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, Mausami and Uday Andhare – Principal Architects of Ahmedabad-based Indigo Architects, reflect on the varied roots that form the position of the practice today. Moulded by a meticulous process and inquiry, their approach is pluralistic and explorative. Themes surrounding appropriateness, materiality, endurance, and environmental concerns feature consistently across the studio’s work. They elaborate on the spirit of the practice, viewing it as an ecosystem that broadens beyond the studio — to sites, stakeholders, academia and society.
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
MA: Mausami Andhare
UA: Uday Andhare
MA: CEPT has been a true alma mater. If I remember myself entering CEPT, I had very little idea about what the profession holds and what all one needs to know and how different aspects of architecture need to be dealt into with a certain amount of depth. A lot of this was made evident as we became students under the tutelage of stalwarts like Neelkanth Chhaya, Kurula Varkey, B V Doshi, Anant Raje, Leo Pereira and Kiran Pandya. They were all wonderful in their own ways. It was extremely inspirational to be in that energy field. All of them were extremely involved as teachers as well, they were practising but also extremely involved with us and everywhere. They used to work beyond their hours regularly, they would make sure that things really penetrated inside a student’s mind.
It was just this wonderful giving that we were part of and we benefited tremendously from that. I think that so much of exposure, so many wonderful people visiting, lecturing, juries, peers who were from different backgrounds — very significantly there were peers around us who were not from Ahmedabad, they were from different parts of the country, sometimes even Asian countries so there were Sri Lankans, there were people from Bangladesh and so on. It was a rich tapestry to learn from.
UA: Soon after graduating from CEPT, the initial idea was to spend some time working in Ahmedabad, and then defining a trajectory and somehow both us thought that after spending about six years to finish the program it was time to seek out fresh destinations, understand and see things that are beyond our known realm. It was sort of imperative to get out and our Master’s programme was the only window out at that time but we were fortunate to discover that New Mexico was an interesting place in southwestern America. Professor Anselevicius who was a friend of Doshi, and he would come to Ahmedabad several times, he was well known in the academic circles here at that time. We discovered that at that time he was a Dean of an architecture programme there. We also explored the Aga Khan Program at MIT as one of the avenues to pursue for further education.
MA: The southwestern United States is a very distinct part of the United States. It has almost a pre-historic character. You feel that this existed before humans roamed the land. It has starkness and almost unbelievable beauty which appeals to the hot arid desert environment that we have grown up in. There were so many parallels that one saw there. There is a lot of tradition of adobe architecture, a lot of very beautifully put together, powerful works within the settlements that we saw there. There is a lot of exploration of local materials that you do not find in the other parts of the United States. There is certain freedom of how these are adopted, there is less self-consciousness if one was to say from the aesthetics of the modern time, about modernism per se being so prevalent in other parts of metro cities of the United States. We travelled a lot, we camped a lot, we experienced the landscape in many modes and that has sown the seed of attaching to the land, seeing the site, understanding its moods, feeling it in a much deeper way than we would have been able to.
UA: We landed back in 1998, to our home that we had left with the security that there is a family here, contrary to nothing there and that was a very important aspect. There was no real fear or apprehension about what one would do because one of the things that we look back and retrospect was that there was an ability as students, by the time you graduate instilled in you, that you can build. You can start small but you can do something on your own.
When we came here, we already had a couple of projects, houses for a family friend and another house in Alluva which had started. […] What was very exciting was that, when we met Neelkanth Chhaya and told him about the kind of projects that we had, he was very forthcoming and supportive and suggested that we work with Himanshu Parikh. So, working with him on our first project and taking projects ahead from there was really fantastic. The manner in which he saw the design, its innards and how he interpreted that to support the endeavour on a piece of land which was very fragile and unstable in Alluva […] Understanding during the job, while the project was going on, our education actually continued.
Our first two projects were with Himanshu Parikh and then when we started getting more work, we reached out to professor Ajay Shah. We were trying to understand the aspects of tendering, how to go about the nitty gritty of contracts and relearning, and all of them have been extremely supportive.
