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Conversation: Sameep Padora with Prajna Desai

The recent documentary "Reading Architecture" (2017) explores the contemporary history of design in India across five practices in Mumbai. Sameep Padora, one of five featured architects, is the founder of Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a), a Mumbai (India) based architecture studio. In 2016, he initiated sPare, a research arm of the studio. sPare’s maiden project, a documentation and analysis of historic housing types within Mumbai eventually resulted in a traveling exhibition entitled In the Name of Housing. In the following conversation, Padora discusses his projects against the dual context of urban renewal and historic preservation.

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Prajna Desai

C-MAP Fellow for Asia | Department of Architecture and Design The Museum of Modern Art Prajna Desai is an author and curator, peregrine since 2009. Drawn to intellectual history, her research intervenes in canonised and fossilised standards of aesthetics by... Read more »

Sameep Padora

Sameep Padora is the principal architect at and founder of Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a), a Mumbai based architecture studio, and founder of sPare, a research arm... Read more »
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Conversation: Sameep Padora with Prajna Desai

The recent documentary "Reading Architecture" (2017) explores the contemporary history of design in India across five practices in Mumbai. Sameep Padora, one of five featured architects, is the founder of Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a), a Mumbai (India) based architecture studio. In 2016, he initiated sPare, a research arm of the studio. sPare’s maiden project, a documentation and analysis of historic housing types within Mumbai eventually resulted in a traveling exhibition entitled In the Name of Housing. In the following conversation, Padora discusses his projects against the dual context of urban renewal and historic preservation.

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The recent documentary "Reading Architecture" (2017) explores the contemporary history of design in India across five practices in Mumbai. Sameep Padora, one of five featured architects, is the founder of Sameep Padora & Associates (sP+a), a Mumbai (India) based architecture studio. In 2016, he initiated sPare, a research arm of the studio. sPare’s maiden project, a documentation and analysis of historic housing types within Mumbai eventually resulted in a traveling exhibition entitled In the Name of Housing. In the following conversation, Padora discusses his projects against the dual context of urban renewal and historic preservation.

Prajna Desai: Let’s start with the publication In the Name of Housing: A Study of 11 Projects in Mumbai (2016). What was the impulse behind this typological study of affordable housing? And why include pan-historical examples within a single study? Did these projects not evolve from different economic factors when they were first built?

Sameep Padora: The study began when a developer approached us to do a housing project under the aegis of the national “Housing for All” policy, which in its efforts to fulfill the supposed shortfall of affordable housing in India, looks at four eligible housing types while also giving hugely attractive income tax waivers to their developers. While looking for studies and research specifically within the Indian context on the design and architecture of affordable housing, we found incredible documentation of the extant sociocultural fabric of the inhabitants but very little analysis of the tectonics that facilitated these narratives, or vice versa. We really were looking for the tie-in between form and its inhabitation. The focus on type also came from the impetus of the “Housing for All” policy prescribing the larger top-down parameters of financing and subsidy, as well as the minimum unit size, which the national policy specifies as 322 square feet, without acknowledging the qualitative aspects of housing—essentially, its livability and sociocultural aspects. Another key factor usually overlooked is temporal programming for spaces used in different ways throughout the course of a day; in other words, the same space may be residential at night, commercial during the day, and social in the evening. We have, in the past, seen the disastrous manifestation of a top-down blinkered approach in the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) projects built in Mumbai.1 Our research on the history of housing in Mumbai since the late-nineteenth century attempts to build a case for sensitive design intervention based on studies of how people inhabit small spaces and the immediate environment, and that facilitates this manner of compressed living.

From our study, it became clear that while varied socioeconomic adjacencies do exist, there are structural commonalities between these different projects that could be instructive for the design and planning of affordable housing going forward.

PD: Where does one go from a typology?

SP: The only housing type that is currently built is the default BHK (Bedroom Hall Kitchen) apartment, which completely ignores the fact that spaces in low-income housing often have multiple uses. The state’s past failures to build livable and appropriate environments are well documented, including in the latest study of rampant tuberculosis in some of the projects undertaken by the SRA—a state body empowered to facilitate development of notified slums in Mumbai by private developers.2 Through this study of “type,” we argue for a reverse approach, beginning with prescribing the built form, whereby housing type and its immediate ecology inform building and development codes, and together the two inform state policy on appropriate models for affordable housing.

