Glass reviews the latest show by Studio Mumbai – In between the Sun and the Moon

Close collaboration between artisans, builders and architects is the cornerstone of Studio Mumbai, the Indian architectural practice that has won international recognition in recent years. By sharing the sources of inspiration from Indian ancient techniques, materials and practices Studio Mumbai creates a common ground that links Indian history and tradition with western modernism expressed in a distinct philosophy showcased this spring at exhibitions in Denmark, France and Germany.

Studio Mumbai Cooper HouseStudio Mumbai Cooper House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

Upon entering the exhibition at Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen the visitor is immediately surrounded by models in different scales, carved rocks displayed in patterns, intriguing stepwell models, full-scale mock-ups made entirely of bamboo sticks, meticulously organised tools and colour samples of local tiles. The exhibition design is formed like a visit to the workshop of Studio Mumbai itself and the visitor may explore the projects from initial inspiration to the realised buildings.

Studio Mumbai Tara House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio MumbaiStudio Mumbai Tara House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

Curated by Studio Mumbai and Arc en rêve centre d’architecture (in Bordeaux) the exhibition highlights the methods, inspiration and projects that have earned the studio critical acclaim. Studio Mumbai headed by Bijoy Jain has received numerous awards and honours including the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture from the Institute Français d’Architecture (2008), a Special Mention at the 12th Architecture Biennale (2010), and the BSI Swiss Architectural Award (2012). Recently, Bijoy Jain and Studio Mumbai were chosen to design the prestigious MPavilion 2016 in Melbourne.

Studio Mumbai Palmyra HouseStudio Mumbai Palmyra House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

Studio Mumbai’s inspiration comes from deep insight into how people actually live, and from anticipating people’s needs in life. This means learning from Indian culture and daily life, or even building a full scale prototype of a house and covering it in Agronet – a cheap type of tarpaulin used by farmers – to test an idea. They even go as far as setting up tables and eating their meals inside the model, in order to see how the house performs and could be used. Throughout the exhibition full size mock-ups and beautiful colourful photos are displayed, revealing Studio Mumbai’s explorative and human-centred working methods.

Unlike the typical high-profile architectural firm, Studio Mumbai takes charge of both design and construction in their buildings. The studio employs around 100 skilled craftsmen, carpenters, masons, electricians, and plumbers and about 10 architects putting emphasis on cross-disciplinary, close collaboration, and the combination of traditional crafts and modern knowledge in a two-way learning process between designers and builders.

Studio Mumbai Copper House II. Photograph is courtesy of Studio MumbaiStudio Mumbai Copper House II. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

This organisational design puts a high level of cooperative communication and knowledge sharing as the cornerstone of Studio Mumbai. The many drawings, mock-ups, models, photographs and material samples of the exhibition signify the collaborative process and the iterative and practical practise of the studio.

Building and living with nature is in fact, what stands out the most in the exhibition. Use of locally sourced materials and approach both set Jain and Studio Mumbai apart from the typical western architectural firm. Jain, who trained in the west, sees himself as combining the two opposites of the east and the west, represented by the sun and the moon, in two different notions of time, effect and nature. The fact that the purpose of the western architect is getting as much sun inside the building as possible, while an Indian architect needs to provide as much shade as possible goes to show this significantly different approach.

Studio Mumbai Palmyra House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio MumbaiStudio Mumbai Palmyra House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

The major differences in climate and the needs of the people mean that architects in India must build with nature in a respectful, collaborative way, taking into account the seasonal change, the sun and the need for shade, the evolvement of the vegetation, the cultural landscape and the monsoon. Studio Mumbai exert a unique sensibility in their approach to nature, not only do they integrate the building with nature, rather they merge the building with nature. They even anticipate how nature evolves, and how it could influence the structure through the seasons. In the case of the Copper House a leaf canopy, that will grow denser during the monsoon, was anticipated in the design, protecting the structure.

Studio Mumbai Palmyra House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio MumbaiStudio Mumbai Palmyra House. Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

The Palmyra House is built as an organism consisting of two structures built around a pool in a coconut plantation. The light structures are covered in louvers made from the palmyra palm to allow light to filter through and air to circulate, while the leaf canopy offers the important shade.

This perception of nature reveals a different understanding of the world placing the building as a part of a bigger whole. Merging with nature means that the building and nature is not seen as opposites, rather as parts of the same element. In this way the building becomes nature and nature becomes (part of) the building. Could this be a way of expanding the concept of the spirit of place?

Inspiration India. Credit Mitul Desai. Photograph is courtesy of Studio MumbaiInspiration India. Credit Mitul Desai.  Photograph is courtesy of Studio Mumbai

Studio Mumbai succeeds in combining the vernacular Indian tradition with a (western) contemporary design, in rediscovering the craft, and in pointing towards sustainable solutions to climatic challenges. Furthermore, they are part of a larger micro-trend that see companies working within the principles of “design thinking”.

This means using an approach that take its cue from the basic requirements of the users, motivated by the opportunity to approaching an idea creatively, using experimental methods, as well as putting value on cross-disciplinary co-creation. Largely succeeding in creating both emotional and functional meaningful buildings using this approach – we may well ask if perhaps we are witnessing a new role of architects in this unusual architectural practise?

by Jeanne Rank Schelde

Studio Mumbai – In between the Sun and the Moon is on until March 6, 2016 at the Danish Architecture Centre, Strandgade 27B, 1401 Copenhagen K, Denmark
Tel: +45 3257 1930

From can be seen from April 16 until August 21 2106 at Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Schaumainkai 43, 60596 Frankfurt am Main,
Tel: +49 (0)69-212 38844