True measure of an architectural practice’s success is when you find it difficult to label or categorise it. Mumbai-based S+PS is a firm that has earned its stripes through its subtle yet powerful architectural language, and has made an emphatic mark in the contemporary Indian architecture scene.
The firm headed by Shilpa Gore-Shah and Pinkish Shah, has carried out projects in myriad fields including interior design, architecture, urban design, conservation and planning. Each project by the studio is approached by its context; where the constraints and complexities of the project optimise its aesthetics, and their solution addresses the program and not personal signatures.
Their work circumvents irrelevant, provocative treatment, instead advocates interactive design – the Collage House in Navi Mumbai was a result of celebrating recyclable resources through tangible and intangible expression, whereas the playfulness of THE PLAYBOX emerged from a request to create a transmuting playroom for a 10-year-old.
The duo has enjoyed a strong presence in academics over the past 15 years, and they believe both, their practice and teaching, have mutually informed each other.
Here, they provide insights into their all-embracing passion for all things creative, their design ideologies, and inspirations.
An articulate design language defines S+PS Architects’ portfolio. What are your basic design fundamentals when you design a project?
S+PS – We believe that every project is unique, and that the design should evolve through the particular characteristics of each project. We believe that it is the responsibility of the architect to create diverse, innovative and exciting environments.
Each project should add a humane and desirable environment to the world, resulting in a continuous improvement of the constructed environment.
Through negotiating the conflicting requirements of site, climate, technologies, client, authorities, end users and consultants, an IDEA is evolved that incorporates all these forces. This concept is then used to develop the design at all levels and scales, creating a unique architectural language for the project.
Architectural styles are avoided, as they limit the options available and stifle exploration and creativity. However, precedents from all times and cultures are studied to gain experience and knowledge from the past. The firm believes that good design is produced from this careful study and research, combined with technical knowledge and artistic judgment.
Random and unforeseen events are examined for the possibility of adding richness and new possibilities to the design. Attention to detail, proportions and scale, together with common sense ensure that the end result fully develops the potential within the concept.
Both of you are actively involved in academia and teaching. How has that helped your practice?
S+PS – Pedagogy and Practice are two poles that over time have come to occupy our time almost equally. It is almost 14 years since we have been in academics. In due course of time both teaching and practice have almost become seamless, each informing the other. Most importantly it constantly creates an environment of questioning which hopefully brings criticality to the work and helps retain the emphasis on the important things.
One is constantly learning from students and faculty, and questioning things we tend to take for granted. Discussions with like minded faculty helps the mind from not getting stagnant and one gets to address a cross section of projects and issues that one may not necessarily come across in practice.
What are the parameters of a holistic sustainable project? What common mistakes do designers make while conceptualising?
S+PS – Sustainability is a very trendy and much used and abused word today. We believe in starting from first principals and using common sense based on the demands of the project and the client.
Cameron Sinclair the Founder of Habitat for Humanity once said – “the most sustainable building in the world is the one we love!” If there is no joy and delight in the spaces we create it doesn’t matter if they are sustainable. We only have to look at vernacular architecture or our heritage buildings to see how they managed to layer several concerns simultaneously.
Is there a person or a medium (not related to design) that has inspired you in some way?
S+PS – We are immensely inspired by travel. Right since our younger days – travelling during our student days or during our internships in Ahmedabad and Delhi, or whilst doing our Masters in the USA or backpacking in Europe on our way back to India or discovering the messy vitality of Asian cities much later – travel is the only constant. Pinkish’s induction in the Dr. Charles Moore Travel Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, gave a unique insight in looking at places and people.
We use every opportunity available to travel to different places. It has opened our eyes very early, to respect other ways of thinking and doing and broadening our minds.
Shilpa, Zaha Hadid had once established that women can make a strong mark in the field of architecture, and her success has ever since been considered a benchmark. Do you think we would soon need another Zaha to reinstate the position of women in architecture?
SGS – Zaha Hadid has definitely left a mark in the field of architecture but there are and have been plenty of other women who are doing their bit in adding thought provoking architecture to the world. We need to redefine what “strong mark” means today – it need not only mean iconic and mainstream and the role of women doesn’t need “reinstating” – it’s already firmly grounded!
I think the scale of architecture is not as important as the relevance of it in today’s times. There are women architects like Anna Herringer, who is building in simple, affordable materials and making sensitive architectural spaces that have touched a lot of lives.
Marina Tabassum in Bangladesh is creating magic with the humble brick and one of the strongest ingredients of architecture – light!
Internationally too there is everyone from Denise Scott-Brown (unfortunately denied a Pritzker, which was given to her partner and husband Robert Venturi), Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA (already a Pritzker Prize winner) to Billie Tsien, Toshiko Mori, etc., the list can go on and all have already made their mark in some way.
Closer to home in India, we have had pioneers like Pravina Mehta, Hema Sankalia (who was our teacher at Sir J.J. College of Architecture), Namita Singh and Revati Kamath or my contemporaries like Shilpa Ranade, Abha Narain Lamba or Samira Rathod who have their own unique voices within the context of India. Though fewer in number, they are producing architecture of quality and relevance.
If anything is a sign of the times, it is that since the last decade or so, 60-70% of my student’s in each batch are women. It is but a matter of time before more women architects surface doing jobs the world over.
Our country has a wonderful architectural heritage, any personal favourite structure? Do you take cues from our architectural history?
S+PS – Not so much a structure than a cluster of buildings especially older settlements in almost every part of India. Each offers a glimpse into a way of life and how well they deal with all the architectural elements – steps, plinths, walls, openings, scale modulation, courts, light, darkness and much more. Mandu, Maheshwar, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Udaipur all occupy a special place like many others.
A project that is very close to your heart… Why?
S+PS – Our smallest project till date, THE PLAYBOX, is very special to us. At just 120 sq.ft. and being an interior project, it embodies everything our practice stands for. Much like a haiku – it doesn’t need much to say a lot!
Any current global architectural practice that inspires you… and why?
S+PS – We think there is incredible talent all around the world today. Thanks to the media and the internet one is able to see and access this talent far more easily. Of course we can’t generalise, but we are amazed with the tectonic and spatial clarity of Spanish architects, the questioning of the fundamentals of architecture by the Japanese, the fantastic experiments with housing by the Dutch or the serene integration of architecture and nature in Sri Lanka.
Henceforth we will see few “masters” emerge but a multitude of local voices that collectively are very strong. All have something to teach and inspire.
There is paucity of public space design culture in India – a sector which holds the key in defining the architectural identity of a country. How, according to you, this space could be made more creatively open to the design community?
S+PS – This was not the case earlier in India. The involvement of the state as patron for architecture post-independence gave way to the market post-liberalisation. This has led to a complete loss of faith in public projects by the government and the state sees its role only in providing policy and infrastructure. This changed scenario will need the profession to engage not top down but bottom up.
We are already seeing individuals, groups and collaboratives engaging with citizens, local community bodies, NGO’s, etc. to set the agenda, demonstrate possibility and drive the process from the ground up to make public projects happen either through private or PPP initiatives. We are transitioning from one model to another and to create effective change we will have to understand and embrace this new reality.
Any other creative activity you indulge in?
S+PS – We are both big fans of Charles and Ray Eames. They once said “Take your pleasure seriously”, so we do! Creatives can’t help themselves from exploring every opportunity they get. So, the range is wide from making cards, to craft, to arranging dinner tables, to cooking, to painting, to photography, to designing clothes and objects… so, just about everything! “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects.” Charles Eames
Interview By Shweta Salvi