My career has been like a long train ride with no fixed destination, but with varying and boundless scenic beauty. Seeing different places and meeting people, doing a variety of projects, conversing with students in schools, and writing have enriched the experience of the ‘ride’.
My career spanning six decades consists of professional practice, teaching and writing.
I studied at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay, which included architecture among other disciplines of Art. My choice of profession was influenced by my living in ‘Gold Finch’, a beautiful modern building in Bombay designed in 1937 by G.B. Mhatre. The building with a big cantilevered verandah that was skewed on plan, and Art Deco features like coloured mosaic flooring and exquisitely designed woodwork, was far ahead of its time in design and structure.
The other reason for my choice was the experience of staying in my ancestral home in a small town during my summer vacations to the south. The house, built in the early 1900s where a 150 year-old structure once stood, was designed by a retired architect draftsman from the Public Works Department (PWD) of the princely state of Mysore. He innovated within the conventional norms of the time, which included assigning rooms and interior spaces to suit planetary positions, setting the upper floor back to prevent people from seeing the chariot procession from a height, and aligning the front and rear doors of the house to allow free passage for evil spirits to exit if they were to enter. These tales and myths repeated over generations had become a matter of belief for most people. The house was situated on a street, which on its northern-end ran under the imposing ‘gopuram’ of the temple to the steps along the banks of the Cauvery River.
On its southern end was the town’s bazaar. The temple with its gopuram and the streets forming the processional path with houses lining them completed the town centre. I saw festivals that were full of colour and life, where ‘kolams’ (rangoli) in vermillion, yellow ochre and white decorated every doorstep, where the temple chariot was decked with marigolds and jasmine, and music from the ‘nadaswaram’ led devotees in a night long procession around the town. These sights and sounds were, for a city-bred youngster like me, truly fascinating. I needed to study a subject that would allow me to understand the larger picture. A neighbour advised me to study architecture, saying that since it encompassed many disciplines, it would help me understand life better. Before long, I knew I wanted to be an architect.
At school, I was among eleven like-minded students from different years, who formed a group to understand the forces that shape architecture and to discuss what we were learning in school and what we heard and saw in the world outside. I also spent most of my school years walking around Bombay and other cities that I visited, seeing different typologies of building, analysing them and finding out how and why they formed part of the built environment.
In the initial years at school, I spent my summers in internships. One of these was with a structural engineer from whom I learnt the importance of thoroughness, attention to details and of learning from mistakes. In my third year at school, I worked part-time at Standard Vacuum Oil Company, making drawings for their office building that was coming up at Churchgate in Bombay. Seeing drawings getting translated into reality was a direct way of learning. When the construction had advanced, I took a year off from school to work at site. During this time, I also worked on the design and drawings of a prefabricated petrol station that could be fabricated in a carpentry shop, shipped and assembled at site.
I then worked for Fred Osberg, a naval architect, who was designing an oil tanker. He drew the ship’s profile along it’s entire length, including its forward and aft sections. He also added the water line. The form of the boat’s hull developed from the basic line with complex sections that were derived mathematically. The ‘lines’, as I realized years later, was the core or essence of the design. Such exposure showed me that the design and construction of any object respond to the same fundamental questions of ‘what, why and how’.
In 1956, five of us from the group – Dileep Purohit, Shreekant Mandrekar, Raja Poredi, Kukki Mathur and I – decided to pool our mental resources and experience to start a practice. We called our partnership firm ‘Architects’ Combine’. Raphael David, another member of the group, joined us later. The firm was a confluence of different backgrounds, cultures and political views that ranged from moderate Gandhian ideals to leftist ideology.
Initially, projects were few. We worked on them together, which was as exciting as it was trying. During our school days, while we exchanged news and views of what we saw, heard or read, we did not put our heads together over a drawing board. We did not know how collaborations on projects work: who would initiate the idea, who would detail it, and who would look after the nuts and bolts. We knew that a project is never a solo effort; that many people contribute to making it what it eventually becomes. Yet, the credit always goes to a single person. This confirmed the ‘anti-hero’ stance we took when we were students.
Typically, one of us would toss an idea, often a wild one, which after a debate, would be thrown out. Then would come more ideas which would also meet the same fate. Working together on a design did not work as most of our ideas came from concern with a programme’s physical requirements and little else. But we learned that design is not just linear thinking. Ideas both verbal and visual need dialogue within oneself and with others. I realised, much later, that a search for the essence of a programme that goes beyond its physical needs, can lead to a design that is fulfilling.
With work coming in rapidly, things changed and projects were handled by the partners individually along with their teams. The office grew a ‘studio culture’ in which people in a design team worked as equals, sharing ideas, discussing different possibilities and giving shape to ideas. Each one of us grew differently but ideas and experiences were shared and discussed. We found that no two projects were alike; we learnt from every one of them, which added to what we knew and experienced.
In 1976–77, I got a year-long assignment as ‘Architect to the Government of Karnataka’. The tasks included preparing a report for restructuring the architect’s office in the PWD, overseeing work done in the districts including designing guest houses for dam projects, and improving design standards. For an architect in the PWD, public buildings can be both interesting and challenging but how a Government Architect typically functions reveals some lacunae. His client is a nameless entity; his involvement does not go beyond making drawings for a project on a site he may never have seen, and feedback from a completed project for future improvement is conspicuously absent. My report focussed on team work and more involvement in the project during its construction. Work in district towns showed the disconnect between standard designs and site conditions. Every district is different, geographically and culturally; architecture, therefore, needs to grow from the character of a place and its people. The British built PWD bungalows, cited as an example of standardisation, were generic in design but altered to suit the climate, materials and construction skills available locally. Solutions were found for every situation and the design was expressed in a language that was simple and direct.
I visited two dam projects, one of which was being built and the other completed. Both were awe inspiring. A dam is colossal; building it is a daunting task. When done, it is a marvel of engineering. It impounds a huge body of water, the sight of which brings a sense of peace to an onlooker. However, we do not think of the damage a dam project does to people and the environment. Villages and forests are submerged; people lose their homes and lands; monuments and memories disappear. All for a ‘development’ with an economic life that is less than a hundred years. Towards the end of my assignment, I was given a project for adaptive reuse of a heritage property in Bangalore to which a new auditorium was added. My task was to design, award work, supervise construction and complete the project in 100 days. For my colleagues in the PWD, working as a team at site was an experience they cherished, and they welcomed the prospect of a restructured department.
Today, the heritage building and auditorium, with a set of newer additions, house the National Gallery of Modern Art.
The decades that followed saw more projects, more occasions to listen to students and help them understand their work, and to write articles and books; all activities in pursuit of clarity of thought and expression. By 2008, the founding members of the firm, except me, passed away; the baton was handed over to Prateek Banerjee, Pratik Sheth and Abhijeet Doshi to take forward a six-decade old ‘culture of the studio’ that never ceases to change and grow.