Category Archives: Architecture

Architects on Architecture : GRCA: Gaurav Roy Choudhury

In this edition of ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we speak with Gaurav Roy Choudhury of GRCA about his influences, practice, design thinking and pedagogy, and engagement with the discourse of architecture in India today.


TRANSCRIPT

Recorded on 24th May, 2017

Q: Was architecture your first choice?

Gaurav: Yes, it was. I was a kid when my parents decided to build a house in Salt Lake, Calcutta. And my dad was a naval officer, we barely had any money. So we just built a ground floor structure and I remember going there. I think I was maybe six or seven. I used to go there and ask them; why cannot we do a loft here, why cannot we do this here or that? And my mom is an artist. So, at that point only everyone kind of started saying that this guy is going to be an architect. It was very strange, and I mean I did not really know what architecture was or anything of that sort but it got fixed at that point of time that we were going to do architecture- this boy is going to do architecture. And we rolled with it almost till the 12th standard. The only thing about architecture which I liked at the time was that I did not have to really study for the HSC examination because everyone was studying and I just wanted to clear so that I am good to go. Of course, the course was completely different. It was nothing like what I had imagined architecture would be. And I am glad for that so to speak. I always had a very good imagination. Even as a kid I used to like drawing things out of nowhere. I used to be in my own world most of the time. So I would just draw, sketch, make things, stuff like that and people did not know where I was; in lots of ways, they did not know what I was doing. I used to sit inside the blankets, carve tunnels, I was always up to something and so I think that was something which I am actually going back to in practice in a lot of ways- just building your world, building your own thought process. So it just kind of happened to some extent. But it was not because I did not get into engineering that I did architecture. That did not happen with me.

Q: You studied architecture at KRVIA, Mumbai. Tell us about your experience and influences.

Gaurav:  KRVIA, at least when we came in, it had just formed. I think it had formed in ’91.  That was the first batch. Sen Kapadia was running it when we joined. I joined in ’97. When we came in we had a great set of faculty who were very young. There was a guy called Chaitanya who is an art critic. He was the first “impact person” in our college. He had this beautiful way of commanding us, he made us really think. The first six months no one knew where we were because we had just been exposed to something which we could not relate to what our lives were before. And so, KRVIA itself was a really nice experience. It was intense, very intense. We had a lot of mentors, all of whom were very young but they taught us how to be sensitive, how to be, how to think, how to question everything. I think that is the thing which I learnt from KRVIA– to question everything, every single thing. Even if you are really comfortable with something, question it.

Q: Was there a particular studio that grounded you at some point, during your time at KRVIA?

Gaurav:  Yes, there was this professor called Manoj Parmar, I do not know if you have heard of him. He had this very intense Basic Design class, which was something we dreaded because we had to work like dogs. First year, I think we produced at least a hundred and fifty models or so. Our lives basically just revolved between Tuesdays and Fridays and Fridays and Tuesdays, which were our studio days. He just made us work. We got half of what he was trying to do with us- when we presented our work he would tell us why he liked something here or liked something there. We understood why he liked it, but slowly over a period of time, we figured out why and we began thinking for ourselves. He did not tell us because he would not spoon feed us. The hard work automatically made us think. Because we were making with our hands we were constantly thinking. So I think that became a backbone for the skill. You know architecture according to me is first a skill, like painting, like art or anything of that sort; it is a skill, which then goes beyond with how you choose to express it. That was the skill level which he had kind of imbibed through this idea of craft for us. And for me, I am still exploring it. It is said that you can do anything- we can create, we can make people laugh, we can make people cry in architecture by creating spaces; it the foundation where we learned what this craft is. Scale, light, all of it was very intense. And I think the intensity is what made us kind of made us go where we wanted.

Q: Is there a skill you honed during under-graduation that you still largely use in your practice?

Gaurav:  I mainly sketch. I was never a model guy. Because somehow for me, my mind raced so fast that I knew what the model would eventually look like. Even while I was making a model I would wonder why I was making it! So, I would make models for my final submission which was a requirement, but I always felt that the model making process is too slow to keep up with my mind. I used to sketch a lot, and today I have reached a point where my sketches also cannot keep up with my thoughts, you know. But sketching is still something I practice and I read. I watch a lot of movies. I think that is something which Kamala Raheja got me into because we had a film club there. We formed a film club. We had a lot of filmmakers coming in from everywhere and talking to us. So it was not just an architecture school, we had artists who were a part of our faculty so that kind of diversity gave us an overall idea of design, of architecture, which is not necessarily what we are seeing today- this separate kind of a field. I am very grateful for my time at Kamala Raheja.

Q: After graduating, what were your next steps?

Gaurav: I trained under Dean D’Cruz as an intern which was a really good experience. Of course it was for just four – five months so I decided why not Goa! We had a lot of fun in his office. He is a very nice person. He gave me a lot of responsibility as a trainee and I have very fond memories of Goa. In fact, I have made a lot of good friends there. After that I did a fellowship at Kamala Raheja– a research fellowship along with teaching, as an assistant. That I did for a year and a half. From the end of 2000, till 2004, I was researching on how the perception of infrastructure had changed since 1991, since the time of liberalisation. So my research basically studied how today flyovers were more important than local trains and how they changed the city, how the city was restructuring, how they became another layer and how the roads are now agents for the private car.

