Noted architect Abin Chaudhuri of Abin Design Studio (ADS) talks about his experimental approach to architecture, the true meaning of sustainability and how design should consider the collective experience of the community at large…
Interview: Nisha Kapil
Profile Photographs: Sandeep Sarkar
A creative mind who is constantly in search of new thoughts and ideas – Abin Chaudhuri is considered to be a young visionary who is invariably redefining the vocabulary of architecture in today’s time. After graduating from Jadavpur University, Kolkata in 1998, he pursued Industrial Design at Domus Academy, Milan after which he came back to India and founded Abin Design Studio (ADS) in 2005 with an idea of responsible architecture and socio-cultural development. His design language is strong, bold and thoughtful having an artistic and human expression to all his projects. It will be difficult to bracket Chaudhuri in one category or section as his portfolio is quite diverse; having designed public buildings, hospitality projects, educational, residential, commercial.
Chaudhuri believes that his approach to architecture is not defined but is more about the need of each project. From building a temple pavilion in bamboo, to creating a retail building, in exposed concrete with brick and terracotta Chaudhuri’s love for experimenting with material, form and art is well-known. His explorations intend to push the boundaries of thought, prevalent socio-cultural landscape and spatial construct, challenging the role of architecture in the society. “At ADS, we believe that architecture is not merely about creation; it is a search. With the ever-evolving human existence, there arises a spatial demand, and the purpose of architectural design is to embark on a search to fulfil such a demand. At the same time, the human experience of ‘life’ starts with an emotional investment into the land we inhabit—we don’t just exist on it but rather, co-exist in our communities, and it is for this reason that the architecture we use must spill beyond the walls and embrace the neighbourhoods they are in”. For him, his work gives him unfiltered joy and happiness and inspires him to go on unknown explorations.
As he sits down in one-on-one conversation with us, he talks about his passion towards his profession, his exploration throughout his journey, his approach and responsibility as an architect. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
THE APPROACH OF A VISIONARY
Nisha Kapil (NK): Your work is not just limited to basic brick-concrete structure but has a holistic approach that pushes the boundaries of thoughts. Tell us more about your designing process.
Abin Chaudhuri (AC): At ADS, we believe that architecture is not merely about creation; it is a search. With the ever-evolving human existence, there arises a spatial demand, and the purpose of architectural design is to embark on a search to fulfil such a demand. At the same time, the human experience of ‘life’ starts with an emotional investment into the land we inhabit—we don’t just exist on it but rather, co-exist in our communities, and it is for this reason that the architecture we use must spill beyond the walls and embrace the neighbourhoods they are in.
From social aspects to the mechanics of spaces and forms, from the beauty of light and shadow to striking a harmony with nature, architecture is essentially a continuing process of discovery and cohesion in the world. The journey is what contributes to our growth. In this regard, we merely provide a backdrop for the human process of existence. It is an artistic expression in that it transcends its purely utilitarian, technical, and rational realm and turns into a metaphoric expression of the lived world, human condition and context through space, structure, matter, gravity and light.
We do not view the built environment as pockets of physical intervention by experts, but rather as a continuous project which is undertaken by society, who also keep the project alive in using the built and unbuilt forms. This activation of public interest profoundly celebrates “an architecture for many”. Such projects become an asset to the community, and the stories of these neighbourhoods resonate beyond their localities.
Typically, we recognize that each project is unique and has its distinctive client, contextual, social, political and environmental implications as well as crises that need to be addressed in order to get our narrative correct. Time and again we have realised that architecture is a collective venture that is specific to the mechanics of the site, of the dreams and passions of the client and designers that rise hand-in-hand, the skills and the enthusiasm of the craftsmen standing at the forefront, all hoping to inspire the world around them. The variety in practice, from the expansiveness of high-rises to the minutest details of fixing, have been an exploratory journey for the mind, pushing us to discover further, not just through ideation, but also through physical manifestation, to immortalise the idea.
