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GANDHI OF SPATIAL DELIGHT: THE CRITICAL PRACTICE OF LAURIE BAKER

Himanshu Burte

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage


In this lecture, Dr Himanshu Burte speaks on the nature of Laurie Baker’s human-centric architectural practice; as an empiricist, environmentalist and extremely critical and creative practitioner.

Edited Transcript

So it is going to take a while for me to recover from one hour of Geoffrey Bawa and after this lush serenity, especially because I have to follow it up with an argument. But, I will go ahead and I am going to be talking about Laurie Baker. I have kept what I am saying fairly narrow and it is mainly in the form of a straight-on argument I am offering, and I am hoping that we can have a discussion afterwards, whenever we are scheduled. I have actually changed the title from what is published or what was originally given to it, because I actually took the title of my obituary for Baker, written just after he passed away and because of the resonance with yesterday’s discussion around Gandhi and Architecture.

I will begin by looking at the context, the objectives and the premises of what I have to say. To begin with, since this is about heritage and we are talking about Modern Heritage particularly, I approach heritage with the understanding that every map is really a plan. It just does not show you what is there, but it is a project. Heritage in that sense, I see as an exercise in constructing the future. By constructing the past in certain ways, by preserving certain memories and ascribing certain meanings to it, we are really constructing and doing the work of creating a future that we want. That I think extends to some extent to Prem‘s point, though I am sure he would not necessarily disagree with this. So, given that this is what is involved in thinking about heritage, it becomes very important to be conscious of our value positions and especially about the ethic of architecture, its politics, economics, the aesthetics and of course, the actual processes and practices that go into making the practice or the product itself. 

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Martand Khosla: Experiments of Urban Enquiry

Through his art and architecture, Martand Khosla has created a niche that lies at the intersection of the two fields. His installations embody philosophies from this undefinable space, as he extracts questions using art as a voice, and architecture as principles, to raise concerns about humanitarian aspects of societal and political systems.


The practice of Martand Khosla inhabits a transitional space between art and architecture, which enables him a platform to address concerns that transgress architecture as independent habitable spaces. He co-founded, and is a partner of the architectural practice RKDS (Romi Khosla Design Associates), which has obtained both national and international recognition through its award-winning designs.

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PRAXIS 11 | BARD Studio

An editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass, PRAXIS investigates the work and positions of diverse contemporary architecture practices in India. Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty discuss their work as curators, urban thinkers and educators, pondering upon new tools and ideas to comprehend the city and the human relationships within. Their work, through collectives of the likes of BARD Studio, CRIT, SEA and many others, engages the domains of practice and pedagogy through the principles of spatial economy, culture, ethics and justice.

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BARD Studio

Rupali Gupte, Prasad Shetty



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

BS: We started our practice in the early 2000s. The emerging city, questions of mapping, mechanics of form as connected to life, the idea of collectives, etc. have been the chief coordinates of our work. Very early on we realised that private practices around us did not have the bandwidth to deal with these questions. We did not want to develop a practice that was based in the values and frameworks of corporate capitalism, where brand identities become significant. Nor were we interested in a merely patron dependent practice. As students we helped set up the KRVIA design cell, a think tank to work on ideas of the city and architecture. Subsequently, CRIT, Co-Lab, a practice that we helped set up in Eritrea, BARD Studio, SEA all became logistical addresses for a long-duree, practice that we have been involved with, a practice that is interested in asking the first questions of space.

Our practice in the early 2000s started responding to how cities were changing as we were finding our roots to engage with the city. Pedagogy, research, artistic interventions, institutional experiments, spatial explorations, all became part of this engagement along with walking the city, story telling, making friends, etc.

We see this as a long-duree, practice where projects become merely moments in this process. We often do not consider our practice being just the two of us… we are interested in working with collectives.

In the late 90s we got involved in a project to make a  Master Plan for the Redevelopment of the Mill lands of Mumbai, headed by Charles Correa. We realised the limitations of the cartographic map and statistics, which are usually used to understand cities.  Both these forms are unable to handle the nuances and the politics of the place. The plan that was produced for this project met with its failure primarily because of this. The methods, tools, modes of understanding the city and engaging with it became the preoccupation of our practice. Since then we have been evolving newer ways of reading and engaging with cities.

What forms the basis of your practice now? What would you identify as the main intention of your work? What are the values of principles that it is grounded in?

BS: At this moment, our main intention is to understand the relationship between space (and other forms that structure humanity) and forms of life. Towards this we explore experimental pedagogy, research work, and various forms of artistic works including architecture. We do not tend to separate art, architecture and life. We try to articulate what it means to live like an architect rather than using it as a profession alone. Here the urge has been to constantly craft space of all kinds around oneself. At this moment we are also involved in crafting institutional space and making it relevant for pedagogy and practice.

Developing a non-asset, non-certificate centric post-institutional form for pedagogy and articulating a spatiality for this is also one of our core interests at this point.

