Roca’s Think Turf series, Chandigarh surprised us with candid conversations on architecture practice

The audience participated in the discussion that brought to light various issues connected to the business of architecture.

Integrity, rigged competitions, political influences, fidelity towards good design…if there was ever a platform that laid bare the good, the bad and the ugly of the ‘business of architecture’, it was Roca Think Turf’s recently held Chandigarh edition. The 27th city to welcome the series, which has evolved into a sought-after fraternity meet over the past two years since its inception, Chandigarh was bold and honest in their deliberation. It perfectly aligns with the purpose with which ITP Media and Roca created this platform, where debates and discussions can enlighten the community about the business of architecture.
For some healthy cross-pollination of ideas and thought process, Alan Abraham, joint principal of Mumbai-based Abraham John Architects, specially flew in to give the keynote address that evening. He elaborated on how they run a boutique architecture and design firm where the “element of design” is their key focus – be it interior, architecture, landscaping or master planning projects. “We think the best way to build is to build as little as possible, and to build in connection with natural elements,” Abraham shared. He illustrated through their many projects how landscape design is integral to every project, and how their emphasis on materiality encourages them to work with a palette that is natural, sustainable and “warm to touch and feel.”
“Most of the fun is in the design process,” expressed the architect as he walked through a project where the design had to take into account 19 coconut trees on site, which influenced the final form and elevation of the building. “We want the buildings to play second fiddle to nature, not dominate it. The material palette remains limited and earthy.”
Building a successful practice comes at a cost, too, as the architect spoke about maintaining a clean practice where they don’t take commissions from other stakeholders in a project. Not all clients will see the value of an honest work ethic, but it’s a price the firm is willing to pay.
Abraham also touched upon the need to engage with the city and in urban planning projects, including pro bono work. “When you are designing for the city, you are giving back to a much larger (audience) – it has a bigger impact,” he explained. However, there would be times, he admitted, when proposals could “get cut through” or rejected by local authorities – or, at worst, the project which you slaved over could get awarded to another firm. His own experience and those of his friends in the fraternity has exposed the many unfair practices currently rampant in the way design competitions are conducted and awarded. Despite the reality of the situation, the zeal and commitment towards good design – including in the urban scenario – still stands at Abraham John Architects.
It was this candid keynote address that encouraged the ensuing panel discussion to take an equally honest route. Moderator of the evening, Jit Kumar Gupta guided the panel to a series of discussions, starting with their earlier memories of the profession, first project, experiences with competitions and the quality of education in the country. Renu Khanna shared how one potential client demanded payment since he was offering her her first independent project. Architect-turned-software engineer-turned-architect-again Deepak Ghavri spoke about his appreciation for the profession after his “soul searching” experience. While he admits success in the practice can be quantified materialistically, the real benchmark is fulfillment. In his initial days, he made a conscious attempt to not to be over ambitious, and create designs that impact people instead of just taking up commercially viable projects.
Purnima Sharma has seen the landscape of the practice change thanks to the internet of things (IoT). According to her, it was easier to get projects when she first started practising, compared to now when more architecture colleges are sending out more younger professionals into the field, who work for less and blatantly copy designs from the internet. Kuljit Singh, who has been practising since 1977, shared how good relationships with clients is key to a thriving practice – his current projects still come from some of his earliest clients. Recalling her foray into the profession, Bandana admitted,“I realised, from being a socialist mindset you have to convert into a little bit of capitalist, at least in the North India scenario.” She illustrated this point with clients’ fascination with façades, most often false ones that went against the grain of her ideology.
The topic of competitions struck a chord among all, including the audience. Khanna, who has participated and even won her share of competitions, admitted that most “are a farce.” Ghavri, having “burnt hands, fingers, wallets,” stays away from them now. Speaking of her own “sour relationships with competition,” Bandana Singh shared that she stays away from government and semi-government competitions. She strongly believes that one has to decide, early on, the direction for one’s practice. “A lot of what I am is because of the people I worked with when I started off in this profession – Namitha ma’am, SD sir, Design Plus… What we learned was to be good people at the end of it. To be decent, to be correct and, somewhere down the line, I think that line has got a bit blurred, and a lot of the business angle has come in.”
Today, her prospective clients come due to referrals from material suppliers who vouch for her integrity in work. “Because of the way we’ve developed our firm and the kind of work we do, I sleep really well at night,” she proudly stated.
When questioned by the audience about the necessary changes the panelists wish to see in the profession, the architects put forward a few of their immediate concerns: mainly reform in education (“competency is no longer of value, only paper is of value”), a thorough registration process for new architects, the revision of the 1972 act (“1972 has to be rephrased not just for 2018, but also for 2035. We don’t need to look back we need to look forward”), and the need for the dialogue of public architecture to be open to the public.
However, Ghavri warned, “We also have to agree that we are a democratic country, and a democratic country’s majority decision will be a popular decision. Those popular decisions will demand a more public inclusion…and the moment you start doing that, you destroy the profession.”
It was such honest remarks that made the evening really thought-provoking, one that everyone was glad to attend.

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