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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Breathing Space

Bijoy Jain’s architecture firm is inspired by human ingenuity as much as nature. Its minimalist,earthy aesthetic finds a special mention at Venice Biennale.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Mumbai | September 12, 2010 9:07:22 pm

Bijoy Jain’s architecture firm is inspired by human ingenuity as much as nature. Its minimalist,earthy aesthetic finds a special mention at Venice Biennale.

Bijoy Jain clearly remembers the first project that he worked on after he founded Studio Mumbai in 1996. “It was a tiny bathroom in an apartment building,” he says,“only slightly bigger than 5ft x 3ft,and we had to put in a laundry,a storage space,a place to dry clothes — everything in that little space.” It was a challenge but the architect managed it well. “Later,we found that practically the whole building had copied that design. That’s a huge compliment for an architect,” he says. He compares it to the stainless steel dish rack that almost every household in India has. “When an idea like that proliferates,you know you’ve got it right,” he says.

Studio Mumbai is an architecture firm that makes the best of available resources and comes up with innovative architectural solutions,always keeping the human element in mind. “Human beings have a deep connection with architectural spaces,” says Jain. “If a structure is built with consideration for the people who will live in it,they will love it.”

It was a presentation of this style — intuitive and imaginative — that won the studio a special mention at the Venice Biennale 2010 last month,where they were the only Indian studio to participate. Their exhibition Work-Place was a deconstruction of their atelier — a workplace that is anything but an assembly-line churning out projects. In the asymmetry of tiles lined up on one side and the jumble of miniature wooden houses and stone samples,the focus was on the raw material and unfinished ideas,rather than a final,grand plan. What they tried to capture,says Jain,was the way a house grows under Studio Mumbai’s guidance,a constant dialogue with the space it will occupy.

In June this year,London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s also listened in to the dialogue when Studio Mumbai was invited to the exhibition 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. Their exhibit recreated the ingenious,hardy “design” of one of the many temporary dwellings that sprout and survive in Mumbai. “There was a small shack,created in the space between two buildings,near our office in Byculla,” says Jain. “Our installation recreated the experience of living there. Constricted though it may be,it has been made a ‘home’ by a family,with a separate space for everything. A place of worship and a tree. It shows that our idea of shelter or refuge as simply being a roof over one’s head is flawed. A refuge should have the capability to nurture life within it,no matter how small.”

The projects that have the Studio Mumbai stamp are not flashy boxes towering arrogantly over the landscape; they grow out of nature,indeed seem to breathe well in their surroundings. Whether it is the House on Pali Hill,Mumbai,which uses the surrounding vegetation to shield it from the hustle of the city; or the

Reading Room in Jain’s home in Alibaug,sprawled under the shade of a large banyan tree. The most famous is the Palmyra House,which has been shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan award for architecture,in Nandgaon,Maharashtra. Made entirely from locally sourced ain wood,it is the perfect blend of Studio Mumbai’s regard for local traditions and conditions,and a contemporary aesthetic.

Having grown up in the suburb of Juhu,which he recalls as being as green in the 1960s as Alibaug is today,practising in India was a foregone decision for Jain,now 45. He studied architecture in the United States and practised there and in the United Kingdom,before finally deciding that it was time to return home. “I feel it’s more natural for me to work here,”

he says. “I grew up here and I understand how things function. I’m simply more intuitive here.”

A large,well-shaded property in Alibaug,a four-hour drive from Mumbai,is where Studio Mumbai has its headquarters. We arrive there on a Saturday morning and are greeted by Jain,dressed in crisp linen,and given a tour of what he likes to call a ‘laboratory’. “We’re very mobile in our methods,” he says. “This is where we brainstorm and figure things out,while most of the work gets done on the site itself.”

The studio is not a boxy room,carved out into tiny cubicles and cabins,lit by tubelights and cooled by air-conditioners. This is a large wooden shed,built around a tree that grows out through the roof. There’s plenty of sunlight on a normal day (and some table lamps and tubelights for when it gets dark) and no air-conditioners. The working style is unique as well. Jain says that he works more like a master builder than an architect and there is no hierarchical distinction between the four architects and the 100-odd craftsmen.

He introduces Jeevaram Suthar,his 33-year old head carpenter,as his right-hand man.

Suthar and Jain sit at a large table,covered in photographs,blueprints and models and pull out their cloth-covered notebooks to discuss their ongoing work. Here,it’s not just trained architects who make diligent notes and sketches — everyone is encouraged to pick up one of the red cloth-covered books of the firm and record their ideas and instructions. “Our system does not involve architects giving orders and the craftsmen executing them. In fact,both architects and craftsmen are involved in the planning and the execution.”

Jain says that he finds it easier to work with the craftsmen,who may not have formal education,but display a high order of skills when they set to work. “I find that they are more open to ideas and innovation than trained architects,” says Jain. “They’re not afraid to make mistakes,and they’re very skilled. The trouble is that elsewhere they are employed only to drive nails through plywood.”

With its clean lines,emphasis on natural light and air and a sense of openness,Jain’s work and vision blurs the relationship between the inside and the outside. “(In a building),one can have all the advantages of the outdoors,with the security of being indoors,” he says. “It’s done keeping in mind how the human body functions. It may be 40 degrees outside in the sun,but in the shade,the temperature can drop to 36 degrees. However,to the human body,it will feel even cooler than that. It’s just how our body functions. With such understanding in our hands,what is the need for artificial cooling? Just let fresh air blow in and do its work.”

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