PD: There is a stance within contemporary architectural discourse about the social responsibility of architects that seems to find a natural partnership in housing projects. Which side of the fence does your work inhabit?

SP: All architecture is, by nature, a sociopolitical act, whether we are cognizant of the fact or not. I would argue that all projects must imbibe and exhibit social responsibility, so my affiliations are clear. For instance, in my book In the Name of Housing, I mention the Swadeshi market of the early twentieth century that, though a completely privately owned mixed-use block, is incredible in its realization of quasi-public streets and markets that extend from one edge of its plot to the other, allowing the city fabric to connect across a private domain. Compare this with any new, large, mixed-use development project that organizes ground-floor commercial/retail space parallel to the street but which constitutes an impervious edge against which the city fabric stops. I hope the research points us in a direction in which even private projects might be sensitive to the public realms that they straddle.

PD: Could you talk a little bit about a recent housing project that fulfills some of your ideas relating to housing? And elucidate some of the challenges? I am thinking here of your project with the Bohra community in Pakistan.

SP: The Dawoodi Bohra community housing scheme in Mohammedi Park in Karachi is the result of an invitational competition. Since the end-user group was well defined, lifestyle and sociocultural habits were the beginning of our design approach for the project. The real challenge was to respond spatially to the community’s cultural habits without indulging in homogenizing traits, that is, to leave enough bandwidth within the project to catalyze new behavioral possibilities.

PD: Housing, especially community-driven housing, is defined by public and private needs. To me, this resonates with some of the imperatives behind the design of a religious structure. Would you agree? Do you see parallels?

SP: I would argue that in community-driven housing, especially within the context of India, the binaries of public and private don’t operate in the same way; shared space and a shared community program drive sociocultural habits in a big way, and the architectural framework must allow for this. This shared value system is heightened and very evident within a building of a religious nature, where this shared value is typically unidimensional—unlike in housing, where the range of programs, activities, and interactions can have multiple bases.

PD: Were there any peculiar contextual frames for the design of the temple that became lessons about working with a community on a "sensitive" building typology at a time when public discourse in India is increasingly filtered through issues of ethnic difference and religiosity?

SP: Specifically, in terms of the architectural design process in both the Shiva Temple, which was a project for a religious building, and Jetavan, which was a space for community outreach programs, constant engagement with the community was critical. Shiva Temple is a project built for and by a group of three villages in rural Maharashtra using local volcanic stone and traditional corbeled construction, while the Jetavan complex was built on land donated by an adjoining industry, funding for which was raised by Czech monk Bhante Dhammadipa.

The Jetavan buildings were constructed with hybrid local materials, and program coordination was provided by the Somaiya Center for Religious Studies. Jetavan is particularly interesting given the incredible diversity of actors involved. Both projects were challenging primarily because we were parsing through centuries of an embedded image, one that defines a certain kind of religious edifice. It was with a great deal of participation by the local community that we were finally able to build these projects. This community engagement lasted through the entire process: firstly, in the planning paradigms of the temple, and then in arriving at the image of the form that evoked, in memory, the traditional Hindu temple silhouette of the shikhar (attenuated roof which takes the shape of a mountain). Of course, we reworked its final manifestation, which was informed by inputs of siting, material, and shramdaan (donation of labor) by the community.

However, I think it is important to also infuse seemingly unrelated programmatic devices as catalysts within religious infrastructure to have a wider social implication and to subvert some of the polarizing effects of religion today. In the case of the Shiva Temple, the amphitheater built into the gradient on the southern edge of the site is an attempt at making a place for public gatherings in general—not just religious events—while in Jetavan, the skill development program, which ranges from training housewives to make recycled paper bags and mats for generating income to offering classes that prepare young men and women from the vicinity for the Civil Services exams. The facility is open to all members of the community, even if they are not Buddhist, and this community infrastructure encourages systemic change through both the new hybridized construction system and the content and programs to which the community has access.