It is our constant endeavour to set the built environment free from the prevalent crustacean architecture and the theoretical definition of sustainability, which is now only interpreted as “green.” Though we design climate responsive spaces, we also concentrate on the practical ideas of sustainability through integration of local craft, vernacular material, infusing technology, and ensuring timeless use of the built environment in terms of maintenance-free spaces. We infill sustainability through a holistic approach of uniting architecture, interior, landscape, signage and product design. By calibrating basic elements of design like light, shadow and ventilation to poetically influence spaces and their users, we deliver every design at a very fundamental level. We are unafraid of any unfamiliar experiment or situation, and deal with how to navigate a project from idea to physical manifestation through multi-disciplinary collaborations.
(NK): How did you start your journey? Have you always wanted to be an architect?
(AC): I never even thought of becoming an architect. Interestingly, coming from a family of mathematicians, I never imagined life would bring me where I am today. As a mathematician’s son, there was always an inspiration to be either an engineer or a mathematician. However, this perception changed when I accidentally encountered Charles Correa’s ‘Sen House’ in Kolkata. This particular building changed my trajectory of life, and triggered and instilled in me a passion towards architecture. I was determined that I should learn how such a building was made.
Having grown up in the urban peripheries, my understanding of architecture was very limited. Even as I completed high school, I was unaware that in engineering colleges, there even exists a subject called Architecture. The first seven years right out of college were a struggle since I was still confused about which aspect of Architecture peaked my interest. The only thing I did know however, was that I enjoy “making”—whether that was through exploration of design, materials, techniques or style.
In 2006, the studio bagged its first project: IMI Kolkata, a 230,000 sq ft project. Taking off from there, I slowly discovered that even small buildings or temporary structures can challenge the role of an architect in society. This has definitely been a
roller coaster experience in my life and continues to be so. However, the ability to face and overcome the challenges head on is the driving force behind my work.
PERSPECTIVE AND PRINCIPLES
(NK): Your practice is research-oriented and experimental in approach. Do you think it was difficult to sustain this long with a perspective like yours?
(AC): Of course, and I say this for any research-based practice in the Global South, that lacking any sort of leverage from the government and private institutions in terms of resources, makes it hard to keep a practice running successfully. However, being mainstream practitioners too, we undertake large-scale commercial real estate projects in the luxury residential, hospitality, education and urban design typologies, which fund our research in experimentation of design, construction techniques, materials, furniture, etc in the rural peripheries. This sort of cross-subsidy is a device we engage to deepen our investigations.
Design processes arise out of collective needs and experiences. These experiences inform our choices to propose shared spaces and meeting points, which end up creating a different collective psychology. These collective actions shift into lasting improvements of urban space.
Cities like ours are built through small projects, but these are executed with a strategic vision of dynamic human traction. One ephemeral piece transforms into 4-5 other permanent spaces and layers are built, just like how a bamboo pavilion for a festival garners a “ripple effect” to give way to 10 other creative as well as functional interventions. This aligns with Alejandro Echeverri’s statement that “adopting a multiplicity of connected actions, more akin to acupuncture, is much more effective for architecture and urbanism operating in emerging territories.” It tells the story of the people working with us—being deeply involved in the process, through extraordinary sacrifices, the chance to meet future mentors from unusual walks of life, giving manifold guidance to the studio, and the opportunity to continue our exploration through their unflinching support.
Despite deploring the lack of support from the system as a whole, ADS perseveres; our initiatives spark momentum, working shoulder to shoulder with local craftspeople, clients and artists. By building alliances with others on the ground, challenging standard definitions of private and public commissions and creating bridges between mainstream and activist practices, ADS demonstrates architecture’s long-term responsibility to socio-cultural development.
(NK): In many of your projects we see heritage and art as the highlighting aspects of the design principle. Tell us more about this collaboration. Is it also because you come from a culturally rich part of the country?
(AC): I don’t know if it is correct to say that I come from a culturally rich part of the country since India is globally known for our cultural and traditional wealth. Craft practice in India is astonishingly rich at all levels, evading Western concepts of standardisation and bringing a wholly distinctive dimension to design and architecture. Additionally, my own understanding and knowledge of culture, heritage and the preservation of our history came only at a much later stage in my life, after my graduation.
