By Naohiko Hino
All images: MOMAT Pavilion designed and built by Studio Mumbai at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, August 2012 to May 2013. Photo Masumi Kawamura.
ART iT: Your work moves between the local situation in India and the global context. Could you explain how you first encountered architecture in a Western sense? Was it an important step in your journey as an architect?
BJ: I think whether it’s in Japan or in India or anywhere else, in terms of formal education architecture today is fundamentally taught from the Modernist sensibility, and that education is the default introduction to architecture. In my case this education was further reinforced by going to the US to study [at Washington University in St Louis], but when I returned to India after having been exposed to Modernism, I was still attracted to local buildings and what you might call informal architecture. These are not traditional forms but rather those that have evolved from a practice of independence and self-building. What was fascinating for me to observe was that both types of architecture existed at the same time. While I enjoyed Modernist architecture, there was also this other part, and I couldn’t dismiss it just by sticking to what I had done and what I had learnt, because I was attracted to it. That’s where the journey began.
Around the same time we were commissioned to build a small house. It was quite remote and I had to depend on the local people – the carpenters and masons and others involved in the building. I made some drawings and they didn’t understand the drawings, or even understand the kind of project we were doing. Then I thought about it further and decided to try to meet them halfway. We kept the essence of the plan but it was expressed in a way that was more familiar to them, and I think that’s where the process of joining the two began.
But it was never intentional nor did I think of it so specifically as joining the global and the local. I am not nostalgic about tradition or history. For me what’s important is the potential of what they carry within themselves and the spirit in which they were done. The interest lies in the overlap rather than the difference, the point where they meet to become something else which is neither necessarily Modern nor based in tradition, and there’s an ambiguity to the origin of the source.
ART iT: At the same time, in your exhibition at Gallery Ma in Tokyo there are many materials that appear to be traditional or have roots in the past, and it seems as though you’ve dug them up into the present. Where does this interest come from?
BJ: For us those materials are accessible, even now. It’s easier and cheaper for me to get a piece of stone than to get aluminum. It’s just a question of convenience or inconvenience, or feasibility. Of course I can do something with aluminum and materials that we’re familiar with today, because they belong to a system, and somebody else is responsible. But there’s no stopping me from picking up a stone or a piece of wood: the only difference is I have to take responsibility for it. The difference lies in the responsibility.
The MOMAT Pavilion in mid-construction.
ART iT: How does this sense of responsibility affect the people you work with, or the resources you use?
BJ: I think the responsibility comes in taking ownership for yourself, independent of the people who do it or don’t do it. There is potential in these materials, and you try to find a way to have forces that come together to meet the material and from which things can be produced.
I don’t have to depend on a system. I’m independent of a system, which means that I can express myself, much like in music, or poetry. That’s the potential we have. I don’t really believe that it’s old or new. For me if I want to use wood, then it’s about finding an efficiency of wood at a scale that is economical and feasible – all the aspects that make it come alive – and it’s not necessary that it will be more costly. I think you have to challenge any scale. I think it’s sometimes preconceived or we make assumptions that if we go down that route it won’t be the right one, but sometimes – especially today – you have to travel the road less traveled or less familiar, while still having faith that you can find a way. Maybe I sound romantic or impractical in that sense but I believe that potential exists, it’s just that we’ve lost faith in that potential.
ART iT: Yet I imagine that you and your workers share some kind of spatial vocabulary rooted in India. Is this not the case?
BJ: Yes and no. I’ll use an example of what just happened a few hours ago here in Tokyo. We had gone to meet a client who has a weaving studio in Akiruno. We had a bit of time, so we looked around the beautiful Zen Buddhist temple there. The carpenter who is with me on this trip was looking at the roof and said, “It looks like the wings of a bird.” He didn’t call it a roof. He didn’t even use the word roof. He saw it as the wings of a bird. That is what it evoked in him.
So why I say “yes and no” is that emotion or that evocation is universal. It’s Japanese, it’s Indian, and I think that’s what joins us. It was a learning experience for me because I saw it as a roof – I didn’t see it as the wings of a bird. So I think this shows the difference in how we see, between where I come from in terms of a formal education and where he comes in terms of an informal experience. I’ve been thinking about it the whole while. I think that’s what joins us in some ways, because you need both, it’s not one or the other. It’s the joining of the two.
Related: About Studio Mumbai, by Naohiko Hino
Bijoy Jain/Studio Mumbai: Building Potential