I stepped in with an intention to interview a venerated architect but ended up having an open (minded) discussion on architecture. And that has a lot to do with Shimul Javeri Kadri’s passion for the field and life in general. The 60 odd minutes that I spent in her office (sans an office desk between us, she has a swing chair suspended in the corner though) was a humbling experience.
There are some architects who ‘do’ architecture and there are some who ‘feel’ it and Shimul falls in the latter set of architects. Her articulated and resolved thinking breathes life into any built form, allowing the spaces to weave their own stories and rewrite them as they continue aging. Every project of their firm has its own personality and this is only possible if the architect is selfless, not much enamoured with his/her signature stroke or too obsessive about creating iconic buildings. These strictures, in Shimul’s words lead to ‘malady of overdesign’.
Her childlike enthusiasm to learn allows her design to grow hence her work seldom feels like it is stuck in time or a genre. To many she may come across as a hard core feminist (might have something to do with her office boasting of 90 percent women) but to me she seemed more of a rationalist who simply believes in the capabilities of a woman.
So more power to women and more power to Shimul Javeri Kadri… (I almost sound like a staunch feminist now!)
Was there a defining phase in your career which formed the core of your design sensibilities?
It is much like an adult maturing, most of the development in a human’s life happens between the age group of 0 to 7, those are the years you are formulating your core values and all of it manifests itself for the rest of your life in different vocabularies.
The journey of being an architect has been similar. Where the actual formation of the ideologies was very much from childhood to college days, the core sensibilities are more related to my views of the world.
Architecture gives another skill to express these ideologies. Pertaining to a specific period which had an influence, there was Dilip Purohit who was a professor in Academy of Architecture who had a strong influence in shaping my initial years, and then architect Pravina Mehta; I worked with her after I graduated from college. Her attitude towards integrating the cosmos, the Hindu view of the universe in architecture, the whole idea of temple architecture and the temple being microcosm of the cosmos got inscribed somewhere on my mind.
Your fascination with natural elements and the physical form beautifully shines through your work. It almost seems like nature and architecture collectively are giving each other their own space. How do you manage to bring out this harmonious co-existence between the two?
It again comes from what one believes in. If someone asks me what you really like about life, I would say sunlight. I believe it can really influence people’s mood, therefore in all the projects we have done and when I say ‘we’ have done, it is because we as a firm, people who really run this studio other than me, believe in the idea of establishing that the site is supreme – its flora fauna, its topography, natural vegetation and sources play an important role. And therefore, however radical the architecture may seem, I think it first pays obeisance to natural elements of the site.
People often really react to the Leaf House – even with its strong form, what I find interesting is that when people visit it, they react more to the feeling of being completely outdoors.
When we inherited the Leaf House site, it already had a lot of mango and coconut trees and obviously those are retained, but most importantly I am happy with the way the landscape worked out and that too without any formal landscape architect. We were very conscious in our choice that no Champa tree, which is by default a convention in every architect’s project We believed it should be completely indigenous vegetation.
Construction industry is at its peak in India however one can’t say the same about architecture. Why?
What a true statement. Ever since college days this discussion has been going on… So far 90 percent of the population in this country is not using architects and believe that is no need for an architect, maybe very slowly that consciousness is seeping in but still there is such apprehension about what one pays an architect even though it is such a small percent of the total cost of the project. And still people make such a big deal out of it, if you invest well in an architect you have a great chance of good returns.
Unless that simple attitude or simple economic aspect is understood we will always be at the short end of the stick.
Moreover, the mainstream media also needs to focus on architecture in the correct manner; they should critique it, help people understand architecture and create discussion opportunities.
When developers think of building iconic structures they invariably turn to the West to rope in architects. When will the Indian talent get the opportunity to prove their mettle?
There are two ways this will happen, one is the architects to get great accolades all over the world and then our country will start recognising them; a lot of this happened with Charles Correa. But far more impactful way would be that important visible commissions go to Indian architects and the main stream media should actively cover them.
Right now there is a dilemma, when the developers approach, and who do they actually approach? The starchitects, the brand names… are they really going to get an exceptional building out of starchitects? These names have no real connect with our country. If you see what Philip Johnson did to the NCPA, in my opinion that was a disaster that happened there, because neither is it an iconic building nor does it address the beautiful waterfront that it sits next to.
Our first attempts to bring in big architects failed so miserably and I still think the jury is still out on Chandigarh, which is again according to me a very controversial decision. When you bring a starchitect you are bringing in his world view and his signature stroke.
It doesn’t matter where the site is, India, Morocco or Siberia you can pick out a Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry anywhere, context doesn’t matter. That according to me is commoditization of architecture. The competition format is good to pick out the right architect according to me.
All projects for an architect have some memories attached to it. Was there one such project where you were left personally enriched?
We have put together our landmark projects on our website and those were about ten projects that were the turning point in our practice. So yes, I do agree that all projects are dear and turning points in some way or the other, some because of how they turned out and some because of how they did not turn out.
I believe it started in my career perhaps with the Ayurvedic Health Centre, where we dealt with a very narrow congested site and were able to put together a building that makes you believe you are actually not in Mumbai. The wrestle with the Mumbai FSI worked in our favour there. We did two factories for Synergy one in Bangalore and in Karur, but Karur is a landmark whereas the Bangalore one is not and I think to some extent it is because we took a slightly different tact in Karur; we tried building with local craftsmen, we tried solving many problems, and sometimes when you do that you end up being more creative, definitely for us as a firm adversities brings out great stuff in us.