Having come from a peripheral area, our lifestyle revolved around lush greenery and a typical life in the suburbs, where sustainability was not about defining theories and marketing gimmicks but rather about reuse and recalibrations of systems, furniture and space—to transform something rather than making it anew. Having said that, the practice definitely tries to embody the local language and emotions of the site where the project is built, catalysing a more resonant social and cultural engagement among architect, maker, building user and the wider public realm.
Creating a love for heritage and art is a by-product of our interventions. My father was a self-taught portrait artist and in my profession, I have had many opportunities to meet with several great artists, all of whom enhanced my artistic inclination. Our traditional art and crafts in India, as a whole, has enormous potential and opportunity for meaningful collaborations in architectural practice to create a new vocabulary and take new strides towards craft-oriented designs, but also take cues from the existing heritage in terms of ornamentation, process, techniques, etc.
THE PROCESS AND PHILOSPHY
(NK): Your work also centres around the use of local material and traditional craft. Do you think these aspects helped you define your design philosophy? How do you define your design style?
(AC): We don’t have a signature design style as such because it’s more about the approach to each project. Our style and process go hand in hand. As a practice, we consider craft as a tool and use it to try to shape the architecture—the ‘tectonic part’—depending on where it is and the skill sets of the craftspeople involved. You can call it social engagement, but it can also be a sort of cultural revival.
It is projected that by 2030, 60% of the country’s population will have moved to the urban areas while 40% will continue to live in the surrounding peri-urban landscapes. While the 60% are automatically open to a wide spectrum of architects, government funded interventions and the likes, to fabricate “an architecture of indulgence”—luxury habitats, restaurants, corporate offices etc, it is the 40%—quite a big statistic—that are often overlooked in the process. The adjacent towns of Adisaptagram and Bansberia near Kolkata become perfect examples of peripheral peri-urban areas that are swelling to absorb the spilling and sprawling city.
We at ADS, want to raise awareness towards the developmental reforms of these rural communities by starting small in the form of ephemeral, impermanent and inclusive spaces, which can pave the way for larger future ameliorations in these fringe areas. In this way, we are wielding architecture as a transformative tool. For instance, in the Gallery House in Bansberia, the building echoes the terracotta brick building style prevalent in the Bashudeb Temple in the neighbourhood. Exposed brick masonry walls, inlaid with ceramic blocks, define the building’s character as a contemporary expression of rustic inspiration. Collaborating with a ceramic artist, rejected ceramic blocks produced for industrial use were collected. Terracotta bricks were procured from a river-side brick field
located nearby. These two were combined, using locally prevalent finesse of building masonry.
The style respects the heritage, culture and tradition of the physical and social local community, and the craftsmen lend their skills to create a versatile space. Empowering and encouraging the local industry in this way allows for a transparent and inclusive process, where the scale of human hands is felt throughout and the building acquires a human ‘skin’. Promoting craft in this way anchors a project in place and context. As a core ideology, we incorporate contextual solutions to make each of our projects as sustainable as possible. Taking cues from historic buildings and imbibing their indigenous methods towards sustainability in a modern way, is the soul of our design philosophy.
(NK): How important is façade designing to you? Do you think it should be given more importance and relevance?
(AC): I don’t see the need for the continuous emphasis on façade design for a building. It is, of course, important in that it contributes to the urban fabric of its site and, in some cases, acts as a porous connector of the inside with the outside; however, the main focus should be the process of designing, which will, in turn, stimulate the façade design as a result. The journey of design involves a celebration of spaces and as such, focusing on the façade dilutes the true meaning of architecture. It is imperative for us to recognize that it is only one cog in the entire machinery of the architectural design process.
VISION AND PURPOSE
(NK): At this point in your creative journey, what is it that you are seeking as an architect and as an individual?
(AC): We are privileged to create, as we are responsible to manifest. This honour is earned through tireless hard work and the responsibility is realised as an emotion inherent to our paths in life. The architectural practice has always bridged the complex gap between people’s needs versus their aspirations, sometimes falling into a set pattern of beliefs, past learning and known results. To break this stagnant glass ceiling, it is often the new paths taken in our lives that create a new state of practice, one that is responsive to the changing timeline.