The relationship between form and life has been critical. One of the concepts we are developing at the moment is the idea of transactional capacities, which is the capacity of the builtform for holding and promoting transactions. This has implications on how much diversity the builtform can hold, how much care, safety and security it can facilitate, how much intensity it can mobilise, what kind of resources it uses. We are looking at transactional capacity as a conceptual tool to validate builtform. We have been exploring these ideas through many of our works including ‘Transactional Objects’ which looked at the forms that the city produces through its intensity and which is unique to certain cities.

Another work ‘Itinerant Desires’ shown at the MAAT museum in Lisbon, folded in geopolitical as well as everyday scales.  For this work, we made an installation that learnt from the idiosyncratic spaces of the inner city of Mumbai with its corroded edges that houses many of these transactions. This installation spoke of social space, physical space and the relations between them.

We are also developing the concepts of ‘Small Forces’ and ‘Energetic Selves’, which we feel are the primary units which run cities and are completely missed in reading cities through maps and statistics. Small Forces are people’s individual obsessions, compassions and friendships, which we believe shape cities. We have documented numerous instances of these.

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

BS: We believe that Architects do not make buildings – they are made by masons, carpenters, plumbers, etc. Architects imagine new spaces. And they do it through drawing them. We spend a lot of time understanding space in its various dimensions. Space gets defined differently in different traditions and physicality is only a small part of it. For example, a dining space may be made very comfortable for a group of friends who meet and eat there. It may have climatic comfort, it may have a nice view, nice materials, etc. However, such a space may be extremely repressive to the cooks and the maids, who may find the oily, smelly, tightly arranged space of the kitchen more comforting. This is, social space at play here… There are many other forms of spaces. We believe that architects should engage with all these forms of spaces. Currently, architects only restrict themselves to the physical dimension of space, not realising that this has larger ramifications.

Our work has been in this direction through – writing, teaching, experimenting with spatial configurations, formulating concepts to understand space, etc.

In the exhibition ‘When is Space’, we invited around 27 spatial practitioners to experiment with different dimensions of space by producing it. As against conventional architectural exhibitions which are made of drawings and models this exhibition provided a litany of spatial explorations and different forms of structuring spaces. The pavilions and installations built by these practitioners corroded the otherwise strict 9 square grid of Jawahar Kala Kendra.

In another exploration at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona we tried to create a bulbous idiosyncratic form to again corrode the pristine white box architecture of Richard Meier, to create an intimate space for children to explore their fantasies. This also became a transactional space for multiplying imaginations for adults.

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 practice actively seek?

BS: This question presupposes an architect as a corporate worker. This idea consolidated only in the last 100 years or so. It makes architects part of a specific building industry.

The more interesting question would be how do architects get their projects – and does it imply that you become a good architect if you do more projects?

Because we believe that any architect is trained to work at multiple scales. An architect may fumble at a certain scale for the first time, but then, over two or three projects, they become comfortable.

In our practice we do not seek ‘projects’, we follow questions and projects happen on the way. We work and think across multiple scales – from the universal to atomic. We have been involved in designing  small furniture pieces as well as cities. For example, when we were invited by Okwui Enwezor to the Venice Biennale whose provocation was called ‘Of All the World’s Futures’, our proposition was to work towards a future which was not ‘out there’ but to understand the transactional capacities of urban form. For this we made a series of architectural sculptures that were speculations on the next step that the transactional objects in the city would take.

The Belly of the Strange at MACBA was a purple bulbous space, almost 6 meters on the outside, and an intimate three metres on the inside, with a pulpy orange interior one in which children’s books hung from prickly spokes on its interior. This was a transactional space for the children as well as the child in adults, asking one to reclaim their capacities to imagine.

At yet another scale, when we were invited by the Audi Urban Future Initiatives to think of the Future of Urban Mobility, we chose to question both Future as Well As Mobility. We said that Mobility for us was not transportation. It was much more. It was the ability of the urban individual to be mobile and navigate their own futures. We also argued that the future cannot be understood as a singular vision. It was multiple, depending on who was producing it. So instead of one project we devised 100 tools for people to use and navigate their own futures. There were catalogs for retrofitting old buildings, catalogs for rethinking urban infrastructures, calendars to read multiple times, catalogs to design the city of the old etc. In this project we worked with a large group that contributed multiple dimensions to the project.

In the project ‘Gurgaon Glossaries’ we devised a glossary as a tool to read cities. We argued that Gurgaon had either been seen through a celebratory frame or through the frame of lament of bad governance, laissez faire development etc. But our provocation was to stay within these two binaries to think of 100 terms that evolved as the city settled. Within this we found many more productive logics through which emancipatory city space was produced. Gurgaon Glossaries travelled from Gurgaon to Mumbai and Sao Paolo, engaging in multiple workshops and conversations to build on the glossary as a method to understand cities.

