Credentials like CEPT graduates and work experience with the likes of creative veterans Geoffrey Bawa and Rahul Mehrotra are a definite marker that these are designers to look out for.
Shilpa Ranade and Quaid Doongerwala, founding partners of DCOOP, who boast of the same lineage have more than just their cultivated genes. Their work reflects understanding and veneration of traditional design sensibilities; their ingenious approach towards materials almost make you believe that they have complete faith in the capabilities of even ordinary materials. But most importantly their work advocates pure design and shuns unnecessary ‘dolling up’.
Both Shilpa and Quaid are active in several socio-cultural and academic activities. Shilpa is an associate of PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge. Action and Research) and Quaid is visiting faculty at the Kamla Raheja Vidyaneedhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA).
Read on to know what makes them tick…
Both of you have pursued an education from a prestigious institute and have had work experience with some great names in the field. How have your design sensibilities developed and changed since your college days?
CEPT played a very important role in setting up a very solid foundation of modernist rationalism in our approach to architecture. At the same time, we joined architecture school at a very interesting juncture. It was a period when globally modernism was being challenged by the post-modernists and in India the questions ‘What is Indian architecture?’ and ‘Is there an Indian way of building?’ were being asked by architects across the country. At CEPT our teachers routinely brought these concerns to the classroom while holding on to their roots in modernism. It was in every way a very enriching experience.
But we both are skeptics and we had our issues with the system even as students. What we hold very dear to us is the rigour of practice and commitment to the discipline that the school imbibed in us. But beyond that we have had other influences – Geoffrey Bawa and Andrea Anastasio who Quaid worked with – and Shilpa’s theoretical inquiries; all of which we both learnt from.
Your work shows a synthesis of traditional techniques and modern sensibilities. A good example of this is your Cudappah hostel in Andhra Pradesh. What’s your standard design approach?
We are always interested in the situation we are working in. Our curiosity and interest in people, culture and situations both physical and the metaphysical are the driving forces and starting point for most projects.
We spend a lot of time understanding and discussing the various contextual threads of the project and along the way we are naturally drawn toward particular conditions/parameters which we choose to explore further through the design.
Like we mentioned before, our education has led us to this place where tradition and modernity are not completely antagonistic words. Tradition is not something framed in museums but it is by default an ongoing process into which we plug in as creative individuals and social beings. For us, understanding our position in the arc of the architectural saga – historically and geographically – is important.
Tell us something about product and lighting design that your firm is involved in?
Yes, we have dabbled a bit with product design – particularly lighting. Some of these designs have been part of the larger concept of the project – both as installations and as stand-alone objects. We have always enjoyed design at various scales and see products and interior design as an integral part of design.
Both of you are actively involved in academics and teach at several institutes. Do you think academics can make our future generation of architects more responsible designers and how should institutes ascertain that?
Education lays the essential foundation for critical thinking and of course better education will produce better professionals. The general quality of architectural education in the country at present is not encouraging.
It is hard to recommend any panacea for correcting the educational system. As such education
should be inspiring young minds to think creatively and to work towards creating excellence in their own field. Unfortunately for creative fields, the education process cannot be as straight forward such as in engineering or medicine. This allows and leaves a lot of spaces open for interpretation. How this vacant space is utilized by teachers is where the essence of creative education lies.
Quaid, your interest from micro to macro, i.e streetscape to urbanscape has led to your involvement in several socio-urban projects. We know Mumbai’s haphazard development has reached a point which sadly can’t be undone. What should ideally be our plan of action to curb any further damage to the city life? Also, which part of the city still charms you?
Yes I enjoy cities, bazaars and urban public spaces. I can spend hours walking through busy streets Kalbadevi or Mohammed Ali road, as much as I enjoy the quiet leafy enclaves of Parsi Colony or Shivaji Park or the expanse of Marine Drive. I think the beauty of Mumbai is this very multiplicity, the co-existence of many and varied landscapes.
Culturally I sometimes feel, we are incapable of thinking beyond solving immediate problems. Contrary to the current celebration of the Indian jugaad mind-set, I feel this is the biggest cultural hurdle in our ability to address the complexities of urban life where one has to engage with and satisfy multiple and often conflicting interests.
