Market Driven Architecture is a Necessity, But I Wish it Wasn’t So”
That seems ironical, coming from an architect. But it reveals an economic imperative that points to the fact that the practice is as important as the output. In fact, the significance of the practice grows as the environment becomes more challenging and clients fickle minded. For this reason design professionals must excel as managers too, in order to remain relevant in the long run.
This is the underlying thought that emerges when you engage with Sonali Rastogi, an eloquent and accomplished architect, and founder of the iconic firm Morphogenesis. Sonali opened up to Kitchen Review in a relaxed yet stimulating interview recently at her tastefully designed south Delhi residence, only to reveal a sensitive and constant learner.
Debjyoti Roy & Gyanendra Kumar Kashyap
It’s been over two decades since you have been in the profession of interior design. Looking back, was it a deliberate decision to opt for design, or was this career choice accidental?
I hail from a family of architects, so design was something which surrounded my life since I was a child. As it was a way of life for my parents, I was kind of involved all the time in it. In fact, I was often at my father’s office and grew up observing, liking and imbibing design and design philosophy.
During summer breaks I would often be at my father, Ashok Kumar Srivastava’s, firm Srivastava & Jaiswal Associates, and would enjoy engaging with physical models or working on stamp marks. Besides, he used to take me along to historical sites in the city for sketching sessions. I don’t think I would like to be in any other world other than interior design. So, yes, it was a natural choice for me to join this profession.
Which institute did you attend for your formal education in interior architecture?
I am an undergraduate of the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. After graduation, I decided to pursue a post-graduate degree in Housing and Urbanism from The Architectural Association London. Later, I also did a second diploma course in Graduate Design, now better known as design research lab (DRL). In fact, I was the first Indian student to pursue that course. Those years in London were the most incredible experiences of my life. They taught me the methodology of channelising my design thinking. That learning has stayed on with me till date, and it is my biggest strength.
During the course of your academics, did you get an opportunity to work on some live projects?
Through the academic pool I was involved in some interesting real world projects. In 1993 I was engaged in one such project located in China that focused around the development of the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. Though it is highly developed now, it was actually an agricultural island during those days. The seeds of development were sown during that programme. I was involved in setting forth the master plan for development of the entire island.
Which was your first project as an independent professional? How much of your learning was translated into that project?
It was an interesting one-room project that I and Manit, my husband, started designing for a friend. Even before it was finished, somebody noticed that project, and suggested we participate in a major design competition, which we won eventually. In 1999, impressed by our work, we were offered to design the corporate headquarters of Apollo Tyres.
Of course, there are a lot of differences between what you are taught in an institute and when you work on real life projects. I believe that the profession of architecture is similar to the gurukul way of learning. Essentially 4-5 years after you have started your career, you actually learn how to build. In my case I was thrown at the deep end, but I took it as my third post-graduate degree!
While working on the Apollo Tyres project, I did even those things which are normally not handled by architects. Besides cutting paper to make the models, we even had to check the lighting in the middle of the night, or choose the plants and colour of the logo. All these efforts were made to make the project look beautiful. During my almost two decade journey, we have executed many projects but I believe that the Apollo project is still one of our best products.
It was your first big ticket project; what were the challenges associated with this project?
Dealing with such a huge company at a tender age of 20 or something, was a fantastic experience. Surprisingly, it was a cakewalk. The client was extremely encouraging, and gradually we developed a great bond. The due professionalism and deference to our wishes were really high, so we didn’t have to struggle much on that front. Our struggle was within ourselves. We couldn’t let down ourselves and the client, who had chosen us over many established professionals who had desired that project.
Integrating with different departments, such as plumbing and electricals, appears to be tricky but we enjoyed engaging with those people. We rather took it as a crash course in construction. We had to do all the drawings related to the project manually. To draw it was one story which we managed, but then we were confronted with the real problem when the contractors couldn’t understand the drawings. Today, if you visit that building you will find a multidimensional staircase that shows on the front façade; we had to hire a utensil maker for working on that steel staircase. The reason was simple; they are the best who know how to curve steel. So, we did all such kind of collaborative experiments.
We are extremely proud of that project, which till date is one of the most beautifully constructed buildings in the city. It won us every possible award that there was to win in this country at that time. The project made its way into several international publications, which were otherwise not interested in anything Indian in contemporary design. There are many high points of my career, for example last year I received the SIA Getz Award for Emergent Architecture in Asia. But the first one is always special.
What has been your design philosophy?