So, therefore it is also where the buildings are seen from, the foreground you know. How the glass buildings and the shiny facades and all of those things followed the infrastructure and how the slums went under them- what I started talking about then, is very apparent today in Bombay. Whenever I go, I observe how these layers have been created, and how the city has just kind of gentrified. Even the slums which were in front, on the main road have now been pushed behind and you have these towers coming up. So you have this rich-poor divide which has been created.

Image from the KRVIA Fellowship Thesis

That is what my fellowship thesis talked about. I was there till 2004 after which I moved to Bangalore. A couple of friends and I, in the meantime, worked on this project- a competition for NAAC, which is in Bangalore for which we got a commendation after which I moved to Bangalore and started working at Mathew and Ghosh Architects.

Q:  When did you set up GRCA?

Gaurav:  I always wanted to pursue a Masters and there were various reasons why I could not go, so I kept deferring it. My practice was actually temporary till 2010. I never actually embraced it until 2010 when I got a big project. The recession had hit and people were coming back because they could not get a job in The US. That was when I told myself, let us make this practice a permanent thing, be at ease with it and go with the flow. So till 2010 actually, it was more of a freelance practice. Only in 2010 I decided to setup something permanent. The practice was working for me, I had got some work out, I had finished some work and I was doing some good work, I had opportunities. I was a ‘nobody’, I mean; I did not know anyone in Bangalore. So it was more like I had gotten little nuggets of projects which I was surviving on, till I decided to go for my further studies. So I think 2010 is actually where I said, “Okay, this is a practice.”

Q: Could you tell us about your first big break?

Gaurav:  It is very interesting because I have Mathew and Ghosh Architects to thank for that. I had worked on a project in their office for almost two years. It was a house for a very interesting client- a very difficult client also to work with, he will agree with me! He kept making us change the design, you know. He had a very low budget with which he wanted us to do a lot. So we designed and each time it was ready for tender he would say, “No, let us do again!” So we did it again and another six months went by, until a point when Shoumitro and Nisha took a call and said, “Okay listen why don’t you go to some other architect?” We told them it was not working out, because it had already been two years and we had gotten nowhere! And they really liked me since I was the one interacting with them. But somehow it did not work out. While I was leaving Mathew and Ghosh, they wanted to come back. They called up Shoumitro and said that they wanted to come back. They went to other architects but they did not like it there and so they came back. So Shoumitro kind of suggested that since Gaurav is leaving, why don’t you contact him and they were thrilled with that idea because, a lot of the reason why they were coming back was because of me. So that was my first project.

Of course we did not redesign the house completely because we had already worked on it for two years. So within two months of getting that project, we started construction. Because we had already done so much work before you know. So that is the Ghose House. That is the first project which I did.

Q: What are the processes pertinent to your practice?

Gaurav:  Firstly for me architecture is very personal thing. I hate saying this but I see myself more in tune with what an artist does than an architect. And I have always been like that, I have always been the guy who is sitting in the corner, sketching, no one knows what he is sketching, but he is at it, you know. And it is all happening in his head. So I have always been one of those people. For me, it has always been very difficult to design in a group. I have been in partnerships before, in fact I have partnered on two-three projects where it did not kind of work out mainly because of me- because I have found it difficult to communicate, to listen to the process. I have always seen my practice as a very small practise- always. I like intensity- more than anything, I like intensity. I am not a ‘top of the head person’ at all. I cannot look at a wall and just decide that blue looks good on it- I am not that guy. I need to think, I need to think about the light, I need to close my eyes, I need to see the whole thing, I need to think about everything before I do it. So, for me the intensity is very crucial. I am always looking out for people to work with who are very intimate with their designs. That is something which I always look for. I like discussions where you talk about the overall- I do not like talking about the edge and the detail. I feel that once you have the overall discussion and the person has the intensity, all these things get figured out. So, I am always on the hunt for people where the architecture shows depth, intensity and their involvement in design.

Q: What kind of work appeals to you? Are there any buildings you invariably go back to from experience or memory?

Gaurav:  As a kid, my dad had bought me one of those encyclopaedias. In that, under architecture, there was this housing project in Toronto, the one with the blocks- I am trying to remember his name.

Matter: Moshe Safdie‘s Habitat 67?

Gaurav: Yes! So that was something that just blew my mind. At that age, you know I wondered how could buildings be like this, how was it possible? I was thinking of all the spaces inside and that is probably the only kind of building which I have always been in awe of. You need to have tremendous imagination and vision to kind of create something like that at that point in time. Of course today it is a different matter but at that point in time, when we had not seen anything like that, let alone experience something like that! I would love to visit it someday. Once I got into architecture I think, Tadao Ando had a big impact on me. When you see his work, it is so simple- that it makes your shoulders go, “Ah! okay, relax.” Because he is just talking about what it is to be felt, what it is to be kind of realised and so Ando’s work from the start triggered something in me. That was the period of time in college when I started getting interested in my own work; it had Ando there, behind it. That was something which was very interesting for me.

