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Rahul Bhushan of North studio on running an architectural practice in the mountains

Rahul Bhushan of Himachal-based collective North discusses the intuitive trajectory of his practice, cues to the region's recent flash floods, and the power of vernacular architecture.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Sep 01, 2023

It was in the year 2013 that I first visited Naggar, a quiet hamlet in the northern mountainous region of Himachal Pradesh in India. I was there with a friend to document the ancient homes and temples constructed in the Kathkuni style of architecture. A vernacular practice of building with local stone and wood, structures dotting the region stood out surreally for me against their contemporary siblings—the proliferating homestays, cafes, and souvenir shops constructed in cement and concrete. I still remember our early morning hike to the Gauri Shankar temple, perched at the seemingly highest spot of the village and cloaked by towering pine and deodar trees. Ankle-deep snow covered the winding paths, and a local furry puppy joined us as we excitedly made our way up. Contrary to Manali, a popular hill station located 22 kilometres above Naggar that thousands of tourists visit every day, what I witnessed unravel before me was an exceptionally magical terrain. Nothing close to the places I have been since could contest that view.

A decade later, Himachal’s Manali, Kullu, and other closer towns are witnessing what could be deemed as one of the worst climate crisis the country has ever seen. Incessant rains and floods are causing landslides leading to heavy collapse of roads, bridges, buildings, and ecology. What used to be the definition of a ‘getaway’ for the people of northern India has turned into a scare as habitations are being washed off in a bewildering surrender to nature.

I got a chance to connect with Rahul Bhushan, the founder of Himachal-based collective North to discuss cues that led to this nature’s fury, in addition to unpacking his journey of setting up an alternate practice in the hills. Following are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Moments at North| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Moments at North Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra Khan: Why the name North? Is there a story to it?

Rahul Bhushan: While searching for different names, numerous ideas came to my mind, but they all seemed to restrict the vision I had. What I truly desired was a name with a highly abstract nature. I firmly believe that the term "North" holds a special significance for an Indian audience and evokes a sense of openness, particularly associated with the mountains. This connection operates on a subconscious level, resonating deeply with people while symbolising an upward direction in life. Much like the font "Helvetica”, which remains neutral yet allows the content to take centre stage, our abstract name serves a similar purpose. It provides ample room for interpretation and meaning, enabling it to resonate with our ventures and aspirations as they unfold.

Zohra: I can’t help but connect the word to a personal compass. Do you also associate it that way?

Rahul: Absolutely. It’s a direction in life for me.

Documentation activities at North | North | Himachal Pradesh | STIRworld
Documentation activities at North Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: How do you operate an architectural practice in the mountains? Does it differ in certain ways from a practice in the city or are there no boundaries?

Rahul: I think it's very different. Beyond interships, I haven't worked in a formal corporate architectural environment. During my internships, I had the opportunity to visit various offices and I noticed that the prevailing notion revolved around being confined within a building and spending most of the time in front of a computer screen. In my opinion, this doesn't align with what architecture is truly meant to be.

Later, I had the opportunity to attend CEPT and NID in Ahmedabad where the culture and environment of these institutions left a lasting impression on me. From college, I went directly into creating North centre keeping in mind that our practice should reflect what we learned in the design school. Workshop areas, open spaces for relaxation, and artistic corners such as small sheds dedicated to pottery or woodworking were crafted at North, drawing cues from the spaces that got our creative juices flowing while we were in school.

Our studio space also lacked windows and doors initially, it was just like a shed. However, due to harsh winters here in Himachal, we had to add fenestrations to the walls. I would say the studio and the design practice are very different from conventional architecture. When we had started North, people here in the village didn’t know what architecture was. To make them understand that it is a campus that conducts artistic collaborations and research on vernacular architecture while engaging professionals and students was quite a challenge. For several years, many of them thought it was a hotel that we were running.

Team discussions | North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Team discussions Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: Do you work independently or in a team?

Rahul: About half of our team consists of interns who join us for four to six months. Occasionally, we also welcome applications from fresh graduates interested in our internship program. The studio's unique way of life and practice sets it apart from conventional experiences. When interns come on board, they can see if our environment suits them, and likewise, we assess if they are a good fit for our team. This journey involves a lot of learning and unlearning, as they adapt to our distinctive approach. One of the most significant distinctions is that everyone resides on the campus itself. There's no need to search for separate accommodations elsewhere.

Currently, we have two architects, a filmmaker-writer, and two interns working in visual communication. We also have dedicated site supervision teams that are currently being run by two fresh engineering graduates, and alongside them, we have five to six interns contributing to the site projects. We also have someone who oversees construction management for the studio and ensures smooth operations across various aspects of our projects.

Zohra: It's interesting that you are referring to the space as a campus.

