Indian Architect & Builder, through a two-part series titled ‘Practices of Consequence’ (Volumes I and II) delves deeper into contemporary Indian practices that have carved a unique identity and place for themselves in the country today. This article, part of the first volume of the series, takes a closer look at ‘mayaPRAXIS’, a Bengaluru-based architectural firm.
While anchoring each work in its specific site and circumstance, mayaPRAXIS is a synthesis of Vijay Narnapatti and Dimple Mittal’s sensibilities, which endeavor to obtain a deeper experience of time, space, light and materials. A continuum of specific situations enables works of distinct individuality and stylistic variety from project to project. Every project has a realm of details where the essential qualities are crystallised and catalysed at multiple scales.
Indian Architect & Builder's interview with the founders, after the break…
IAB: Please describe your firm
VN + DM: About 11 years ago, mayaPRAXIS was born in Bengaluru; in an office shared with another friend. Bengaluru seemed like [and still is] a great place for an architect, where cosmopolitan culture stands alongside a traditional and tolerant ethos. Other than the one friend, we knew no one else in Bengaluru. The first year went by with one project on board and one architect to pick on in the studio. We would ponder on the nature of practice, and see an Eisenman, a Piano and or a Correa in the staircases and toilet designs in those one or two projects. We survived mainly with the energy we found in teaching at the school of architecture. It extended our learning and interest in Architectural theory and history [ArTH]*. The master's in ArTH was gap filler.... of the stuff we forgot to learn, or never had the chance to “see” in college at SPA [New Delhi]. Working with wonderful architects like the Kamaths and Gautam Bhatia in Delhi was, of course, eye opening, but still the gap was large. Thinking about historical and the philosophical ground of architecture as the main part of a master's programme opened up a third eye – one which still closes shut most of the time. And when this eye blinks sometimes, we find ourselves debating and discussing our work critically as well as all the other things we see around us. This, I think, is intrinsic to our practice. While we are more practitioners than theorists, we manage to get under the programme, the detail and the idea of the typical project.
The words maya and PRAXIS come together in architecture. The design of spaces begins with maya (Sanskrit), the idea that lies in the space of imagination and improvisation. Praxis (Latin) is the craft of making – an involved making (of drawings and of buildings). In other words, involved making [praxis] gives form to the idea [maya].
Practicing architecture in India can be quite painful yet rewarding. Inspite of poor construction standards, it still is an ideal place to explore and experiment. The army of masons, carpenters and other craftsmen and technicians make some amazing buildings, when there is good design. One can almost put together anything here – from traditionally crafted to the most cutting edge technology, product. This possibility of bringing in craft and technology, tribal to global and folding it into architecture makes design and practice exciting.
Power of the IDEA:
Design is the art of putting this wonderful array of stuff together. Two powerful things bind them – the idea and the detail. The trigger for the idea can come from anything; the programme, the site, the specific function or the material – light and energy for a lighting museum, the barren-rocky landscape for a house, yoga postures for a yoga retreat or even a foot overbridge as a public sculpture. The idea remains intact through the entire process, even through the changes in form, programme or detail. These changes occur in an improvisational manner – as the design evolves in reaction to requirements, without losing the power of the generative idea.
Craft of the DETAIL:
In fact, the idea is given form through material and detail. The selection of materials for their lightness, heaviness, roughness or smoothness, is made with reference to the idea - prismatic glass for a lighting museum, local boulderstone rubble wall in monolithic form for a house in a barren landscape, steel pipes woven in to a spiralling form for a foot overbridge, etc. Through careful detailing, the structure, scale, lightness or openness of the space is formed. Restraint and consistency become two important factors that help this forming of architecture. Restraint helps temper the number of materials or formal strategies to a few that will make the idea powerful and tangible. Consistency makes the parts merge into a whole, and the way each part is detailed in constant reference to the whole keeps things together.