Q: You mentioned you like reading. What do you enjoy reading?

Gaurav: I like science fiction; I like fantasy, more than architecture which I find a little dry. I like things which make me imagine worlds, make me plugin to all the details- like The Lord of the Rings, I remember every part of it! It is as if I experienced it! Each time I watch that film, I have my own rendition in my mind. I do not remember books which are story based, which do not have good imagery. I would not even remember it ten days after as I have a very poor memory, in terms of factual stuff. But if it is imagined, if I have visualised it- it will stay with me forever. I cannot remember dates- I cannot remember when or what. I simply cannot! But as soon as there is imagery, it will be etched in my mind. And same thing with my buildings, I know every building of mine, every corner- if a person calls me about a problem in a building completed five years ago on the phone, I would be able to tell them what to do because it is there in my head.

Q: Would you say films are something you relate a lot to?

Gaurav: I do see some really good architecture, I see a lot good Japanese architecture coming up, a lot of South Asian Architecture more than the European stuff. I and a friend of mine formed the film club back in our college days and we had a lot of directors and filmmakers visiting us. We would have talks at the end of every film, and it stirred something in me which I do not think architecture could have done you know, so I watch a lot of films. I am always finding out what are the cool, nice films, the art films, which are kind of doing the circuit- I watch it, talk about it and try and kind of gauge what they made me feel and why I felt strongly about them. Films I feel are, at least for me- they can blow your mind completely. I watch roughly around at least three films a week.

Q: Do you have a studio culture?

Gaurav: I think I am a little bit of an individualist. I enjoy getting people into their zones, getting them to understand themselves, to be honest with themselves- then I leave them. Even while I was teaching at RV College, I have always asked my students to be very honest with their selves. When you know that you are fooling yourself or when someone is making you do something without you knowing, first thing is to shake it off. You know, for me, that is the process. Because in terms of design, every person designs differently, every person has different influences. So I am not the person who would try and create a studio and then try and make them work like me. I do not do that. I ask questions at a much larger level. If I am giving them work, which is itself a big move for me, then it is to deal with them at that level and then let them take it up and I am not going to look at it after that, you know, I do not critique, and even if I look at it in detail, I will give a critique at the larger level. If they are fooling themselves, if they are forcing or if there is violence in certain things- those are the kind of things where you have to be relaxed. I see architecture, or architects as a medium. And as a medium we have to be very responsible. Our responsibility should be to maintain our state of mind, more than anything because as soon as we are stressed and tensed or eager or have certain ideas which we want planted in, then we are not doing justice to being a medium. So it is important to let go of all ego and then design. For me it is very important while designing, just to make sure that you are doing justice to hearing things, which you normally would not hear, it is important! That is the culture which I generally try to inculcate, it is a very individual based and not an architect based culture. It is a person based culture where you are reminding someone to listen, relax- and ask yourself those questions, maybe a hundred questions about why are you doing this, is this more important or is this more important? Having a clear agenda is the most important thing. If you do not have this then your design is going to show the confusion. I mentor people in that format where I do not really tell them what to do or how to do it.

Q: You used to teach at RV College in Bangalore. Do you consider teaching as an important contributor of growth as a professional?

Gaurav: There is a merge of two things when you teach- distance and proximity. I think the objectivity which you have in teaching- sometimes zooming in and zooming out. In our practice we are sometimes very close to what we do, but you need that kind of objectivity where you step back and be critical of yourself and understanding. Even at RV there was no problem with the ideas, the problems were there in terms of the skill which I talked about. You know, where I find the newer colleges lacking is, the lack of the skill. They have beautiful ideas but their architecture just does not do justice to that and that is where I kind of plug in. So I am always trying to kind of push them. The problem with these 3D tools is it takes too much time; they do not keep pace with your mind. By the time you are done, all your ideas which came while you are doing it, have just gone. That is something I always follow in my office- I do not let people do 3D or get onto the computer until we have reached a more detail based stage.

Q: What concerns you the most about the state of architecture in India, today? What would you like to see change? How do you think it can be salvaged?

