All images: Palmyra House, Nandgaon, Maharashtra, 2007. Photo Helene Binet.
ART iT: Maybe I misunderstood how you work. I imagined something like a community that works together to make a specific space, but it seems that everybody operates as an individual with their own role and vocabulary, and working and finding a way to join everything together is your process?
BJ: Yes, each one has their own self-expression or their own identity, but within that identity, they are also able to extend themselves to the larger group. It’s quite a leap here, but I think part of what happened with the Industrial Revolution is that everything became more nuclear and singular. Often we can be extremely creative and singular, but to bring that creativity and singularity into a larger group is where we struggle now. I think there’s far less resistance with Studio Mumbai because the sense of identity is so grounded that there’s no conflict in being able to share it or participate. I think that’s what forms a community, and that’s what I understand as a community, not just living together. You could have 100 people living together, but if you don’t share, it’s not a community.
ART iT: When you design by yourself, you have your own vision, but when you work with a team, does it widen your vision?
BJ: It becomes more inclusive, but fundamentally the reason why we are collectively working together is that we are able to express the possibility of what is possible, and have faith and belief in that expression.
This is no different from the temple we saw today. People came together in the belief that this had a place in the world, and it wasn’t a single vision, but it was an expression. For us it’s about being able to express ourselves freely. We are not limited by a system or an environment. Even if sometimes there are things that are not available or are limited, it doesn’t prevent us from having a free expression, and that’s fundamental for determining what has value for us, and that’s why we work as a group. The moment that stops, we have to figure out a different way to work, because at the end of the day it’s important to be able to express yourself creatively and freely.
ART iT: How did you start to work like this? You said earlier that there was a gap where the workers didn’t understand the drawing and you wanted to find a way to bridge that gap.
BJ: Usually in India when we build we work with a “contractor,” but the contractors there are not professional builders like they are in Japan. I would reframe the term more as people who move man power, collecting 10 carpenters from one place, 20 masons from another, five plasterers from another. They know how to build through time and experience, but they’re more like managers, clocking time and able to speak English or read and write – that’s basically what qualifies them as a contractor.
What I found was that in the early part of the practice the projects we had proposed never got realized to their full potential. It had nothing to do with the materials, it had nothing to do with time or money or even skill. The only reason they were not fully realized was because there was no internal need for self-expression, and that was all because one person, the contractor, was interested in only one thing, which was the economy of making money. For me this is not a problem – I don’t have a conflict with it at all. But it becomes a problem when that is the sole driving force, because it suppresses the expression and potential of everyone else who is participating.
It didn’t cost any more, it didn’t take any more time, and it didn’t take any more material to do something where the expression was fully realized. All it required was a little more attention and love. It’s like food. You can have two people standing next to each other in the same kitchen with the same ingredients cooking the same dish, but one could turn out completely different from the other. So at some point in the process we were all unhappy: the client, the architect, the builders. I felt it didn’t make sense. I did three projects and it didn’t feel right to keep entering into something that you knew was based in conflict, not on creation or being constructive.
Somewhere I got the idea: what if we could remove this one person, the contractor – not because that person intends it to be bad, but because the emotional energy is absent. Once I started working directly with the builders I saw there was potential, because where some links had not been connecting, we could now communicate directly. It was obvious, and that’s how it happened.
I think in anything you have to gather a group of people who at some point agree collectively. You don’t even have to have similar sensibilities. You can disagree, but somewhere there has to be a need for expression, and to do it fully. We’ve had people in our group who have had different points of view and not exactly flowed with the group, and sometimes that resistance is also important. It’s like in politics, you need an opposition, but the opposition is also in some way working towards something that is common. It’s like the warp and weft of a cloth, this weave becomes important in what we are doing.
ART iT: You commented on Japanese contractors. It’s really like that on Japanese construction site. We talk a lot with the workers and decide the details with the workers. And the workers themselves have a high level of experience and craftsmanship. So it seems there are parallels between the working style of Japanese architects and of Studio Mumbai.
BJ: I don’t have firsthand experience, but from what I’ve heard it seems to be that way. What I was trying to say earlier is that the contractors in Japan are professional builders, and contractors in India are not necessarily professional builders, and that’s the difference I want to make: there’s an understanding of how buildings are put together, and they know their profession, just like a doctor or a lawyer.
With the Indian contractors, given their position, their financial situation and the fact that they are able to use the money to move people, they are nothing but managers and they don’t really have any empathy towards building. They could be selling cameras. What I have heard through friends of mine here is that it works in a way similar to Studio Mumbai. It’s certainly not unique to us, especially with smaller projects. Naturally because of the finances and complexity involved, the bigger projects come with their own set of rules.
Bijoy Jain/Studio Mumbai: Building Potential