The materials of architecture come to life at the construction site. Raw brick, exposed concrete, solid steel, sand, and plywood are put together with a lot of effort by the masons, helpers, carpenters and fabricators – and one can almost feel their sweat and energy in the mass/tectonic power of the building. E=mc2 seems an appropriate metaphor. The energy [E] of the workmen is embedded in the mass[m] of the place after it is constructed [c2] – one can almost feel it. So, if by design, one can capture this energy and make wonderful spaces, architecture can be powerful. For that, one has to respect the nature of the materials and the craft of putting it together.
Efficient Practice through DRAWING:
Drawing anticipates engineering, carpentry, art and ornament; and brings it to a sublime whole. Drawing can be an immersive state, almost meditative, when combined with design. The sketch and working drawings register the idea and resolve the detail. When it is well-crafted, both in drawing as well as in construction, it is possible for the architecture to be well-resolved. mayaPRAXIS remains a small, evolving practice, even as it learns to negotiate this terrain.
IAB: Over 11 years, mayaPRAXIS has evolved a progressive contemporary balance between practice and academics. What is the idea of ‘mayaPRAXIS’ as a practice? What are the core concerns that define its work?
VN + DM: mayaPRAXIS is a small, tight-knit studio. From the idea to the detail, down to the last finish or door handle, there is a deep involvement with the process. This level of involvement brings the consistency and quality of detail in our work. How do we get all this done with a motley crowd of young bums – who are hardworking, naïve and wonderful, and keep changing every year – is one big challenge, but we seem to have mastered it somewhat. Can we make each work sustainable, crafted, efficient and poetic and yet make it not an assembly of parts, but good, solid architecture? This is perhaps our core concern.
IAB: The projects are diverse and vivid. Is there an idea that threads all the work into a conceptual whole?
VN + DM: Our works begin with the idea that architecture is not an object. It is inhabited; fundamentally, through an embodied experience of the people who use and inhabit it. Design can deeply influence the way the place is used and perceived, both in the background as well as in the foreground. So, while we make our work ready to perform in the background, we also pay attention to how it looks and fits the context – some are more sculptural in keeping with their public nature, some more restrained to make them warm and homely. Style and fashion are incidental. Material, craft and use are deeper and deliberate elements to our design process.
IAB: The practice’s acumen for subtle interventions, more than formalised ideas, carves out possibilities of customised personal expressions. What makes a mayaPRXIS project unique?
VN + DM: We are detailers. And we are 'idea people'. Crafting both, the bigger idea and detail together, in a way that makes poetic and functional sense is perhaps our strength. So, if each project stands out in the place as something special, and yet works at a mundane level for the user, the weather, etc we think that it becomes successful architecturally.
IAB: How do the principals wish the studio to develop? What is the vision of its practice for the future?
VN + DM: Work should be like a plum cake. It should last a long time, be rich with ingredients, have strong flavours, not just be sweet and pastry-like. And then, maybe we could have the cake and eat it too. While design is enjoyable, it should have a substantial purpose that is larger than the whims and fancies of a few; it should serve a larger public. We would love to do more “public” projects, and collaborate with others who complement us. In the process, if we are able to blend traditional craft and modern technology into a great architecture, we will be greatly satisfied. And nurture wonderful architects who can become an intrinsic part of our work and studio that would be great!
IAB: Rather than imposing a style upon different sites and climates, the unique character of a programme and a site becomes the starting point for an architectural idea. What is the approach inherent in all your projects?
VN + DM: Every project is a collaboration of the end-user and designer. The exploration begins with the intent from the client, something we don’t take literally – a footbridge is converted also into a public sculpture, an apartment becomes a cluster of houses, a school as less classroom, more landscape and activity spaces, etc. From here, one or more notions from the site or the programme drives the concept development – and it is generally not form-based. The concept is strengthened and tailored, hashed and mashed into architecture and details of all kinds – material, structural and compositional – condition the design in every way...