Gaurav: There are a lot of which gets onto me, honestly speaking. I think the biggest thing which concerns me is that, it does not necessarily have to do with architecture but it has to do with everything- this hyper-realism we are living in right now is a result of the last twenty years. That is what happens when you open a floodgate to an economy. So, I think what has happened is our cities have become things which are just about to die. We have created this huge amount of money capital with these ‘western’ kinds of things we are aspiring to be and do. In construction we are finding it very difficult to get good workers, because they would rather be an Uber driver! I think we need to as a Nation figure out where we are, because it is getting more and more difficult to construct in India. I know at least ten carpenters, really good people, who have left their jobs and become Uber drivers because we do not reward them enough, we do not value what they do. They are as good as me, you, any one you know! They are really good at what they do and they are kind of leaving. That has become a big problem in terms of the practice, but in terms of architecture itself I think I am not very pleased with how it has become so image-based. Where we have so much we can do as architects, but everyone is trying to do things with very nice facades and pictures, all very composed. And that is something which is a little disheartening, because why would you aspire for a two dimensional thing, when we are working with three dimensions? That also has a lot to do with the teaching which is going on in these colleges, they do not have skill. You know you can make something beautiful out of a space like this. You can create all kinds of things with just a space like this and if you have it in your head that you can do it, then you will do it, but most of the people who are passing out wonder what can I do with a space like this? And that is the, the tragedy of it. Everyone is kind of losing out on this beautiful skill and medium we have. I think that is something which saddens me. When I see a lot of these architecture magazines, it is all two-dimensional, there is no spatiality, there is nothing! It is becoming completely compositional you know and that saddens me a lot. I am doing a lot of projects which is going away from that. I am projects which are not image-able.

Even if you went there and spent hours and you came back, and you try and give yourself a snapshot of the house or building, you cannot, but you can feel it! When you go somewhere, you cannot describe it in a physical way but you can describe it in- what it made you do or how it made you feel. So I am trying to push myself to create those kind of buildings which are all about the feel, where you come back and you cannot go and say that they have a unit there and I want to make the same unit in my house- no, there is no unit, it is all one thing. So there are no separate things there, it is one thing which cannot be imagined, which can only be felt. So I am really trying to push architecture to a level where, where no photograph is composed. It leaks, because that is the experience also and at the end of the day you have a project which, it kind of has had an impact on you, but at the same point you cannot recollect it.

Q: What is it like working with young professionals?

Gaurav:  Firstly, I am just trying to become a better a person, number one, and do better architecture, number two, by being a better person, you know. And trying to get all the arrogance out, I do not really put any other trait into my practice. I am not trying to achieve anything, I am just this quite guy who is trying to do his work, trying to be a better person and do it in the best way I can.  Being as honest as I can to myself, and that is what I continue to do. So that is my practice and that is separate. That is going to be right till whenever. Now I am not really looking at an audience in terms of what it does but I would always try and, if I interacted with younger people, I would always say that, listen, you know, because we have all these fixed ideas, where is it coming from? Why is it there? Is it right, is it wrong, and is it okay? Those are the things which I ask. I had gone for a thesis jury recently to RV College and one person was building a big giant structure in this town in Karnataka. It was in Aihole. It has some ancient ruins and things like that so the structure which he was building was supposed to make the ruins look good, make it a tourist spot and so on. Perfectly valid as an exercise but, for you to do it in a sensitive way, or to do justice to a project like that you have got to go there, stay there for a month maybe. Do not be an outsider; if you are an outsider, doing a place, in the village, your structure is going to look like that. It is going to look like a UFO. Which is what it looked like – it looked like a UFO had landed! And I said, “Listen, what are you doing? Why are you doing this?” Those are things which we have to ask. Why are we going to these villages which have been fine without our influence? So the architecture comes from a point of view of power, you know. And that is something that troubles me. Even when we are doing a slum rehabilitation, there are these grand proposals which want to better these people’s lives, but again, why are we thinking of it as ‘them’ and ‘us’? So that power structure creates a kind of architecture which will only enhance difference. And that is something which I always try and tell my students that where you are has everything to do with what you do. If you are seeing yourself as this educated, well-informed thing and it is your job to help poor people then you are not really going to be doing too much help. If you feel that, “I need to help people.” And then you go and do it, that’s a different approach altogether because you see yourself at par. If you are doing it from a level then you are not really doing anything, you know. So that is something which I look at a lot. Even when I am analysing projects in a magazine, I am always trying to look at what is the process. I had done one workshop in Kamala Raheja two and a half years back, where we had a group of people and we went and studied random buildings, like four-five buildings on random streets. And they had no consequences; as in we did not choose things along the edge or things along a periphery. We did not choose, we just went with normal buildings, and without asking anyone gave a report where we looked at the boundary wall- if it was really high, okay, maybe do not like each other, or if you had a God’s statue somewhere outside or one part of it was built later and something was built later, so then you see change over a period of time, the styles, and the chajjas and the sloping roofs of the 80’s, et cetera. So we kind of assessed everything, based on just looking.

Kabootar Khana, Dadar

 

And you’ll be surprised to know that almost everyone could make an axonometric, starting from the 1930’s, showing all the layers, without talking to anyone, deciphering what was he thinking at that point in time.

 

Kabootar Khana, Dadar

 

Today we cover all the space possible, right? So you will see the buildings on this road which you were coming from (Cox Town, Bengaluru) – there is so much space on either side. The thinking was different then you know they all have these sloping roofs. So first thing which I try and teach in design is the ability to read architecture- I should be able to see insecurity immediately, I should be able to see a person trying to outdo himself, I should be able to read what are his aspirations, what they want to do, where is it coming from, all of those things, just by seeing a building. Similarly once you know that architecture can be read to that level, then you have far more responsibility to understand what frame of mind you are when you are designing, something which I always do. I try and see if you are trying too hard, maybe go back, try it again and stay honest with yourself and next day you should wake up and really love it. That is when you know you have kind of achieved something. I am trying to, in my own way, trying to get back to architecture in my own practice as a human being. How you work, how you think, all these pretences which are there, you know, going through it, deconstructing it, because the more you deconstruct, the more genuine you can be, the more you question why it is there, you know more layers erupt as you remove, and your vantage changes to propose something which is more meaningful. So that is basically it.

