From a residence in Chennai and an elephants’ quarters in Jaipur, to an academy for girls in a village near Pune, three Indian architects are showcasing their projects at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale to present a local context to this year’s Biennale theme — ‘Freespace’. The liminal or in-between spaces is the focus of the biennale (May – November 2018) which is being curated by Dublin-based Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects.
Among the 71 biennale participants across the globe, including national pavilions, India is being represented by three firms: RMA Architects (Mumbai/Boston); Matharoo Associates (Ahmedabad); and Case Design (Mumbai). Rahul Mehrotra of RMA Architects was given a ‘Special Mention’ by an international jury “for three projects that address issues of intimacy and empathy, gently diffusing social boundaries and hierarchies.” In our conversation with the three architects, they tell us what makes their projects inclusive, collaborative and temporal.
The biennale jury gave a special mention to Mehrotra for his installation, ‘Soft Thresholds’. It offers a take on three individual projects that are as distinct from each other as they are eclectic in spirit. While Hathi Gaon in Jaipur presents a sense of community between the mahouts and their elephants, the KMC office in Hyderabad breaks down walls of hierarchy in the corporate world by creating “catwalks” for gardeners to tend to the green façade; and, the footbridge in the courtyard of the CEPT library in Ahmedabad anchors the old and the new.
How have the projects you presented amplified the theme?
My installation presents one crucial component of each project: the gardeners’ bridge at the KMC corporate headquarters; the shared courtyard of Hathi Gaon, for mahouts and their elephants; and, the footbridge in the courtyard of the CEPT University Library. These spaces are represented in part or whole at full scale, defined by layered, transparent, floating scrims which provoke multiple readings of occupation, overlap and blur. Printed on viola fabric, the scrims were transparent as a way to metaphorically and literally suggest the soft thresholds. These were complemented by video projections.
When it comes to architecture, do you think we are too focused on end products in India?
In India, the problems are so immense that we often don’t have the space for reflection. Our responses are rear garde action — retrospective, not avant garde. We don’t have the luxury of speculation or spaces for projects. Biennales do somewhat offer a forum for
reflection, projection and speculation. The question then becomes — what is the right and most effective format for such an event and is it appropriate for all geographies? Perhaps the Venice Biennale is too Eurocentric? I’m not sure!
Would it have been different if the curators were from Asia or the Middle East?
I think every region should invent its own biennales, or whatever form this takes. The issues and economies, and even the role of architecture, varies so much in different geographies that to have one format is not always productive.
Case Design’s entry, Avasara Academy in the village of Lavale, near Pune, is set on a 4.3-acre campus along a hillslope. Meant for young women, its large building hosts classrooms and spaces for interaction, from walkways and courtyards to gardens and terraces.
“Our ambition was to share our work, on this. Bringing together a diverse group of builders, designers, farmers, artists and engineers who share our belief that collaboration and empathy lie at the core of all good work, we have created spaces for hospitality, social interaction, reflection, play, ritual, seclusion, performance, and comfort. Shown here as representations and fragments of proposed interventions, they are elements that will be woven back into the fabric of the built environment,” says Samuel Barclay.
This project deconstructs a residence in Chennai. The sense of playfulness, even in the treatment of a wall by Matharoo, gives a radical perspective to the very meaning and function of a wall. “Our installation at the biennale shows a slice of a residence in Chennai. Our idea was to manipulate its architecture beyond enclosure and cover, and structure… The house had to be built using economical means and material, on a tight plot within a dense urban setting. The context and site made it imperative to create open courts within, and, to use techniques that would allow spaces to appear much larger than their footprint… Creating a notion of animated movement, the entire construct is a single plane that has been cut, bent and folded — a play to enclose and open up varied scales of space, to connect outside and inside, and to create openings, doors and even furniture.”