Bijoy Jain, the founder of Indian practice Studio Mumbai, has long been well-known for his earth-bound material sensibilities, and an approach to architecture that bridges the gap between Modernism and vernacular construction. The recent opening of the third annual MPavilion in Melbourne, this year designed by Jain, offered an opportunity to present this architectural approach on a global stage. In this interview as part of his “City of Ideas” series, Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Bijoy Jain about his design for the MPavilion and his architecture of “gravity, equilibrium, light, air and water.”
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with your MPavilion design here in Melbourne. You said about this project, "I want it to be a symbol of the elemental nature of communal structures. I see MPavilion as a place of engagement: a space to discover the essentials of the world – and of oneself." How do you think architecture can help to discover the essentials of the world and of oneself?
Bijoy Jain: Let me start with the premise here. Fundamentally, we are all mythical beings. And the idea of a building that we call architecture is as close as it can be to this idea of mythical being and the fact that it is really an extension to the human body, not that different from the cloth that we wear. So for me, architecture is a physical and material manifestation and precise representation of what it means to be human. Architecture is all about negotiating with the immediate landscape and our environment, but also on another level, it is about how we can incorporate into our world this idea of a mythical being or a beast... For me, that’s the potential of architecture. The act of architecture is about making space, not a building or an object. Yes, it requires a form; a form is important. But for me, it is more important to discover how each place reverberates. I don’t believe architecture can save the world but it can resonate with the essence of a particular space.
VB: Do you mean that architecture works on a more personal level; meaning, it responds to those who are open to receive certain signs and messages?
BJ: Well, personal and universal at the same time. If we get rid of all the clutter, what fundamentally makes me also fundamentally makes you. We are all connected. We are all driven toward the center [of the pavilion] manifested in the well of water. Without the well, it would be just another building floating in the landscape. The well makes it anchored.
VB: You said, “Architecture is an interface between ground and sky.” What do you mean by that? You also said, “Architecture emerges from the ground and returns to the ground.” Could you elaborate?
BJ: I was referring to gravity. This is what we are all confronted with. And it is all about how we negotiate gravity that gives architecture its form. For me, architecture is a moment in time. That’s why I call it an interface, a communication between ground and sky. I believe that if we want to see what the Earth looks like, we have to look up to see it in the sky. Another question is – why do we look up? Somewhere in the sky, there is a mirrored reflection of the Earth.
I once was told a story by an Australian architect, Peter Wilson, who now lives in Germany. He explained to me that when an aboriginal man prepares to go to sleep he would drive a stick into the ground. The symbolism behind that is to “slow down” the rotation of the Earth, to slow down time during the sleep.
VB: Gravity is the most direct challenge to all architects. What is it for you? Do you try to accentuate it in your work? As you know, some architects fight it hard. They don’t want to accept it.
BJ: I think we all strive for a certain lightness, but in recognition that there is weight too. There is a beautiful posture in yoga where half of the body is rooted into the ground, while the other half strives to go into the sky, like a rocket. So you can propel yourself up into the sky and deep into the ground at the same time. That state of equilibrium is very important.
VB: And what about dynamism? For example, Wolf Prix said: “I want my architecture to change like clouds.” You are not interested in that kind of dynamism, right?
BJ: I would like to remain within what is my capacity. Nature is nature. Yes, I am nature too, but in my physical constructs, I have limits and it is within those limits that I need to find ways to extend myself. For me, it is not equilibrium itself that’s important but the idea of working towards equilibrium and the idea of center. For me, what’s important is reverberation of resonance. Just like in mathematics, if something is zero, then we have minus something and plus something. It is about the rate of change. If I reverberate closer to the center, I remain closer to the center. To remain purely in the center, that’s status quo. Change is important, but it is all about how to negotiate each moment in time.
VB: Gravity, equilibrium, lightness, what other words would you pick that describe your architecture best?
BJ: Transparency. I also hope that it is open. Porous is also important, so things can go through – light, air, water...
VB: You mentioned that to you, air, light, and water are building blocks. They are the elements that create an atmosphere. Could you elaborate?
BJ: Our body needs three main ingredients to survive – air, light, and water. So if architecture can be as close to what the human body's needs are, then these three natural ingredients become very important in the construct of our environment.
I was in Bahrain this week and it was an interesting experience... I prefer to be out in the 40-degree heat than to be stuck in the air-conditioned hotel. The minute you land there, you spend the entire time in a sealed, air-conditioned environment. So when I was there I spent most of my time at the roof’s terrace and swimming pool because I needed to be in full contact with open environment. Yes, it was very hot, but the human body has a great tenacity and capacity. And if we can provide a space that is four degrees cooler, the perception of such temperature shift is significant. I understand there are colder climates and we need to provide heat as well, but I believe in simpler ways to make us comfortable. Such new technological innovations have been demonstrated to us and it is all about our ability or inability as architects to find ways to use them.