Q: Do you have a wish-list project?

Gaurav:  I am very careful today of these traps. I call them traps because they are us just dying to do something and you are probably going to mess it up, you know. And that is how it works. I think for me, every project, even if it is a toilet, if someone comes to me and says they want a toilet, I am going to put in everything I can and be as honest as I can. And that is how my practice has been, it has been very small. We started off with toilets. So, I love all kinds of design and I give it the same amount of importance. Of course, as you grow as a practice, you get more power and you can do more, but I am really very content just as an architect. I do not feel that I have to prove anything. I think the only thing which I need to prove is to me that I am being honest with my work. I do not apply for awards, because I do not like the way the industry is heading. It has become like this corporate cum architecture kind of a nexus, and everyone wants to put up an award and we architects, because we need to win an award, take prints and send it to them where someone will be dancing on the stage and somehow this does not appeal to me at all. I am very happy doing my work in a small setup, doing what I think is good work, what I think is relevant work. I keep on making sure that my mind is continuously moving, continuously thinking, continuously assessing, continuously analysing what we have, being critical of everything we have and making sure that the architecture I am doing is well-informed and relevant. That is basically it.

Q: What would you say is the vision for your practice?

Gaurav:  I think the biggest mistakes architects do, is the scale thing. I have seen and worked in practices where people have not understood their own work you know and they have gone beyond it and they have been dishonest to themselves, that is one. Mine is a four-five men office and they have gone to twenty – twenty five and they are trying to do the same kind of work and it is a struggle, it is a crisis every day. That is my worst nightmare. Actually, my worst nightmare is too much work, you know. I would hate it, because I would have to come up with things which I am not happy with and that is something which I will lose sleep over. So, for me it is about what you do. A big practice today gets the best projects, but what do they do with it? For me growth is being able to grow to a scale where I get those projects which I can give my maximum to. So the growth is in terms of what you do, rather than the scale of how many projects you are taking in. That is something I have always been trying to push, across all my projects, whether in terms of budget, complexity or how difficult it is to build. I am always on the edge of that because, unless I create an exercise where I am in this space which is  taking up a volume and it is continuously pushing, more the freedom I get, I will push my architecture further and further. So what I am basically training myself to do is to not leave an inch of gap. That is a shame for me. If you have got this much space, take it! As and when you get a larger space, take it all in and do the best you can. So that’s my basic thing. It is not to put myself in a position, in a circumstance where I am unable to do it or deliver the best, but be truthful to the context, giving myself enough time to analyse the project to the core. And that is my oath, as an architect. ♦


The discussion was curated by Hrushita Davey on 24th May 2017 at GRCA‘s studio in Bengaluru.


Inside the GRCA Studio

GRCA, a Bengaluru-based architecture studio is a young firm headed by architect Gaurav Roy Choudhury, which strives to absorb all domains of influence and exposure, with the hopes of redefining an honest architecture- taking the project brief from the “said” to the “unsaid”.


 

 

 

 

School Without Walls

In a curated series on archival texts, views, discussions and comments on the state of architecture and design education in India, Professor Chhaya critically questions the idea and role of an institution in an increasingly multidisciplinary design world, outlining his thoughts on a desired model for an architecture school and the values associated with the same. 


Continue reading School Without Walls

SITE VISIT: IQ CITY PROJECT BY ABIN DESIGN STUDIO – REVIEW BY AYAN SEN

Amidst the urban conglomeration of Durgapur sits the IQ City Township, replete with a dedicated institutional and medical precinct. A recent addition to this is a 45000 sqft Nursing College designed by Kolkata-based Abin Design Studio. Ayan Sen, Principal, Ayan Sen Architects, analyses the response and rhythm of this new insert into the existing planning scheme and writes this piece as an insight into the functional and spatial aspects of the design.

Continue reading SITE VISIT: IQ CITY PROJECT BY ABIN DESIGN STUDIO – REVIEW BY AYAN SEN

Humanising Architecture by Sandeep Virmani

In this transcript of a lecture presented by Sandeep Virmani of Bhuj-based Hunnarshala Foundation at the Z-Axis Conference 2016, he talks about the inclusive process of design and planning at Hunnarshala which hinges on the idea of human resource as the fountainhead of all building activity.

About three years ago I was in Phobjikha Valley, in central Bhutan, in search of the rare white stroked crane. [S2] I was told they had just descended from Tibet for the summer. Early the next morning I awoke to their distinctive call drift into my open window, through the thick mist outside. The morning light had still not broken and I quickly put on my jacket, and with a torch and binoculars, stepped out in the direction from where their calls came. As I moved forward, the crane calls were coupled with a faint thumping sound as well. As the thumping grew louder, I realised it was following the rhythmic sound of a song. On going further, I saw a group of men and women standing atop a wall they were building and hammering their rammers; they were making a rammed earth wall.[S3-S7] I learnt they gathered every morning for three hours to make her house, after which the owner, a single woman, fed them butter tea and ema datshi and they then went off to work for the day.