Rahul: It's more than just an office for me. It is a campus where the ultimate vision of our work takes shape and comes to life.

Rahul from his childhood, a picture taken in Shimla| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Rahul from his childhood, a picture taken in Shimla Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: What was your childhood like? Do you recall the first time you encountered a piece of architecture that greatly inspired you or perhaps awfully bothered you? 

Rahul: Growing up, my childhood was spread across various regions of Himachal Pradesh. I was born in Shimla, and my early years were spent there and in Kangra, both are districts in Himachal Pradesh. I remember being a very introverted child with low confidence. I have vivid memories of our best pastime during childhood, which involved clearing a patch of land in the forest to make space for a little temple. And every day we would do just that but in different areas in the woods. We would sit there, and it held a unique charm for me, even back then.

Our house was near the mall road in Shimla and during evening walks with my grandfather I used to love observing the old heritage buildings that dotted the area. Growing up as we shifted to New Shimla, I was appalled by what was done in the name of construction. The charm of history and heritage was lost. If you visit the old heritage area near Manali, you can't help but appreciate the impeccable planning and the overall beauty of the place. It has a certain standard and a base to draw from, but what you rather come across are monotonous, life-less spaces. What used to largely be built of stone and survived hundreds of years was taken over by concrete retaining walls with smaller lifespans. In my free time, I used to imagine how the area could be made better.

Zohra: Just a curious thought: what would you say is the current state of Shimla?

Rahul: I can say it is very saturated right now. When addressing government policymakers or the town planning department, it becomes essential to be direct and assertive. We need to clarify that there have been serious oversights and a lack of thorough consideration in their decisions. Despite this, I believe numerous possibilities exist to rectify and improve the situation. Surprisingly, some individuals in these positions have spent their entire lives in Shimla and yet have not fully grasped the potential for positive change and improvement.

Zohra: Looking back to your student years, was going back to your roots a distinct goal that you carried along? Or did it happen much later?

Rahul: Nowadays students already know what they want to pursue by mid-school years but my situation was different. Our family predominantly consists of engineers, and in Himachal Pradesh, people didn’t consider architecture a mainstream profession.

Till class 12, I never considered architecture as a career option. In my mind, I was a little hopeless thinking an average student like me could only land into a private university pursuing something that I may never like. My family suggested I drop a year to prepare for engineering entrance exams. However, by chance, I appeared for the AIEEE entrance exam for architecture and passed it quite gloriously. I got third position in Himachal Pradesh and ranked between 500 and 600 in India; the result opened doors to some of the most reputed institutions in India for me. Funny enough, my family was still not convinced but I somehow managed to get them on board. My interest in buildings, settlements, mountains, and architectural development was quite evident. The fact that I attained the third rank in Himachal Pradesh without any prior preparation further solidified my belief in following my instincts. This experience marked the first significant decision I made for myself, based purely on my intuition. Since then, I have continued to make instinct-based decisions, including establishing and developing North, where these innate feelings drive every choice.”

Zohra: Has the leap of faith paid off? 

Rahul: I had a strong sense of confidence from the very beginning, and I can't quite explain why. It might be connected to my philosophical outlook. Since the day I made the decision to pursue architecture, my confidence has only grown, and it continues to guide me to this day.

Zohra: What were the beginnings like when you established North?

Rahul: It was a remarkably organic experience, and it started with just one person—myself. I decided to live in the village to understand and imbibe the simple local lifestyle, culture, and moral values of people living here. I was in a place without electricity, and the experience of working alone and meeting and interacting with the locals was quite influential in making me one with the place.

During the initial year, a few friends, locals, and foreign exchange students volunteered for various activities. Additionally, we hosted an artist residency program that welcomed participants from the UK, London, India, and Australia. Perhaps it was the charm of our studio building, situated in the forest, which got all of us together. From growing our own food to using hammams (steambaths) in place of conventional geysers contributed to experiencing the slow life of mountains.

A quiet corner at North studio; pictured in the early days of practice | North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
A quiet corner at the North studio, in the early days of practice Image: Courtesy of North

The practice progressed through gradual investments and development, following its own natural course. I decided not to take on any traditional architecture projects during my first few days at the studio. Instead, my focus was on continuously moving from one place to another, restoring buildings, fixing spaces, and then handing them over to the government. This approach involved a lot of research, which prompted me to initiate workshops and internship programs. As we progressed, we started welcoming more interns to participate in our programs. We ensured that the research topics we provided offered fresh perspectives and were not easily found on the internet.