I think to be able to reach out to your peers and to your teachers is a very fundamental and important aspect of growing and we have been doing it throughout our career. We go back to people and talk to them and if we have to do a course correction or reflect over something, it is a very important thing for us and we have been very fortunate.
UA: Over the last few years we have pretty much stayed the same size. If asked, “What is the size of the firm?”, it would be two of us and at most four other architects as the core team and then two to three trainees who come and go. So, six of us form the core. After several years of actuation and people coming and going and on an average people finding their own directions after maybe three years. We have been quite fortunate to consolidate with people, our colleagues and co-workers who helped us to build that core.
We are at that point where we can see that core building beyond us. We are trying to define the practice in a way where the ideology of how one works, what are the aspects that are important to us and as a practice together […] and when we say us as a practice, it goes beyond Mausami and myself to the other members who are also equal participants in every aspect of the projects.
UA: Doing the Living & Learning Design Center project in 2005 which was then completed in 2016, at that time we were a four people setup with people going and coming in and Mausami and myself holding the fort and making sure that the entire seven-eight years of work went smoothly, unhindered and executed.
It was a learning that you do not have to be big. In fact, if you are smartly sized and agile with how you can work with projects, then you can be really effective in terms of what you can do, how big a project you can handle, and also you have to prove to the clients that you were able to handle this.
A lot of projects missed us because we did not have the scale, the numbers, or the turnover and hence we never pursued those kinds of projects because the moment a project is evaluating you based on your turnover, we said that this is the type of project that was not for us. If a project comes to you based on the work you have done so far and if somebody recognises those abilities, then I think that project is yours. We are not competing in that sense. We do not seek work, because if we have work and we do it diligently, new work comes in our way and each past project brings us new ones.
Kutch was a very important cornerstone in shaping our practice in terms of our intent as architects. We discovered that a lot of the moves that happened in terms of why a building needs to be in a certain way, were quite circumstantial and to realise to act on circumstances whether it is programmatic or whether it is related to the soil, the climate or the local geography of the region, all these learnings were really important to us.
Also, parallel projects happening in Kutch post-earthquake, right from quick do-it-yourself housing to philanthropic efforts in a certain way, rubber stamping the landscape with prototypical homes, we have seen a whole gamut of stuff that happened and we were there chiselling away two buildings, trying to make sense of the climate, the wind, stability and how a new expression can be evolved in an otherwise open canvas. It was like working on an open canvas. Those learnings and understanding of tectonics and materiality in a place like Kutch was a very interesting and fascinating experience which set the tone for a whole lot of details that have followed ever since, in our work.
UA: Much more fundamental realisation than stumbling upon the choice of lime as a viable material, was the inquiry we had done while working on the Kutch project which was about how the buildings can be more resilient and how to address thermal comfort in hot and dry regions. It was post-earthquake in 2000 when we did the Shrujan Campus project. We were looking at how the air moves through the building naturally and how to deploy certain strategies that would work in an environment where there is a constant wind speed. We did not use lime in the Shrujan Campus project and we were exploring the movement of wind, air and creating shafts that provide stability in shear and lateral movement.
We were exploring these aspects as stability became crucial especially post-earthquake in order to make a building resilient.
At a later point, when we started looking at thermal comfort, we met Nimish Bhai a couple of times, trying to understand his take on using lime. Around that time the Torrent project was happening with passive downdraft systems and use of lime at certain places. We found that as an interesting model in understanding architecture that could be evolved for the future. We were convinced that active air conditioning or cooling was not the way of the future and we had to find some in between ground. However, we were not looking at using lime in a revivalist perspective, lime was always there, the way it was used, so we were not interested in the other dimensions that come with lime.
At that same time, we stumbled across the work of Keyur at Kesarjan and we discovered how he was recycling rubble into various grades of pulverised material to make bricks. So, that whole idea clicked to reuse certain kinds of materials with lime, so we started studying what has happened in the past. There were also some interesting books which my father had in his library on architecture and embellishment in Shekhavati, and how the frescoes were made. We used to interact with him as well to understand the recipes of using various kinds of materials.