And the most important factor which works for me is the synergy with the client. The minute you have a client who simply ‘understands’ the chances of the project to work are high. When the source of power is uncertain and the client is not a unified integrated voice that’s when I think we tend to run into trouble.
You were recently on the WAF Judge panel. How was the experience and what do you have to say about the work practices across the globe? What are the evident changes (good/bad) taking place in the studios across?
The experience of being a judge at WAF was wonderful, I enjoyed so much more this year than I did last year as a participant, despite winning, primarily because of all the interactions with the judges and the speakers.
But the actual judging process was a wonderful experience primarily because my panel had a journalist who is the editor at Archdaily, a professor from a University in the US and a practitioner which was me. We had all three avenues of architecture covered and there was a considerable amount of discussion after each project presentation.
There was this interesting trend in the projects that came to us wherein architects presented a monolith of a building wrapped in a screen of aluminium or some today’s material, which was rather divorced from anything that the country has ever seen or done culturally or historically, but there was this wonderful rhetoric that all architects were talking about how contextual they were by using the screen which resembled some old local one.
I felt a bit despondent by such project presentations; they were packaged in industrialised, energy – heavy materials and still came off with good LEED ratings. But on the last day of WAF when all the winning projects were thrown into a common forum, I think what we began to see was that the best project in every category was not necessarily the most glamorous or most packaged project, it was more value driven in most cases and that was very gratifying to see, that the community of architects have retained those values high and strong.
The debate between the benefits of technology vs. traditional techniques and concepts is an old one. Your work shows that it should not be the case of either – or. How do you bring the two together on the same drawing board, could you give a few pointers to the youth?
That’s pretty straight forward, traditional techniques or concepts give ideas, they show some time tested methods that people have used in the past. But if one takes those too literally you can really end up at a dead end, because you will try and use material and technology that is so labour intensive that it beats the idea of conserving energy and being ecologically friendly.
One can use traditional ideas and concepts and bring in this a lot of today’s technology. I think as one says ‘God is in the detail’, we as an office endorse that, we love all the material fairs and attend them religiously, we like using new materials and then apply them in an unconventional manner. If you see the vertical louvers in the Nirvana building those are acrylic polymer, very similar to Corian, but the material has never been used as an outdoor material.
A present generation architect whose work continues to amaze you and foresee good work portfolio from in future?
I am not very good at remembering names; I certainly think the exposure has helped. Earlier when I used to go through a magazine, I would instantly know when the project was by a foreign architect. And I always asked myself how do you know that it is not by an Indian architect?
There is a one word outfit which is ‘overdesign’ and I think Indian architects tend to overdesign.
The problem is they always say ‘is it enough? Should I add some more design?’ They should know where to stop. It’s the malady which afflicts young more than the matured ones. And as you mature you tend to get rid of the excesses.
I believe education has the greatest impact on the kind of awful architecture we see today. And not just architectural education honestly, actually it is the fact that educational system from grade 1 is poor, the sensibilities are stifled so badly. In my opinion, even if the education till grade 12 is good and then you go to a bad architectural college, you can still be a good architect, because your basic ability to think has developed, but in the current scenario it is a deadlock.
At the end of the day, architecture is a self expression. Architecture college gives you the skills to express, i.e. the language of lines, dots, and planes but if your thoughts are not clear then what are you going to express? I think intuition and analysis – this combination gives you design. Both are lacking in our educational system.
Women are gradually making their presence felt in every competitive field, to a certain extent even in the design industry. However, the progress in the field of architecture is sluggish. Why?
It is a real dilemma. We had started a course, it was for women to re-enter the profession and we realised that marriage first and then child birth just cut more women out of this profession. It is such a demanding hands-on profession that, you need a lot of resolve to stay in it and then it is such a feminine profession in other ways, in the sense that it is creative but not a lucrative profession.
So the woman then is not bringing in mega bucks in the family. If you see the finance world, women have made a mark because they can bring a very substantial income into the family. The power equation is very different in that case.
In case of architecture, it is such a poorly paid profession that it is very quick for the women’s profession to play second fiddle to her domestic role. I believe that is the single biggest issue, I don’t think it is because it is a very technical profession, I think women are technically sound. My office is more than 90 percent women, I find the kind of women that I have at this office are so resolved and driven and so good with their technical skills, to design the kind of detail oriented buildings that we do, that I don’t have doubt in my head of the capabilities of women.
I wish the profession was better structured especially financially then a lot more women will stay on.
An old monument you would love to give a facelift to?
So many… But if I have to name one then I would say the whole city of Varanasi. On a lighter note…
Your biggest critic…
My 21 year old daughter, who visited my site since she was 6 months old and painted the walls on my sites.
Your favourite pick of ‘simple yet smart’ design….
Pencil…. the quality of graphics you get with a pencil is umatched. I dont own any fancy pens. I am happy with my pencils.
A habit which your work staff dislikes…
Probably swinging on that swing (pointing to a swing in the corner) when I am talking. Had you not been recording this interview I would definitely be swinging at this moment.
Interview by Shweta Salvi