PRAXIS 12 | _Opolis

An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. In this episode, Rahul Gore and Sonal Sancheti of _Opolis elaborate on the formal values that shape their outlook and approach to design. The discussion examines in detail aspects of partnerships – internally and externally – especially in public projects, the active role teaching and collegial culture plays in their studio.

_Opolis

Rahul Gore and Sonal Sancheti


EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:

SS: Sonal Sancheti
RG: Rahul Gore


FOUNDATIONS

<00:23>

SS: As we always believe, architecture is the sum of past experiences. It goes back a long way. Right from our childhood memories and on to CEPT where I met Rahul. Our student days in CEPT had a great influence from all our teachers mainly B. V. Doshi, Kurula Varkey and Professor Neelkanth Chhaya. The education at CEPT made a very strong foundation for our career ahead and that was a very important part of our journey.

From there onwards, our travels as a student, and how they have an unknowing influence in your career is a very interesting part of our journey. Everything has had an influence in our life; especially in CEPT, you get an opportunity to go on an exchange programme. So, I had gone to Delft in the Netherlands and Rahul was in ETH in Switzerland. The exchange programme happens at the third-year level at CEPT and that set a turning point in our student life.

During thesis, I got an opportunity to go to Japan. That is where I did my undergraduate thesis on Japanese architecture and its influences on contemporary architects. That was also a very important point in my life where we got exposed to what Japan is – the architecture of Japan, and attention to detail in everything that the Japanese believe in. That definitely has had a big influence on our work ahead. Also, this gave us an opportunity to meet Fumihiko Maki when I was doing my undergraduate thesis. That was my first encounter with him. Later on, Rahul got the Bunka Cho scholarship to go to Japan. It was a professional scholarship and we wrote to Maki-san to work with him and he graciously agreed and that gave us a big opportunity to work under a master like Maki. That was around 1999.


<03:57>

SS: _Opolis, actually is a very interesting term we coined. When we came back from the U.S. and we were full of energy. It was 2001 when we got back, and we wanted to start our practice. Even when we were doing our Masters, we were very clear that we wanted to spend no more than three years in the U.S. and then come back and start our own practice. When we came back and started _Opolis in 2001, we were really wondering whether it should have our name or whether we should coin a term; and then we came up with this word, ‘_Opolis‘.

Through the Japanese influence ‘O’ means respect for anything and everything that we do, and ‘Polis’ means the built environment._Opolis means anything we do should be with respect to the built environment. The underscore is very important in front of it because that means that it is an open-ended practice and we do not particularly specialise in any one kind of architecture or a typology.


<05:20>

RG: Twenty two years down the line, it is nice to hear of _Opolis as a brand. Especially after we have done the Bihar Museum, people do not know us individually, but they know _Opolis as an office and that is very nice. That was the vision we set out with, to keep our names a little dissociated from it.



CULTURE AND PROCESS

<08:08>

SS: Any project for us is important – in its ‘timelessness’ of that project. It should also transcend the client needs and do something such that even if we visit the project after ten years, it feels the same. That is something we are very conscious about and hence we use the materials that we use, or do the kind of detailing we do; especially in our weekend homes. We really build in remote areas and it is very difficult when the house is coming up through the construction. It is very important to use the right materials in these places where there is heavy rainfall.

For Rahul and me both, it is not about the handover of a particular project, but it gives us immense pleasure when we visit it after ten years and it feels the same and the client has enjoyed living there. That really is the most gratifying part of any project for us. So, I think the timeless quality in the spaces that we create is something that is very important to us.


<09:30>

RG: It is the wish of any practice to scale up and do projects in the public realm and that has been a conscious focus especially after the Bihar Museum. We participated in a lot of competitions in a collaborative mode, which helps us to look at larger things. We have looked at the Amravati Capital Complex; we have looked at the Nalanda University which we did jointly with Maki; we have looked at the Science Museum in Patna. All these were large projects. We also had a chance to collaborate with Steven Holl in the Mumbai Museum. Some of the projects go through, some do not and we keep participating. Even now we have done a museum in Gujarat and it is a continuous process.

