Two and half years is a short span to make a mark in a field like architecture, and can only be achieved with unequivocal talent and distinct sensibilities. Eliza Higgins and Cyrus Patell set the foundation of their firm CollectiveProject in 2013, but even before they established their practice in Bangalore, the duo’s true potential was duly recognised when they won the second prize in the Emerging New York Architects (ENYA) competition.
Both of them after completing their Masters from Yale University and garnering substantial experience from acclaimed architectural firms, decided to synergise their individual strengths and knowledge to offer contextual and concept-driven design. The firm stresses on detailing, site specific solutions, and collaborative interaction.
Each space designed by the firm – irrespective of its scale – has a distinct narrative. For example, the Ekya Early Years preschool which was repurposed from an old industrial building performs the role of an architectural interface for learning, albeit in a playful manner; while a narrow strip of land in a residential plot that was transformed in a densely planted reading pavilion offers respite from urban clamour.
In this interview, we discussed with the architects their inspirations, aspirations and the future direction of CollectiveProject as a design firm.
Despite being a young practice, CollectiveProject boasts of a remarkable portfolio. How does each new project inspire your practice? Please walk us through the process.
As a young practice our design philosophy is still evolving. Process is incredibly important to us and we take a fresh look at each new project staying clear from pre-conceived notions of what the final outcome will be. We do not have a fixed approach but spend a great deal of time working to distil the essence of the project through understanding the site and active dialogue with the client. Landscape and spatial narratives are very important to our work so we are constantly working to blur the lines between landscape and building.
Independently and as a team we constantly question ourselves and each other to ensure we are creating spaces that are sensitive and unique. For us, each project brings with it a new set of challenges which pushes us farther and inspires us to be better.
What according to you are your individual strengths that you bring to the drawing board?
The way we work is completely different, not only because we come from contrasting backgrounds/cultures and experiences but in the basic way we are programmed to approach problems. Cyrus is fantastic with working through spatial design and details. Eliza’s process is less linear – she is always evaluating different approaches. We have found a great balance where we do the best work together and are both very active on each project.
A designer has to be at his/her creative best while conceptualising a children’s space. How was the experience of designing Ekya Early Years?
Apart from designing for Children, Ekya Early Years is also an adaptive re-use project that transformed an abandoned, somewhat dilapidated watch factory on a 2 acre site into a colourful and engaging space for learning. The design capitalised on the beauty of the old industrial building by retaining the existing shell as a framework for spacious, naturally ventilated and sunlight filled classrooms; at the same time crafting a unique learning experience for 2-6 year olds.
Possibly the most rewarding moment working on the project was on the first day of school when we were able to see the children engaging with each space/element and fully realising the impact it would have on their quality of education – especially in an urban environment. Ekya Early years will always be a very special project for us and we look forward to working on other schools in the future.
Do you believe the scale of a project is detrimental to creativity? What are the creative difficulties working on, for instance, an institute as opposed to a small apartment?
It is imperative to be self-critical of the work you are producing to find creative solutions to the challenges that arise, irrespective of scale. Currently we are not geared towards larger scale projects purely because of the size of our studio but we do not see scale as being necessarily detrimental to a project’s success. There are so many factors that impact the design/creative process – it would be unfair to attribute it all to scale.
Any one building material or technique that fascinates you and would like to apply in your practice someday?
Perhaps the most primitive form of construction, but mud walls have always been an interest to us. We would very much like to explore rammed earth construction in a very contemporary/ sophisticated format like Tatiana Bilbao in Spain or Rick Joy in the US.
Still in its nascent stage, how do you envision the practice to evolve in future? Any plan to venture in allied fields?
Our hope is to position ourselves as a boutique studio that focuses on design, detailing and quality execution. Ideally, we would like to be in a place where we are doing a mix of high-end residential and institutional buildings with a parallel focus on socially relevant projects for communities in need. Currently, we are designing the interiors and landscape design for most of our residential projects which allows us to control a cohesive experience/vision.
We are compulsive designers (sometimes to a fault) and are always looking at how we can make something better. As a result, we are constantly sketching ideas at varying scales; furniture/objects but with a busy practice they tend to stay on paper. Over the next year we are going to prototype and evolve some of these designs and look forward to seeing where it takes us!
A structure designed by another architect which continues to have an impact on you every time you visit…
Cyrus: I enjoy most of Enric Miralles’ work – One of my favourite projects is the Igualada Cemetery, just outside Barcelona.
Eliza: For me, it would be the Louisiana Museum in Denmark – I love how the structure in completely integrated with the landscape with the focus being on experience and not form. While one is completely removed from their surroundings, there are these beautifully curated and framed moments where the landscape is revealed again as though it is a piece of art.
Your favourite architect/designer amongst your contemporaries.
Starting a practice is not easy – we admire all the young offices that are taking the risk and contributing to raise the standard of contemporary design in India.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on a number of single family homes, two rural schools and a larger mixed use development, across Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Coonoor and Mumbai.
Your favourite pick of ‘simple yet smart’ design…
Eliza: I was going to say my French Press because I’m craving a coffee right now, but for simple smart + elegant design, the Philippe Starck Citrus Squeezer comes to mind.
What do you do in your spare time…any other interests?
Spare time?! Unfortunately, starting a design office leaves very little room for anything else! We are at a point where we are trying to find a life/work balance but it’s been hard. When we are able to get away from the studio we both enjoy travelling and cooking. Cyrus enjoys swimming, squash and furniture making, and in an ideal world Eliza would find time to start riding horses again.
Interview By Shweta Salvi