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, Biju Kuriakose and Kishore Panikkar speak about practising with empathy through their Chennai-based studio, architectureRED. In the discussion, they elaborate on their intense design process, protecting the core idea of a project, and research as a means to understand the built fabric they are part of. The episode follows their individual journeys and outlines their collective approach to practice.Read more: PRAXIS 13 | architectureRED
Biju Kuriakose, Kishore Panikkar
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
BK: Biju Kuriakose
KP: Kishore Panikkar
BK: Both Kishore and me studied architecture together as undergraduates at Rizvi College of Architecture in Mumbai. We graduated in 1997 and then we went to completely different places. I went to New York to do my Master’s in Urban Design. Then I continued to work there and practised for ten years. Kishore had a different journey; he travelled across India and worked with different practices. In 2008, when I decided to come back, we started to have conversations, and I think that is where it all started.
Interestingly, by that time, Kishore had already settled in Chennai. Chennai, as a city, was completely an accident in many ways, because he was already here when I decided to move back. He was comfortable being in the south. Of course, both of us are originally from Kerala, so it was a close enough connection that we could come here and set up the practice and that is how we started. […]
There was a certain amount of understanding that what we wanted to do is just ‘good work’, do it the right way and work with a certain kind of passion and rigour. Beyond that, I do not think we set up any larger goals. I think it just happened organically over a period of time.
KP: There was always a basic fundamental level of trust and confidence that we had in each other. We are individually very different personalities, but foundationally, there is a very strong base of mutual trust and faith we have in each other. Right from college days, that has held us very well and has worked very well for us.
Of course, after college, we went our different ways. I wanted to dive straight into the practice and started working with a couple of practices. My initial years were with Salil Ranadive in Bombay. It was very formative. I interned with him and worked with him for a couple of years. His was a small studio, but doing very meaningful and good work in the housing sector. Being a small practice, I could directly work with Salil very closely. That was a great experience. […] It was still the days of drawing with pen and ink on gateway sheets. That built in a culture of slowness and of taking time with your work. Those two to three years were very crucial, very formative and very influential in the way things were getting moulded in our heads.
Then, I worked with Edifice Consultants Pvt Ltd which is a very large and very different practice in many ways from Salil’s. It is a very fast practice, doing a lot of work all across the country. It was a very buzzing, large office and things were moving very fast. That was the time when Ravi Sarangan & Sanjay Srinivasan were partners and were the principals at Edifice Consultants Pvt Ltd. They had a great influence in the way one should run a practice and the ethics and the honesty that one must bring to the practice; not only to the way you work but also to your people, to your contractors and to your clients. […]
Those ten years that we worked independently of each other had various different influences on both of us. That has greatly helped the practice when we decided to come together. We both bring in a diverse set of experiences, thoughts and processes from our parallel journeys to the practice and architectureRED has been enriched by that.
BK: ‘RED’ in the name architectureRED stands for ‘Research’ and ‘Design’. It has nothing to do with the colour red, although we are often asked the same question about why our card is black and not red. The first thing people ask is, “Where is red?” We were very clear that our practice has to be rooted in an understanding of the world and research has to be a key component of how we do the projects. It is not like research happens independently and practice happens independently. Every project in many ways becomes a research project for us. The name ‘Architecture Research and Design’ really comes from there. We want to look at ways to integrate all of them together. What we produce is eventually a mix of all of the work.
KP: We have always been a small-sized to mid-sized studio. We are now about forty people. It is a very informal studio and design space in that sense, like how we would like it to be. We have six associates who work with us; three senior associates and three associates. The projects are structured within this core group. The rest of the architects work with them as teams. Biju and I are involved in all projects and many a time, we get asked the question, “How do you divide projects among yourselves?” We do not. We work on all the projects; both of us are involved in all the projects.
We bring very different skillsets to the practice, and that is something we feel enriches the project. We make sure that we are part and parcel of every thought process that goes into the project. That is something we have been working on from day one. That is how our studio has evolved.