Additionally, we delved into ecotourism, establishing it as a parallel initiative alongside our main projects. The trend of homestays is becoming increasingly popular, and it has the potential to facilitate a significant shift in the way we approach our projects. I contemplated this idea, and gradually, it led me to explore culturally-rooted activities such as extraction of gutti ka tel (apricot oil), farming, handloom, and pickle making. To this day, our focus extends beyond architecture alone. We not only create architectural designs but also venture into crafting furniture, providing training for artists, and engaging in public interventions. This multifaceted approach allows us to express our creativity and contribute to various spheres.”

Of conversations and collaborations| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Of conversations and collaborations Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: Who would you say has hugely inspired your creative journey?

Rahul: In Himachal Pradesh, one individual who I find extremely inspiring is Didi Contractor. Despite facing many challenges, she made a remarkable impact. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us. I also look up to Thomas Heatherwick. While the final outcome may differ in each context, I resonate with his thought process of critically examining challenges and then creatively crafting solutions.

Dhajji cabin, the first project by North that has been built on the studio campus | North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Dhajji cabin, the first project by North that has been built on the studio campus Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: How is North studio designed?

Rahul: North has allocated 60 per cent of the land as open space, half is covered in forest and the other half is cultivated as an orchard. This design fosters a creative and welcoming atmosphere, reminiscent of the campuses I admired. We have constructed only a few buildings in two or three smaller areas within the campus. One section houses the studio, while another is dedicated to the artist workshop, a sizable semi-open space. Additionally, I built a Dhajji cabin right on the main campus to showcase how old wood and stone can be skilfully repurposed with minimal impact on the environment. Elsewhere, there is the main building, the original house that was already present on the site. The entire campus has evolved organically, blending harmoniously with its surroundings and reflecting our commitment to sustainable practices.

Zohra: Your work deals with intervening in some of the most gorgeous landscapes. How do you visualise your NEW and what is the process like? Do you sometimes feel guilty about touching these terrains? I wonder how you tread this dichotomy.

Rahul: I experience guilt when we lack complete control over a project, especially when we come across projects where some aspects have already been altered or manipulated by others. For instance, if a piece of land has been flattened before we get involved, it can limit our ability to apply certain design principles.

In the past, there were instances where we felt we could have provided better solutions for certain projects, but for various reasons, it didn't come to fruition. However, in the last year, I have consciously decided to focus solely on new build projects that involve working with barren and untouched pieces of land, offering a sense of satisfaction, and eliminating any feelings of guilt.

Of intervening in untouched terrains | North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Of intervening in untouched terrains Image: Courtesy of North

The approach we adopt for these projects centres around using materials like wood and stone, sculpting the landscape to create structures that feel like a natural extension of the environment. Being entirely naturally built, these constructions have zero impact on the land, making them carbon-negative and more environmentally friendly. This conscious choice allows us to contribute positively to the environment while pursuing our passion for architecture.

  • Entrance to the Dhajji cabin| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
    Entrance to the Dhajji cabin Image: Courtesy of North
  • Interiors of the Dhajji cabin| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
    Interiors of the Dhajji cabin Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: What has been your favourite project so far?

Rahul: I think it has to be the Dhajji cabin that we built on our campus but there are even better ones coming up.

The intertwining of local wisdom and formal education| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
The intertwining of local wisdom and formal education Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: Collaboration with local craftsmen is key to North. Could you elaborate on how the natives contribute to projects beyond building architecture?

Rahul: These craftsmen (kaarigar) are an integral part of our design team. They work from our studio space and often guide interns. Together they collaborate on planning various projects. For instance, if we had to build a cantilever somewhere, I might propose a design approach, but the ideas are frequently generated collectively. My role is to align everyone towards a common direction where we can share our thoughts. Despite everyone having their own unique ideas, they all display curiosity, enthusiasm, and creativity. To my astonishment, they have now aligned with one another.

I also emphasise training programs for the workers on-site, providing them with tools, supplies, and even health and educational support for their families through the foundation. This way, we aim to make a positive impact not just through the design but also on the lives of those involved in the project.

Where craft is culture| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Where craft is culture Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: What are some of the most significant challenges of running North in the mountains?

Rahul: There is a general misconception of the people living in the mountains that an architect only has the expertise of designing a building but not in construction. Our practice constantly defies this notion; we are not only designers but also the makers of a place. Two of the biggest constraints are to be cost-effective and time-effective. Cost-effectiveness only comes into consideration while the project is being built on-site. It is marked by real-time decisions around what type of wood is to be used, its applications, and from where it can be sourced. Nothing is standardised. It’s a real-time play on site where decisions are made keeping in mind the needs of every project.

Another challenge is the cost estimation for each project. Unlike regular concrete construction where standardised rates are available in the market, doing this type of work that involves local wood and stone in a remote region such as ours is quite unorganised. Here again, our approach follows on-site decisions while regional research continues to be done in the background. This research helps us in assessing if there are raw materials available around the site that can be reused, or if materials for the project can be sourced from the site itself.