PD: Moving from design to material, have you been experimenting with using old materials in new ways or with collaborating with extant material practices toward more economical and sustainable construction? Could you share some of this work?

SP: The Jetavan project mentioned earlier and the Sharda Library, a children’s library building within a school campus, are both great examples. In Jetavan, which is in rural Maharashtra, we collaborated with Hunnarshala, an organization working with traditional building technology to evolve a load-bearing wall system of rammed stone dust. The stone dust, which is waste from a basalt stone quarry near the project site, was combined with waste fly ash from the nearby molasses factory and a small percentage of cement as stabilizer to build these hybrid walls. These examples of material and process application also look to challenge the nostalgia associated with craft and tradition as well the nature of what today comprises the “regional.”

PD: You were recently featured in Reading Architecture, a film about contemporary architectural practices in Mumbai that are architect-driven, rather than the smaller community-driven, DIY cultures of architecture that are prevalent across the city. Have you been involved in any capacity in this latter practice of architecture, either as a collaborator or consultant? Where do the intersections between these two distinct modes of architecture lie?

SP: The India of the immediate post-independence era was marked by a frantic nation-building energy, which in some sense was serviced by the singularity of the modernist project. Since then, however, India’s variety of sociocultural environments has shown the futility of singularity as a means of engaging in the country’s varying contexts. Beyond our standard architectural practice, I and colleagues in my firm are currently engaged with the not-for-profit Bandra Collective, a group of six young architects in Bandra (an area in north Mumbai) who work with local resident groups and the municipal body in the design of public spaces. The third facet of our practice involves collaborations with craftsmen appropriating traditional techniques and developing them further to transform materials—as in the Carpet Pavilion, a temporary structure constructed for a national trade show. For this project, we collaborated with carpet fitters, who are adept at stitching carpet seams, a mundane urban skill, to create modules out of pieces of waste carpet that they stitched together into a transformative catenary structure that functioned as a ceiling.

We also have designed and built low-tech tools with master bricklayers for Sienna as well as a residential building in Hyderabad, where the templates we designed were used to build dramatically corbeled walls.3 Our collaborations in the past have also included working with URBZ and a local contractor on a design for a house in the resettlement colony of Shivaji Nagar in north Mumbai as part of the “A House We Built” project. The final aspect of our practice is sPare, which is a research initiative looking at urbanization and architecture in India. Our projects include the housing research and current reimagining of Mumbai city building codes based on qualitative parameters. While these four categorizations of architectural practice, collaboration, collectives, and research are distinctly mentioned here, they do not operate in silos but instead form feedback loops, with each informing the other. These multiple modes of practice also point to a possible methodology to engage with the varying scales and diversity of India’s sociocultural and economic contexts.

PD: Working with existing structures, specifically historical ones, carries an implicit sense of responsibility to history. Does your project at Meherangarh Fort in Rajasthan (a state in northwest India) speak to this challenge?

SP: Post-independence, our attitude to a material history has been either reverential, that is, disconnected from the everyday by deification, or dismissive, by abolition and laxity. There is an argument to be made that history is a means to project futures, where history valorizes evolving ideas of material and form as opposed to mummifying them. We have attempted to do this initially through the lens of “value” devoid of aesthetic judgment. In our proposal for the additions to the Meherangarh Fort Precinct, in which the Meherangarh Museum Trust (MMT) conducted a competition for a visitor center and a knowledge center, both within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we implicitly advocate the idea of value creation, firstly through an architecture that is responsive to the experience of different user groups moving through our sites and then through hybrid material ecologies for greater efficiency in terms of resources.

1.

The SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) set up by the government of Maharashtra in 1995 serves as the Planning Authority for all areas designated as slum, or informal settlements, in the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

2.

“Notified” implies settlements recognized and listed as slums in official state planning documents, such as Mumbai’s Development Plan, which is a blueprint for the city’s land use.

3.

The low-tech tools for Sienna were wooden templates constructed to ensure that the rotation necessary for brick corbeling was consistent and accurate.

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