In a country like India, we have over 300 architecture schools and about 25,000 students graduating each year, and yet with our myriad newspapers in over 30 languages, not a single one has a column dedicated to the regular discourse on architecture and design. We now have the tag ‘Smart City’ in every man, woman and child’s vocabulary without them grasping its true meaning, without them knowing how a city actually functions, how democratic spaces affect human life, how “freedom spaces” or common areas such as parks and footpaths dissolve the social divide and bring people from all classes and walks of life together in harmonious coexistence.
This awareness is absent but imperative in our society, and it is my wish, vision and mission as an individual and as a studio to provoke the consciousness of the common man towards the importance of architecture. I believe that unless we can influence the larger part of the population to navigate policies and fuel changes in multiple directions, we cannot call our profession “mainstream” in this country. Government and policies can be positively influenced by architecture to find solutions to socio-economic issues rampant in our society such as safety, hygiene etc, and that is the hidden power of architecture.
As an architect, I seek to create and in creating, discover newer things that I might have missed otherwise. As an individual, I’m continuously learning how to be a good human, making buildings that are more humane and strive to enhance the quality of life because I believe that architecture becomes more meaningful when it expands its sphere of influence beyond its physical entity, transforming not only the surroundings but also the lives of its users, becoming an emblem of generosity.
(NK): You have been practising architecture for a while now. How do you think architecture has evolved with time?
(AC): Post Independence India saw a rapid growth in urbanisation with cities swelling fast into adjoining peripheries. In such a situation, major cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad etc adopted the grid layout, which is now also being implemented in the growing smaller cities. However, in these developing areas, the state-sponsored projects are sanctioned to only a handful of architects, while the others are living off private clients and projects. Catering to individual needs of clients provides the private architects with opportunities to gain traction in multiple trajectories of exploration and experimentation in the real estate and interior industry in terms of design, techniques and materials.
Unfortunately, the public projects do not have any such luck and are subjected to standardisation and orthodox, politicised methods. Stuck in such bureaucratic notions, these structures shy away from inviting new ideologies of design and architecture. For example, in Bogota, an authoritative figure like the Mayor joined hands with the local architects to create policies to bridge the gap between state and policy makers, assuming the type of architecture that serves “many”—an untapped potential of architecture that is yet to be unlocked in the Indian subcontinent.
Architecture must not only be the buildings of the urban fabric that shape our cities and towns, but also the temporary structures that enhance them. Where conventional buildings are indispensable, ephemeral spaces are equally necessary, if not imperative. This typology of architecture assists in giving physical form to the emotion of space—to create an architecture that was essentially always there, which resonates with the power of ‘impermanence’. For, while walls shape structure and form the mind of dwelling areas, it is the impermanent and ephemeral spaces that are their soul and character—it is this that engages society in a holistic participation to focus on the social purpose of design. It has the ability to influence perception, shift paradigms, revive cultures, improve conventional presets and redefine space.
I see this type of design intervention as a serendipitous sequence of events that comprise place making in small-town India—an ongoing story of how a tiny spark introduced an entire community to the power of design, demonstrating how architecture can expand its sphere of influence further than defining the visual and material culture of its immediate context. Further, the idea of ephemeral celebration in India has the potential of changing minds set in a much deeper and wider public domain on what values of architecture can contribute.
It is our belief that the respect of the common man may be earned by dissipating the myth that architecture is only for luxury, and proving that it has a long-term responsibility towards socio-cultural development. Staying relevant through time has much to do with identifying the currents in socio-political landscape, to uphold architecture as a science of creation, an artistry of technology and a giant canvas for change. Our paths have thus begun as explorations, our work posing questions, not only to us as architects, but to us as a society, the answers to which are our experimentations with design, ideology and the human spirit. Our language of imbibing ‘soul in the shell’ endeavours to stay constant, but our vocabulary is ever-evolving.
INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS
(NK): How would you explain the power of architecture to the young and budding architects? And what advice would you like to give them?
(AC): ADS is on a path to retell and reshape the narrative of Indian contemporary architecture since it can no longer be understood through Western canons. We aspire to go beyond simply delivering projects, to initiate and co-create them instead. This is not only a duty, but also a responsibility. It is important to understand that in our Global South, due to the economic fabric as well as the authorities’ reluctance to spend on quality public spaces in peri-urban and rural areas, it falls on architects to incorporate as many insertions of inclusive social spaces as possible.