When we were asked to design the space of the Shanghai Biennale as architects, we did not become experts who designed the display for the exhibition, but became an integral part of the curatorial process. We came to know all the 99 works displayed. We created architecture as force fields through which the works could be imagined. The curators, Raqs Media Collective wanted the works not to be read as individual world but to refract each other and create ‘orbits’ through which one could read the works through ‘arguments and counter arguments’.

Our works do not necessarily come from singular clients. We have been thinking through the term settling. Often architecture as a modern project is imagined as a complete work. But spaces as they are produced settle slowly, incrementally. So at another scale, when we got a small art grant in collaboration with some artist friends, CAMP and Khanabadosh for working on a broad thematic concerning the public realm, we decided to use the money to make an infrastructure for this public realm in a resettlement colony in Mankhurd. We worked with people who had already started claiming and settling the place. We retrofitted an old dilapidated shed increasing its transactional capacity, making it an open scripted space for autodidacts to flourish. The space itself was an experiment in incremental building.

What is the nature of the design and thought processes pertinent to your practice? What are the tools of your practice?  How have the processes evolved over this decade? How does your studio participate in the process?

BS: This decade has been about our pedagogic experiments in architecture along with our artistic experiments. We along with our friends have been striving to set up an institutional model that creates an ecosystem for experimentation and exploration. This institution is a collection of practices and a space for practitioners – students pass through these practices as companions. We do not want to see the school as a ‘preparatory’ environment for a larger life – the school is a part of life – an important part where you learn to experiment.

We want pedagogy to open up lifeworlds for students, for them to find ways of living life aesthetically and empathetically.

Is there a consistent approach or enquiry at the core of the practice that drives it and informs the decision-making process? What are the factors and challenges that affect it? What are the opportunities you see?

BS: The core of the practice is to develop methods to see things in nuanced ways. We like to ask the first questions on space and inhabitation – the idea of permanence, privacy, property, etc. that has been so central in creation of space are all interrogated and we work towards forms that are incomplete, soft, incremental, diffusing differences between public and private, non-permanent, non-propertied, blurred, etc. This has been our intention and our politics.

How do the parallel engagements that you are invested in (such as teaching, curation, other initiatives) influence your process?

BS: There is nothing like parallel engagement – cooking, story telling, walking, spatial engagements are all part of living and life.

What is the aspect of your work that you value the most? What are the critical parameters of a project that make it successful for you?

BS: Interrogating systems of life and making friends are the two things that are super valuable. We interrogate through ideas of space and form.

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?

BS: We have a serious deficiency of spatial culture in this country – we do not discuss spatial economy nor do we discuss spatial justice. The coordinates for developing built-form for architects are usually tied to regulations, climatic comfort, materiality, engineering, etc. which is a limited palette. The client is usually the person who pays and not all other beings who use or get affected by the built-form.

The questions of spatial culture, spatial justice and ethics are critical and we engage with these at our school as well as in our own practice.


Images and Drawings: © BARD Studio
Filming: Accord Equips
Editing: Gasper D’souza, White Brick Wall 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. Praxis is an editorial project by Matter in partnership with Şişecam Flat Glass.


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CONTRAPUNTAL MODERNISM: THE ARCHITECTURE OF MUZHARUL ISLAM AND LOUIS KAHN

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage


In this lecture, Kazi Khaleed Ashraf discusses the works of two prominent contemporary architects – Muzharul Islam and Louis Kahn as counterpoints to modernism in the Indian subcontinent. He also speaks about understanding modernity, modernism and the positions either took in the way they practised architecture.

Edited Transcript

In the pursuit of framing and reframing modernism, perhaps we might have to rethink the various ways we described modernism, tropical modernism, we might have to call it – monsoon modernism. Monsoon in the subcontinent is what sank European modernism; that is something to think about. I have been tasked to talk about two architects – Muzharul Islam and Louis Kahn. Muzharul Islam is from Bangladesh. He is what one could describe as the kind of a father figure of modern architecture. That term, ‘father figure’, is how Ranjit Hoskote described Charles Correa. If you replace Charles Correa with Muzharul Islam and other specific details, that is Muzharul Islam in Bangladesh. He was an architect, teacher, activist and most importantly, he was openly engaged in politics. He was a hardcore Marxist, a politically engaged persona. So I think among all the pioneering architects we are discussing here today, this is an interesting moment to think about an architect, who is both – an architect professionally engaged with the larger cultural milieu, and also devotedly engaged in politics. And the other person whom you are more familiar with, especially I am thinking about the younger architects and students. I am not sure how much you are familiar with Muzharul Islam so I will be taking up the task of talking about him in the next fifteen-twenty minutes, but you are surely familiar with the other person, Louis Kahn, who was invited to Bangladesh, and Muzharul Islam was involved in that invitation.

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PRAXIS | 10 Studio ii

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 conversation, Mitul Desai and Priyank Parmar of Surat-based Studio ii reflect on their influences, and reveal the intensive process behind understanding architecture, details and the making of projects that lies at the core of their practice. They provide an insight into the ethos of a collaborative dynamic, and modes of thinking based on values and meaning.

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