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When architect Shirish Beri first visited the four-acre site for the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species in Hyderabad in 2005, it was an undulating wasteland, marked by clusters of rocks that stood six to 11 meters tall. When he walked up to them to touch and feel their contours, he says he could hear the hum of a million years. It was then that he decided to build a “non-building”, where the boulders would be the protagonists — the broken stone masonry of his construction would give it the feel of a ruin, and, the glass façade would hold an ephemeral reflection of the sky, clouds and landscape. “It’s my homage to the Deccan landscape. I wanted the building to dematerialise; when the light changes in the sky, it is reflected in the glass and the whole building is transformed,” says Beri, 66, on a visit to Delhi. Earlier this year, the Kolhapur-based architect was awarded the prestigious JK Grand Master’s Award for his immense contribution to Indian architecture.
In the early ’70s, while studying at the School of Architecture (CEPT), Ahmedabad, Beri began questioning his purpose as an architect. During his holidays, he would travel across the country with his sketchbook, trying to learn and understand himself and his surroundings. “I would make perspectives for my father, who was an architect too, and then travel with that money. I lived on Rs 10-12 a day. I would sleep on empty beaches, park benches and on the terraces of lodges. I wanted to understand the values that architecture held, how they related to life and what I could learn from them. I learnt that it’s not the wrapping that makes the difference, but the quality of the space that helps people connect with nature, with themselves and with other human beings. Architects have to create their context. It is not static,” he says.
Beri attempts to achieve this connection in each of his projects, be it a house, a hospital, a school or a research institution. One of his early projects (1975) was the St Xavier’s Church in Kolhapur, where he adapted the symbolism of man’s ascension towards a higher truth into the form of the structure. “It rises from the ground towards the cross at the apex. I thought it could be a medium to raise man from a lower level to a higher one, but I didn’t want it to be an autocratic statement which would dictate the landscape,” says Beri. He created the building in a way that makes the wings appear like extended arms. It encourages one to glance all the way up to the top of the pergola that’s shaped like a mitre.
Most of his buildings are planned according to the terrain it is built on. From his first house along the Sahyadaris, which was an A-frame structure with no doors or walls, Beri has attempted to build spaces that reflect one’s inner self. “My forms are not generated by a pre-imagined geometry; rather, they are often determined by what is there on site. I believe in asking the site what kind of a building it wants because I believe architecture is a living space,” he says.
While for a couple in Nagpur, he designed a house around a banyan tree, his Andur house is oriented towards the lake, which allows him to watch wildlife in action. “We have herds of bison wandering around the forest area. Sometimes, you see a sambal being chased across the water,” says Beri, with a smile.
For one who has built his house on hills, by the beach and now the lake, Beri is very conscious of who he builds for. “I don’t accept large projects — say, for instance, building 18,000 sq ft or 25,000 sq ft houses for two people. The Andur lake house was built for about Rs 11 lakh. People like to use expensive finishes. My flooring is rammed earth and cow dung or IPS (Indian Patent Stone). And I lead a millionaire’s life without millions in my pocket. What I earn, I prefer to give away,” he says.
He’s walking the talk with the award money he has received by putting in Rs 17 lakh of his own to the award amount of Rs 3 lakh and instituting a fellowship in CEPT for a deserving student who “gets to do nothing”. Of course, there will be a deliverable at the end of six or eight months, “but I want them to think about architecture, the intangibles, about life itself. They may want to travel, learn or practise music, write a book or a play, anything that will help them unlearn what they have learnt,” he says.
Beri has been rewarded not only with numerous industry awards, but also feedback from his clients, who include school children and recovering addicts. In Pune’s Muktanjan De-Addiction Centre, Beri focused on transparency and a connect with the elements. “When an inmate learnt that I had designed the place, he pointed to the amphitheatre and the openings between the walls, and said, ‘The blue sky was my inspiration to get better. It was my only symbol that the outside world was calling out to me’,” says Beri. “I am more interested in life than in architecture, in the quest for improving the quality of life by bringing man closer to nature and himself,” he says.