Architect Rajat Sodhi opens up about his inventive 'earth-restorative' designs

The New Delhi based architect tells STIR how designers can build sustainably, and why there is a need for sustained design intervention to combat disease.

by Pallavi MehraPublished on : Apr 02, 2021

New Delhi, London, Beijing and Dubai-based architectural design studio Orproject explores computational design, innovative materials and novel digital fabrication techniques to develop an architectural practice that is inspired by nature. Rajat Sodhi and Christoph Klemmt, Directors of Orproject, have conceptualised the Bubbles Project, a smart, ecological infrastructure alternative to the poor AQIs in major global cities today. The Bubbles Project is a result of Sodhi losing a friend to cancer from the poor air quality in cities such as Delhi and Beijing. The project proposes the construction of enclosed parks that house botanical gardens with clean air and controlled temperatures, which can be connected to surrounding apartment buildings, offices and medical centres to ensure the reach of healthy air to people nearby. The geometry of the light-weight structural system has been generated using an algorithm, which simulates the development of veins in leaves or butterfly wings. The heating and cooling of the air is done through a ground source heat exchange system. Electricity for the project can be generated by solar cells integrated into the canopy surface.

Architect Rajat Sodhi discusses his inspirations, his design processes and the ultimate goal of his works such as the Bubbles Project.

Rajat Sodhi discusses his inspirations, his design processes and the ultimate goal of his works | Rajat Sodhi | Briana Blasko | STIRworld
Rajat Sodhi discusses his inspirations, his design processes and the ultimate goal of his works Image: Briana Blasko

Pallavi Mehra (PM): Please tell us a little about your journey as an architecture studio.

Rajat Sodhi (RS): I started Orproject, New Delhi in 2011. Back then I had moved to India from London and I was interested in exploring biomimetic and computational architecture in India. At the time there were very little resources and technical know-how available to make even the simplest digitally designed buildings possible. Even when we collaborated with architects and fabricators, it seemed that the technological skill set required for engaging with digital design and fabrication did not exist.

For almost a decade now, I set up a design and fabrication research unit at Orproject and we have engaged and skilled many architects and fabricators to make biomimetic architecture possible in India. We have collaborated with over 40 architects and fabricators, advised on technological acquisition and upgrades and built over 30 pavilions, installations, exhibitions and prototypes. Our work has been exhibited and published internationally at the London Design Festival, Venice Biennale, India Design Forum, Beijing Design Week, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Furniture Fair in Milan and at the China National Museum in Beijing amongst others.

Orproject envisions the Bubbles Project to be part of community projects or specialised buildings such as hospitals and schools | Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
Orproject envisions the Bubbles Project to be part of community projects or specialised buildings such as hospitals and schools Image: Courtesy of Orproject

PM: In the Bubbles Project, your latest proposed ecological infrastructure project, you have conceptualised a plan for enclosed parks that house botanical gardens with clean air and controlled temperatures. Could you tell us more?

RS: As many businesses in the world move away from earth-exploitative and earth-extractive business models to earth-regenerative and earth-restorative models, we also need a new model of architectural spaces to explore these opportunities. Bubbles is an ecological infrastructure project where botanical gardens with clean air and passively controlled temperature provides the opportunity for citizens to breathe clean air and for businesses to develop new earth-friendly models of practice by engaging with nature.

Additionally, the air quality has continued to deteriorate across all major Indian cities (with the exception of 2020 due to lockdown). This trend is likely to continue as Indian cities develop. Buildings and infrastructural projects are heavily reliant on the use of non-renewables and non-biodegradable materials and technologies for their construction and they contribute to 30 per cent of global carbon emissions. Therefore, we felt it was imperative to create sealed envelopes, which leverage existing green spaces and create spaces wherein clean air is not contaminated. We envision the Bubbles Project to be part of community projects or specialised buildings such as hospitals and schools that have a specific requirement for clean and natural air.

The structure of the Bubbles Project has been generated using an algorithm, which simulates the development of veins in leaves or butterfly wings| Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
The structure of the Bubbles Project has been generated using an algorithm, which simulates the development of veins in leaves or butterfly wings Image: Courtesy of Orproject

PM: Has anything similar to the Bubbles Project been proposed or built before?

RS: No. The closest would be ‘The Eden Project’ in Cornwall, which consists of two geodesic biomes that house a biodiversity research space. Previously, Buckminster Fuller also proposed to cover Manhattan in a dome to achieve 30 per cent reduction in energy, but this was never built.

PM: What inspires you to create the projects that you do?

