Published in Architectural Design, June 2012.
A building is like a tree. Unfolding into the environment, incarcerated in it and incarnating it too, buildings by Studio Mumbai dwell in the space between architecture and landscape.
In most projects by Studio Mumbai, the first thing one notices is the crafting of the building in a kind of poetic and situational economy. A building emerges effortlessly as if it has been there all along, without the conceit of artifice. Kengo Kuma thematises such an act of building as “weak architecture” following Gianni Vattimo’s program of “weak ontology” as a non-hierarchical, non-dominant condition. The Bangalore based architect Prem Chandavarkar approximates that through the notion of “architecture of background,” when the test of a building is not its spectacular presentation, but the accrued experiences and memories of its everyday inhabitation.
Such a position is driven by a profound act of building: the architect’s perennial art of putting things together as a condensation of the landscape. For the practice’s resort in Leti, up in the Himalayas, Studio Mumbai’s Bijoy Jain describes the act of building as “a passive reworking of the landscape through gathering, moving, condensing native materials into cohesive but temporary structures.” Jain understands that a built work takes place, how it is inscrutably situated, and how it is environed or enveloped by the world in a manner where, in the language of phenomenology, “no cleavage is possible” between the work and the world.
Taking place invokes two perennial truths: the inevitability of situatedness, and building from a site. The environmental analogy of the tree suggests care and an exact understanding of the science of geology and moisture, and the rhythm of the seasons. When students inquired of the Philadelphia-based wood sculptor Wharton Esherick how they should proceed, the Modernist craftsman is supposed to have replied: “Think like a farmer.” Louis Kahn, who designed one of Esherick’s studios, also understood that an architect can learn from a farmer in not making the landscape pretty, but rather “to preserve his crops by the logic of planting.” It is in the logic of planting that Studio Mumbai frames its work, as a kind of cultivation. A building – or a tree – emerges in the horizon from the material potentials and possibilities of the world, from their numerous combinations and assemblages, and from the natural laws and systems that dictate their production.
The inevitable situatedness of architecture indicates an ideological and strategic difference between the “what” of architecture and “where is architecture.” The question of “where” brings up the obvious nexus of architecture and the world; but one that is increasingly opaque to most architects inordinately beholden to the seduction of “what.”
Despite our habitual thinking of the autonomy of architecture (which is perhaps the biggest visual deception with which we contend), architecture is always in a kind of “reciprocal insertion and intertwining” with the environment, where the limits of one are lost in the other.
Such an intertwined identity positions Jain’s work in, as Kuma observes, the relationship between architecture and landscape. Disagreeing with the division of disciplines into architecture and landscape architecture, Kahn proposed the term “land architect” as someone who looks at land from an indivisible point of view, from a condition of oneness. The principle of land architecture suggests a complex dialogue between the grounding and a rising of a building, as if the building – a fact of constructedness – rises from the ambiguous earth into a precise form even if the earth is still the material and genealogical source of the unfolding. Such a reasoned consideration of the simultaneity of distinctiveness and seamlessness – of architecture and landscape – is expressed in the articulation of subterranean gravitas and atmospheric lightness in Jain’s work. A section drawing through the Tara House in Kashid, Maharashtra (2005), with the well as excavation and building as construction, reveals his predisposition towards architecture as a manipulation of the topographic continuum.
Appearing as an emblem of dwelling in the Copper House ll in Chondi, Maharashtra (2011), Palmyra House in Nandgaon, Maharashtra (2007) and Tara House, the deep, dark well confers on these projects a subterranean sensibility that is both ecological and mythical. Excavated spaces, deep wells and stone-walls form a lexicon of grounding in Jain’s work. The Copper House begins with the new excavation of an artesian well forming the organising core of the project. The curb of a dank well covered with moss sits amid the coconut grove of the Palmyra House. In Tara House, a secret room under the courtyard/garden forms a reservoir of water for the house, drawn from an underground aquifer. The courtyard and garden rise above it, and the house spirals out as an ensemble of pavilions.
The stolid mass of the earth is contrasted by another language defining the arisen building: diaphanous membranes, floating planes, skeletal frames and delicate slats form a tectonic configuration for most of the houses. Palmyra records the architect’s earliest articulation of an architecture of porosity formed simply by slatted envelopes as an analogue of the filigree of coconut-tree leaves. Formed over and along low basalt walls rising from the ground, the tectonic assemblage of the Utsav House in Satirje, Maharashtra (2008), utilises the porous property to complete the intertwined relationship.
“I am alert to the weather,” claims Jain. Learning from the nature of being exposed in the moisture-laden landscape, especially the monsoons, largely in the region of Mumbai, he has developed a typological vocabulary (the pavilion-like disposition) and a refined language of materials and details. House pavilions are woven through coconut groves (Palmyra) or mango trees (Belavali House, 2008, and Copper Houses). In a kind of apostolic succession to Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, Jain has invigorated the promise of tropical architecture, taking its ecological ethos towards a new poetic prospect.