Bijoy Jain. Thoughts under construction

by Alessandra Coppa

Studio Mumbai’s work is based on the act and process of constructing, on the idea of working collectively within the spirit of a workshop. Observing its results and working methods, one cannot help but be struck by the normality of its use of sketches, scale models and photographs, aspects that are now unusual but should instead form the basis of all good design practice.
Studio Mumbai is a studio-workshop located in India, south of Mumbai. It stands out for its unusual but deliberate decision to present itself as a “collective of architects and craft workers” and its choice of a generic name rather than celebrating the figure of its founder Bijoy Jain (who was a guest speaker at “building, dwelling, thinking” at Cersaie 2011).
Here ideas take form through a shared dialogue capable of integrating the thinking and making of architecture, the result of a careful consideration of place and a practice that draws from traditional skills, local building techniques and the use of natural materials. It is an architecture that, without being self-referential, transforms thoughts into construction. The architecture of Studio Mumbai is a far cry from the excess and iconism to which we are accustomed today.
The “organic” expressive density that distinguishes the works of Studio Mumbai appears to counter the uniformity of the contemporary architectural language. Studio Mumbai resists globalisation, acting, as Bijoy Jain defined it, as “a human infrastructure of skilled craftsmen and architects who design and build their works directly”.

At the 12th Architecture Biennale in Venice, Studio Mumbai earned a special mention from the jury for the installation “Work-Space”, a real-scale reproduction of the creative context of your atelier that offered a very intimate look into the practice’s methods combining the skills of architects and craftsmen. How does this dialogue come into being during the stages of design and construction?
The human infrastructure we build with has an openess to participate and absorb actively. One looks for the potential in the individual and the collective. The critical aim of the process is to achieve a sum that is greater than all its parts. The endeavor is to instill dignity in the work and in that lies the detail of the aesthetic. With this in mind, the idea is to create and understand more specifically the making of architecture. Designing and building are actions that are required physically to manifest and express space. This practice must be inclusive and consider all the various forces and the moving parts that are moving collectively towards creating an optimum measure of means of actions among themselves.

What’s your role in your multidisciplinary studio?
My role in the Studio is rather like that of an orchestra conductor, coordinating a group that works collectively. We have drawings, full-scale mock-ups, models, material studies and structural tests all ongoing simultanueously. To me, it is important to remain open to both possibilities of having control and letting go and to oscillate between these two points. You never quite know where you are going to end up. That is why I use the phrase “ethic or ethos”, which dictates the aesthetic. The fundamental nature of ethic requires it to be inclusive: the pressing of many forces on the ethic is what creates an aesthetic, but never losing reference to yourself. Something much more curious and complex is created in this process. We work collectively, each contribuing our skills to a process that exceeds out individual abilities.

You founded Studio Mumbai in 1995 after many years of training in the United States. How did you succeed in reconciling the internationalisation of modern architecture with local techniques and references without sinking into the vernacular?

My education and study was through an academic environment rooted in modern ideology. On my return to India I was drawn by the local architecture and landscape more from an immediate experience than a nostalgia. This observation led me to the possibility of an enquiry of a potential dialogue between these cultures, in a manner in which the coexist in agreement or otherwise.
Studio Mumbai is a group of architects and craftsmen who work together and dialogue as part of the same process. I see it as a place for collaborating, a place of research where materials, environment, space and architecture are places of shared knowledge, where there is a continuous process of learning through experience and intent. This in my view is the fundamental ethic of the studio. The work of our studio is based on a mediation between the practices of traditions and contemporary culture and in their potential overlaps. The endeavour within the studio is to create an environment or space that facilitates this dialogue.

So your Studio’s working methods are based on the idea of cooperation in a kind of community.
I see cooperation as a kind of collective and harmonious dance, without breaks, always undergoing change, due to diverse intuitions and different physical shapes and position of each individual person. So, the idea of cooperation is like a coming together of individual entities who have a sense that they are moving together towards a shared vision: the dance is the main and common objective. A community is like a space regulated through observation, experience, intuition, memory and an ability to anticipate.

How does a project develop?
Each project is developed in relation to the concept and the means available. All that is available in the imagined and experienced realms, for example history, geography, topography, colour, material, music, geology, so on and so forth. It is in this ontological understanding that any of these can trigger the process of constructing a language and in that lies the form.
The point of inception is always varying and from time to time there could be potential overlaps. One project may merge into another, perhaps not physically but in terms of approach. The fundamental value is that regardless of the way the project is conceived and carried through, it must be shared openly, allowing many forces to impress upon the idea and shape its form.

In your work you have always sought a relationship with the history and memory of a place. In this respect you are able to make sensitive use of materials to get the most from limited resources. Projects like Palmyra House (Nandgaon, Maharashtra, 2007), Leti 360 Resort (Leti, Uttaranchal, 2007) and Copper House II (Chondi, Maharashtra, 2011) – projects that won Studio Mumbai the latest prestigious BSI Swiss Architectural Award for their “particular sensitivity to the landscape and the environmental and social context, contributing to the contemporary architectural debate and practice” – are immersed in the nature of India and appear to be generated from the site. They extend horizontally, generating elementary geometries where the material aspect is crucial. What importance does the context have in the design process?
I was attracted by the idea that a project could only anticipate, and that too only in a partial way, the potential of a process which was complete and incomplete in situ. In every project we seek to instil an idea of the existence of a more complex universe in which forces extend inward and outward. The flow generated by a project is always influenced by time and place. It is with this understanding that one intends to expose the unfolding of context.

Founded by Bijoy Jain, Studio Mumbai is a human infrastructure of skilled craftsmen and architects who design and build their works directly. The essence of Studio Mumbai’s work lies in the relationship between landscape and architecture. Its endeavour is to show the genuine possibility of creating buildings that emerge through a process of collective dialogue, a face-to-face sharing of knowledge. Bijoy Jain was born in 1965 in Mumbai, India, and graduated at Washington University in St. Louis, USA in 1990. He worked in Los Angeles and London from 1998 until 2005, when he returned to India to set up his own practice. Studio Mumbai’s work has been exhibited at the 12th Venice Biennale and at the Victoria & Albert Museum and has won major accolades including the Global Award in Sustainable Architecture in 2009 and the third edition of the BSI Swiss Architectural Award 2011-2012.