Interview: Bijoy Jain

The Studio Mumbai founder talks to The Architectural League's Gregory Wessner.

Bijoy Jain studied architecture in the United States and worked in the U.S. and in Europe before returning to India in 1995, where he would eventually open Studio Mumbai. The firm draws on the skills and expertise of architects, stonemasons, woodworkers, and related craftspeople to design and build projects with a remarkable sensitivity to place and the “human condition.”

Most recently, Studio Mumbai was recognized with a Special Mention at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale for its installation “Work-Place,” a full-scale recreation in the Arsenale of the firm’s studio and workshop, complete with 1:1 mock-ups, study models, material studies, drawings, and more.

On the morning of his Current Work lecture at the Architectural League, Bijoy Jain sat down with Gregory Wessner, the League’s Digital Programs and Exhibitions Director, to talk about the firm’s process and the “discipline of doing architecture everyday.”

I thought we might start by talking about the installation that you did at last year’s Venice Biennale, which was essentially a presentation of the contents of your studio. I didn’t see it in person, but from what I saw of the photos and what I read about it, I thought it might be a good entry point for talking about the firm and your work. Could you describe what you did there?

What we presented was really our working environment, the studio and the workshop. It was the atmosphere of the space we work in and our methodology, more than any specific architectural projects. It was just the things that we engage with everyday in the process of making architecture: mock-ups and drawings and small models and material studies. We tried to communicate quite specifically how we work, which is more of a non-linear process. It’s not just a concept drawing and then you have a finished product, but something that’s a little more fluid where you move among various different stages of development.

How did you come up with the idea? And did you really have to ship all that material from your studio?

Well, it wasn’t built for the Biennale, because it already existed. It’s stuff that we’ve collected over the period of time that we’ve been in practice. It was just sort of collating all the material. When [Kazuyo] Sejima [Director of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale] contacted us, we sent back a series of images that we had taken, again just stuff—videos and photographs and projects. Somewhere in the midst of all of that, she picked a picture and asked whether it was possible to recreate it, basically a photo of the workshop and all its surroundings—the models and the tables and chairs and everything. It was quite an easy proposition; all we really had to do was take an inventory of what we had, box it up and then ship it. But when we got to Venice, we actually worked in the space for ten days; part of the process was setting up the studio as realistically or as precisely as we could because it would really be our workshop, a place that we would work in. In a sense our brief was that we were actually moving to Venice for a short period of time and then we would return back to India, to Mumbai. It was a sort of in-between space. It was very critical that we actually produced something in the space. There was no specific plan of how we would arrange all the tables and the objects that we showed; it came about from actually working in the space and things sort of seemed to rest at the right place naturally. That really was how this whole sort of workplace unfolded.

So from your point of view, it was an authentic workspace for the studio during the time that you were there?

Yes, yes. Absolutely.

What was the response afterwards?

What was interesting for me at the Biennale, or at least the way Sejima curated it, was that there were different conditions or different positions or viewpoints about how architecture is produced. And it was interesting to see it as a sequence. We were in between François Roche on one side and Junya Ishigami on the other and I think it was very particular the way we were positioned. You had Ishigami, where there was a sense of air and lightness and transparency or invisibility; to us, something that was more tactile and textured and grounded; to something like François Roche that was about futures and possibilities. It was more the collection of experiences that made our space very particular. I think our installation showcased another possibility of a working method that I think is now less prevalent, or maybe even non-existent, in Europe or the U.S., in western countries. I think the fascination or the interest of a lot of people in our installation was being able to engage with just everyday objects, whether it’s a little doorknob, a handle, a window. Reclaiming this sort of human condition and the relationship with architecture was the dialogue that occurred in our space, so I think it caught people’s interest.

Do you think that architecture, or at least some faction of architecture, has lost touch with the experience of the day-to-day?

I don’t know if we’ve lost touch with the day-to-day, I think it’s just the conditions that one has to work in now. Whether it’s political, economic—you know, it’s very situational in a sense. In some ways, I would say that time, economics—all of these have become the generators of projects. The human condition—the day-to-day—is sort of third in line. But our interest is in the possibility that all of these things can be overlaid one on top of the other with an equal amount of strength. So yes, I guess to a certain degree there has been a slight deviation from the day-to-day. But it’s momentary because in the end, architecture is built for humans to occupy; that is foremost. But with all of these processes being developed–new materials, new methods of drawing—I think you need to gain some amount of expertise and control over the process of making. To completely submit to this idea of production through the process of 3-D and all these different softwares and programs, I personally think that would be a folly. You are empowering decisions that are not fully yours. Where is that decision coming from? But it’s still very nascent, this whole idea of technology.

