An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. Elaborating on the workings of his eponymous Kolkata-based practice, Abin Design Studio, Abin Chaudhuri discusses what it means to be an informed practice for ADS – pushing boundaries in both the public and the private realm. He provides an insight into the different trajectories that shaped the foundations and ethos of their interdisciplinary studio, and ideals that contribute towards creation of architecture and smaller infrastructures for different cultural, social and geographical contexts in rural and urban India alike.
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
AC: Abin Chaudhuri
AC: Our journey has been a bit of a roller coaster. When I passed out of Jadavpur University, I had no intention to pursue architecture as a profession; but fortunately, I applied for a job with Mr Partha Ranjan Das who was a very talented and renowned architect at that time. I worked with him for six months. Post that, I joined Prabir Mitra’s office. He was a legendary and respected architect at that point of time in Calcutta.
After that, I pursued the profession in a different way […] I shifted to a cement company. I worked as an executive tele-caller […] I joined a completely new venture called Adler and Associates; it was unknown to me, because my partners were my seniors and were non-architects. […] Somehow, I was not satisfied enough with my profession. That is why I pursued Industrial Design and a certificate course in DOMUS. That venture was basically to gather confidence and the idea of osmosis. I really needed to know where I am, and where I needed to learn, and where I was supposed to go.
After coming back from Milan, I started Abin Design Studio in late 2005. However, that was a very critical journey because I am from Bansberia and I had no family or any relatives here. It was like a new struggle; a completely new kind of journey that had started as a singular practice […] but that was a little different because the last seven years of work had given me a lot of opportunity to work on multi-faceted spaces.
AC: We never stopped ourselves from exploring beyond a typical architectural framework.
We always felt that we could design anything, but at the same time, we need to be well-informed.
AC: Kolkata has a very strong culture in terms of festivity, art and performing arts. There are many things in Kolkata, but when you when you talk about architecture, it is challenging; Bangladesh is doing such masterpieces, and it is just a half-hour flight away from West Bengal. […] My idea was always challenged by why we could not produce the quality of architecture that we are supposed to. […] We have been trained typically in engineering colleges and not in architecture colleges. It becomes one of the key reasons why the idea of education of architecture and the process has not been taught by our teachers in universities; probably it is our lacuna, probably it is not the right process, but we have never been excited enough to pursue our profession. That is why many people in our profession and my classmates have left the profession, and are doing something else.
Having my practice here has really influenced me with respect to my inquiries and my hunger of knowing what architecture should be.
AC: When we started our practice, we started with larger public projects. We realised that the larger public projects have taken much more time. The larger public projects are not in my hand as they are not always developed by the private sector; they are developed mainly by the Government. The Government is the biggest real estate and the biggest client today. When you are trying to get larger projects, it compromises many things; it is a different kind of risk. What we have realised is that we can have much more control over projects that we are doing for the private sector such as schools, universities, and community centres.
AC: It is very important to note that today in India, there is not a single column dedicated to architecture in any newspaper. Nobody bothers, not even 0.1 percent of people know about the architect’s profession and what value an architectural building can add to their life. We focus on how this marginality could be overcome, and hence, we can influence a larger group of people in the society, so that we can get much more in terms of the value that architecture or buildings can provide them with. As a base, we are always targeting that through public and private spaces which can add value to their mental health, peace and to your life. Public spaces are an opportunity for us to give the value of architecture to the society; that is why we call it ‘ephemeral to perennial’.
Ephemerality can impact the more perennial spaces.
AC: In 2008, I got the opportunity to design a project in Bhubaneshwar – International Management Institute. That was a very interesting project. It was a 16 acre land. Understanding the mechanics of the space became very important for us. […] Bhubaneshwar is a temple city; we looked into how this city of temples has evolved through an architectural journey and we tried to bring those crafts and materials – like laterite and khondalite in. […] Understanding craftsmanship from the master craftsman created a very interesting passive design strategy to create multiple blocks on the campus which gave us the opportunity to create a fascinating campus.
AC: Eventually, in 2012, we had done the first bamboo pavilion in Bansberia, which is quite famous. I came from Bansberia, which is a very small town within urban peripheries. Nobody bothered about who an architect is, what architecture is, and what design is. We felt that this is an opportunity for me, because I was born and brought up there; if I have to start a change, the change should start from here. That is why I took the initiative to design the pavilion, and that created a ripple across thousands of people, and they start thinking of how this can be conceived. Ninety percent of the people liked it very much, ten percent of the people did not understand what the pavilion is, but what matters is that the pavilion has deeply impacted their life.
We are controlling how public infrastructure projects can happen on the periphery. The studio is deeply involved with them. We believe that these kinds of small public infrastructure should happen across India and across urban peripheries. That could probably be a game changer for India.
The aspirations that people in urban peripheries and people in rural areas have are the same as people living in cities. We need to believe that they should get world-class design and almost with zero maintenance fee […]
AC: We love unfamiliar explorations, because they give us courage to think about many facades. As a studio whenever we think about a project, we feel that we must push the boundaries and convince the client about a greater goal – one of which is sustainability, another is climate change, and how our building will be a mould to support the planet for the greater good; not only for individuals, but also for the surroundings and that is very important.