Closer to home, in the Aravalli Range that enters Gujarat from Rajasthan I saw the Bhil people build rammed earth homes for one another. [S8] Over the past five years, we have done housing studies to recommend designs to five state governments and consistently everywhere communities come together to help one another to build. In Kutch where I come from, this practice is called ‘Abhat’.[S9] They make homes, wells, clear fields, anything where the trust and faith of a group, the social capital can be realised for mutual benefit. [S10-S19] This is generally a system that can be found amongst tribal and pastoral communities across the Asian subcontinent. I am sure it is a practice that was prevalent across the world. It always ends with food, bidis/cigarettes, a locally brewed wine in some communities and celebrating the feeling of camaraderie.

In caste-based societies, the task of building was specialised by a particular group like the Gajjars, Mistris, Meghwals etc. They took responsibility for the home they built through its life cycle and were called upon to design modifications and additions to the home. They also received patronage, particularly from the trading communities and became skilled craftsmen in decorating buildings in stone, wood and metal.

It is the same communities who come into our cities to build for us today; 35 million such artisans and builders (30% of our population). A recent study by Prof Dileep Kumar from Pune, [S20] shows that only 3.6% of us pay them even the minimum wage; 64% of us pay them only Rs50-100/-, only one-third of their prescribed due. We get them to work 10-11 hours and do not even pay them any overtime (66%). We do not give them any housing (66%), water (80%), electricity (71%) or basic sanitation (74%) while they work for us. We do not provide crèches (80%) for their children; and our industry ensures that 74% of their children are not even literate, robbing them of a better future.

Never mind developing a relationship with them, we have not only disrespected their knowledge and skills as builders but our designs are built on insulting basic human dignity! If this is the idea behind our modern buildings; I was prepared not to become an architect.

I did not know how to break through this conundrum; the building industry is so organised and the role of the architect so carefully placed at the very top of the construction chain that these artisans seemed too far away. I did not practice architecture for fifteen years, and would not have but for the earthquake in my city in 2001. As we organised the communities to rebuild, a group of tribals came looking for work.

I want to share with you the story of Rakesh Vesta,[S21] from a village in Madhya Pradesh. He is a skilled earth artisan who has built his own house in cob. But from the age of fifteen, he sold tea, worked as a labourer at the grain market, laid sewer pipelines in Ahmedabad and built roads and highways. With his team from Madhya Pradesh he helped us build 600 homes [S22-S26] for the less fortunate migrant dwellers in my city who were left homeless after the quake. We were building in earth – rammed earth, and as the tractor loads of earth arrived on site, Ramesh hesitatingly said, “This soil is not good Sir, it has traces of salinity in it!”. We tested it and it was in fact marginally saline, sufficient to erode the wall over time. Thereon, he was made quality supervisor for the project.

After the project, we asked him if he would consider forming a company along with his colleagues. It would give him negotiation power in the market apart from due respect. He was hesitant and continued for another couple of projects with us as a labourer, after which he entered into partnership with eight of his relatives and friends. We worked with him on standardising the technical parameters for stabilised earth blocks, adobe, wattle and daub, and rammed earth. He brought his brother who did not clear seventh standard to learn accounting from our finance head at Hunnarshala. We trained them to do rate analysis and quote for projects while our interns taught them how to read drawings. [S27-S28] Some of the projects he has delivered include Jetavan – a Buddhist Learning and Skill Development Centre for Sameep Padora at Sakarwadi. [S29-S41] Today, he runs a company with a turnover of Rs. 20 lakhs and provided intermittent employment to 100 others in his village.

In 2012, he led a team to Abu Dhabi to restore two royal 17th century forts for the Sheikhs. [S42-S52] A team of 100 artisans from India lent their skill and expertise in adobe that won Al Ain city and its buildings a UNESCO status. [S53-S54] In 2005 he went to Aceh, Indonesia after the tsunami which also saw the end of a 30 year old Aceh insurgency in Indonesia. It was a unique opportunity to train the survivors to set up an enterprise in making of stabilised earth blocks for rehabilitation. Hunnarshala has helped several such artisans who work in twelve such companies today. [S55] They aggregate a turnover of Rs1 crore (10 million) annually.

