Edmund Sumner, Rob Gregory on the evolving contemporary Indian house

STIR engages in an inquisitive conversation with the photographer and author of Contemporary House India to gauge the essence of the modern Indian residence.

by Jincy Iype, Anmol AhujaPublished on : Oct 13, 2021

What forms the physical and spiritual notions of a house in contemporary India? What sensibilities of design would help transform it into a quintessential home?

Architectural photographer Edmund Sumner and writer, lecturer Rob Gregory examine more than 20 of the finest, most innovative, ambitious private residences designed by India’s most sought-after architects, including Matharoo Associates and Matra Architects, with their new compendium titled Contemporary House India. With an introductory interview with Pritzker Prize winning Indian architect BV Doshi prefacing the book, exclusive and unprecedented insight into India’s thriving scene of residential architecture within its layered contexts of climate, landscapes and history are explored and celebrated in detail.

Front cover of Contemporary House India by Rob Gregory and Edmund Sumner | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
Front cover of Contemporary House India by Rob Gregory and Edmund Sumner Image: © Thames & Hudson

The photographer and academic spoke with STIR about surveying the wide spectrum of modern Indian homes and their sensibilities, throwing light on the book’s curation and what constitutes the influences of these contemporary dwellings. Some excerpts from the interview:

STIR: How do you think the landscape of contemporary residences has changed in India over the years? Do you think that the story is better told through photographs, through pedagogy, or both?

Edmund Sumner (ES): I have only been shooting in India since 2008 so I cannot claim to be an expert, but it seems to me that homeownership is and always has been, of tantamount importance in the country. A similar notion shared with the UK, of one’s home as a castle, exists here. In terms of how they have changed or evolved, it seems quality and design aspirations have risen across the board. Stories told through words or pictures? Well, "a picture is worth 1000 words" goes the saying, but in my opinion, one needs the other. It is a symbiotic relationship where one draws, depends and augments another.

Rob Gregory (RG): The growth of the middle classes has led to many architect-designed privately commissioned homes, which have emerged as curated, specific spaces with purpose and realised architectural value.

  • The Lattice House by Sameep Padora, Kashmir, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    The Lattice House by Sameep Padora, Kashmir, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • The Flying House by Romi Khosla Design Studios, Dharamshala, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    The Flying House by Romi Khosla Design Studios, Dharamshala, India Image: © Edmund Sumner

STIR: What kind of insight did architect BV Doshi bring to the discussion, and why was it the perfect introduction to the book?

RG: Doshi is not easily impressed, so he brought a critical view on why people choose to build, and how. To display wealth, because they can? Or to help them live the lives that they have always dreamed of. Without being overarching in his approach, he touches upon the house being the unit of living, how modernist architects, the likes of Corbusier and Kahn have influenced the contemporary architecture of Indian residences, their evolution and their prevailing materiality.

One of Doshi’s observations that is carried through the book underlines the many aspects that play a role in designing the typical ‘Indian residence’.

How does each building respond to the client’s attitude to life? How do people want to live? And what does the Indian House tell us about the culture and aspirations of this fascinating nation? – BV Doshi

STIR: What kind of questions did you ask the architects whose projects you included in the book? Were they specific to the architects interviewed, their projects, philosophies, and styles, or did they cover a broader and more generic ground?

RG: They presented the thesis behind their project and the nature of their clients at a symposium I organised. Questions came from other contributors, students and myself. My role was to test how closely aligned these objectives were.

STIR: Is there a particular architect who comes to mind when you think of contemporary houses in India, and the new language they seem to have adopted over the years?

ES: There is not a particular name that springs to mind, but my lexicon of design mirrors my trips to India over the years, from looking at homes by Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad, The House with Balls by Matharoo Associates followed by the Jenga house designed by Verendra Wakhloo of Matra Architects.

RG: There is no set singular language. Craft is generally what unifies the multilayered approaches followed in contemporary Indian architecture.

  • The Wood House by Matra Architects, Uttarakhand, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    The Wood House by Matra Architects, Uttarakhand, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • Collage House by S and PS Architects, Navi Mumbai, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Collage House by S and PS Architects, Navi Mumbai, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • Belvali House by Studio Mumbai, Alibaug, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Belvali House by Studio Mumbai, Alibaug, India Image: © Edmund Sumner

STIR: What did the process of curation of the houses for the book entail? Did you also interact with the inhabitants of these homes, and did it lend another perspective?

ES: I was more sure what I did not want in the book than what I did - I was not interested in blingy, super-luxurious, mega-budget luxury houses; my pitch for the book was ‘brutal’, not ‘bling’.

RG: The relationship with the clients was discussed only from the architects’ perspectives.

STIR: Can you tell us more about the collaboration and what group or audience you had in mind while putting the book together?

ES:Rob and I have worked together on many projects over the years. When Rob was at Architectural Review, we co-produced two special issues on Japan (with my wife Yuki Sumner) and one on India. I tend to work on instinct and Rob leans on logic, so between us, we end up with something that works. This book was aimed at architects and design-conscious consumers.

RG: The audience as promoted through Thames and Hudson was broader than architects, looking to lifestyle interests as well as design interests.

Craft is generally what unifies the multilayered approaches followed in contemporary Indian architecture. – Rob Gregory

STIR: Even though the curation of the projects is quite diverse, did you find a connecting thread between the residences you finally settled on for the book? Did you have a checklist for projects that made it?