I think we need to engage more with civic issues as designers. In public perception, the primary connotation of design is ‘how things look’ and the fact that design is also responsible for ‘how things work’ is rarely understood. Parallel to this is the notion held by civic bodies that we can make public spaces better by ‘beautifying’ them. If we can change this perception and designers can be involved more integrally in the planning and execution of civic projects, it will be a big step towards better public spaces.
The discussion about the loss of public spaces in our cities has been mainstreamed in the media now. What is not talked about as much is how inter-connected this issue is with other issues of the insularity of the middle and upper classes, the privatization of common resources, the insecurity felt by women, and the increasing marginalization of the poor and minorities.
It is a complex shift our cities are undergoing. For brevity, I am just going to quote from our text for the ARCAM exhibition which I feel captures the essence of this problem.
There is a Mumbai on its way to becoming a ‘world-class city’. This city is steadily undergoing a makeover into the global image of streamlined order; gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers, air-conditioned office-spaces, flyovers for snazzy cars, and pre-packaged recreation on-the-go.
This Mumbai however is not for everyone, for all those who do not fit into the neat streamlined vision of the ‘modern’ productive city – the poor in their ‘slums’, the differently-abled in their wheel-chairs, the women in their burkhas, the old in their balconies, the children in their playgrounds, the hawkers with their wares – are all deemed inadequate citizens to be of any consideration in the great plan.
These developments then assume an imaginary tabula rasa – an empty site upon which to recreate the new geography of the city; where streets are conduits for speedy movement, public spaces merely lost opportunities for more development, and neighbourhoods become gated communities of contained order.
This short-sighted, bottom-line focused thinking is moreover constructed in a policy void without a sense of larger planning or infrastructure management.
Tell us something about your socio-cultural initiatives like Urban Typhoon, street architecture, your association with Pukar etc.
Our initial interest in socio-cultural initiatives primarily came out of our involvement with PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & research), which is an organization involved in urban research based in Mumbai. In those early years, PUKAR brought together sociologists, anthropologists, journalists, film-makers, architects, artists – all with an interest in exploring the city.
Both the early research on street architecture and the gender-space research was done through PUKAR and owed to the energy and insights of this multi-disciplinary group.
Beyond that we have done a number of small and large projects that explore design, public spaces and urbanity together. In 2008, we curated the section on Mumbai in ‘Building India’ an exhibition at ARCAM in Amsterdam which featured five cities across the country. In 2010 we produced an installation based on the street architecture research for an exhibition titled ‘What makes India Urban?’ in Berlin. We have also been involved in a couple of urban research/design projects with Studio X where we worked in collaboration with architects and designers from India and abroad.
For us the parallel work on these projects is both a break from the practice as well as very serious work as it feeds into our design projects directly or indirectly. Most importantly it enables us to have a grip on the larger picture – the context we practice in – something we value greatly.
A structure designed by another architect which continues to have an impact on you every time you visit…
It has to be the Mill Owners’ Association unequivocally for both of us. Since the first time that we saw it in our early years of architecture school it has been a huge inspiration. You experience it not just visually but through your whole body – the visceral impact of the building is staggering. And it continues to delight every time you visit, offering new experiences and insights.
What are you currently working on?
There is a varied and exciting bunch of projects on the table right now. We are working on a middle and low-income staff housing project near Mumbai, a small multi-deity temple near Belgaum and a school campus in Gujarat amongst other things.
What do you do in your spare time? Any interests?
Shilpa: My interests change from time to time. I am terribly curious about the world and love exploring, preferably without leaving the comfort of my chair. I read pretty much anything I can get my hands on – these days I am hooked onto crime mysteries. I am also a wannabe amateur botanist.
Quaid: I like watching serious movies and trashy television shows. When I can get away, visiting art galleries and seeing artwork really energizes me – the more visually stimulating the better.
Together, we devour popular culture and food wherever we travel, especially in the smaller towns where one can still catch a whiff of local flavour under the increasing sameness. The star attractions of our site-visits to Kadappa for the university, almost at par with seeing the buildings come up, were breakfast every morning at the local tiffin place Mayura (fantasized about and planned days in advance) and walks through the market streets in the evenings.
Interview by Shweta Salvi