In 2011, Hunnarshala set up an artisan school, Karigarshala. [S56] This residential school has trained over a hundred young children to regain their lost confidence and set up their own small enterprises in carpentry and walling systems. [S57]-[S61] Ramesh has decided to give 10% of his profits to the school. He said, “It is my turn to repay; God has been merciful.” The Karigarshala school building has been built almost entirely by children from five successive years [S61-S63]. So the first idea that our buildings try and represent is providing dignity to the people who build them. At the end of every building project, we have a small ceremony in which the client acknowledges their contributions and knowledge. [S64-S65]

The second idea talks about how in the last few decades urban buildings worldwide have taken to building a smaller carbon footprint. After all our industry contributes 30% of all greenhouse gasses and it is slated to double in the next 20 years. There is however a dilemma around ‘green’ buildings – the rich want to simultaneously be consumptive and have a low carbon footprint. While there are a range of recycling and renewable technologies available today, there is negligible reduction in the consumption of energy or water or material. The poor are aspirational and they do not know that it is ‘fashionable’ today to live in a house made of earth! But the world is not all black and white; there are many poor who swear by their traditional ways of building even with altered lifestyles.

Today, there are thousands of youngsters questioning the very foundations of the industrial market economy. Hunnarshala‘s green technologies’ genesis lies in the rich living traditions. Every year for the past fifteen years we have come across several building techniques in our villages that have potential for city folk to learn from. A master artisan from the tradition helps with our research to make it available for the world to use. Today, I would like to share with you all a few of them.

Our latest revelation came from western Uttar Pradesh – the shallow masonry domes. [S66-S67] What is special about these domes is that they are shallow enough to flatten the top and make another story above. The technique enables a load bearing building to use 70% less steel, has a longer life span than RCC and is 25% cheaper! This more than five hundred year old tradition of building cloister or shallow domes, on any shape of room, was also practised in southern India but not anymore.

When we were helping the riot victims of Muzaffarnagar rebuild their lives, we asked their Master Mason, Nawab, who was also a riot victim to show us their abandoned homes. [S68-S69] Here is where we discovered these amazing domes. [S70-S94] Nawab, along with researcher Samuel Wilson from MIT,  is involved in an exciting research to standardise the technology. He helped us build the first house for a slum rehabilitation program in Bhuj using this technology. [S95-S97] Today he is helping Laurent build a public building in Orissa; this is the first time he has stepped out of his region and for the first time, we have a viable alternative for RCC.

I am about to share with you three unique ways of making homes ‘green’ and safe in earthquake prone areas and; all derived from our living traditions in Kutch, Uttarakhand and Kashmir.

Post 2001 in Kutch, while most of Bhuj that was built in concrete collapsed, the pastoral communities’ homes in the Banni Grasslands survived. [S98-S101] In one of our workshops with the Meghwal, artisans who build homes for Muslim nomads explained to us that the circular form of the Bhungas can withstand horizontal thrusts of an earthquake as the forces transfer through a circular form like in an arch. This circular form was introduced by their ancestors after an earthquake in 1819 with the region prone to seismic activity once every 50 years. We built close to 1200 Bhungas from stabilised earth with the Meghwals. [S102-S107] We exploited this knowledge to help the pastorals build a tourism facility called Sham-e-Sarhad. This was designed and built in collaboration with 12 different artisans. [S108-S115]

The second way to stabilise a wall under tension of lateral thrusts in a quake is by confining the masonry in between wooden frames. [S116-S118] Uttarakhand has several buildings that have survived brutal earthquakes with this technique. Professor Jagadish adapted this by replacing the wood with wires. [S119] The reason why this confinement is important is because the masonry stones could replace cement mortar with mud. We are building 200 homes for Buddhist nuns along the border of China in Nepal using this modification from Uttarakhand. [S122-S133]

In the Tangdhar Valley of Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake, the only buildings that stood were those that did not anchor their foundations into the ground. [S134] Known as ‘floating foundations’, they detach the foundation from the superstructure by placing a wooden frame over it. Trained engineers found it difficult to understand how this allows the forces of the quake to dissipate at the foundation thereby restricting them from entering the superstructure. This is the primary difference in the way tradition approaches nature (and life) as opposed to modern thinking; they do fight the forces but respect and use them to their advantage. We helped the community use this ‘isolated foundation’ to build 7000 interim shelters. [S135-138]

Over time we have discovered many technologies, but we essentially rely upon the basic science that tradition has already developed for us. Our own office is a tribute to all the technologies we have learnt from various traditions.[S139-S150] But beyond all this the first principle of being ecologically sensitive is to simply build less. If you have a house do not build a farm house; if you can manage with two bedrooms do not build three and so on. So the first question we ask when we agree to a project is, ‘Is this building really necessary, at all?’

The third idea that is core to our architecture is the process of design. Design is an expression of what we value as a community. In India most homes and neighbourhoods are still built without architects. Unfortunately and ironically in a democracy,  the market forces have shrunk the space where communities gather to discuss and articulate what they value. Caste based congregations are still struggling to find a base to reorganise. In our cities, it is the real estate which determines the fabric of our neighbourhood while in villages they still prefer the security and cooperation of their community. This is how they maintain an evolved trust and social capital that permits discussion on abstractions like what they collectively value and how it could be expressed through design.

Traditionally communities made incremental changes in response to changing opportunities, values and lifestyle. We at Hunnarshala try to widen these spaces for community discussions to concur, and express their collective identity. [S151] We recognise the strengths of their own traditions, new materials and introspect on what they value. Sometimes ideas emerge from the dignity of their own identities. But very often they pose ‘unresolved questions’, and we respect that as they are happy to have designed their own homes and are comfortable to live with an unresolved conundrum.

