Interview with Robert Verrijt on Indian and Dutch Design

mumbai panoram interview dutch design article
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Architecture + Design sat down with Robert Verrijt to have an extended talk with him about a variety of subjects that come up on the way “between Delft and Mumbai”.  Large scale European architecture companies have been moving into Mumbai over the last decade more and more to develop various projects. Indian architecture companies however have also been increasing, in size, in volume and in projects. While Mumbai is growing rapidly, the two architectural worlds seem somewhat distanced from each other. The young architecture practice Architecture BRIO fits right in between these two worlds. Not 100% European and not 100% Indian. Architecture + Design sat down with Robert Verrijt to have an extended talk with him about Indian and Dutch design and architecture, and a variety of subjects that come up on the way “between Delft and Mumbai”.

What was your motivitation of starting a practice in India?

I received my architecture education in the Netherlands during a period where Super Dutch architecture dominated in the classrooms and more importance was given to new design concepts then to the act of building. I enjoyed the design process taught there, which was witty and intellectual, but it seemed to miss soul and emotion. It was therefore that I chose to work for several years after my study in Colombo, Sri Lanka at Channa Daswatte’s office, who had just started his own career after being a partner in Geoffrey Bawa’s practice until the latter death.

Here the opposite design practice prevailed: the isolated location of Sri Lanka and its natural richness assumed an attitude where the materiality, light and experiential characteristics of architecture and its surroundings were instead celebrated. The construction site was the drawing board and drove the design process, rather than a concept. This appealed to me, and it moved me to stay in the subcontinent. I decide to set up my practice together with my partner Shefali Balwani in her hometown Mumbai.

Apart from being your partners hometown, is there any other reasons why you are specifically located in Mumbai?

Mumbai is a city located on a peninsula on the west coast of India that acts as a bridge between India and the world. It gives us precisely the right ingredients to practice an architecture which deals with global issues through a strong conceptual approach and benefit from the joys of working within a tradition of craft and workmanship. Mumbai has a thoroughly Indian identity, but is on the other hand, a world apart from rural India. The locations of the projects currently in the office reflect a balance between urban sites and rural, which by the way are rapidly urbanizing as well.

Although your partner is Indian and your practice is based in India, does your work still reflect your Dutch background?

Mainstream architectural production in India is bold, eclectic, festive and full of aspiration of a new modern world. Many clients demand a unique iconic building with vibrant colors and an assembly of shapes and forms fashioned in imported styles. Our work, situated in this context searches for uniqueness in a different way. It becomes unique through a celebration of the ordinary. We are interested in the ordinary because it talks about how people live, what works, and what doesn’t, and what should be improved. The work starts with the search for a concept, which is appropriate for its location and brief. The organization of program, which in most architectural practices in India forms the driving force of the design exercise, is instead interpreted and tweaked with the intent to support the concept.

Could you illustrate that with an example from your own practice?

This is clearly reflected in our project ‘house by a river’. Here the concept enhances the positive characteristics of the site. It is located on a steep hillock with a small flat plateau and faces a river meandering in a lush landscape. The project responds to this condition by increasing the surface area of the flat land, by tucking the house half inside the hill below a blanket of grass. With all three facades looking over the river landscape, and thermally insulated by the grass roof on the terrace it both optimizes the advantage of a superb view at the top of the hill as well as creates an extra area for entertainment and play on the roof. Rather than displaying a certain opulence, often associated with these types of weekend houses, this project almost disappears into its surroundings.

A quest for an Indian cultural identity forms the basis of most of the architecture in India today. In the period after independence this quest was fueled by a determination to get rid of it’s colonial past. But both in the academic circuit as well as the media and popular opinion it remains a topic of discussion. Indian cities are increasingly becoming centers connected to the global network with a type of global corporate architecture that starts dominating its skylines. Some are pleased with the first signals that Mumbai might become like Shanghai, and others cry out for a different direction in which the uniqueness of Mumbai remains a quality. How is your work related to this question of identity?

In our practice we are aware of this tendency, however it does not play a major role, since we believe that culture is something very fluid. India, or at least urban India, is undergoing a rapid transformation. The influences of foreign media, lifestyles and an increased exposure creates a variety of new subcultures, which are very different from what is seen elsewhere. Although regrettably all over India thousands of local traditions, languages, crafts, and workmanship do deteriorate, new skills and new traditions also evolve.
Architecture BRIO operates within this realm of a changing world. However, at the same time Indian culture is reflected in our work. Even if we would try very hard for our projects to be ‘not Indian’ or let’s say ‘Dutch’, it would be impossible just because of the climate, people or the construction industry in which we operate.

Does the same apply for the projects you have been doing outside of India?

With all our projects we strive to say something about the character of the place. In our winning EUROPAN competition entry, designed with Floris Cornelisse for a residential complex in Enschede in the Netherlands, the configuration expressed a robustness and massiveness referring to the industrial past of this former textile town. We felt a certain cohesiveness had to be created between all the urban fragments surrounding the complex. By remodeling the conventional proportions of a residential building block and reworking the plan typologically to fit in those blocks, the project, maybe at a subconscious level, started belonging to the city. Our projects in India similarly have elements which are very specific to its context.

