At Work With: Bijoy Jain

The philosophically-inclined architect speaks to Anindita Ghose about exporting his vernacular style.

Issue 32

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Interiors

“Modernity, in my view, is misrepresented.”

It’s a working Sunday for Bijoy Jain, the architect and founder of Studio Mumbai, when we meet in the compound that houses both his studio and home in central Mumbai. Once a tobacco warehouse, the premises—like much of the surrounding neighborhood—bears vestiges of the city’s industrial past; the rusty sheet-metal entrance gate offers no indication of the abundant foliage and light within.

Jain’s studio is known domestically for a number of lauded projects, largely residential, that emphasise natural materials and vernacular construction. Increasingly, the architect’s respect for light, air and water is in demand with clients around the world following on from a series of successful showcases at biennales and exhibitions in cities including Venice, London and Melbourne. Before he has to leave for the south of France, where he will work on a new commission for a vineyard, he takes the time to sit (alongside his puppy Chucho) in his studio’s sunlit courtyard to talk about the impact of the ’60s, the evolution of his practice and swimming.

Over the last 16 years, Studio Mumbai has collaborated with British artist Muirne Kate Dineen to create the colors featured in its projects using only natural pigments.

“A building is immobile, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the capacity to move.”

You’ve said that architecture is a physical and material manifestation of what it means to be human. What can we understand about humanity from the buildings we see around us today?
The human body breathes, but most of what we’re seeing around us now are non-breathing containers. In years gone by, we came from spaces that would breathe. For me, the idea is to reclaim that. A building is immobile, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the capacity to move. It’s how you use materials: It’s the way that light moves, the way that water enters, that gives it movement.

Your portfolio was intensely regional and specific until recently. How are you transporting your philosophy now that you’re building abroad?
When you travel abroad in winter, do you dress as you dress here? What you’re doing in that gesture is enabling yourself to negotiate the landscape. We are attuned to understanding climate. It’s a fundamental phenomenon… It’s got nothing to do with whether I live in India or Europe or Timbuk-three!

You don’t feel pressure to continue a certain aesthetic?
I would be holding prejudice if I did.

Still, there must be a common thread that runs through all of Studio Mumbai’s projects?
The first work I did in architecture school took me back to a water tank I used to play in as a kid. Water has always been at the center of my work in some way or the other since then, be it present or absent. That’s where growth can occur. Where there is water, there is air, there is light. The color of the sky is based on the reflection of water. That’s our topology. For me, it’s a universal connection. I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that I used to be a swimmer.

You swam for India. You’ve swum across the English Channel! Does that experience inform your self-discipline at work?
Both are equally demanding. I’m fortunate to have had that experience as it has allowed me in certain ways to be in this profession. It demands the same kind of examination at the practice every day.

Much of your work is about storytelling, like the Ganga Maki Textile Studio that you built in the foothills of the Himalayas for the textile designer Chiaki Maki. I read that she asked for the building to be made in the same way as her indigo-dyed textiles.
We’re also working on a winery in the south of France and we have committed to the client that the project will emerge in the same way that they make their wine—centered on the idea of terroir. Wine—for its full potential to be realized—requires time. The building will have the same quality. It will evolve and improve over time. I’m drawn to the phenomenology of that kind of engagement, in which the building mimics the subject.

It’s also interesting to see if the physical mass of a building can have its own mechanism independent of man. If, for whatever reason, there was a war that wiped us out, would these structures offer something that can allow the reconstruction of life? A formal water source, perhaps. In Mumbai, entire neighborhoods have been constructed because of a water source.

Before you delivered the Geoffrey Bawa Memorial Lecture in 2012, you spoke about the time you met Bawa, the acclaimed Sri Lankan architect. How much does your inside-outside approach to building owe to what he said to you, that “There is too much architecture between me and the view.”
It was a very poignant moment: to reflect back on the idea of what it means to build. I had just graduated and was visiting Sri Lanka with friends, but I knew I was going to meet him. I think what he was referring to is the idea of the moment of the threshold. Where is the threshold?

Is it where home ends and the world begins?
Or where you remain suspended with the idea of man in nature. And nature in man. There’s that point of equilibrium and I think that’s what he was referring to. Looking for that space, which is a free space.

Jain’s repertoire also includes art. Using natural materials similar to those in his architectural practice — cow dung, lime plaster, basalt, ash, clay, and banana fiber — he presented his second solo exhibition in December 2018 at Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai.

STUDIO MUMBAI IN JAPAN by John Clifford Burns

Jain recently undertook his first perma-nent project outside of India. Opened late last year in the Japanese port city of Ono-michi, LOG (Lantern Onomichi Garden) is a 1960s apartment block that Studio Mumbai was commissioned to renovate into a hotel and community space. Here, Jain has employed his signature hand-crafted interiors and application of natu-ral materials, such as the abundant use of washi paper in each of the six guest bed-rooms. Elsewhere, in spaces such as the café, gallery and shop (which stocks some of Jain’s furniture designs), the city’s res-idents can gather together for workshops focused on local history and culture.

You call yourself a ’60s child—blue jeans and Jim Morrison. Interestingly, it was also a very pertinent decade for modernist architecture.
I was born in the ’60s. There was a revolution taking place. We had just come out of a war. Cultural shifts were happening. Everything was colliding and merging. In India, we had Archie comics and the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series. You were reading both at the same time as you were listening to Indian classical music and Deep Purple.

Modernism was thriving. People came in from other parts of the world. Le Corbusier finished work on Chandigarh. Louis Kahn built the National Parliament of Bangladesh. Colonization was slowly breaking down worldwide. It was an opportunity. I don’t want to call it a clash.

And are you comfortable with the perception that your work bridges the gap between contemporary modernism and the vernacular?
No interest in that at all. Modernity, in my view, is misrepresented. This idea of what does it mean to remain contemporary? The way I look at it is to be outside of dogma. So, to say modernism marries vernacular is misplaced. Both had the same aim—to begin with anyway.

You teach in the Swiss Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio. What would you advise students wishing to build their own sustainable practice?
The best starting point is to reflect on how you want to participate. How you want to inhabit the landscape. What can you do to enable the equation with the landscape to be one that is nourishing as opposed to one that is depleting? We already have had many people before us who’ve left so much for us to observe. Be it Ajanta and Ellora in India, be it Petra, the Egyptians or Japan. We’ve got all of that to reflect on. That’s our lineage.

What is your dream project?
I’d love to do a school, a shelter for animals and a place where the elderly can heal. Yes, maybe all in one space. Gandhi had said the quality of a nation is in how the flora and fauna are cared for. And also the old.

STUDIO MUMBAI IN JAPAN by John Clifford Burns

Jain recently undertook his first perma-nent project outside of India. Opened late last year in the Japanese port city of Ono-michi, LOG (Lantern Onomichi Garden) is a 1960s apartment block that Studio Mumbai was commissioned to renovate into a hotel and community space. Here, Jain has employed his signature hand-crafted interiors and application of natu-ral materials, such as the abundant use of washi paper in each of the six guest bed-rooms. Elsewhere, in spaces such as the café, gallery and shop (which stocks some of Jain’s furniture designs), the city’s res-idents can gather together for workshops focused on local history and culture.

Jain’s respect for the land on which he’s building sometimes extends to him using no mechanical tools on a project.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 32

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