For instance, as an “extension of a community living room”, the seamless and porous nature of the Waterfront Clubhouse in Adisaptagram represents reusability and economising the enthusiastic involvement of the community. It is these parameters that helped overcome the challenge of small town interventions to result in global prototypal outcomes. By transforming a space via the human context, namely a co-beneficial system consisting of the inclusion of stakeholders, not only achieves flexibility in functionality and interaction, but also establishes a tectonic relationship with the physical context.
I want to encourage the incoming architects to rethink the forms and processes at stake in the construction of community infrastructures. There are many intangible elements that we must understand and acknowledge: Ephemeral activations and gatherings, dynamic and changing realities, the mixing of formal and informal processes. Another important fact to consider is that we have great ideas for architectural intervention in our country, but these philosophies are lost by the time the project hits ground, since the contractors are just waiting to dilute our ideas and the realisation seldom matches the proposal. This is not the case in the US or Europe, where super professional contractors make accurate shop drawings and perfectly execute project construction. So, good architecture is not just about having a great idea, but rather how one involves all the stakeholders in a harmonious way to implement the design through value engineering, resilience, patience and perseverance.
(NK): What excites you about your work?
(AC): We are moving towards informing a new built history. And when we talk about history, we should consider our immediate, everyday history, the journeys and itineraries of everyday life. We should inspire more and more of our immediate surroundings and set a path for the future nation building. Being in the practice is pure joy; I’m very excited by the reactions of people, especially those visiting the public buildings, and especially the younger architects. They ask, “How did you make those buildings?” and “Who are the local craftspeople?”.
It also brings me immense joy to see the users of our buildings take personal pride and respect in these spaces, and in turn, also express their gratitude in meaningful ways. Like in the Adisaptagram Waterfront Clubhouse, during public events and celebrations, they establish dedications to ADS rather than the conventional addressals to political authorities who are seldom even aware of how deep this gratitude runs. Architecture as a practice is living in the moment and reacting to it. There is always a possibility of making a bad choice and reacting wrongly. But the fact that a well thought, judicious reaction can enhance the human life manifold is what keeps us going.
Making is believing. The ‘process of making’—from conceiving it in the mind to getting it to perform, excites me the most. The challenges are always new for each project and it opens up new ideas and doors for how architecture and design can be celebrated. Public buildings are even more interesting for me because they influence and are enjoyed by larger public domains. Each project enriches the life of ours, of the makers, the clients and eventually the human life beyond the immediate realm. With such respect for the multifaceted context, we aim to continue this sort of incorporation of the local communities for funding, generating jobs, building, inhabiting and using such flexible and multi-use spaces, with ADS negotiating the steps and bridging the gaps.
(NK): What and who inspires you?
(AC): On the daily, un-incidental things in everyday life inspire me. Professionally, new ideas and innovations, and stories of people and places inspire me. Then there is the poetic inspiration that is characteristic of a space—a sensorial inspiration acquired from its spatial and material narrative. Old buildings inspire me to think of how they can be tweaked in an intelligent way to keep their legacy intact while defining new dimensions for their workability. It is this vitality of purpose that never makes architecture boring.
Of course, my biggest inspiration was, and still is to this day, my father. I lost him at a very early age, but he pushes me through all the challenges even today. He taught me that a human always comes first. My upbringing by my parents, in general, always guided me to be a better human first, and to be courageous, which made both my childhood and college life quite eventful. Charles Correa’s works have had a profound influence on my life, for it was his work that opened up the avenue of architecture for me, but many other great icons have fascinated me with their life philosophies, simplicities and dedication of their lives to innovation in all forms.
(NK): Sustainability has been a key factor in most of your projects. How do you convince your clients and manage to achieve the same in your projects?
(AC): Sustainability is a word that is thrown around a lot these days, without its meaning being truly understood. It is a good term to market a not necessarily good design. If today, every building that is built is not “sustainable” only because it doesn’t have a LEED or GRIHA rating or some such certification, its architecture has failed as per popular notions. Historically, our old monuments such as Fatehpur Sikri and Red Fort are among some of the most sustainable buildings, still standing tall and looking ever new, without using any sort of mechanical air conditioning, etc.
