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, the four partners of Mumbai-based SJK Architects – Shimul Javeri Kadri, Vaishali Mangalvedhekar, Sarika Shetty and Roshni Kshirsagar, elaborate on a few central themes, core ideas and critical questions that shape the bounds of the work produced by the studio. The discussion dwells on the evolution of their partnership, their collective efforts to provide an expansive perspective for each project, and being attuned to wider conversations on materiality, craftpeopleships, gender and public realm.
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
SJK: Shimul Javeri Kadri
VM: Vaishali Mangalvedhekar
SS: Sarika Shetty
RK: Roshni Kshirsagar
SJK: I started this practice thirty-two years ago with the ambition to be able to build for India. When you start, you always hope that you will be able to build in the heart of cities, change the face of these cities; create everything from temples to tombs, from stadiums to airports. It was 1990, and it was a fast liberalising, growing country. It was a very exciting time and yet as a single individual who just came out of architecture school and then urban planning – how do you start and grow a practice?
The stepping stone for that was to find a client who would give me a project. Somebody did approach me to do an office interior. There was a growing brigade of garment exporters at that time and this was a gentleman who was one such with an office in Nariman Point. I recall being extremely excited to have this 2500 sqft interior project in the heart of Nariman Point and I treated it like my magnum opus. From that came other smaller projects and the practice grew very organically. Then there came a point where one had to take a decision on how to grow. I think with it were all the challenges of how to find people who will work with you, that will have a certain calibre, both in terms of intentions as well as competency and for that, you need projects that are meaningful. […]
The trajectory has changed quite dramatically now, where we are a partnership firm. We understand the power and the role of communicating both our imagery as well as our ideas. A much larger audience is looking at what we are doing and visiting our projects and we are getting a very diverse and large clientele.
VM: I came to SJK Architects after I chanced upon the Synergy Lifestyles Office in a magazine and what really drew me to the office was the beautiful staircase detail. There were these cables that held cantilevered steps and the crisp detailing drew me to the office. I had just finished a course at IIT before I came here that was a research on climatically driven architecture and simulation studies. One of the early buildings that I worked on was a factory for Synergy Lifestyles […] in Karur, Tamil Nadu. Because it was a factory, Shimul drew a north light truss on a tracing sheet and passed it on to me. The intention was to draw daylight to the heart of the factory space but, from my learnings from IIT, intuitively I felt that it needed to be pursued further. I thought through it further and I came up with the idea of a monitor roof instead. Shimul looked at it, understood what was going on and then she drew a sweep of a roof, gently curving the whole structure for it to feel humane and gentle for the end users.
I went back with that new diagram of a curve, very much wanting to implement earth technologies, again from my past and my learning. Karur was very close to Kerala where hourdi blocks and terracotta hollow blocks are easily available, thanks to Laurie Baker. I wanted to use that in the roof, we struggled with it quite a bit, for almost three months, and we were almost about to give up, but we then began to work with Mr Shivanand, a structural consultant in Bengaluru, and a local contractor who was brilliant and we made it happen. We cracked the mechanism with which to device this gentle curve with terracotta blocks. The synergy of collaboration is something that I learnt through this whole process. Even as a young architect, I was given the opportunity to express my thoughts, my learnings and bring them to the table. That being part of our DNA, I think enabled this very iterative and interesting process and ended in this really beautiful factory.
