Award-winning architect Shimul Javeri on the conflict between design practice and the hype about sustainable and culturally authentic spaces
New Delhi: Shimul Javeri, one of India’s best-known architects, was awarded the Prix Versailles award for restaurants and the special prize for an exterior (hotels category) at a ceremony held on Thursday in Paris, the world headquarters of Unesco. Javeri was honoured with the World Architecture award for commercial stores, hotels and restaurants for her work on the Marasa Sarovar Premiere Hotel in Tirupati, completed last year. For the hotel, she interpreted the Dashavataras, the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu, through symbology, colour and emotion, an intangible yet powerful architectural tool. The founder and primary architect of Mumbai-based architectural firm SJK Architects, the 53-year-old Javeri speaks in an interview about the dangers of public architecture being assigned to the lowest bidder and the significance of an architect’s role as a professional to help unearth cultural legacies.
There is so much hype about sustainable design in architecture. At the same time, urban spaces reveal a huge chasm between the professed and the practiced. What do you think?
That’s a very important question and one that is true for life in general. The more alienated human beings feel from certain core values, the more they profess to practice them. It’s a way that human beings deal with a reality that they know to be intrinsically problematic but feel overwhelmed by or incapable of changing. Both capitalism and colonization led to an alienation from people and nature, and the loss is pronounced and obvious.
In India particularly, we are going through a form of cultural colonization where we believe that our late entry into globalization warrants a speedy inclusion of the symbols of global success—glass and aluminium; steel and concrete.
With multinational practices, the need to be culturally relevant is clearly seen as important, but the language seems to remain somewhat universal. Global trends then get packaged as local influences. For instance, the metal “skin” over buildings is a global trend that now attempts to shroud the glass box in a more palatable outer layer that can speak of local influences or simply add uniqueness or aesthetic value. The glass box can then remain a highly conditioned, monolithic solution to the more complex needs of diverse people and situations. In India, this skin will then be referred to as the reinterpreted jali even if it does not bring in light and ventilation like the real thing.
What do you think about patronage for art and architecture in the public domain in India?
Historically, one gauges the evolution of a society and its leaders through the patronage provided to art and architecture. Europe, even today, has an incredible number of public projects being commissioned using architectural competitions and patronizing architects—with sensible fees and capable referees. This is beneficial to the built landscape and the creation of a breed of productive architects. The State of Architecture Exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art recently highlighted this issue through the timeline of post-independence buildings. While there was government patronage in the early days of independence, this has reduced greatly.
Current public architecture is being auctioned to the lowest bidder. There is a serious lack of understanding of what constitutes good architecture both in the public and private sectors.
Two delusions have permeated the practice of the profession. One is that architects can be selected through an assessment of their fee proposals. The other is that architecture that is unusual, over designed and contrived, is good. An architect’s fees are a small percentage of the project cost, but his inputs can make a huge difference both to the cost as well as the impact. Besides, architecture has not been discussed adequately in public forums for clients to understand nuances and critique it intelligently. Once again, the “patron” is the one that understands, encourages and facilitates good architecture— currently a rarity in India.