Design should be timeless but not stagnant. So for an architect to grow, it is important to not much delve on past glories but to evolve with time. And Akshat Bhatt, founder and principal architect of Architecture Discipline, has got this formula just right.
During his teens, he made the transition from strumming his guitar to deftly working on a drawing board. This erstwhile guitarist’s musical background has contributed to his uniquely independent expression in architecture.
Founded in 2007, Architecture Discipline engages in multi-disciplinary design practices and endorses an architectural language that is contextually charged and contemporary. Akshat’s inquiring mind works beyond basic assimilation and believes more in rationalising knowledge in its contextual make-up. Their projects always manage to rewrite norms and inspire radical solutions. To cite an example, in Hotel Mana Ranakpur the firm chose a metaphorical representation as opposed to the conventional emblematic connotation of ornate opulence that Rajasthan typically evokes.
The practice has successfully created a progressive contemporary pedagogy for sustainable design through investigation and critical design. In a very short span of time the studio has earned several accolades and awards – the most recent one being a felicitation by the Minister of Trade & Commerce and the Department for Industrial Policy & Promotion for their noteworthy Make in India Pavilion at the Hannover Messe 2015.
In this interview, Akshat talks about inspirations, design ideologies and sustainable progressive practices.
Was there a defining phase in your career which formed the core of your design sensibilities?
I don’t believe there has been any one phase; it’s been incremental or evolutionary.
I was studying music before I started studying architecture, so I’d say my teenage years pushed me towards individual expression within compositional frameworks. Then at architecture school I was exposed to the Modernists & British Hi-Tech, philosophy & design theory.
When I started professional practice I started looking at designers in greater detail and into construction techniques (this is different from construction technology, technology is available to all, and technique determined by the individual).
When you’re intensely involved with one thing and as long as you’re not oblivious to everything else, chances are you’ll find a subject that’ll reveal a new dimension. Every time that happens it adds to your reference base and influences. You have to find ways to rationalize it in the right context.
Typically, an architect’s inspirations and inclinations define his/her signature style. Is there a particular school of thought that you endorse or believe in?
I believe design has to be strong, I don’t mean bold because that’s misinterpreted, I mean strong, clear, refined, progressive and rationalized. A cliché but it has to be larger than the sum of its parts. Yet, become a large enough part of something else.
Your firm adheres to sustainable sensibilities while designing any project. What according to you should be the approach of a designer to achieve an all-inclusive sustainable project?
The notion of sustainable development is dynamic. However, the principles remain the same. Reduce, replenish, recycle, save. That’s true for everything, not just buildings and every serious architectural and engineering intervention has considered it. ‘Green buildings’ has become a buzz word as has ‘smart cities’. You don’t have to resort to such terminology if the principles form part of your design approach and they’re really the basics.
We’re interested in the conventional idea of sustainability but we’re especially interested in what makes a building a part of a progressive cultural expression.
Competitions are a good platform to tap into new talent. How does participating in competitions help a practice?
We haven’t had the time to participate in competitions. So I haven’t lived my piped dreams moments yet. The only real competition we entered was for the India Pavilion.
You firmly endorse progressive design, provided the cultural expression finds its due importance. How easy or difficult is it to blend the two?
It’s not always easy, especially given modern building programs, but if you’ve trained yourself hard enough you learn to find clues and opportunities. It’s not necessary to find clients with the same agenda, but through dialogue and demonstration one can make a convincing case.
One crucial stage/technique of the design process that architects tend to skip but should not…
A structure designed by another architect which continues to have an impact on you every time you visit…
Coop Himmelblau’s rooftop extension, The Centre Pompidou, Kansai Airport, HSBC headquarters, Tjibaou Cultural Centre, The India International Centre, Villa Savoye, The Parc De La Villette, Red Fort… this list is endless, there’s treasure everywhere!
You have often spoken about your admiration of Sir Peter Cook’s work and have recently even curated an exhibition of his thought-provoking drawings. Tell us about how his work has impacted you professionally and personally.
The exhibition was curated by Mrs. Renu Modi, we supported the endeavour.
I studied the works of Archigram, Cedric Price, Ron Herron, studied under Peter Salter who took over East London from Ron Herron and found constant references to Peter Cook’s ongoing academic and professional legacy. He’s a living legend.
I’m not sure I can cite individual points of influence or departure without getting into design theory. I believe I am a fan of good architecture, then a fan of good design but an even greater admirer of honest, professional accomplishment.
In the present architectural milieu, it doesn’t get much bigger than Peter Cook or Renzo Piano or Richard Rogers. I see them as benchmarks for achievement at one hand and on the other we’re dissecting their work, critically, to learn from their experience and mistakes.
There is this preconceived notion that all things traditional are sustainable while the contemporary design tends to ignore environmental footprint. Your firm’s projects (Mana Ranakpur, Discovery Centre) have helped question the myth. How important do you think is it for architects today to innovate and improvise to shape a better future?
Architectural discourse cannot be separated from innovation – its part of the material culture of design. The parameters for sustainable development are ever changing what is an abundant resource base today may not be available tomorrow given the rate of consumption over time. So, one has to switch to higher performance materials, materials with a longer life cycle, materials that are easy to recycle. Not to forget we’re not luddites, if we’ve found a way to be comfortable flying 32,000 feet in the air I’d think it’s foolhardy for designers to believe all built environment must evoke older times.
Does that craft still exist? Must a craft exist forever? Can something evolve beyond its past state? Why is it that most people who drive fancy cars want to park them in a turn of the last century bungalow? Is there meaning in superficial ornamentation? How do you make a constructed statement that lasts beyond the current trend of whatchamacallit? Isn’t it irresponsible to construct obviously short lived imagery because it will be brought down by the next owners and eventually contribute to more environmental waste? Or to put in other words, are we any less Indian today than our ancestors?
What are you currently working on? What can we expect from Architecture Discipline in near future?
We’re making a school in Bihar. I’m excited about that since historically that was the intellectual centre of India. We’re also working on refurbishing one of the oldest hotels in the country, and on developing a whole new paradigm for large housing projects.There are also a few marque
five star hotel projects and our first few residences.
On a lighter note…
If Akshat Bhatt had an alter-ego, what would he currently be doing?
I do have an alter-ego and he’s a prog-rock guitar player. If I could find time I’d step into Nigel Tuffnel’s shoes (from the movie This is Spinal Tap)
Interview by Shweta Salvi