When we have not been able to house 60 million people, equipping the poor to build their home is an idea worth implementing. Unfortunately our architectural education believes that a building must represent ideas of the designer, and architects consider it mundane to be called upon to solve existential problems. Here, we have some communities and their facilitated designs. [S152-S163]

Ideas in buildings respond to prevalent problems society faces from time to time; and with this Hunnarshala strives to humanise buildings by addressing these three attributes in its practice and projects – providing dignity to the artisans, sharing the enjoyment and pride of building with them, strengthening our traditions by building with frugality and respect for nature, and democratising the process of design by using it as an opportunity for communities to reflect on their own values and expression. ♦


Hunnarshala Foundation is collective of professionals, artisans and craftsmen. From a campus in Bhuj, they involve themselves at the grassroots to respond to situations that are central to the social, cultural and economic landscape of India. By working with carpenters, masons, smiths and people in the building trade, they invest in vocational training, skill development and research on tacit and traditional systems of knowledge. They consistently work with communities with an idea of inclusive development, contributory planning and resilience against climate change. 


 

Site-Visit : B.S. Abdur Rahman University by architectureRED

With our cities growing at an incomprehensible pace, reformative delineations negotiating our built fabric often manifest into dense, ad-hoc environments with rocketing skylines and misplaced
socio-cultural semiotics. Responding to a consequential influx, the revival of B.S. Abdur Rahman University by architectureRED presents a case of place-making that attempts to restore an institutional culture by thriving on the nitty-gritty of a radically transformed, peripheral Chennai. Continue reading Site-Visit : B.S. Abdur Rahman University by architectureRED

Architects on Architecture : mayaPRAXIS: Dimple Mittal and Vijay Narnapatti

In this edition of ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we speak with Dimple Mittal and Vijay Narnapatti of mayaPRAXIS about their influences, practice, design thinking, and engagement with the discourse of architecture in India today.

Continue reading Architects on Architecture : mayaPRAXIS: Dimple Mittal and Vijay Narnapatti

What is Heritage? – Prem Chandavarkar

In context of the recent demolition of the Hall Of Nations, Prem Chandavarkar observes that the lacuna in understanding the definition and the meaning of heritage will lead to the loss of many valuable buildings that belong to our recent past.


A couple of weeks ago, the Hall of Nations, an exhibition hall in Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, was demolished to make way for a new convention and exhibition centre. The building was a rare example in the world, and the only one in India, of a space frame built in reinforced concrete.  Completed in 1972 and designed by architect Raj Rewal and structural engineer Mahendra Raj, it was widely recognised as one of the icons of a period of modern Indian architecture that started in the 1950s and continued till the 1980s. This was an era that centred on India’s desire that the potential of her newly won freedom should offer the country a new modernity, and the cutting-edge architecture of that time, produced by the first generation of post-independence architects, was a significant and powerful representation of this quest. Continue reading What is Heritage? – Prem Chandavarkar

Sahyadri School : Khushru Irani Design Studio, Pune

Amidst an overwhelming landscape of the Sahyadri range of Maharashtra nestles the Sahyadri School. Designed by Pune-based Khushru Irani Design Studio, the architecture is an ensemble of spaces sewn together with tactful geometry and generous circulation.

Situated on a remote site, the school was established as a residential campus in 1996 for students from class four to ten. The educational philosophy of the school has its roots in the profound teachings of J. Krishnamurti who envisioned a space of learning free from obstacles, close to nature. A proposed extension of the school to include class eleven and twelve presented itself with an opportunity to express the workings of two synergised design philosophies through architecture.

Panorama of the Residential Block

Continue reading Sahyadri School : Khushru Irani Design Studio, Pune

Indigo Architects: Mausami and Uday Andhare

Drawing to Find Out [04]

For Uday and Mausami Andhare, the process of sketching and drawing by hand pivots the design process as they work through the layers of an often messy path to architectural resolution. Looking through a cross-section of the rich visual material produced as a result, we attempt to capture the many purposes of drawing at Indigo Architects.

Continue reading Indigo Architects: Mausami and Uday Andhare

The Architecture of Hasmukh C. Patel : Selected Projects 1963-2003

With a career spanning four decades and a self-made legacy of some of the most significant works of Independent India, Hasmukh C. Patel’s architecture speaks volumes about the architect he embodies and the grit he possesses. A narrative of his personal and professional journey – the book showcases select 51 projects that summarise Patel’s architectural idiom in its entirety.

Book Cover: Looking between the expressed columns and the main wall of the front facade while entering the Newman Hall in Ahmedabad,1963
Book Cover: Looking between the expressed columns and the main wall of the front facade while entering the Newman Hall in Ahmedabad,1963

“…………………The human being is at the centre of my creative efforts…………………This is the only thing I understand and the only thing I practice.” – Hasmukh Patel Continue reading The Architecture of Hasmukh C. Patel : Selected Projects 1963-2003