This is a good segue into talking about your design process. It seems like modeling or models—or to be very specific, actual physical models—are important in helping you develop ideas, work out pieces of a project. Do you use computer technology as well?

We do, we do use it. But I’m not hung up so much on specific tools . . . whether it’s computers or model-making or drawing or sketches. I think they’re all fundamentally tools for communication. So whatever tool of communication is appropriate, depending on a project or a situation, we’ll use it. We do use computers, though not in a very sophisticated way.

In terms of making models, it’s actually a tool that we found worked well for us. Once you have something physically there on the table or on the ground, it allows more people to engage at the same time.

I would say my interest is in transparent communication; that becomes foremost. Models in many ways have a transparency that everyone can engage with, whether it’s the client or the artisans, the architects, whoever it is. What we’re interested in is making a process of communication that is more inclusive. We’re working with the people who actually build these projects. They come from an informal background. For them even switching on a computer would be difficult. We use the models as drawing tools, so we mark dimensions on the model itself. You can measure off a model and then build a project.

All of this is something that we stumbled upon early on. When I initially started working in India, after working in the U.S. and London, I made a whole set of drawings for a house that we were building. What I found when we started building was that none of the people who were actually building the project could read the drawings. All this time and energy was spent on making these drawings, and I realized that this was not going to work. I actually had to put the drawings aside. We had to describe the project through a process of talking and gestures and hand movements, body movements. Then, with the builders, we collectively built a model, a physical model, which was then the only tool that we used in constructing the project.

Our use of models evolved from that experience, and I find it extremely useful. You’re then also left with these fragments of thoughts and ideas and processes that in some way seep into other projects. They have their own life and there’s an evolution and a transformation. I like that process.

I always imagined that when I got out of school I would have a studio like Eames. Or like John Soane. You have these collections of things that are all over the place and they would then influence projects passively because you’re surrounded by them.

So it was partly wanting an inclusive way to communicate, combined with this particular experience of drawings being completely useless, that led to how we work.

I read that you have fabrication workshops where workers make pieces of your projects.

Well, there is no distinction between where the studio starts and the workshop ends. Basically, there are two architects: me and Samuel Barclay, an American who has been in India for five years. The rest are primarily carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians. Most of them come from a lineage of twenty, thirty generations of practice of whatever it might be. They are highly skilled, very professional. The only thing they don’t have is a formal education. They don’t have a degree or a diploma. But they’re intimately involved in the concept of a project, in discussions of space, material, weight, mass.

The idea that I’m giving this set of instructions that are then carried out is wrong. There is a framework that is delineated and then within that, ideas are explored by all of us. Once we are able to come to a place more specific in the evolution of that idea, to then translate it to a process of building, then yes, we fabricate within the workshop. But it’s a very fine line where that starts and the other one ends or begins. It’s all sort of quite fluid, interlinked.

So there’s a lot of back and forth going on between everybody?

Absolutely, that’s something that is extremely fundamental. Communication is essential. Especially in what we do, in architecture . . . one person cannot put a project together. Architecture is about people.

How you then maintain this constant link between people and the idea remains central in the conversations that are occurring in our studio. I think one of the problems of the production of modern architecture is the division that occurred primarily in communication. The effort for us goes into continuously balancing communication; as long as we have that, we believe that a lot of the other stuff will work itself out. It’s really a constant struggle for us. It can be through writing, sketches, models, word-of-mouth. Within our studio, we found that the moment those links are broken or they begin to slowly get quieter or more silent, we see that it directly has an impact on the work. That’s really the core for us, or the central premise of maintaining this practice.

You studied architecture in the U.S. and worked here for a bit, right?

I graduated from Wash. U. in St. Louis in ‘89/’90, then moved to Los Angeles to work in Richard Meier’s studio, in the model shop. I think I was there just short of three years. But I also used to do other freelance work, for my professor Robert Mangurian, for Frank Israel.

Then I went to England, where I started a practice with a friend of mine who had left Richard Meier’s around the same time. We started a small practice in London and worked there for three years.

After that, I decided to go back to India. There was no fixed agenda, no manifesto, but it was something that I just felt comfortable with. When I would go back to India, I didn’t need to think about things, like I did when I was here [in the U.S.]. Part of that was maybe just being young and trying to locate oneself culturally. That was really why I went back, not so much for a specific job; it was just a comfortable place to be.

What was it like working in Meier’s model shop?