BK: For us, the core of it is, to really understand the world; practice is much more important than a set of projects. […] In almost all our projects, we are both involved; doing different things, trying to strategise different things in different stages of the project. […] As we grow, we are very clear that that will become more challenging. We are trying to see how to make it work. That is where these associates come in. […] These are people who have been with us for three to four years. We identify them because they come with a certain kind of attitude, rigour, passion and values that we have. In many ways they are similar to me and Kishore. They are quite diverse in their skillsets, understanding and outlook. We bring those people on board and then we try and develop them into positions of leadership. That is how we develop the studio.
We are very clear that if we have to develop the studio, it has to be through the development of the people and not through a system. The system will, of course, assist that, but unless we develop people and allow them to grow and understand the world better, it will not become a practice which is more meaningful.
KP: As a practice, we are quite clear that we do not want to get bracketed into doing one type of projects, and doing most of our work in one typology because, every project has its own challenges and they all inform each other. For us, we are very excited to work on various scales and various typologies because each of them informs the studio, informs the practice, and helps us grow individually and as architects. There is a lot of cross-knowledge and cross-sharing that happens between these projects, even though they are of different typologies. […] That is something that we actively seek; not a particular type of project but making sure that there is a variety of projects happening in the studio at any point of time.
BK: If you ask us what the five value systems of our office are, it is very difficult to look at it like that.
For us, architecture is a social act. You do not have to do a social project to express that; the making of the building and whatever you do is a social act. In many ways, empathy has to drive your thinking. Developing these people to look at things in a particular way and care for the work that you do is the core of what we do. That really sends the practice forward.
There is a wonderful quote by Murcutt who says, “If you give the love and care, if you work hard and do it with passion, even if the project does not end up great, it will still show the love and care.” For us, that is how we look at projects. All our projects may not end up being great or wonderful, but it will still show a certain kind of love and care. We constantly develop our team to look at things from that particular standpoint.
BK: When we get a project, we try and understand from the client what their aspirations are and we talk to them a lot in the beginning itself. […] In many ways, it works like a design studio. We identify two to three people who will probably work on that project. Then, we get into a rigorous mode of what we call conceptualising and creating a vision for that project. That process normally takes about five to six weeks. […]
We do not sit there and resolve the brief. We are constantly inquiring into what the meaning of that project is, not just for the client – of course, the client’s brief is weaved in, but we try and understand how it fits into that site; What its relationship to the context is?; How does it transform that context over a period of time?; or What is its meaning ten years from now? In that process, your own understanding of the issues related to the typology. […]
For us, a project is also a way to develop a culture within the studio. […] You will see a good portion of the studio coming together trying to help during those one and a half to two weeks. This has become a culture over the years. What that does is that it then starts to develop a certain kind of discussion. People come together; they do not work in their own silos. More importantly, in a studio like ours, there are people with different skills and strengths and all of them come together and contribute to that project.
KP: We do not want to start the discussion by saying, “These are the floor plans”, “This is where you enter”, etc. We give them the larger idea; we give them the larger story about what has shaped this approach that we have now taken towards this brief. That completely changes the tone of the conversation from just following a brief or from meeting certain requirements to how we are identifying and addressing larger issues that the project can talk about. That excites the client and opens their minds to the possibilities that their project actually has, which they might not have envisaged at all when they would have set out on this journey of ideating the project.
We feel we are the catalysts; we have a responsibility to be the catalyst to take the project and make it larger than what it is supposed to be and show the client the potential of what it can do.
[…] Our job, primarily, is to protect that initial idea and thought process through the course of the long journey – from conceptualising the project to actually getting it built and handing it over. […] This process is very rigorous; it is not an easy journey. […] Every project, at the end of the day, should excite us as much as it had excited us when we were ideating it during those four to five months.
BK: The fundamental nature of city building, or the idea of sustainability within a city comes from the idea of shared living. You and I come together to live in a city, and we start to share resources. But if you look at how we build today, everything is about separating things.
We are obsessed with this idea of security. In that process, we take away from the very fundamental character of the city, which is what makes it sustainable, is the idea of sharing. For us, architecture becomes, in many ways, an enquiry into the act of place making; how do you create places through the buildings that you do? That is consistent across a project.
