by Anmol AhujaAug 31, 2021
I came across Sameep Padora's predominantly public works — they range from a homeless shelter, a library, schools, and community centres to housing developments, single-family houses, and a cricket stadium, most built in Maharashtra — and immediately loved how masterfully they combine local and alternative materials, traditional construction techniques, and modern sensibilities. These qualities of the architect’s already extensive oeuvre are explained by Padora’s exploratory thinking: "I enjoy the design process when it goes beyond a project brief."
To discuss the objectives, inspirations, and intentions behind the innovative architecture of sP+a, I reached out to the Indian architect directly. In the following interview over Zoom between New York and his Mumbai studio where he employs a team of 40 professionals, Sameep Padora explained what triggered his interest in pursuing architecture professionally, lessons he learned from Harvard, key guiding principles on which his studio operates, his thoughts on signature architectural styles and why he rejects them, the need of doubting everything, befriending (Balkrishna) Doshi, what defines Indian architectural identity, and why so few meaningful buildings were built in the country since 1991 when economic liberalisation was initiated.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): I read that the first time you admired architecture was on a family trip to the ruined medieval palaces of Mandu, in central India. How old were you then and was that also the time when you thought of becoming an architect or did that realisation come much later?
Sameep Padora (SP): I was 15 then. I was there with family and friends. It is such a beautiful place and I was there recently again. I am still completely enamoured with it. I remember being there with my cousins who were utterly bored out of their minds, but I instantly fell in love with it. I always loved reading about history and mythology. Mandu, in a way, connected me with the world that in my mind stayed continuous; you could sense the times and events walking through those buildings. By then I had an interest in not only architecture but also cinematography and archeology. Also, around that time, I was trekking in the Himalayan foothills, seeing houses built out of local materials, relying on ancient building techniques and conveying the sense of place. It was those experiences in Mandu and Himachal Pradesh that finally pushed me towards architecture. And what I like about architecture is that there is both cinematography and archeology in it — the idea of framing, context, and unearthing different layers in search of meanings. So, I felt that all my interests came together in architecture.
VB: You studied architecture at the Academy of Architecture in Mumbai, graduating in 1996. What did you do next and what led you to continue your studies abroad?
SP: Immediately after my graduation, I was asked to design a family store interior. During that period I had applied to Bartlett School of Architecture in London and SCI-Arc in Los Angeles and got into both but finally decided to go to SCI-Arc because I was interested in the work coming out of Southern California, particularly by Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss, and Frank Israel. It was a completely different time. This was also pre-internet, so I remember queuing in the library to get the newest issues of international magazines like Architectural Record, PA, etc., to see these architects' latest projects. Naturally, I wanted to go to the city where my heroes from that time worked.
I went to LA in 1999. But I only stayed there for one semester. I came back without completing the program because I felt that the work we did, had little to do with the context of the place that I came from and where I wanted to work. Those projects felt superficial to me. That was also a transitionary period for SCI-Arc when Rotondi just stepped down and Neil Denari took over. It was the time when Big Soft Orange exhibition was curated by Michael Speaks on young Dutch practices that were getting into prominence. While it was interesting, I did not see much relevance to my own context back home. So, in 2000, I came back to India to work here.
VB: On what kind of projects?
SP: I was asked by an acquaintance to work on a renovation of a resort in the mountains in Himachal Pradesh. I lived there for a while, working on that project. And I learned a lot both by designing and building that small project. Then I did a small temple, close to Mumbai near a vacation house that my family owned, a place that I had been visiting a lot. The locals from this area were planning to build a temple. On asking I was told that it was going to be built out of concrete. I was surprised because there was a lot of stone available nearby and we did not need to use concrete. They agreed but said that they didn’t know how to build with stone. That’s how I got involved. All the material was donated by a quarry owner, and the villagers donated their labour as devotion to working on the project during the time that their fields did not need tilling.
VB: In 2005, you went back to the US, this time to GSD, completing your Master of Design Studies the following year. How was that experience?