AC: We shifted into this studio in 2017. The studio is run by a few senior leaders along with me. They have been working with me for the last ten to fifteen years in a variety of scales and experiences. Apart from the leaders, there are partners, senior associates, associates, senior architects and junior architects who are working with us, and they come from various parts of country.
We have workshops in Bansberia. In these workshops, we do many experimentations on shuttering, mild steel structures, furniture products and material explorations. We keep traveling from studios to workshops and from workshops to studio. […] Today’s studio is engaged with multiple projects with varied scales […] This variety gives us a lot of explorative ideas; that really makes us think deeper about the subject, and about the context.
AC: As a studio, we always believe that you can learn from everyone; we have a very open mindset and we discuss multiple times. Our habit is to go to site and understand the physical parameters of the context because sometimes, we do not understand from the drawings or models or 3D views […] We have a very strong site team; they are a project team and they take care of many of our projects to make sure of whatever we deliver, because this aspect is a very weak part in a country like India. There are many talented people and many fantastic drawings, but if you cannot hold them hard, saying that it should be delivered on the site, it is difficult to get the right results. Our project team is super in that way; they take care of all those things in terms of productions and making things happen.
AC: Whenever we get a project, we make a team. […] What is interesting is that everybody knows what is happening and they are partly involved in all the projects. But at the same time that there will be a team leader, and there will be supporting team members. We discuss together and understand the brief. We then try to react on it and we have multiple options and deliberations happening. Eventually, we take one path and keep going on that path. That is how the process of a studio works. In all the design processes, I am personally involved along with my senior team, the junior team and sometimes interns.
AC: Today, the studio is handling a variety of projects; from a larger scale to fairly miniature scales; from a large university campus, to schools, to a management college. At the same time, we are working on larger corporate offices, smaller corporate offices, villas, small tiny houses, bamboo structures, steel structures, pavilions, furniture, products, façade design; we have also invented materials. Right now, we are designing a stamp for a law firm. We are also designing graphics for a retail store, an experience centre and large housing projects. […]
The idea is to always celebrate the design, the spaces, and the context in every project and explore the unfamiliar journey; we enjoy that and that is the beauty of it.
AC: In terms of public infrastructure projects, we love to do smaller projects. We seek to design thousands of varieties of small public infrastructure projects in India and add value to the lives of millions of people through architecture, through design and through smaller infrastructure because these smaller infrastructures need very less budget and time but it impacts thousands of people. India needs these smaller infrastructure projects and only then, can architecture in larger spectrums be celebrated. Without that, there is no value for architects.
AC: The kind of process we follow calibrates not only design as a process, but also reciprocates what the projects need from the studio; it is a holistic process.
AC: As a core value, an informed decision that we have taken is that must explore to the core. We are not afraid of unfamiliar explorations, and that is probably the only push that gives us the opportunity to explore new thing […] This entire process has given us lots of setbacks; we sometimes fail while trying to experiment on something, but failure gave us a lot of learnings and new opportunities. […]
AC: Apart from our practice, we started the Kolkata Architecture Foundation with few of our colleagues and friends, which is an initiative with urban interventions and public projects that enhances public life. It is very collaborative […] Colleagues and friends from outside have also helped us make sure that interesting public infrastructure can be possible through collaboration with Government, non-Government, panchayat, municipality, and authorities. That is a backbone, which is almost ancillary to the core value of our base. I must say that the foundation is an amazing part of our initiative. Apart from that, we run the Kolkata Design Collective, in which we work with artisans and artists; we do art installations through this initiative and promote young talented artisans through this process. We engage with them in multiple projects and processes.
AC: The greater challenge in a country like India is how you hold and keep your patience, and make things become reality when you visualise something. This process is the most painful and you cannot lose faith and patience; you must hold it in the core till you achieve it. I give value to that process; even when we ideate something with a lot of pain, sorrow, and love, it has to be implemented. In the Global South, this is the biggest challenge is that we do not always work in a very organised way […]. Almost everything is your responsibility. The clients’ budgets, Government budgets, private space budget, dilution of sub material, unavailability of materials and explorations; not being able to meet the time constraint; these are multiple factors which dilute the project’s intent.
I think holding that intent till the end is the most important part.
I am very hopeful for Indian contemporary architecture’s future as there are many young and talented architects who are coming up with their deep convictions and are doing multifaceted projects in many places in our country. Mostly, all of these are beyond cities. Rapid urbanisation gives many multifaceted innovations and ideas can be celebrated through these young architects.
We must understand that these opportunities are all self-driven by those architects. Today, if the Government is a bit proactive to support the value that architecture and design have on public life, the impact can be multi-folded.
A country with 1.4 billion should produce much better and greater architecture. If one initiative is a process started by the young architects, and the larger initiative is one started by the Government, and if both of these match, I think we have a great future for contemporary practice.
Images and Drawings: © Abin Design Studio
Filming: Uttam Photography, Kolkata
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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