As an architectural practice if you just do that, the energy in the office is very difficult to sustain because those projects may come, or they may not come. There are too many variables.

We found that residences have been a mainstay and that has really been where we have been able to elaborate, evolve and develop an architectural vocabulary and an architectural style that we would like to do.

I would also give a lot of credit to the interior work. Being in Mumbai, most of the work is done by developers and they have very few architects.

But what Mumbai does is teach us to look at interiors very intensely and I think that one feeds off the other. The architecture feeds off the interiors and the interiors feeds off the architecture. That has been our strength.


<12:33>

SS: We are a very small practice with around fifteen people at any given time in the studio. It is Rahul and me with senior architects, junior architects, and the trainees who also form a very important part of the practice. I think it is very difficult for two designers to work together. But over the years, Rahul and I have tried and worked out a way that we can work together. We do not do projects independently. Both of us are equally involved on all the projects in the office. Early on when the project comes in, we decide who gets the veto on the project. However, working-wise and design-wise and till the execution, it is both energies that go into it along with the rest of the team.


<13:18>

SS: There are no vertical silos in the office. If there is a project architect appointed for any given project, he takes care of everything related to the project and I think that really helps in keeping the energy of the studio, like a studio. Our studio is the extension of what we did at CEPT in the studio and that culture continues right from making physical models, to trying computer renderings of a project and then taking it into design development or the working drawings.


<14:48>

SS: Academics is also a very important part of our practice. Rahul and I have always been teaching right from year one of the practice. Currently, I am teaching at CEPT and Rahul has also been teaching on and off, or has been part of juries.

RG: You learn to especially engage with the city with the kind of projects. […] When you explore through the academic framework, it is a much better way to be able to influence students going ahead. Hopefully we will able to kindle a little bit of a spark in one of the students. […]

Academics have been very stimulating for us and for the practice.


<18:39>

RG: Citing the example of the Bihar Museum, it is very difficult for two practices to work together, but you have to have common values. You have to be able to understand role play. What helped in this case was that the both of us had spent a year in Japan in Maki’s office. So, the people there who were the lead architects on this project were collaborators with us right through. With full credit to the Maki team, they always included us in all aspects of the design.


<21:00>

SS: The involvement of both the teams, the Japan team and the Indian team, working on the Bihar Museum, throughout the execution, had fantastic synergy. Literally every mock-up had to be approved by the Maki team and with the Japanese precision, it really got out the best. Having a building of such high standards being built in a place like Patna is definitely a big achievement. Thanks to the Japanese being sticklers for design, detail and precision, we managed to pull off a building of this kind of standard in Patna.


<21:37>

RG: It is difficult for two offices to work together and similarly for any two designers to work together. But your backgrounds always help, and when you have similar backgrounds, we realise that we might be saying different things, but we are eventually saying the same thing. We both bring our energies to that. […] We both know our limitations, our advantages and expertise and we try and feed off of that. I think that has been a crucial part of our practice.


<23:15>

SS: We really try and maintain the different stages of a project. When the schedule is done upfront for any project, it is important to stick to those deadlines that we establish for ourselves. Be it from concept design to design development to working drawings to tender and finally, the execution of the project; these stages are very consciously followed. We try to stay by the timelines that we set up for ourselves and especially even the budgets. Budgets are something that we consciously make sure that whatever are the budgets allocated for the project, we match that and do not go overboard with timelines and budgets.


<24:08>

RG: As a principle, we are sticklers for a process and we believe strongly that if a process is followed your result will be of a certain rigour and that is what is most important.

It may not be the most beautiful, but if the process is followed, there is always a logic, there is a history of why certain decisions are taken, and that brings out the best in any project for us. That is probably why we have been able to build a fair body of work in the time we have been here – because of this process-based system.


<24:42>

RG: One of the key concerns of our practice is a building in a context and one is very aware of the environment one is building in. One does not want to necessarily scream out. We try and get our homes especially to merge within a landscape. If you are building in Alibaug, if you are building in a place where you are going as a third person, even the client is an intruder into that space. How do you make a house that sits well within it and without trying to dominate?