SP: What I was sure of by then is that I did not want to do a design-based studio anymore because I had done that earlier during undergrad in Mumbai, at SCI-Arc, and in the little opportunities in practice. I realised that while my work needed to respond to a very specific context I was interested in the question — what makes a context? What are its governing forces? The master’s in design studies program allowed me to take courses at other schools, including the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and MIT that were relevant to my interest. For example, I took courses in macro-finance and project finance, and how financing low-income housing worked in developing countries. It was fantastic and it gave me a broader understanding of the kind of context in which I was going to operate. I studied with incredible scholars, not with famous architects. I wasn’t interested in learning from those architects who were known for their incredible and groundbreaking work or for their signature architectural style. I wanted to study the background rather than the object.
VB: You came back after your graduation right away. Why?
SP: I was offered to work on a project in rural India, in Maharashtra. I found out about it when I was at GSD. So, once I graduated, I already knew I was going to go back and work on that project. It was a community centre for local farmers. That was not my personal project but a collaboration with a quasi-government organisation called IL&FS.
VB: Could you touch on how your studio in Mumbai operates?
SP: There are 40 of us here. Currently, all are Indians but from all over the country. We employ architects, researchers, and interior designers. In the studio we don’t really have a hierarchy; we talk, discuss, and everyone is involved in various aspects of the design process. Over the years we have come to operate in four main modes. One is a typical studio practice with commissions coming from our clients. The second format is a collaborative practice. India is so diverse — every 200 kilometers you may experience a dramatic change in how people speak and the kind of food they it. So, to know a local context well you need to collaborate with locals. These agencies and individuals inform us about working in their communities and hence help develop a more appropriate project. The third model is of the collective, a group we formed with five other practices looking to do public projects. This think-tank is called Bandra Collective [named after a coastal suburb of Mumbai]. We work with local municipalities and resident groups on a pro-bono basis designing public projects. Working on these projects we forget about our egos and authorship. And lastly, the fourth model of our practice is research not just to inform our projects but to build a knowledge base that could be shared with others. These four models of our practice are entirely symbiotic and fluid.
VB: I like the variety of approaches and solutions in your work. There seems to be a conscious quest to find and express new ideas every time. This idea of a building as a landscape in your library, at least in this form of an undulating walkable surface, was used just once in your already extensive portfolio, right?
SP: Absolutely because I am trying to learn from every project. Otherwise, I feel like it is an opportunity missed. And not only do I want to learn new construction techniques, but I also want to learn something about each place. No two sites are going to be similar and the people involved in each project are different. And every time I start a new project, I am not exactly the same person. I grow intellectually through experience over time, so that leads to very different solutions. And more to the point, stylistic continuity in architecture does not interest me. I am interested in the opportunities that each project presents. Every time potential clients ask me for something similar to what I already did elsewhere I tell them from the start that it is very unlikely that we will come to a similar design. What I can promise is that every new project will be unique to its place. So many times, already after we did an initial design, just by starting to work on the site our ideas may change drastically. We try not to be committed to any design ideas. Everything needs to be tested. One of my most important design strategies is to doubt everything.
VB: As you said, "Doubt has been the only consistent part of my process. It would not be wrong to say that negotiating this singular condition is the pivotal design operation for almost every project I have worked on.”
SP: That is so true. I am constantly unsure of everything we do and keep testing my ideas until the very end of construction. That was the case with Maya Somaya Library as well. We were thinking about how to insert a window under the roof’s curved profile. In the end, all windows were lined up along the edges and their frames were used as part of the structure. This idea of questioning is now embedded in our practice and it is very much encouraged. The idea is to resolve this doubt till the project becomes the only version that it can be. I am very grateful to Doshi Sir who when speaking to him about the struggle in evolving projects told me how important this idea of doubt is, that he himself would iterate through many versions of a project, many times unsure of an idea’s validity. This was very comforting for me to hear this from him. I thought — well if someone of Doshi Sir’s stature has to deal with doubt then who am I to complain? [Laughs.]
VB: How did you meet him? Do you have an ongoing dialogue?