Could you relate this method with your project for an NGO in Karjat?

This project is a design of an outdoor learning campus for underprivileged children, and is located in a valley below the Karjat Dam. The design of the dormitory derives its typology from that of a colonial missionary bungalow. This typology native to the Indian Bengali region and transformed by the British, responded to the local climate by its large shaded verandas promoting ample ventilated spaces.
Other than its climatic function, the other purpose the veranda served was that of a place for relaxation and socializing. To keep within budget the building plan needs to be compact. The linear plan of the missionary bungalow allows for an efficient way of distributing private spaces along a common veranda, where people can interact. In order to reduce the footprint of the building, a two-storey section proved to be the most efficient. By placing half of this structure on stilts on the edge of a ridge, an extra covered space is created for recreational purposes. This continuous veranda surrounding the building on all sides, allowed us to integrate the construction material of bamboo with the functional aspects of the building.However, the typology was reinvented. Where in the missionary bungalow the structural frame is placed on the inside of the veranda, and the columns surrounding the veranda merely support the roof, in this project the columns are proposed to be made of bamboo carry the whole weight of the building. By placing the columns on the periphery, the joints, which in bamboo construction are the most critical and complicated, were isolated from the infill construction, which allowed for a floor plan that could be organized freely. The spatial experience through the building is therefore full of surprises.

The interior of the dormitory would reveal itself as one moves through the building. A staircase cutting through the building, frames the exterior beyond, creating interplay between inside and outside. This staircase leads you down to a large double height recreational space. Suspending the two-storey structure over the ridge creates this space below. The top floor is surrounded on all sides by a veranda. Along the colonnaded passage the dormitory rooms are located. At the end of the passage a large shaded deck overlooks a most spectacular view over the trees, towards the Matheran mountain range in the distance.
The public circulation and verandas would occupy the interstitial spaces between the external bamboo columns and the internal mass. The large covered verandas and the relatively narrow width of the building envelope allow for comfortably ventilated and shaded semi-indoor spaces. The bamboo enclosure creates a dialogue between the interior and the dramatically changing landscape.

Do you think that climate of Mumbai has any influence on the way you design of conceive spaces?

Indians love air conditioning. A quarter of the year the weather is indeed too hot to handle. However the rest of the year a comfortable temperature and breeze makes the outdoor very pleasant. Something which is increasingly hard to do in urban areas (since people have become too accustomed to air conditioning – the buildings don’t allow for windows to be opened) is to maintain a strong relationship with the outdoors. In all our designs therefore the distribution of enclosed air-conditioned areas and outdoor areas whether in the form of a courtyard or verandas play a major role.
In the clubhouse situated in a dense urban locality of Mumbai our aim was to create a structure surrounded by courtyards in which the existing trees would be highlighted. We insisted that all rooms have large open-able windows or sliding folding doors. For example the lounge room dividing two of the courtyards has large glass sliding doors shaded by the abundant surrounding foliage, such that in the comfortable seasons the spaces of the two courtyards could become one space used for parties and gatherings.
We are curious to see how many times of the year the air-conditioning will be actually used in the clubhouse and hope that the energy consumption will be dramatically less than in conventional club buildings.

Construction update - Clubhouse

The Dutch construction industry is highly organized and regulated. Does the availability of materials or construction methods in India restrict you in any way? Or does the less regulated, evolving construction industry in India allow you instead more freedom?

Nowadays there is a great variety of materials and products available in the market. However the highly sophisticated products or intelligent building systems are mostly out of bounds for our projects since they have to be especially imported. On the other hand raw materials such as a variety of natural stones, or for example bamboo are very affordable. Good workmanship is still available but has its price, since a lot of the skilled labor has moved to the Middle East.
Our proposal for the staff dormitory of an NGO at the Magic Bus Campus was driven by the choice of material. Bamboo being extremely strong, still underexplored and a rapidly renewable material was the logical choice for the NGO, which wished to express the need for not only a sustainable society, but environment as well.
A lot of research went into the design of the bamboo construction. In collaboration with our engineer Vilas Gore we decided to combine two bamboos, with a diameter of 90mm and join them together by steel strips to form the columns. The columns are placed in small intervals of 1.5 meter for it to be able to carry the load of the structure. This structure is therefore also kept as light as possible. The floor for example is a combination of a bamboo under layer and a very thin layer of concrete. Of course this also has the advantage in reducing the requirement of un-renewable resources such as concrete and steel in this project.
Developing this construction method and executing it is a major challenge. Working within the Indian construction industry with hardly any standard details, this means that everything has to be reinvented from scratch, which is a lot of work. At the same time however it allows you to rethink a construction system completely. We hope that the construction of a first prototype will take away the skepticism and prejudices, which are surrounding bamboo construction and allow for the material to be used much more widespread.

This interview appeared in Architecture + Design (september 2009) in a special issue on Dutch Architecture.