To me, thinking design wise is the philosophy. It’s what I experience in day-to-day life. The books which I have read or the places which I have travelled, inspire me in my work. Even when I read economics or politics, it has implications on my thought process. The impact of the government policies on the built environment of the city, or the impact of climate change on sustainability and design also motivates me in my work. The inspiration also comes from regular natural phenomenon, such as how the sunlight travels across my building or sound of the raindrops or the lush green around me. To me design philosophy is more to do with absorbing the living world around us, that you are part of, and the way to engage with it.
Who do you look up to in the design field as a source of inspiration?
This is the question which I am frequently asked, but given my design philosophy, it is very difficult to pinpoint a single architect or a project. For example, I visited Berlin 8-10 years ago. I walked through the city and was mesmerised by its perfection in architectural designs. Ancient buildings such as Jewish Memorial or Philip Johnson’s Park or any modern foundation, will simply mesmerise you with the thought process of architects and its precise execution.
Couple of years later I found myself in Munich where I visited several museums, built over the last 5-10 years. There I experienced how simple construction materials such as concrete and ceramics are being reinterpreted to meet a modern idiom. It gave me a realisation about how an entire culture is thinking of design. A couple of years ago I travelled to Japan where I walked down the streets of Omotesandō, known to be one of the main tourist spots in Tokyo. I found a number of flagship designer stores such as Dior, Chanel and Prada. It seemed to me that the street was a veritable museum of contemporary architecture. The whole experience was truly memorable. It has indeed left a deep impression in my mind.
So, my inspiration keeps changing with places I visit. It wouldn’t be wrong if I say that I’m inspired by those architectural designs which influence urbanism and people, absorb socio-cultural context and at the same time show sustainability.
You are credited with some nationally and internationally acclaimed projects, Could you brief us about one of your hallmark projects?
If I need to mention one such project, it would be that of the Orbit Mall in Siliguri, West Bengal. The project was really challenging, as the building had to be constructed in one of the rainiest areas of the world. Additionally, the low budget was yet another constraint. As the place has a rich socio-cultural heritage, not involving that element in our design would have been sacrilege. It was also a good testing ground for a number of sustainable parameters.
Another interesting thing was that the entire project was built, barring underground drainage facilities. We had to cut the slopes for drainage of water. There were many hidden innovations like this, especially at the infrastructure level. We had to work on the wind direction as the humidity in Siliguri is on the higher side. The project was finished ahead of the scheduled time, and the market accepted it very well.
I believe that each and every project that I, along with Manit, executed during the first 10 years of our career was very important. It was during this stage of our career progression when we managed to develop the reputation that we are the right people to do something new.
When did you come up with this idea of Morphogenesis? What is your team strength?
The idea was actually inspired by a research which Manit was doing on the evolution of form. In fact, post our studies we were contemplating on whether we should focus on pure continuity of what has been going on, or should there be evolution of architecture and enhancement of the understanding of contextual reinterpretation. So, both Manit’s work on the scientific way of looking at evolution and the lengthy discussions we had, led to a common term Morphogenesis, which means birth, growth and evolution of form.
Another factor that worked towards setting up this company was India’s absence in the conversation of cutting edge design. During the 90s there was no debate involving India, apart from the exhibitions by Indian masters such as Charles Correa and B V Doshi. So we took the pledge to enable Indian designs to get global recognition and appreciation.
We have around 115 people working with us, in our offices in Delhi and Bengaluru. The Bengaluru office is new, which started in early October last year. Out of our total workforce, 82 are architects and designers. Composition wise there are architects, landscape architects, interior designers, urban designers, researchers and environmentalists. We don’t have engineers, so we outsource the job if the need arises.
You have a fairly good number of employees; what is your management mantra?
It’s kind of a self-evolving process in a way. In fact, I would give the credit to Manit as he is a very systemic thinking person. He has put in years studying the industry and aspirations of young architects, checking the learning deficits and requirement of augmentation in knowledge banks, and analysing our own growth. He has devised many systems, such as extensive knowledge management systems that have helped us organise ourselves.
We follow a flat functional hierarchy rather than a behavioural hierarchy in our offices. We also involve budding designers while conceptualising a design. We have also added a quality control department to our operations to ensure that only quality work goes to clients.
What has changed over the past two decades in the way architects and designers practice?
In the 90s we started with a rather traditional approach to design. But if we talk of today, there has been a lot of improvement in technology. We can do a lot more things easily now, than what we could do that time. The profession itself has gone through a serious evolution. There is a large amount of diversity in specialisations available. While at one level it took away the trade of the master craftsmen, on another level it brought more inputs into the project. For example, the computational analytics has allowed involving the traditional sustainable architectural products such as step wells, bawlis, jaalis and jharokas in the construction of a building.