SP: Who doesn’t want to meet Doshi?! [Laughs.] His energy, enthusiasm, and insights are inspiring. I have been fortunate in the past to interact a bit with him. The first time I spoke to him was in 2010 when an architect friend of mine, who is close to Doshi was showing him around Mumbai. By then, I had only done a small restaurant called Indigo Deli in central Mumbai. They were passing this place and Doshi saw it. He asked who designed it and even insisted on calling me and passing him the phone. That call was completely out of the blue. [Laughs.] He was very kind and complimentary and said that when he comes to Mumbai next time, he wanted to see my studio. He kept his word, so when he came to the studio with our mutual friend Sarita, he walked through all four levels of the space, stopping to ask so many questions with his childlike infectious enthusiasm. He spent time speaking to people in the studio over lunch, and walked around my studio’s urban village neighbourhood, enquiring about the socio-cultural history of the people living there. It was fantastic. Now I talk to him often and have visited him in Ahmedabad a few times, though not as often as I would like.
VB: Let’s talk about the role of craftsmanship in your work. You said that you want to see craft as something that’s evolving rather than static. How so?
SP: Each craft is defined by its time. We can’t simply use the same tools in the exact same ways as they were used 200 years ago. Sociologist and urbanist Richard Sennet spoke about how a craft is also a function of its time. As tools evolve, so should the craft. And they can evolve into a combination of old or ancient techniques with modern ones. I am against the idea that craftsmen should continue doing what their fathers and grandfathers used to do in the exact same ways, despite the advent of technology. That is a regressive and, in a way, colonial model of practice.
VB: Do you employ craftsmen in your office?
SP: No, I don’t and one of the reasons is that I like working with different teams depending on the kind of skills we need for a particular project. I want to avoid situations where one becomes too comfortable or familiar with a particular technique or working with a particular material. I think familiarity leads to a sense of comfort that I want to avoid. This tradition of bringing new people to projects pushes me to think beyond the limits of my own knowledge /experience and to experiment. Of course, there are some exceptions to that rule, and we have worked repeatedly with some contractors with whom we have had a good experience. In our Sienna Apartments in Hyderabad, we worked with brick masons from Pondicherry in South India, we pushed them outside of their comfort zone as much as we could. To ensure the structural integrity of the building’s rippling brick façade wall corbelling, we developed low-tech wooden templates with masons. These templates allow for the corbelling to happen with accuracy and also helped add a methodology into the lexicon of the masons' craft, hence pushing its evolution too. In this project for us, the design of the tools was as important as designing the building.
VB: Is there such a thing as Indian identity in architecture?
SP: One thing that defines Indian practice is that our institutional structure is very loose. It allows you to work in ways not constrained by frameworks of licensing that you see in the western world. It is easy to start practicing here. There is no licensing exam, once you graduate from college, you get your registration and start your practice. This is both a good and a bad thing. This looseness allows us to experiment quite freely to be responsive to very specific situations and that perhaps point towards a certain attitude and visual language that can be identified as Indian. This nature of practice is, of course, limited in scale and there is still a large part of development, new cities, neighbourhoods, and buildings being designed (by Indian firms and big foreign firms) that could be anywhere.
VB: Is there one particular building built in India since the turn of the century that can be identified as the most important in the country?
SP: One building that I always liked is Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal by Charles Correa. Perhaps not as well-known as his other works but it is a beautiful project, wonderfully integrated with the land that it is built on. IIM Bangalore by Doshi is fantastic as well, I recently visited the building and was blown away by how nature and architecture have come to coexist. But both these were built in the 1980s. And I tend to think that our best examples were built before 2000. This could be because of the huge investments that started coming to the country in 1991 post-economic liberalisation. That’s when so much of what Rahul Mehrotra has called "impatient capital" came focused on immediate returns. That produced lots of development opportunities but few good results. This was an adjustment period during which there were practices still operating with more intimate and perhaps exclusive scales. For instance, Studio Mumbai and its houses with a focus on materiality and craft and a practice model of the master builder. Mehrotra’s practice with its focus on how to look at the city through research and publications was hugely inspirational for me personally. Unfortunately, there are very few design competitions for public projects, and there is no real framework or structure that ensures transparency and due process. I think, our most important references will be, for the time being, the masters, Doshi and Correa. No one yet can replace their significance.
VB: So, if I ask you to name the leading and most influential living architect in India, would that be Doshi?
SP: No question about it! [Laughs.]