You will see a lot of similarities in that kind of thinking within every project that we do. […] We can tell the same story for all the projects; we can also tell completely different stories for each of these projects, because those thought processes are applied in a very specific way into those particular sites. These are the core things which drive our projects. […]
As a community, I do not think any other profession is tied by that one goal as much as we are. We are all working towards the design of the world. We may be sitting in different studios, paid by different clients, but eventually, we are all working on that one project. That is the beauty of our profession.
BK: It is very important to understand that we are living in a world where there are many forces that act upon what we do. It is not that we are at a position to bring about that larger change. But we are definitely in a position to put a certain kind of thinking out there which can then start to have a conversation. Being in a challenging context is critical to that creative thinking.
We are also not so fascinated about getting a clean slate with clients saying, “Do whatever you want” […] We are excited when a client comes to us with a whole lot of challenges because that is the context within which we live today and practice today. There is this wonderful book called ‘Power of Limits’ written by Gyorgy Doczi who says that in a fascination with invention, we often forget the power of the limits. If you look at us as a society, we are all fascinated with start-ups and inventions. We all want to do something new. But if you look around, there are a whole lot of limits that exist within us. If you start to embrace them, you will feel that that is where the greatest of creativity can happen. That is where you can really make that change.
For us, Indian cities are these wonderful laboratories which are filled with challenges. And within those challenges lie wonderful opportunities, only if you are ready to embrace them and start to negotiate with them.
That process is challenging. But once it is done and you look back, it is that much more rewarding. These are the things which really drive us. We do not run away from taking up challenges, and we love to embrace them and try to negotiate within that space.
KP: We have learnt a lot through these fourteen to fifteen years of doing all these projects. How do we take these conversations outside to the academic realm and how do we actually engage with students who are in their second, third or fourth year? How do we put these ideas and our learnings out there? We see how they react, and we learn a lot from their reactions as well. […] Also, engaging with the larger city. Every city in India comes with its own set of challenges; how are you engaging with them? What are you doing that is positive? What are you doing to address these in some small ways. Chennai Architecture Foundation is a great way to do that; when we are working with it, we are reaching out to younger practices.
Fourteen to fifteen years back, we went through a set of challenges as a young practice; we try and do our best to share that experience with young practices who are setting up shop and finding it tough to get going. We want to keep that channel of communication open.
BK: Both of us studied undergraduate architecture around the time when people like Correa and Doshi were active practitioners. […] Through the projects, they were demonstrating how to build to the future. This is our challenge today – to develop that practice. We see many practices doing wonderful projects, but as a profession, our real challenge is how to create practices with certain kind of ideologies that meaningfully and consistently contribute to the society. That is what you see in that era of architects; over the years, they have built that kind of portfolio of work, narratives, writings, etc. That is the space that is most challenging in today’s context. […]
We had a professor called H Masud Taj who had written this wonderful tribute to Correa in ArchitectureLive! for one of his anniversaries. He talks about three different kinds of practices through that, and was trying to position Correa’s practice. He says that there are three kinds of practices; one is architecture as an industry – he talks about Hafeez Contractor and other large practices which do mega projects; he then talks about a second kind of practice which is the practice of someone like Laurie Baker, where architecture is a craft. Then, he talks about Correa’s practice and says that Correa operates somewhere in the middle; he calls it a ‘cottage industry’. He says that Correa has shaped his practice in such a way that it can either go into that space and deal with that space, but he can also intimately work on smaller spaces. It is a fantastic analysis. He says that that is where the change happens.
That practice is where the change happens, because he says that there, you see the architect becoming an activist. You are taking positions; you are not afraid to deal with either of those scales but look at each of them with the same kind of rigour and sensitivity.
KP: We are seeing some wonderful work happening from all over the country. The scales are restricted to small scale work; very deeply crafted and detailed. That sensitivity, we feel, needs to come through into larger projects that make a change to the larger cities and larger environments that we work in. […] We are seeing a lot of contemporary firms doing a lot of meaningful work coming to that space. The more we have that kind of critical thinking which straddles all kinds of projects. Especially in a complex environment like India, it is important that you straddle that and not shy away from facing this diversity. A lot of practices are slowly starting to do that, which is good. That is the space we want to thrive in.
Images and Drawings: © architectureRED
Filming: Muvi Media
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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