11 years back, when Niels Schoenfelder came to India to work on a three month long project in Pondicherry; little did he know that a short-term project would lead to a complete relocation. After a lot of travelling around, in 2004 he collaborated with Indian architects to set up Mancini Enterprises in Chennai.
Since then, the firm has designed a bevy of distinguished projects like the Tanjore Hi, Mocha Mojo, The Dune, The Park hotel, Kerala and several notable residential and institutional projects. Niels’s work focuses on integrating the old with the new and making traditional techniques and craftsmanship relevant in the modern context.
His projects reflect his penchant for detailing and his sensibilities pay homage to the local materials and cultural premise. The originality in his designs bounces off his optimistic disposition.
This interview provides insights on Niels – the architect, philanthropist and the person who understands and appreciates India’s layered cultural heritage.
Tell us something about your journey from when you first arrived in India… your first impressions and why you chose to set up your design practice here?
I landed in India 11 years ago – in May, extremely hot and humid on the Tamil Nadu coast. The very first day I started work on a beautiful construction site.
Instead of returning after 3 months to Paris as planned, I stayed on spending the next years on construction sites – I was hardly seen at the office…
That experience was and is still today extremely rewarding: to work with crafts people, engineers, clients…out in the open – all very enthusiastic and ready to go beyond the ordinary for the sake of a beautiful project. That is why we started a firm here.
Any design fundamentals that you adhere to?
Rigour – maybe that is not a design fundamental but it certainly helps.
You have worked on some restoration projects, what are the highs and lows of working on such assignments?
It is a high to rip out a false ceiling rediscovering beautiful proportions or mouldings…walking around a construction site cooled by its thick walls – a low to realize that we can apply only too rarely the learning from those old or even ancient buildings in our contemporary setting.
Many Indian cities lack architectural character, a reason for this could be the lack of planning. Is there a way we can work towards salvaging this identity crisis?
I am not sure I agree with your premise… in most cities we have a lot of architectural character – but it remains hidden behind the informal expressions of everyday life. Owing to billboards, technical infrastructure, alterations and additions, lack of maintenance these visually strong buildings have been blurred and it makes one think that we do not have anything interesting to offer
I do not think that there is a crisis of urban identity. The many diverse factors in society express themselves perfectly well through build form. Many are in a hurry and do not look at architecture and urban planning as a discipline meant to contribute to something like identity of a city. Others do, and luckily there are now strong forces lobbying for conservation of heritage.
The mix of all this obviously leads to a very diverse image – bordering sometimes on being visually confusing, but then I do think this reflects well the reality of these places.
A longing for more visual coherence culminating maybe even in some sort of local style-code does not seem to be called for by a majority of stakeholders. Else this discussion would already be happening amongst the driving forces and the policy makers.
I personally think that by protecting and putting to intense, modern use the many beautiful heritage buildings (I would even include here some very interesting examples from the 60s and 70s) the cities would gain a visual delight which subsequently might inspire public interest in a critical approach to contemporary architecture as well.
Could you name a building which will always be a landmark structure in architecture for you?
Many… to mention a “residential” example: The Villa Adriana in Tivoli for its architectural inventiveness.
Do you think resources are well utilised in India? If not how do we put them to optimum use?
I think resources are extremely well utilised. At least for our trade I can say that construction sites here are extremely efficient when compared to construction sites I have seen elsewhere. Waste production is minimal and recycling is adehered to.
Any weird request that a client has made?
Someone wanted to be able to jump into his pool from the edge of the roof above – quite a drop, but once you think about it, it makes perfect sense…
What are you currently working on?
A couple of private residences (we particularly like the ones where wedesign architecture, landscape and interiors at the same time), largelandscapes, educational institutions, diverse interior projects, hospitality and residential developments… we are never bored.
You have been engaged in philanthropic work too, can you shed some light on the activities of your NGO?
CWI (Children of the World, India) with its Artyzan vocational academy is a NGO based near Pondicherry providing basic professional training to youngsters from economically weak backgrounds. After completing the one year course in either trades of hospitality or fashion the students have a fair chance of starting into a stable career – so far 100% or about 850 young people have found a job. More information can be found at www.cwindia.org