SS: When I came in, it was Vaishali, two others and Shimul, so it was four of us. I started as an intern, I joined Vaishali and I was helping […]. One month down the line as an intern, I got an opportunity with the clients of the Ayushakti Ayurvedic Health Centre who came to Shimul to build their own home in Mumbai. This is in a place called Royal Palms which is very close to where the national park is and it is a part of where the national park extends. For some reason, Shimul was not around and she showed confidence in me to go and do the first brief taking for this project with the clients. That also happened because she has worked with those clients on the wellness centre project and they had a very good equation; it was just that interpersonal relationship that one really cherishes in this practice even today which is a very important part of what we work towards while we are building relationships through our projects as well. I think I very successfully took their brief taking exercise to imbibe what the client wants and to not be in the city of Mumbai, […] and be in the midst of nature and that is what their dream was. […]
That was the start of my journey and what I bring to the table is this meticulous questioning of the need to excel with each and everything that we do in this office. Whether it is through the projects or whether it is through systems. It has become a part of the way our teams are also inculcating the aspect of research or the aspect of questioning or the aspect of articulating before you start really getting there.
RK: It has been interesting for me because I have worked very closely with Sarika, Vaishali and Shimul. As a younger designer I worked with Sarika and Vaishali, learnt a lot from them, my foundations were set over here. Then as I started doing smaller projects by myself, I interacted very closely with Shimul. It is a different experience for me on the projects that I am working by myself, so if it is a standalone interior design project, it is a completely different experience as compared to when I am collaborating with Sarika or Vaishali. At the moment, I am working on the Hampi Hotel and similarly, Sarika and I are working on a museum project in Ahmedabad. It is a different synergy altogether because there is so much give and take in that process, there is so much learning through that process that I look forward to.
SJK: I think one very strong thread that takes us through is the idea of cultural histories. Having had the opportunity to work across the country in very dense metropolises as well as semi-urban and semi-rural areas; for us, understanding the culture of the space, representing it and creating a sense of beauty that is indigenous to the area we work in, has been extremely critical.
If I were to look at one of the most important impacts we have had – we started the practice in 1990 when globalisation was the mantra. That globalisation led to a unification of style leading to the international style, leading to Alucobond, glass, the whole very commercialisation of architecture that happened from 1990 onwards, is something that obliterated in many places the sense of culture and beauty that is so inherent to very old history and culture that this country has.
Having had this opportunity to build and work across the country, we have been able to bring out in a very nuanced way, the historical context and still push it into the twenty-first century. We embrace and love the contemporary idiom. We embrace and love materials, hardware and software that will help us to work in the now.
In that sense we are very forward looking and also backward looking in terms of wanting to preserve local technologies, the sense of culture and beauty that we very much see as a part of an Indian heritage.
VM: From the beginning, even when Sarika, Roshni and I, started out as young architects and interior designers, we were encouraged to speak up. The one underlying thing that we tell everybody is that everybody’s thoughts and ideas are welcome. It makes for an interesting and enriching design process. In recently moving into an LLP, a partnership, we are further strengthening the idea of collaboration.
We are saying that this is a collective group of architects and interior designers who grow together and exchange ideas and thoughts. Even though we started with one core idea, we also move back and forth through several others to come up with a final response which is an amalgamation of two or three ideas. The overall design process is dependent on this collaboration.
SJK: We have never all worked on all projects. It is resolved in teams. For example, Roshni always runs the interior design projects in the office. Vaishali and Sarika have always had a team and they manage certain projects. When a project comes in, we take the decision of who has the mind space, and interest in that particular project.
Each of them has a team under them, which is the most important thing for us – it is not a team ‘under’ them. It is a team ‘with’ them. Everyone on the team is important to us. Most of the project leads have worked at SJK for several years or worked here, gone and gotten married and come back. Everyone is extremely important.
SJK: The recognition that personal growth and happiness is extremely important to be an architect and vice-versa, has been the fundamental thought process that has driven this firm. We moved into hybrid mode – the need for a hybrid mode is still for personal freedom and opportunity. Through this hybrid mode, people can spend time on things that help them be happy, healthy, and grow; instead of travelling for four hours every day. As an office, the challenge to some extent is how do we retain that sense of closeness that makes us able to know each other personally and discuss.
The fundamental idea is that the personal is as important as the professional. We are constantly finding different ways to make that happen and we believe that that kind of personal worldview makes the architecture better and better.