Kathkuni architecture of Naggar, a quiet hamlet in Himachal Pradesh| North | Himachal Pradesh, India | STIRworld
Kathkuni architecture of Naggar—a quiet hamlet in Himachal Pradesh Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: Overshadowed by Manali which has largely lost its charm due to over-commercialisation, Naggar sits as a quiet hamlet in the hills. How has the village evolved over the years since you settled here?

Rahul: If you visit now, you will notice the emergence of new buildings, particularly RCC constructions. This is an inevitable occurrence. Barring the forest-protected area in the upper regions of Naggar, people are increasingly converting their private lands into homestays, thus densifying the village. What used to be a terrain dotted by countless farmlands, today almost every other orchard has a homestay set within it.

Zohra: What are your thoughts on the current state of Himachal Pradesh, particularly the devastation in Manali caused by incessant rains?

Rahul: Flash floods, landslides and earthquakes may happen anytime. These have happened in the past and will happen in the future. People have built houses and commercial buildings, even national highways are built by the government on the course of the river, which is very ignorant of the fact that one day the river will claim back its way, and then nothing could be done. We are seeing it happening this time.

In the past 25 years, I have only seen unorganised construction of concrete constructions in Himachal, most of them without consulting architects or engineers, and unfortunately ignoring any guidelines or norms of town planning. This is also because of corrupt systems. The town planning department has been weak in ensuring that guidelines are followed. On top of it, I have never witnessed a village being designed for development, and no contextual research on how and where the development should happen. Hill stations are over-packed with buildings, and many villages are haphazardly growing without any norms or zones, or planning. This has resulted in unorganised rampant construction on the mountains which is neither structurally strong nor does it have proper setbacks and zoning.

I feel we must make it right before it’s too late. We must learn from our traditional techniques and research, develop systems of town planning and construction, and take that knowledge and skills forward to build in today’s time.

A moment in Naggar| North | Himachal Pradesh | STIRworld
A moment in Naggar Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: How has Naggar received the impact of incessant rains and floods?

Rahul: Naggar did not have any destruction. The village did not see any landslides or problems like flooding. This is because Naggar is a very old settlement, and it holds the wisdom of settlement patterns that are suitable for mountains. The village is away from the river basin too. One basic saying our ancestors always said is that never build anything along the river basin and only settle where the mountains have rocky terrain and stable topography of the land.

  • Diyar project | North | Himachal Pradesh | STIRworld
    Diyar project Image: Courtesy of North
  • Jana trails | North | Himachal Pradesh | | STIRworld
    Jana trails Image: Courtesy of North

Zohra: What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?

Rahul: Our team is actively engaged in the Rohtang-Ropeway project, which stands at a remarkable altitude of 13,300 metres above sea level. This is an extensive undertaking, and we are fortunate to have secured the opportunity. Our primary objective with this project is to minimise any adverse impact on the surrounding natural environment and local flora.

We are also involved in several residential projects where we emphasise using locally available materials such as wood, mud, and stone. This approach aligns with our sustainability values and promotes a connection with the region's resources. I am also working on several cabin-scale projects.

Zohra: What is NEXT for you?

Rahul: I am planning to buy a piece of land for my 'dream campus' and have a goal to complete it within the next three years. The plan is to develop a larger model of our existing NORTH campus and integrate its essence into this new project.

Tell us…

  • What does home mean to you?
  • Rahul: Mountains
  • How do you unwind?
  • Rahul: Engaging in jam sessions with a guitar, or sitting in the meadow, appreciating the beauty of a sunset.
  • A philosophy you live by…
  • Rahul: Being righteous.
  • If not an architect, what would you want to be?
  • Rahul: Maybe a carpenter, painter, or a farmer.
  • Three people from the architecture and design discipline who you’d like to invite to your centre…
  • Rahul: I would extend an invitation to Thomas Heatherwick and express my wish for him to visit Himachal Pradesh if he comes to India. The other two would be Anupama Kundoo and Vinu Daniel—both of whose works I greatly admire.
  • An advice you want to give your younger self…
  • Rahul: To have trust in who you are.
  • An advice for students of architecture…
  • Rahul: Your architectural education is not the only measure of getting you a job. Invest in genuine learning and own your individuality.
  • The most rewarding or liberating thing about your practice…
  • Rahul: The vision and idea behind my work extend far beyond my own lifespan.
  • Your dream project?
  • Rahul: My dream is to design an artistic campus in Himachal Pradesh, distinct from conventional institutional setups. What I want to showcase here is how life can be enhanced by integrating local wisdom and contextual knowledge.

What do you think?

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