A large portion of our energy in the design process goes towards making sure that the house fits within its environment. That is a very conscious effort.


<25:35>

RG: It starts with simple things like size. People want large houses. Sometimes we are questioning that, “Why do you need a large house here? What is your need? Let us define that. Let us try and cut down through the dialogue.” I think if you can cut down on square feet, that itself is the most sustainable thing one can do in this world.


<26:15>

SS: It is important to understand the idea of subtraction because that is consciously followed by us in all our projects.

Subtraction is the process of removing everything that is extra and unnecessary and just stripping it down to the bare minimum, which is the most difficult part of any design process. That is something we consciously follow in all our work, be it a weekend home, be it an institutional building or be it an interior project.

This is where our Professor Shimizu from Japan has had a big influence on our work. Not only in architecture, but he always told us to ask this one question – “Is it necessary?” To everything in life, and that applies to even our architecture. So, everything we do, we try and break it down to its bare minimum and the process of subtraction is the key in our work.


<27:30>

SS: Every project has a timeline and how do you achieve the best in that timeline? The idea of doing things and not just leaving it on paper, is very important. How do you take a moment and make it perfect it? We cannot keep waiting for the perfect moment to happen in architecture. I think that is very difficult, but how do you take the given moment and make it perfect? Is something we try and apply even in our design process.


<29:10>

RG: Getting into the properties of the material, what it means and what it takes. Those are exciting things. India is at a very good threshold right now where materials are readily available. There is a whole palette out there, but I think to stand the test of time of a material is the most important. That is something that we are trying to explore and make sure that we are using materials, not only in their finishes but in the integral characteristics as well.



CONTEXT

<34:00>

RG: It is difficult to now find patrons for architecture. What we have is a very informed client who is throwing images at you because they are getting sold with images. How do you deal with that as a practice? You have to give it importance but at the same time clients send us a bulk of images to begin with. How do you keep the client engaged to think that we are still concerned with what they are doing?

It takes a distance. It is almost like letting it accumulate somewhere. Let the clients let it all off and then you say “Okay, we have done that. Now, let us look at the real thing”.


<34:38>

RG: The state that Indian architecture is in right now – we are at quite a threshold, especially in the procurement of public projects. We have been fortunate enough to have done one successfully publicly procured project for the Bihar Government which has a lovely template – which is a ready template. There is no reason why every single state in India should not be using it. Of twenty-nine states, we can easily have twenty-nine museums following such a template to come up with meaningful architecture.

It is the refusal of the Governments to engage with the due process. Invariably we have seen in the competitions that have not been successful like the Amravati competition or the Mumbai Museum; it is the very same people who have chosen a committee and have chosen a jury that are negating their own thoughts, so it is completely mindless. That is where public opinion comes into point.

To have leadership and something that sets the direction, at the same time, being receptive to being able to take in inputs and criticism in a stride is very important to the way projects should be done in India.

The Governments are the ones with the spending power and they are the ones who will be able to impact the largest population across. We stand at a threshold and I think India is going through that transition, and hopefully we come out of that with a stronger process.

I am an optimist. To practice architecture in India, you have to be an optimist – without that you cannot survive. 

Going ahead, it seems like a good time. Our peers, practices our age, who have been around for the last fifteen-twenty years are doing an amazing amount of work. Across India, architecture was in the realm of the metros. Now it is across Nashik, Aurangabad, and other Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities that are doing amazing work and I think that is where we can raise the overall standard of design. It will be interesting. Of course, when you are doing that, there will be a lot of cleaning up. There be a lot of generic work that is produced. But I am an optimist, and going ahead it seems like exciting times for our generations to come.



Images and Drawings: © _Opolis
Filming: Accord Equips
Editing: Gasper D’souza, White Brick Post 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. 

The second phase of the PRAXIS initiative features established practices in the domain of contemporary architecture in India.

Praxis is an editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass.


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