VM: The fact that the studio is here is very important for us in the way it has changed us, and it motivates us. It gives us the flexibility to work from home if we want to, at the same time to come together, and find inspiration from each other and from the space that we are in that is flooded with light and that is in this really endearing old part of Mumbai. The fact is that we are surrounded by museums and art galleries which is inspiring, and it is an important part of how we function and what we do.
SJK: Everyone asks us “What type of architecture do you do?”. My answer to that is “Good architecture.” What we look for is a client who is able to understand the value of architecture. It does not matter what the client wants us to build. That sensibility is what we really want.
A sensibility that a building is part of a large organism called a street or a city and needs to find its location or context within that organism; that the building really needs to talk about nature and needs to connect to nature and other people that eventually connects to our souls. That would be the core of everything that we do.
SJK: This whole culture of fine detailing and crafting has come about through the very organic process through which we have grown. We started as a brand-new practice by doing very small interior projects thirty-two years ago. When you are doing those little projects, you want to make sure that you craft them to a level that they sing. Some of our very small projects, like the Nirvana Films’ Studio that Sarika did, like The Leaf House that Vaishali has done, or the Forest of Chintz showroom that Roshni has done, these are all small projects, but they have been real crucibles of innovation for us. Using all the ideas and thoughts and details that we hone in order to take these small projects to completion, has been a wonderful muscle-building exercise for a studio like ours. Even when it is a much larger project, we were able to break them down to their essentials and know what we want out of that.
VM: There is a screen that we created for phase one of the design studio that we have done for Mahindra and Mahindra in 2013. The context of the project is that it is a design studio for people who design vehicles for the company that sits within a factory premise in Kandivali, in the thick of a 64-acre factory. There were existing sheds that we worked with in which we inserted a mezzanine. On the mezzanine, the designers overlook their model-making space which is on the ground floor. At the edge of the mezzanine, they needed a mechanism, a screen by which they were not open and exposed, but at the same time felt connected to the model-making space. When we started the whole idea of making a screen, we wanted a screen that is light but also, wanted to work with the idea of metals. Borrowing from Mumbai’s very rich industrial past, hinged on its docks – the railways. It gave rise to a huge number of metal fabricators and suppliers in the city and that is the craft we drew from. In the building, we decided to do the screen in metal. For the designers at Mahindra and Mahindra, the chief material which they craft their vehicles is also metal. In that way, it all is tied so well and it sat well within the industrial context of the factory that they were in.
SJK: The most wonderful thing about being an architect is the fact that you are ultimately engaging very strongly with the public at large. You are actually engaging with the city or a semi-rural area. There is a responsibility for us as architects to explain what we are up to. We are influencing the city, we are throwing buildings in, and we are dealing with road networks.
We want both the input of what people love and want and the output of what have we thought about to make this happen. That is the reason that we get into these communications and public engagements.
The recent one that I have been doing is working with a gender committee that was formed by the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai. A bunch of us got together and advocated for gender to become a part of the development control rules of 2014-2035. It is the first time that something like this has happened in the country and it is a landmark thing that happened.
For each of us, there are personal, political and many other layers in between to participate at different levels. The idea that we encourage as a studio is to participate in whichever way and through whichever expression at whichever level.
The process for any project is quite organic but highly inclusive. The entire team will come in and a brief is shared with everybody. We do not have this in all projects. But on a few, we start with a quick design exercise in which each of us takes an hour to sketch and present. This happens from Shimul, to me, to the leads of a design, and all the way down to an intern. Everybody is urged to have a voice and really express what they have perceived about that particular project and design.