That interest grew, and we thought that when we were doing our own studio, that the studio could deploy the scant knowledge that we had then and just jump into it. We thought that the best way to do lime work was to actually make the whole process by ourselves. The backend research came through interaction with the karigars, so we met Nizamuddin Ji from Bikaner at the Jantar Mantar site, we exchanged numbers and we lost track of each other for almost a year and one day just out of nowhere he called me and asked “Kya kar rahe ho aaj kal?”. Then we called him here and that was the time when we were going to start the studio. So, he comes here and demonstrates what all can be done, stays with us for a couple of days and goes back. Our association has been even till date, he solves our questions, we discuss, and we try to understand his wisdom behind what he did.
MA: Several things have started coalescing because you think deeply about how you solve the issue of heat, how to make things more comfortable, how do you use a material whose resilience and durability are beyond the brick, cement and RCC, that we have grown up with as students? There were lots of questions in our minds and they led us to various sources and that has now started coming together in a much stronger way now. Lot of these things are not ad hoc, they all now tie together. Lime as a material is a wonderful exploration for us because it is a breathing material, it allows porosity, it allows the environment to be much healthier than other materials, it does not leach out unlike other materials. It gets only stronger over hundreds of years.
Essentially, we aspire that the buildings that we build should be left as lumps of limestone at the end of time rather than things which are destructive, against nature and hence unhealthy and more consumed. It is this kind of coalition which is really helping us think about our architecture.
MA: Initially, when we start working on any project, there is a lot of discussion, there is a certain common understanding of the site, context, programme, clients and many different aspects of every work is at the level of discussion, at the level of certain doodles, certain emergent ideas, certain logic of the site, certain potentials of the site and so on.
It is very fuzzy in the beginning, both in the mind and in the sketchbook, it is always fuzzy, and it is non-definitive. Lot of times I start getting the initial structure, so I start drafting, I start drawing it out and just setting out its floors, hierarchies, sequencing; the broad ideas are laid out and discussed both in terms of sections, in terms of plans and site ideas.
Once that emerges, it is thrown open to all kinds of inputs from the team. From the onset the team is involved with us, it is not just that we draw, and they carry out, never. They are part of the site, they are part of the discussions and all of this. So, together there is a certain synergy which builds and then it starts being actualised by different members. In that sense it is very non-hierarchical and also a lot of back and forth because it is drawn, then there are discussions and then we feel that this kind of needs further exploration or a differentiation. So, it again goes back to the drawing, back to model, back to SketchUp and more discussion. That is the kind of process that we generally follow.
UA: I have been associated with CEPT primarily since 2003 or since 1999, going in and out as a visiting faculty in various semesters, as and when time allowed. But it has been very enriching. Being able to engage in studios with your own teachers, be it working at some point with Neelkanth Chhaya, Kiran Pandya and Leo Pereira etc; I have enjoyed that process a lot just because it kind of connects you to your student days to you as a professional with certain aspects of people that have remained unchanged. […] It also challenges you to self-introspect your work while you come back to your own studio and it is fantastic learning. While you teach, you are also clarifying your own position in your practice through what you are trying to talk about on somebody else’s project. It is a back and forth learning which I think most people who engage with academia and practice would watch for and I think it is beautiful.
UA: Deep inside at a personal level I would cherish and preserve the slowness with which one delves into things. While there is an apparent speed shown to tick the boxes and work with the demands of the time, there is another clock which is the inner clock which is looking at things more deeply and you know very well that what emerges from it, can be plugged into something that is on the assembly line. That is something that has been honed and that is one of the tools to be hands on. This is something that I would not give up for anything.
The other aspect is that, in our practice, our individual temperaments, our ‘svaabhaav’ so to say, reflects in our work. There is an amalgam and an influence of several things like where you travel, whom you meet, what do you cook, whose food you eat, why do you like food, how do you grow your own food, whose seeds have you gotten into your garden and what are you growing, how are you sharing your seeds, what are plants in somebody else’s garden doing from the seeds that you have given them. These are all important aspects that connect us into a wholesome understanding of how we are as human beings and to us that is a very important aspect.