ES: There are many areas that we did not cover and I would have liked to have explored further south of Auroville, Bengaluru, among other areas. If there was a unifying thread it would be that these houses were the works of some of the most talented architects emerging in India today. There are, of course, many more studios I would have liked to include, but sadly budgets and time made it almost impossible.

RG: The summary of the 'Dilemmas of the architect' essay, part of the book's introduction perhaps best answers this, where I invited the featured architects to discuss their included works.

  • Moving Landscapes House by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Moving Landscapes House by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • Retreat in the Sahyadris by Khosla Associates, Maharashtra, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Retreat in the Sahyadris by Khosla Associates, Maharashtra, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • Lagoon Residence by Malik Architects, Alibaug, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Lagoon Residence by Malik Architects, Alibaug, India Image: © Edmund Sumner

STIR: Which one of the four categories from the book - Urban Living, Remote Villas, New Settlements, and Improvisation - spoke to you, and why? 

ES: I have long been fascinated by the Indian concept of jugaad (finding flexible ways to solve problems with limited or lack of resources) so seeing houses that celebrated improvisation, with moving walls controlled by repurposed TV remotes made me smile…

RG: New Settlements probably interested me most as this was largely on virgin ground. Peacemaking in this instance is key and it was interesting to witness that within the skin of architecture.

STIR: Having compiled the book, what would you say is the essence of a contemporary Indian house, if you were to answer in a single word?

ES: Family.

RG: Crafted.

STIR: What is the one thing you look for before settling on a frame to photograph? Is your process more organic (a lot of raw shots), or is it specific?

ES: I think of a shoot a bit like a game of snooker, where you are constantly thinking two or three shots ahead, and can only proceed when you have taken a certain key to establish shots. As always, luck definitely plays a role.

  • Fissured Living by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India | Contemporary House, India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Fissured Living by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • The Jenga House by Matra Architects, New Delhi, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    The Jenga House by Matra Architects, New Delhi, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • Brick House by Romi Khosla Design Studio, New Delhi, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Brick House by Romi Khosla Design Studio, New Delhi, India Image: © Edmund Sumner

STIR: While shooting the projects, how much influence do the architects hold and do they suggest certain areas and angles to capture? Conversely, in the absence of the architect or designer, does the brief from the client affect the choice of the frame? 

ES: The relationship between a photographer and an architect is a complicated one, on varied levels. With some architects, their inputs are beneficial while for others it is the exact opposite. For the book, I was my own client, so I was liberated from a typical commissioning process. I was shooting for the book, not for the architects.

STIR: How many of the chosen projects are your own creative interpretations, as opposed to being directed by the architect? 

ES: I chose all the projects in the book and tried to avoid being directed in any way.

STIR: The book seems to steer away from detailed, zoomed-in shots - was that intentional? If so, why?

ES: I was not involved in the layout image selection but was pleasantly surprised by it. In my opinion they chose the right images to illustrate the nature of the book, which also explains each project in great depth and also has architectural plans to augment the experience.   

  • Shadow House by Samira Rathod Design Associates, Alibaug, India | Contemporary House, India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    Shadow House by Samira Rathod Design Associates, Alibaug, India Image: © Edmund Sumner
  • House With Balls by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India | Contemporary House India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
    House With Balls by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India Image: © Edmund Sumner

STIR: What are your thoughts and learnings on shooting buildings in daylight as opposed to night-time photography aided by artificial lighting? In the context of 'Contemporary House, India', did you choreograph any additional lighting or is everything shot in natural light/ what are your reasons for refraining from capturing the forms in artificial light?

ES: India has some of the most beautiful, magnificent natural light I have ever seen. Architecture and photography are in agreement. It is all about light.

STIR: Hierarchies of perception – the human eye sees a human first, and then goes onto movement, pattern and settles finally on colour. As a photographer, where the human eye is replaced by a lens essentially, what is something you notice first?

ES: You would be aware of the visual decision-making process that previously would be seamless and instinctive, you may think about what you are looking at and why.

Rob Gregory (front left) photographed with some of the architects featured in Contemporary House India at CEPT, India (2018) | Contemporary House, India: Interview with Edmund Sumner and Rob Gregory | STIRworld
(L-R) Rob Gregory with architects Gurjit Singh Matharoo, Samira Rathod, Shilpa Gore-Shah, Pinkish Shah, Robert Verrijt, Martand Khosla, Alan Abraham, Verendra Wakhloo, Arjun Malik featured in the book, photographed at CEPT, India (2018)Image: Rob Gregory

The subject of Indian architecture, being the vastly perplexing matter that it is: searching for an identity, yet unlike any other, derivative mostly of a style and manner of building native to the South Asian subcontinent that in turn stems from a unique collusion of climatology, craftsmanship, and indigenous resources: begs critical definition and defies it at the same time. In the 21st century, that sensibility evolves to much more than ‘need’, as a new generation of architects juggle between establishing identities: of their own, and of the house, while attempting to satiate a population still waking up to the taste of luxury in residences, and a modernistic sensibility. The primeval notion of a home, compositing a shelter, especially in the Indian context, while still present, has decisively paved the way for a constantly morphing, yet established style that encompasses the contemporary Indian residence.

Words and visuals marry each other in a unique yet didactic arrangement in this collaboration between architectural text and photography in Contemporary House India. Expanding on the vastly interesting subject of the 'Indian residence': questioning typicality while enquiring trends in the space, the book presents an interesting concoction of names of architects and designers whose architecture adorns the pages of this compendium. In a country wherein residences could most oddly be representative of an architectural style or statement, a factor capable of building a ‘context’, the book shines a faint light on where we come from, and where we may be headed. 

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