I had an interesting experience recently with the Penguin Random House office. They are first-time clients. We have not worked with them before, and they had not built before. Most of the clients come with few experiences. Maybe they have built before or they know a little bit of the process. Here there are many firsts. However, I do not think I have had a more easy or more trusting process than I had with this. They said, “You are the experts. We are bringing you in for a reason. Here is what we need and we are fully dependent on your guidance.” That made that entire process so enriching. We did our best for this particular office, who themselves were transitioning to a big change – getting into the post-pandemic hybrid way of working, a very different office model altogether. We hand held them through the entire process of refining their brief. The processes are very different, but each project teaches us how to approach the next one. So, there is a lot of learning through each project.
SS: It has been a large trajectory in the way we use tools and techniques to convey thoughts and ideas, right from the concept to the execution. The person who makes models for us today is Vijay. He came in roughly three years after I joined the office. […]
It (model-making) is a crucial part of our process, right from block models that at one point we used to make with thermocol […] now the block models get made in balsa. […] That is the process that we follow, where it is very easy for the clients as well to understand and they are able to take it and use it or interact with the model and hence it is a very important tool for our clients. Especially for the first-time builders, who have not done this before, the models become a very powerful tool. Scaling up the models and then taking it to another scale […] and then doing details within it, whether it is the typology of the window system or it is openable shutters; we actually try to take those to that level and make that as the medium of communication for the clients. […]
We also believe in doing site workshops. The first time when you have the entire civil contracting team onboard on the site, we go with these models to the site and there is a whole day or two of these workshops with the entire site team where it is right from all the consultants to the contracting teams, there are supervisors. […] it is very important that the entire team takes away the intention very clearly before they kind of dilute that.
Secondly, there are mock-ups. We believe hugely in doing full scale samples and mock-ups, and we do not do the multiplicity of the numbers unless and until we have gone through the process of approvals on mock-ups and materiality. I think at the end of it, a project can be as successful as the team that contributes toward it and to make the team contribute towards it, there is a lot that goes into making sure that you have understood personalities and you are working with personalities and taking criticism also so that you can make the product at the end, the best.
SJK: I feel like for a country of our scale and size, along with the heritage we have, one would hope for architecture in India to be thriving, engaging and vibrant. It should actually be such an exciting landscape to work within. I sadly feel there are two major concerns that shackle the growth of contemporary architecture. One is the Government processes and the other is architectural education. Architectural education is mired in red tape-ism and a very unimaginative technological method of teaching and a similar curriculum. It is only when that is able to shift and change a little bit that we are going to be able to get much more talent to the pool. From a recent trip to Kerala, I must say that they had such an amazing set of young architects in Kerala, who were able to push their boundaries, work in public projects. I think Kerala particularly, because there is a Government culture of allowing and encouraging talent to permeate public space.
When we talk about how governance will improve architecture in India, I think the regulations should be improved, it would help so much if those regulations actually spoke about the connection to the street better, the connection to the neighbouring buildings much better. We do not need to build for the car, we do not need to build for isolation and privacy. To me these two are very important things that need to change in the mindset of the policy makers, to be able to create much more engaging streetscapes and buildings.
SS: There is a statistic that says, it is only four percent of the country that is able to afford architectural services. Now is this affordability from the affordability point of view or is it from not having education? Not just architectural education or the pedagogy that each of these institutions carry. Even at your mid-school and high-school level, how many know what their cities are made up of? Even IAS officers, they think urban planning as a subject that they do during UPSC is enough, but they do not know enough. They are able to push things in a certain direction but you need urban planners, you need urban designers to actually bring that experience into picture, it cannot be bureaucrats doing this. That is not understood in the governance and in the bureaucracy level which is very important to change and that is the only time the shift can happen.
SJK: Public projects could be much more involving of younger practices. That would really change the landscape of the public realm out there and it would change the way a young practice develops. A young practice that has the ability to build even a small community centre, a bus stop, a public toilet, which you see young practices doing […]
Several young practices that are engaging […] it is absolutely delightful to see what they are doing. But I think what we are seeing are the ones that have been able to break through and make something happen. The atmosphere is not what is encouraging or allowing these movements and these engagements.
Images and Drawings: © SJK Architects
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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