But sustainability doesn’t end there today. It comes through in all respects: It has to be timeless, cost-effective, sensitive towards the materials used, energy efficient and most importantly, climate responsive. Today, climate change is the sad reality that many are still failing to see. As architects, our primary duty is to figure out the resolution to this deep trouble that the world is moving towards, or in fact, already living in the throes of. So, it is not about convincing anymore because we don’t have a choice, it is the only way forward.
(NK): What are you currently working on?
(AC): Micro initiatives are turned into enduring assets by an unconventional take on traditional practices of many of our ongoing projects. We are trying to weave a romance between the site and the architect, representing that between the sky and the water, there is “material”, which is earth, and the architecture borrows from the contextual landscape of this earth to showcase the context it sits in, rather than standing out from it. It rather creates a frame to emphasise the natural views.
We are currently working on an iconic Museum of Bengal in Kolkata. Besides this, our ongoing projects include several private villas, premium residential towers, clubhouses, educational institutes, and corporate offices. In the urban realm, we are currently working on the waterfront redevelopment in Tribeni, West Bengal.
(NK): Which has been your most challenging work and why?
(AC): Our urban project of the waterfront redevelopment in Tribeni is proving to be quite an interesting challenge to take on. We have been entrusted with this project by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) and collaborations with such civic authority bodies always presents its own set of demands, one of which is a budget constraint within which we have to evaluate and execute the best possible proposal.
Apart from that, the area consists of ghats located along the dynamic Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganga. Before we even start designing, we have to execute parallel research at multiple levels regarding various factors of consideration such as the erosion condition of the soil, the hydrology of the current ecosystem, the dynamics of the user activities, etc. A study is also being done to map the tourism patterns in Bansberia, the adjoining district, to infer the extent of influence of this mediation. Additionally, there is a cremation ground on the riverfront. Together with the ghats, this space sees a footfall in the thousands on the daily.
The job of maintaining the users’ safety, hygiene and sanitation as well as sanctity of the space is of paramount importance here. As with conventional projects, we are not provided with an empty site to start on, but instead have a live site. We have to implement our interventions while the site is being simultaneously used by various stakeholders, with no room to stop any ongoing activities.
(NK): Do you think the pandemic has affected the way we build and live?
(AC): The pandemic has definitely changed multiple things about the way we live and it is no surprise that architecture is one of the biggest factors influenced by it, since we spend all our time in some sort of built environment. We see permanent changes in work cultures that have modified our fundamental approach to office design. We now pay even closer attention to the spatial quality of the environments we inhabit.
People have started understanding the factors that are involved in the architecture of a home, since we were finally spending uninterrupted quality time at home with family. Especially in this particular typology of design, even the layman has now begun to look deeper into the spaces they occupy, and value the simple unassuming lines that make shapes that ultimately give form to these spaces. In recognizing these factors, one falls in love with these spaces all over again. And to reiterate my primary point, that is another fine example of the power of architecture, where it can change people’s minds as a whole.
While we have redefined spaces where we work and live, outdoor spaces are gaining equal importance now, and more and more users are trying to celebrate it proactively. We, as a studio, are also undertaking further explorative design of hygienic outdoor spaces within the built environment. Overall, the pandemic was a lesson, among other things, on the importance of architecture and its power to influence, to create the “architecture for many”. It demanded phenomenal interventions that will govern the new path that architectural development is now on. As Echeverri rightly says, small scale interventions can develop in their own ways, be repeated and extended, and serve as examples so that others can learn from these models, translating, adapting and improving them with each iteration.
From a recalibrated perspective that has been brought on by the pandemic, it disheartens me to see an explosion of large spending on personal indulgence and pleasure. I then think that if even a fraction of it can be utilised in public infrastructure like schools and health centres in rural and urban peripheries, we can change our nation for the better. I want to create awareness on the need for unshackling from the idea of private possessions. This is a perpetual dream, and I am constantly on the search for methods to instil this ideology in whatever capacity I can.