I think it influenced me a lot. It was sort of an independent studio which supported, of course all of Richard’s work, but primarily the Getty Museum. But it was an interesting place because the model shop became the sort of backbone for that project. We were able to produce models fairly quickly and in very limited time. It was great because I think we must have done more than a few thousand. I think that influenced me in terms of the way I’m practicing right now, directly and indirectly. Not specifically Richard Meier’s work—more the method of how the model shop supported the drawing office.

Your work is especially sensitive to issues of place and landscape and nature. Could you walk me through the process of how you start a project? Let’s say you have the site—I’m thinking probably about one of your house projects. What is your step-by-step approach? How do you decide what aspects of the site you’re going to explore? What do you do to give the projects such a strong sense of place?

For example, visiting the site, you survey. One is a physical survey, which has dimensions, so to speak—this is this distance away from that. You establish relationships between parts. But then there’s another survey, a survey of how I respond to the site . . . whether it’s trees or the air or light. The ground, for that matter. What do you see from the corner of your eye, rather than what do you see directly? Maintain a constant attention to the corner of your eye, because a lot of things go unseen.

I like to go back to the site quite a few times. Sometimes you’re there on day one and you’re able to have an open communication. But sometimes a site will not allow that open communication and you need to go back a few times.

It’s not that different from building up a relationship with a friend or a wife. At the end of the day, it’s a relationship. This survey becomes more of an intimate understanding of what I describe as the latent potential that is present, trying to find the potentialities of what remains dormant on the site.

For me, it’s very important that there’s such an intimate understanding that I don’t need to look at a drawing. It’s more that my sense is the survey. And that’s what I can call upon at will. Eventually you gain freedom from the conditions of the site. I don’t want to get trapped in the site, but to gain freedom from it, so there’s an easy way to be able to move around, and move around comfortably.

Do you have the opportunity to go back once the projects have been built?

Yes, yes. I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay in some of these projects. It’s interesting because it’s like your interior world has been physically exposed and you have to actually engage with it. And what’s quite intense is the unpredictability of that exposure. It throws out many more things than I had sense for.

I use the word “sense” a lot because it’s not important to precisely describe every single one of these things. You don’t quite know what exactly they are; it’s more of a sense. I would say that process of unfolding is quite exciting in that it shows things other than those one thought of. I like that part of being able to inhabit some of these projects.

In the residential projects, you have the specifics of the site and how they influence the project. Do you also have an overarching idea about residential living, about how people live today, that you are exploring across all the house projects?

Yes, domesticity is a critical aspect. But then again there are scales within that. You can bring it down to the idea of a door handle—that’s a very intimate space and a very individual space between the hand and the body and the object. For me, all the different scales can potentially exist in a house. But the house can at some point transform into a school, can transform into a studio. At some level, the program is secondary. What is primary is the engagement of the human body within a space and the relationships that can potentially occur there. Sure, you need bedrooms and living rooms and all of that, but I think at some point I’m not really interested in that anymore. Those are just loose definitions, and it’s more about domesticity. It’s about the intimate relationships within those spaces, about places where one can be independent of other people but also be with many people. That’s what a house or a family does. It has the bandwidth to go from a singular to plural. And I also think that within the typology of house you want to be able to appropriate a very large bandwidth of potentialities. Maybe in a time of war, one of the houses gets turned into a hospital. It can work well as a place of care. So that specificity of a house at some point does not become important.

You’ve talked about the “discipline of doing architecture everyday.” What do you mean by that and how does that play out day-to-day? How does it shape your work?

It’s like “practice”—what does that mean? Drawing, for instance, just the practice of drawing: sketches, making drawings. Putting thoughts down in a sketchbook is a part of practice. Documentation, whether it’s photographs, videos, whatever the format might be. This is something that I endeavor to do everyday, or at least within a week, I have a benchmark of recording x amount of things. The immediacy of a camera, to document stuff that one is interested in. Stuff that one is not interested in. It’s not specific to, “Oh, I like this;” it’s even things that I don’t like that I document, because it’s important to remember why you don’t like it.

Making models. Talking about architecture. Reading. Listening to music—because whatever it is that maintains the creative process within you, whatever can support the process of creativity, I say is practice. It can be a personal choice of whatever that medium might be. Someone might like music as an instigator, someone might like reading history. I think even just reading about things that are happening everyday, because architecture is a cultural condition, an anthropological condition, a socioeconomic condition. All this actually feeds into architecture, so it’s sort of having a broad view, but one that is also quite intense.

It’s difficult to do all of it. But I think that by doing it everyday slowly, you develop a strength and a space to be able to fold in many different viewpoints. I think all this is what I would describe as the practice of architecture.