'Great works accrue meaning over time'
Embracing the idea of collaborative architecture, Bijoy Ramachandran believes in creating a style which is obvious, inevitable and graceful, learns Bindu Gopal Rao
Bijoy Ramachandran is an architect and urban designer based in Bengaluru and his firm, Hundredhands is an internationally recognised practice and a multidisciplinary design studio with projects ranging from large-scale master plans to architecture, interior design, environmental/graphic design and films. The studio’s partners Bijoy Ramachandran and Sunitha Kondur have experience in the design and management of large housing, commercial and academic projects, both in the United States and in India. In an exclusive conversation, Bijoy talks about his architectural sensibilities.
Why is your firm called Hundredhands?
My brother Premjit Ramachandran gave us this name and it stands for collaborative work. As architects, we rely on a large group of people working together to create something of value. We reject the idea of the inspired individual who presides over the making of architecture and embrace instead the idea of a collective, shared authorship of the work.
How would you describe your signature style?
We are not really trying to establish a unique or signature style. Our responses are the result of the myriad influences we encounter along the way in the life of a project. Clients, contractors and our own staff impact the work fundamentally. Having said that, we are deeply influenced by the work of Allies and Morrison and identify with their pragmatic and restrained approach. We had the good fortune of working with Graham Morrison and his team on a hotel in Bengaluru and it was a wonderful lesson in assimilating complex programme, service requirements and creating something which seemed effortless. This is a style we would like to pursue — of the obvious, the inevitable and the graceful or as Graham calls it ‘architecture without adjectives’!
The most satisfying project so far...
Different things contribute to the sense of satisfaction: an involved or inspired client, a provocative brief, a good team (consultants, contractors) and a sublime idea. Discovering the nature of the project is the toughest part of the job and the idea comes from this understanding. Glenn Murcutt, the Pritzker award-winning architect says, “To draw is to reveal; to reveal is to understand; to understand is the beginning of knowledge; to know allows you then to understand where this thing fits.” A few recent projects we have enjoyed working on are Neev Primary School, K-Start (an incubation hub), the auditorium at Canadian International School, Taaqademy (music studio and school) and Alila Bengaluru (hotel).
Which has been your most challenging project to date and why?
Projects where there is no real conversation about what is of value are the toughest ones. We must share this trajectory with our clients and the large teams involved. Rafiq Azam, the wonderful Bangladeshi architect, told me that at the start of every project, he gets the client to take the whole team (contractors, sub-contractors, vendors, consultants etc) out to a retreat for a day at a nice hotel. There, along with the client and the consultants, Rafiq lays out the details of the project — its scope and ambition, the aspirations of the client, his values, potential challenges. This process has served Rafiq well. He has completed numerous projects, conceptually sublime, incredibly well. He credits this to a shared sense of ownership and a belief that the whole team is working together to do something meaningful.
The increasingly ‘globalised approach’ to architecture today...
There seems to be a certain ‘sameness’ to a lot of the large real estate developments across the city and they are in some sense based on perceptions of a global aesthetic. By making particular choices in terms of building construction systems, materials and layouts, there is a distinct allusion to a foreign or western precedent. Having said that, there is a vitality to the architecture being produced otherwise, which is quite unique to us here in India. Projects, especially single family homes, institutions and interior design, often show real ingenuity in terms of articulating issues of identity, locality and personal expression. It is an incredible time to be practising here. There is great private patronage. The public realm leaves much to be desired and this ‘bug’ of a globalised aesthetic seems to have infected well-intentioned urban renewal programmes and new capital city schemes. We must find local and appropriate solutions for the challenges we face.
What role do green buildings play in your work?
We have not been very scientific about evaluating how appropriate our strategies are with regards to the environment. Our approach has been a lot more intuitive and based on common sense and certain pragmatism. We are now working with a sustainability consultant and there are distinct ways in which his expertise has improved our decisions in terms of building services and systems. We are conscious of the large impact buildings make on the environment and need to do more to minimise the damage we do.
What are the challenges in designing for environmental sustainability?
There are two primary challenges, one to do with perceptions and the other to do with implementation. The general perception is that the green rating systems are the defining yardstick against which ‘good’ architecture can be measured and that a high rating then automatically means that something meaningful has been produced. This is a warped perception. Great architecture is so much more than just some low-e glass and solar panels. We recently came across a new platform (www.edgebuildings.com) designed to measure energy use based on choices made (building services, materials, etc). The tool uses empirical data to calculate the relative value of these choices. This is a lot more useful as a way to self regulate and to communicate the implications to potential clients.
The second problem is that despite making the simple choices with regards to orientation and ventilation, conditions are often a lot more adverse and expectations are usually unreasonably high. This puts a lot of pressure to use mechanical systems to improve the quality of the environment. Managing expectations and costs are huge challenges.
Of ambitions and awards...
I hope the work we produce continues to provide a graceful environment for people to live and enjoy. Most awards are a sweet diversion. They recognise a moment in time captured in an image. But architecture has a long life and the great works continue to accrue meaning over time.
What are your future plans?
We are hoping to do more housing, get involved in public works, begin a research cell to build an archive for the City, start a summer school, organise an annual architectural mela, make many more movies and build an office for ourselves. But first of all, we are hoping to finally figure out a way to break even!