When I am in the garden and I am watching the bottle gourd plant grow and hope it extends its system to hold on to nearby support as its weight is growing, is a fantastic phenomenon to watch and so at that point, I would take photos of that and share it with B L Manjunath and that is how the shared knowledge of what you observe connects to your peers because you know that it is going to be of value to them and then there will be something of an exchange that will happen which will be enriching not only for you but for others.
There is this deep wish that whatever you do is open source, it is shared, and it is seen in a certain way, so that forms the core of the practice.
MA: What we love are the connections that we have made with people through work. Work is not an end in itself, it is just one of the points, but what is larger and what is meaningful and what gives us the most happiness is the way people habit what you made for them. When they give their feedback, their thoughts and their joys; that is something that you cannot quantify in words. It is something which gives you a lot of happiness and courage to go forth. Also, the relationships that you foster with the people on the site, with your construction team, fabricator, carpenter, client, everybody and these are the relationships we deeply cherish and we have always stood for them.
We are not an island, we always have a network of these beautiful connections which form a part of work and I think these are the things that add value, and these are the things that you look forward to the most. Projects will end but the process and your connections continue.
MA: Practising in India today has very different levels, there is a whole multitude of things which are going on. There is one kind of practice within the urban cities and urban metros, then there is another kind of practice in the peripheries and they have completely different aspects in the rural belts. Not all of us are cognisant or have the wherewithal to understand all the complexities of these needs but given that we are a very complex and variable culture, there is non-linearity of every thought.
We need to recognise that there can be simultaneous ways of doing things in any given situation. What we need to hold onto or what is of value is how truthfully, simply and frugally can we achieve it?
We are a resource trapped global economy. Now we are also experiencing extremely serious climate issues, the world is in a peril environmentally even if you admit it or not and if you do not focus or zero on to these aspects then I think you are doing great disservice to your profession in a way that you are not addressing what is of value. But how to practise within it? What expression to work as your own? What kind of aesthetic or style or fad or whatever that you adhere to? It is completely your own game whether you think that is of credence or not is also something that you need to value for yourselves. We do not value that much, but I know that there are practices which give a lot of credence to that and there is something interesting that is emergent also that must be looked at.
I think we need to open our hearts and minds to many very different things and figure out what is of value for that particular work but there is no such overarching kind of statement that one can make. There is a lot of self-consciousness to work which was probably not there before because we are now a digitised, connected people. But even so, I feel that what we need to grapple with is something which is very fundamental and that can always give you a sense of purpose and we need to hold on to that as professionals.
UA: I think social media is bringing into focus a lot of small, lovely interventions across the country that are meaningful as the stuff that we would have missed out fifteen years ago and so what I delight on is the fact that there are small practices who understand that there are certain right ways of doing things that they are fighting it out in some remote corner somewhere to do something meaningful. I think that is very heartening and also inspiring. So, something that gets recognised or seen out of small efforts in these times brings a lot of joy and hope to what we see as the future of the profession.
The future of the profession is not going to be defined by the top few practices, whose works are good to shape larger political decisions or others, I think the future will be defined by these little practices that will go and make somebody’s home a better than what it used to be or fix something that was broken and those are the things that will matter.
To me that is fine enough that we will be absorbed as meaningful entities doing our stuff within the larger milieu of things. I do not think that the profession should make larger claims than that. We have a lot of students coming out of schools who dream of doing something that is recognisable, they are all trying to find their foothold but I think the feet you need to find are right next to you with the knowledge that you have. I think if that happens, then we will see a lot more better change. But if you say or ask if there is a particular narrative developing out of what is happening, it is very hard to decipher but there is a very strong credence being given to making your mark or being recognised on an international seat. I think that while some value it, that should never be the end goal, the end goal should be to be effective in the space which is waiting for you.
Images and Drawings: All images and drawings are courtesy of Indigo Architects unless specified otherwise
Filming: Space Communication
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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