VB: An atmosphere or an ambient environment is always very specific. What are your ways of achieving something unique?
BJ: One important distinction is that in my studio there are no catalogs.
VB: Does this mean that everything you design is invented specifically for each project by you?
BJ: Of course. And we discover architecture through making things.
VB: Do you ever recycle your own details?
VB: So you have your own catalogs, in a way.
BJ: Yes. What I am saying is that if I want to have a particular self-expression I need to be self-reliant, and what I can do or can’t do should not be conditioned by how things are typically done by the industry. My architecture has nothing to do with assembling different technological solutions. My goal is to be in a situation in which things that one can imagine are possible. I don’t want to be restricted because of an industry or economy, within which I have to operate. In a way, each problem is mine; each solution is mine.
For example, in one of my houses, I used marble to construct a roof, which is the evidence of such freethinking. Strictly relying on standard solutions would never even allow such thought to enter into one’s ambit.
VB: Using your own details and not relying on standard solutions leads to producing a very distinctive and personalized architecture. Are you interested in developing your own voice and style in architecture? And what do you think about signature architecture in general, as it now loses its relevance?
BJ: I think for me the greatest part of why we go to school or why we need to receive an education is the ability to question what exists. And self-expression is very important. My self-expression is not limited; it can remain unlimited and filled with possibilities. I am interested in anything that will allow me to remain in that discourse.
Do I want to have a signature style? No. I am interested in the anonymity of architecture and in finding new ways. I don’t need to accept what was developed by Le Corbusier or Kahn. I want to keep searching for what is important for me here and today. Yes, they were the great masters, but they were as human as I am. If I can nurture a plant and do it with the greatest amount of affection and empathy that’s for me a construction of architecture. Again, my work is about understanding my own limits and from that focus on how those limits can be extended. My practice is about this and not about being unique. It is important to question what has been done before and how relevant it is today, and not just repeat the same thing just because it has become a habit.
VB: I heard that the marble-made roof you mentioned earlier was actually cheaper to build than if you were to use mass-produced engineered wood. Could you explain how this is possible?
BJ: That’s the result of the way industry operates, the machines…
VB: Don’t machines make things cheaper?
BJ: Not necessarily. Think of the cost of the machines, their maintenance, the manpower that’s required to operate them, transportation, and so on. So in economies such as India’s, things made of marble can be achieved at a cheaper cost than the most banal prefabricated pressed wood panels. Therefore, an informal industry can produce much richer results at a cheaper cost than highly organized one.
For example, this year, we presented one of our installations at the current Venice Architecture Biennale called “Immediate Landscapes,” in which we tested various traditional materials and their possible applications. We demonstrated techniques that have been practised in India for over one thousand years. Yet, some architects could not even recognize the materials. We used earth and fiber composites, wood constructions, and bamboo frame structures reinforced with mud. These primitive structures used to be built in the times when we were still nomadic and just turning to becoming agrarian. What I want to say is that three hundred million people in my country still live like that today. These people live with a great amount of dignity, self-reliance, and they are self-governed. They are seemingly poor, but that is only because of the measurement of what money can buy... All I am saying is that there is a lot to learn there and that’s why I ask if Modernism is the right answer for modernizing India. I have a great deal of affection for Modernism, but I also want to test and find various ways to connect it to many regional techniques used in India to this day; that is the real focus of my practice. Nothing is right or wrong; the question is – what are other things that we value? How do we mitigate the influx of ideas and products? How do we keep the balance of modernization on the one hand and maintain traditions on the other?
VB: Could you talk about your idea of an architect being a conductor?
BJ: It is all about the manner of doing work by trying to bring people together. There is this idea of shared values, empathies, and the will to connect despite a broad diversity of interests. So for me an architect is a sort of a bridge, a conduit for communication.
VB: You are currently working on projects all over the world. Do they present opportunities for you to discover something new in your ways of making architecture?
BJ: We are working on several projects overseas, including a community center near Hiroshima in Japan, which is about instigating a regeneration of a small town with the idea of bringing young people back to their small hometown. Then there is a luxury hotel in France. This hotel could have been a convent or university. What’s important is that this new building will have a capacity to transcend its initial function and expand its program. If the core structure is in place, the potential for buildings could be endless. Houses can become museums, hotels turned into hospitals, and places for storage, industry, or worship could be transformed into houses. Then we are working on four houses for a family in Zurich, Switzerland. There we use local stone, as opposed to concrete; the displacement of land is very minimal. We are involving many interesting artisans there. So to me, the process is the same, and it is all about what’s being embedded in architecture itself.
VB: You said that you are not interested in discovering what Indian architecture may be. For example, Glenn Murcutt expressed a similar idea to me by saying that he is simply interested in doing “ordinary things extraordinary well.” Do you agree?
BJ: Sure. For me, architecture is universal. There may be different symbolism or traditions, but too often, we are caught up in the world of a particular image. Architecture is not about an image, it is about sensibility.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.