This past August we spoke with the wise and insightful Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai.
His practice in India, now in its 16th year, integrates architects and skilled craftsmen to produce work that is culturally significant and responsive to the environment. Replacing traditional drawings with consideration, communication and physical models, Jain’s extraordinary work investigates a new process of architecture.
You received your master’s degree in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, then went on to work in Los Angeles and London before returning to India in 1995 to found your practice, Studio Mumbai. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like practicing architecture in such different cultures?
In Los Angeles I worked in Richard Meier’s model shop, and my position was similar to an apprentice or a carpenter. This was a very different experience from practicing in London and later in India, where I was an independent contractor; for this reason it’s easier for me to compare the differences and similarities between the UK and India. For instance, in the UK, the amount of structure and formality within the architecture profession is very different from here in India. In India, most of the architecture and built landscape has occurred without architects. Working in Los Angeles was also rigorous and disciplined, whereas in India it’s more chaotic. “Yes” and “no” are sometimes the same thing in India. In fact, the way you shake your head in India is similar for “yes” and “no.”
We understand that you prefer to communicate on-site with scale models and gestures rather than with conventional drawings. How did this develop in your practice?
The difficulty with drawings is that they become instructions. I remember watching craftsmen on-site trying to build from my drawings, and I knew this was not right, just in a sense of pure, physical energy. The materials, the way they came together, it destroyed me to see the work carried out like this. I found myself giving instructions to craftsmen who knew more than I did. Their knowledge had been acquired over generations, and this knowledge was all about sense and sensibility acquired from observation. And that’s when one realizes the kind of power that an architecture degree can convey. Anyone with a formal education, whatever it might be, wields a certain power that, in a way, supersedes any thinking. It’s an extremely powerful position with a lack of knowledge.
So I had to give up this position and along with it the idea of creating precise instructions for craftsmen to follow. Instead, I developed a non-linear narrative with each project; this narrative describes atmosphere, experience, emotion and connection to place. I believe, in some way, that this process becomes present in the work because the craftsmen are able to connect; they’re not just carrying out instructions. A stonemason is not simply there to break stone and install it.
The models work well as a means of collaboration and communication; more people can participate in the discussion. The models allow different points of view, and everyone teaches each other—no one acts independently. Magic happens with all of these different people working together, finding common overlap. I found this is a much less resistive way to do work, and things get done better. It means that the work has to be done directly and that I have to connect with that many more people, but for us, this idea works really well. You discover so many things that you were just completely unaware of, and part of our studio involves looking for places that are unfamiliar to any of us, unexpected.
Bringing dignity to people and places is a strong belief of yours; how does this dignity develop in your work?
This aspect has evolved, again, out of the idea of power. It’s something that I’ve experienced in the human condition.
I had an interesting experience a couple of days ago. Not far away from where I live is an intersection with plastic structures off the road – the type of structures you might imagine in a disaster situation, maybe four-or five-feet tall and no more than six-feet long – just big enough for two bodies to inhabit. I’ve been driving past this space for 10 years, and I’ve been thinking, “My God, I’m an architect, and surely there is something I can do about this.” But how do I do it? How do I start a dialogue, and how do I intervene in a way in which I can be of some use with the skills I have? And on this particular day, I said, “I’m going to do something about it,” and stopped on the way back from a site visit.
There was a man and his wife out in front of one of the shelters. He was immaculately dressed in a crisp shirt and trousers and a stainless steel wrist watch. She was dressed in a beautiful turmeric-yellow sari, had thick black hair and wore jewelry. We spoke a bit. They’d been living there since 1994, when they had received the land for free. There are 15 of these plastic shelters, and the nearest public bathrooms are a half-kilometer down the road. The inhabitants all came from the same village in southern India; they spend half of their time here and half of their time back in the village. The two worked as plasterers for buildings and made decent salaries (it’s not unusual to discuss such details in Indian culture).
We’re in the thick of the monsoon season right now, and it’s quite intense. So I asked about the rain and their shelter, and the man said that as fast as the rain comes, it goes away. He said the plastic is tight and doesn’t allow a drop of rain into the structure. He kind-of looked at me like I was stupid for needing the nature of plastic explained to me.
We continued talking, and the man said that they get ready each morning outside. Their mornings typically begin at 5 a.m. because, you see, by 6 or 6:30 people start traversing the road, and it doesn’t look good for them to prepare for their day outside while people are going by due to the fact that it’s a public space. Do you see the reversal of empathy here? They are considerate to these random people passing along, and so they’ve formed this idea that it’s undignified to get ready at six, so they get up at five. This concept of dignity is part of their DNA. When we think of this man as just a plasterer, who lives in this tent that we wouldn’t consider to be anything, in that process we’ve just dismissed and destroyed the potential that lies within him.
This was an eye opener for me because I wanted to do something, and I was slapped in the face in a sense. It’s not about being happy or unhappy or me thinking that I could contribute because these people are completely in control. This understanding of dignity is an empathy to everything that surrounds us, whether it’s people, landscape, the ground or materials. This relationship is very critical, and it means that you have to remain open at all times. This is what dignity is to me; dignity exists in a relationship. This was a good example of people, architecture and dignity.
Much of your work deals with the immediacy of the natural environment; for instance, the constant flux of the water level in the Tara House pool that you designed. Can you tell us a bit about this project?
The Tara House includes an underground well of “sweet water,” which supplies the home with potable water and is also used to water the gardens. The sweet water is separated from the seawater underneath by a natural diaphragm; the level of the sweet water is directly affected by the sea level. We had a local master well-builder out on the site who said to dig only to a certain point; if you go beyond that, there is a possibility that the two waters will meet. The sweet water would subsequently be contaminated by salt water and that would be the end of it. It’s such a small, fine line. The situation was about putting faith in others and in nature. If you take this example of water, there is a certain amount of care or empathy present. It’s about knowing how far to go and then letting it rest, allowing the condition to work.
This seems to be just as much an attitude about human mindfulness as a solution to environmental circumstances, no?
Often in my work, architecture is a filter rather than a fortification. It is an understanding of how to negotiate nature in its different forces. By different forces, I mean that what can be beautiful can also be aggressive, what can be beautiful can also be ugly. Nature always has several sides, and you cannot say I’ll take one and not the other. It’s a careful negotiation.
The origin of water is important to the philosophy of your designs. Can you speak to the paradigm shift this brings about for the inhabitants of your work?
Most people in India, even now, have to go to their sources of water; the water doesn’t come to them. By going to a water source, whether it’s a river or a local water tank, you develop a relationship, which is essential to the evolution of architecture. It’s part of accepting the inconveniences that are part of the experience. You can’t say that you’ll only have the good and not the bad.
What have we missed? Is there anything you’d like to touch on that we haven’t brought up?
To me, what’s important while I’m working is this empathy that I’ve discussed—giving up the sense of power, which we all carry with us. Working with unpredictability is difficult for me, and I struggle with it, but it’s one of the things that I’ve recognized as worth doing. Unpredictability is very important because it doesn’t tolerate the status quo. When I think about living and working here in India, what saves us as a country, as a group of people, is actually the chaos. If things were structured here, I think we would implode; there would be no room for any movement. That’s the only way so many of us can coexist; it would not be possible if everything was very precisely structured. It would be absolutely impossible to function.