Investigating Spaces

The founders of Delhi-based architecture firm Morphogenesis, on their 20-year journey, which is now commemorated in a monograph, and their vision for the river Ganga.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: June 9, 2017 5:29 pm
Morphogenesis, architecture firm, indian architecture firm, india architecture, Architects Sonali and Manit Rastogi

Delhi-based Morphogenesis first arrived on the scene when Indian corporates were leaving footprints on global shores and our socialist economy was handing over its reins to liberalisation. The architecture firm had won its first major commission in 1997, the Apollo Tyres headquarters in Gurugram (then Gurgaon). At the time, Gurugram was still rubbing its eyes from an agrarian slumber to the morning of a chaotic urbanism.

Morphogenesis founders Sonali and Manit Rastogi, graduates from School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, had just returned from the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. Mindful of their Indian context and global perspective, they responded by creating courtyards to intercede the built space. While they used glass and steel, the much maligned materials that all of Gurugram was seeing, they gave the Apollo office a contemporary edge. The sculptural external fire escape of rippling steel would complement self-shading walls. “We had the imagination of a rippling staircase and we made sketches and translated that into technical drawings. But nobody on site could relate to them. We then thought of utensil makers because a vessel is always turning, and the minute we showed them, they knew what had to be done. So we got these makers from Gujarat who hand-turned and welded steel for this project,” says Sonali, 49. The couple would take this rigour of melding craft and architectural identity into their later projects, making way for SAIL. It’s the acronym for Sustainability, Affordability, Identity, Liveability. Sonali says they guide every project of the 20-year-old firm. These principles are adopted across climate and context, regardless of scale and typology.

Morphogenesis, architecture firm, indian architecture firm, india architecture, The ITC campus in Rajarhat, Bengal.

Nearly 10 years later, in 2008, these ideas showed up in the building they created for Pearl Academy, Jaipur. The educational institution is introverted with a double-skin facade and references jaalis. Here, the roof was insulated using earthen pots, making it a low-cost yet effective heat absorption mechanism. “We have developed a matrix which helps us build structures that consume less energy than green buildings. All our projects are geared towards understanding the carrying capacity of the land. We want to ensure, at least theoretically, that no waste leaves the site. Just as nature closes loops, we would like to believe that we practise closed-loop architecture,” says Manit, 47.

A monograph commemorating the firm’s journey was launched globally at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and released in India in March this year. Morphogenesis: The Indian Perspective, The Global Context by Images Books, an international architecture and design publishing house, is the first Indian practice to feature in their Master Architect Series. It was prompted by the 2014 Singapore Institute of Architects Getz Award won by Morphogenesis in the Emergent Architecture in Asia category. The125-staffed firm has projects across the country, designing corporate campuses, townships, retail and houses.

“Large firms seldom built 1,000 sq ft art galleries or kindergarten schools. Small projects are most challenging. For instance, in a private house, the brief keeps changing and clients evolve. When they have to imagine their future environment as one with their lives, new thought processes are unearthed. An architect therefore has to become a mirror to their thoughts. On the other hand, smaller projects give us the potential to explore dying crafts and reinvent them into a contemporary format. We enjoy the tactile feel of materials, the way we can dovetail one into the other, and see each corner with a magnifying glass. When you move from small to big, you tend to lose that detail,” says Sonali.

While they say their Infosys Campus, Nagpur, is a net zero project, its multi-dimensional configuration strategically attracts light and air into the buildings. The ITC mixed-use campus in Rajarhat, Bengal, takes pride in cultural identity, drawing inspiration from the Bengal School of Art, Tagore’s poetry, and the Bengali script. As part of their advocacy in the urban realm, after their 10-year run with the Delhi Nullah’s initiative, where they planned a reuse of Delhi’s neglected drainage system into a sustainable social, cultural network, they have turned their next 10-year vision to the Ganges. “We are calling it a ‘river in need’. We are proposing an interface between the river’s edge and the public, all the way from Allahabad to Varanasi. The idea is to make it an urban experience, allow for engineering to prevent soil erosion along the banks, reinvent water transport, protect flora and fauna, and provide knowledge dissemination for the youth,” says Sonali.

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