RS: Nature. When you went to the forest the last time, was it not inspiring? It doesn’t take too long to realise that we know so little and there is so much to learn!

The Bubbles Project could be used to enclose community spaces such as restaurants as well | Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
The Bubbles Project could be used to enclose community spaces such as restaurants as well Image: Courtesy of Orproject

PM: Please talk about your process, both how you plan your designs and then how do you go about executing the work?

RS: At Orproject, we are a research-based architectural design practice. The research is carried out academically and professionally and our work is published in many academic journals and conferences across the world. Our process involves a lot of learning, questioning and going back and forth till we get it right. Once we have an idea, we create a catalog of iterations to find a fit that most represents the idea. From there we move to prototyping, which is known to be the most back and forth process in any field! This is a key stage as we are now able to define what the idea is, how we can translate it into form and what materials we can use to build it best. This gives us an exact idea of how much it would cost and how long it would take to deliver a project.

The Bubbles Project is very scalable and can range from a solution for a courtyard between buildings to covering acres of land | Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
The Bubbles Project is very scalable and can range from a solution for a courtyard between buildings to covering acres of land Image: Courtesy of Orproject

PM: What is the scope of possibilities for the realisation of the Bubbles Project?

RS: The Bubbles project can cost from INR 4,000 per square foot to INR 8,000 per square foot. The diverse levels of customisation and technology integration such as movable three layered ETFE panels to integrated photo-voltaic in the skin of the Bubbles gives the client and us many opportunities to innovate and develop project-specific solutions. In terms of size, it is very scalable and can range from a solution for a courtyard between buildings to covering acres of land. The impact however is always higher with scale.

PM: Why do you think that it’s important for sustained design intervention to combat disease as against “injective intervention” as has been in the course of COVID-19?

RS: Is it not good to make pre-emptive design interventions to avoid disease instead of waiting for a disease to happen and then make responsive design interventions? Isn’t prevention better than cure? Sometimes when prevention is not possible, we still do our best to secure ourselves no?

PM: Your projects always have an ecological agenda. What is the purpose for these installations and developments?

RS: The purpose of our projects and installations is to realise in material form our research into bio-mimetic architecture. We are pushing the limits for architectural geometries, construction materials and digital fabrication processes and each project and installation is a demonstrative result of our explorations. They are applications of new designs and fabrication technologies that we invent. We find ourselves creating new synergies between industries and experts to innovate and develop solutions that do not yet exist in the market. Therefore, the purpose of our work is to create a common collaborative ground where everyone can learn and experience the joys of architecture.

The Bubbles project can cost from INR 4,000 per square foot to INR 8,000 per square foot | Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
The Bubbles project can cost from INR 4,000 per square foot to INR 8,000 per square foot Image: Courtesy of Orproject

PM: How has the pandemic shaped your practice? Any new ideas/techniques you have adapted to?

RS: The pandemic has served as a long pause, an interval. During this time of isolation, a very small selected team of people at Orproject built our latest project Khoral. This was a 45-day long meditative process of repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again, about 15,000 times. Repetition is a very special part of design thinking as it exposes to us many things that are otherwise hidden to our own self. I am happy to answer this question, but to dwell into it would mean to discuss an entirely different, yet similar project! In brief, I would say we are wondering if we need to physically distance ourselves from nature? Have we gone too close? You know the story of Schopenhauer's Porcupines? Porcupines, in winter, snuggle close to each other to share warmth, but if they go too close, they end up hurting each other. Perhaps we also shouldn’t go too close to nature because we can’t stop ourselves from hurting it in the process? It is these kinds of questions that we are now exploring at the studio.

PM: Is there a need for design sensitivity in the face of climate change? How can architects and designers build sustainably?

RS: Of course. Would you say we are breathing clean air? Would you say the water we consume is clean? Would you say our actions have no bearings on the environment? How long designers and architects decide to take to get to these kinds of realizations and feel empowered to make change is up to them, but it is a universally agreed fact that the current trajectory of over-consumption is not good for the environment, even though it may be good for business.

Architects and designers can build sustainably by developing solutions that they believe are good for the environment and also good for business—i.e. earth-restorative and earth-regenerative. So far, many designers and architects have focused mostly on passive technologies to make buildings more sustainable. I believe we need to move beyond and do much more if we want to leave this planet a better place than we found it.

Electricity for the Bubbles Project can be generated by solar cells integrated into the canopy surface | Bubbles Project| Orproject | STIRworld
Electricity for the Bubbles Project can be generated by solar cells integrated into the canopy surface Image: Courtesy of Orproject

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