Earlier, client appreciation and wider acclaim were considered as the means to measure the level of success. Nowadays, architecture has become closely linked to financial markets. The concrete jungle around us is worrying as the quality of work has gone down. There are instances when an entire project gets transformed into another form after a period of time. It is not desirable; as architects need to have a constant thought process and daily fluctuations might affect their work. So, unless the project belongs to a deep pocketed company with a vision, it gets subjected to far many vagaries of economics. However, designers have learnt to be flexible enough to do these adjustments, and live up to the expectations of the client. Market driven architecture is a necessity, but I wish it wasn’t so.
Another change that has happened over the years is the need to prove the sustainability of your work. The buildings nowadays are tested and measured on sustainability parameters. They must be certified by LEED, which is a green building certification programme that recognises best-in-class building strategies and practices. Energy-efficient building has become the order of the day, which means that only a quarter, or sometimes just 1/6th, of the energy available should to be utilised during the construction.
Has technology widened the scope of architecture?
At one level, I don’t think it has widened the scope of design at all because they are all tools. However, they can be more than tools. But as yet we have not reached the stage in practice where digitisation or computation would be an extension of our mind or hand, rather than that of production. Coding or parametrics have a lot of significance in design processes. However, they have not been explored to the level which I would wish them to be.
How should the academic approach change, if at all? As a senior professional, what would be your piece of advice to students?
I think that the demands for sustainability and technology should be rooted in the students’ thought process right at the college level. Rather than putting a specific demand about what one needs to learn, the future generation should get better exposure to ‘global learning versus local learning’. To achieve that larger vision, endowments, push for research, targets and funding are needed on the lines of any global level initiative. The general level of education must receive a massive impetus in terms of engagement in depth, which can happen only with these resources.
To youngsters, I would advise not to opt for design unless you want it to be your lifestyle. It’s not a targeted job but a lifetime opportunity for learning. So, I would not recommend it to anybody who is not passionate enough to continue in the design industry for the entire life.
What is the competitive level of the work that you are involved in now?
Since last year we have been working with many IT companies such as Infosys and Wipro. We are also working with many Indian and global firms from the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors also. The level of sophistication and evolution of these projects matches global standards. Besides meeting high aesthetic and socio-cultural standards, these assignments have the potential to beat the global best. I think that these projects would play a major role in the near future in catapulting India’s design prowess globally.
You have been the brain behind the cultural venture ‘Manthan’. What is it all about?
Manthan is the means which enabled me to engage with the design community. The idea was inspired by an event in Australia, which was attended by professionals from several walks of life who shared their work experiences. We reinterpreted the session in the Indian environment and started off with a drawing room venture, where we would invite 6-7 people from the creative world to engage in an informal debate. These celebrities are mostly musicians, artists or carpenters, sculptors, photographers, writers, dancers, architects and interior designers. These sessions at times got stretched to 4 or 5 am the next day. The audience comprised of some great speakers. The event was basically aimed at keeping a finger on the nerve centre of the creative revolution in India, especially when the country was growing through a drastic economic change.
We organised the event for three and a half years at my home, but the size of the audience became so huge that it was difficult to manage in such a small space. However, we are in talks to reawaken it and plan to make it more of a public event, as it would be an injustice if we were to keep these creative engagements to ourselves and not share them with others.
How do you contribute to the society?
We decided that we must do something that will not only leave an impact on the society, but would also satisfy our mind and soul. Keeping this in view, we have created an Anganwadi handbook for an NGO in Goa. These handbooks are meant for every woman who aspires to open an Anganwadi centre in her house. The book is a guide in itself; it has tutorials on a number of basic household things such as child safety, anthropometrics, etc.
We have also created a project on how to make the Amarnath Yatra safer. Besides, it is mandatory for every architect at our firm to invest time for CSR activities.
On a personal level, Manit is spearheading the Delhi nullah project, with the aim to revitalise the city’s huge open drains. He has also been advising various government and semi-government bodies on how to include green in policy decisions. He is one of the founding members of ADARSH, which devised the Indian green rating system.
I am a member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC), which has enough potential to engage with the city. The actions taken by the commission are already starting to have deeper impact on the policy decisions. Currently, DUAC is recommending on how to create an art network in the city. It is also engaged in addressing the common man’s inability to decipher the building laws. I actively participate in all campaigns initiated by DUAC.