too varies from project to project but we really try to produce things that will facilitate a conversation. Some clients have not been through a building project before and it is often incumbent upon us to guide them through this process. I find that visual aids (drawings, models, images, etc.) are by far the best tools to facilitate that dialogue. We often begin with a collection of abstract images that we use to create an atmosphere for the project. This becomes a way for us to share our ideas as well as elicit feedback from the clients. Even those people who don’t always know what they want can respond to an image or a model and say “I like this” or “this doesn’t work for me.” It becomes important for us then to either accept their response or try to frame the conversation in another way to educate them on why the thing that we are showing them is valid.

How is your studio organised? Can you give us an insight into the structure and internal dynamics? How has the role of partners evolved?

SB: The studio is generally organized around project teams. Sometimes that means I am working directly with a young architect or intern to develop and manage a small short-term project and other times we will have a large team of 6-8 people from multiple disciplines and with different skills and experiences. Every Monday morning we have an all team meeting to briefly review every project with the team leader speaking for a few minutes about the status of what they are working on. I try very hard to empower each person in our team to have their own voice and to develop the ability to speak confidently about their work. Once the team meeting wraps up we break into smaller groups and work through whatever requires our attention at that time. Drawings, models, site visits, group discussions, budgets, etc. It is all on the table and really varies greatly depending on what projects are ongoing and where each one is in the process. I really enjoy the diversity of scales and durations in the range of things that we take on. There are some things that can only be achieved with a prolonged, thorough, and sustained diligence but it is also nice to have an immediacy where sketches come to life and become models or objects very quickly in the workshop.

When we started, my wife Erica was my partner in life and in the practice of Case Design. She fills both roles today as she did then, while also working a full time job in education at an international school here in Mumbai. We always joke that I can’t afford her as a full time employee but in recent years I have been successful in pulling her into the studio more and more. Saleem Bhatri is the closest thing that I have to a partner in practice and we have collaborated for the last three years since we shifted our studio into the current space in Sakinaka. He has a background in architecture and design and leads most of the industrial design projects that we undertake. I think our skills and interests overlap and compliment each other in a really lovely and productive way. He’s been a great addition to the team.

What is the scale of your practice now and how does it aim to grow in the near future?

SB: In the last year we grew from about 18 people to a point where we recently got up to 30. We recently doubled our workspace by taking over another gala on the ground floor of the same compound and pushing our studio space all the way to the back of the existing space. In the process of doing that we took on four new workshop technicians to enable us to be more productive in our making space. This enables us to produce, assemble, and finish many of our products in our own space and to also build models and make samples in a more exploratory way.

I do not see a limit or a minimum on the scale that we would like to reach in terms of numbers but we are also not looking to reach any particular size. I prefer to collaborate with people rather than manage them so I am always measuring the size, skill, experience, agility, and leadership potential of and within our team and scaling that against the types of opportunities that we have on hand.

I would always rather have a little extra capacity, rather than less, in order to be able to explore some of the research we carry on in parallel to our projects. If that makes us a little less financially profitable I accept that on those terms because I see the other forms of compensation that this enables.

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?

SB: Before we take on any project, I try to evaluate whether we would like to do more projects of a similar nature. I believe that the team we have assembled is capable of making any opportunity we take on successful. If it works out that way then we would hope to get more opportunities to work on those types of projects. If a typology is not worth doing multiple adapted versions of then I question whether the first one is worth doing as well.

Success for me is an ever changing parameter. It is difficult to define as there are many different considerations and variables that go into it.

At the very least I hope that we are able to make the people who use and experience what we are creating, happy. It also matters how the object or space was made, who participated, what resources were used, and whether all of those factors were appropriate to the given context. I chose the name Case Design because it describes an instance of a particular situation; an example of something occurring. If we can pay attention to all of those forces and still achieve something that is simple, beautiful, and functional then I believe we have found some measure of success.

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?

SB: I have tremendous optimism in both the current state and future of contemporary architecture in India. I do not think I would still be here if I did not. There are so many young practices producing interesting work around the country that it is difficult not to feel hope for a bright tomorrow. At the same time I am concerned with the state of education in the country. There has been an explosion of for profit schools in the last decade which has created an abundance of students and a shortage of quality faculty. I do not feel that enough is asked of students and the exposure, aside from what they can find online, is limited.

To the question of positioning our work in the greater context of Indian architecture I’m not sure I would be able to answer that.

My focus has always been on the work itself rather than how it fits into a conceptual framework. I have always hoped that the work we make is appreciated by those who experience it and that it provides some small measure of inspiration for those who share our values.

I would not suggest that the way we work is suitable for others let alone everyone. Our methods are unique to the people who comprise the studio, those we are fortunate enough to collaborate with, the opportunities we are afforded, and the ones we make for ourselves. How that is seen in the larger context of architecture in India will have to be a story for another day♦


Drawings and Images: courtesy Case Design
Filming: Accord Equips | Editing: Gasper D’souza, White Brick Wall Studio



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