Interview: In Conversation with Ar.Bijoy Ramachandran, Co-founder of HundredHands

Tete-A-Tete with Experts Dated:  Oct. 23, 2015
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Architect Bijoy Ramachandran

Architect Bijoy Ramachandran is a partner at multidisciplinary design studio HundredHands which he co-founded with Ar.Sunitha Kondur in 2003.  HundredHands handles projects ranging from large scale master plans to architecture, interior design and environmental/graphic design. The studio’s approach is grounded in the search for contextually appropriate solutions. Special emphasis is given to the response to climate, the existing scale and character of the context, appropriate use of materials and construction techniques, and the development of the project aesthetic as a result of these specific conditions. 

The studio’s two partners, Sunitha Kondur and Bijoy Ramachandran have bachelors degrees from Bangalore University and masters degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and have wide ranging experience in the design and management of large housing, commercial and academic projects both in the United States as well as in India.

In this interview, Bijoy tells us about the story behind the name 'HundredHands' and also talks about his involvement in the design of the centres at Tsunami-hit Pudupattinam and Tharangampadi. He also shares some interesting bits of information on various topics. Read on..

First and foremost, why the name ‘Hundredhands’?

My brother Premjit, gave us this name. It stands for collaborative work. As architects we rely on a large group of people working together to create something of value. We reject the idea of the inspired individual who presides over the making of architecture and embrace instead the idea of a collective, shared authorship of the work.

As per my research and observation, you tend to parallelize or connect anything/any place with your city, Bangalore. What could be the reason?

I am not really aware of this predilection - I wish I knew more about my city to always be able to draw parallels. I am more interested in the particulars of any given location. The immediate conditions offer many cues.

At an academic level I am interested in my city and find that we are at a threshold similar to many cities before us (like Chicago or London). The pressures of rapid urbanization, need for large-scale infrastructure and housing and the complete mess this produces isn’t a completely new phenomenon. The rapidity of this change and the intensity of the requirements are unparalleled, but like both the cities I mentioned there is a larger role private organizations and individuals need to play in the making of our cities. The administrative structure that will allow this collaboration needs to be worked out and faces many challenges in terms of the vested interests private enterprise comes to the table with.

Nua Restaurant, BangaloreNua Restaurant, Bangalore

Now, as a designer more inclined towards public places also, if given a chance, how would you reword ‘URBAN DESIGN’?

I like the term Urban Design. Design is comprehensive and inclusive - and we are talking about urban conditions. The extent of ‘control’ one has as an urban designer, though needs to be evaluated. Unlike the 19th century cities, all urbanists seem to be in love with, the present day Indian city needs design thinking to address public infrastructure and the public realm and not so much the buildings. Often in our rush to meet the infrastructure demands things get implemented without consideration. Great cities have a lovely quality of the public realm - streets, signage, infrastructure (subways, bridges, power stations, etc.).

Your competition entry- ‘The Waterfront’ was selected for the Venice Biennale in 2006. Our readers are curious to know more about it.

In 2006, as part of the Venice Biennale (directed by Ricky Burdett) four southern Italian towns (Bari, Crotone, Siracusa, and Pantelleria) hosted competitions inviting proposals for urban regeneration with a special focus on stone in construction. We worked on the waterfront in Crotone. The area earmarked for the competition lay along the waterfront, currently mostly housing industrial and storage facilities. The waterfront was also 30m below the fort and the medieval town.

Our proposal suggested that we could reconnect the historic core of Crotone to the waterfront via new public institutions that served to mitigate this 30m level difference and created new public places along the waterfront. The new uses proposed included public museums, a performing arts center, a market, office buildings, housing, a city room, a library , and a marina.

Our proposal was shortlisted for the Leonne di Pietra award and published in the official Biennale exhibition catalogue.

Another competition entry- ‘Indian Music Experience’ would have been interesting to work upon. How did you conceptualize the translation from music to Architecture?

Our proposal though not making overt connections between Music and Architecture occupied the site in a very dramatic way - highlighting the location of the site on a large boulevard street littered with public institutions and the site’s own rather particular geometry.

We were thinking of Corbusier’s drawing, ‘Nature Morte Violin Au Rouge’ (1920) where a violin and its shadow serve as a backdrop for an assorted set of objects in the foreground. The site offered us the opportunity to clearly demarcate the served and servant spaces of the program - creating a distinct and powerful iconography for the main exhibition halls on the street with the circulation and administrative areas serving as the ‘ground’ behind.

When Tsunami struck the coasts of Tamil Nadu in 2004, Centres of Hope evolved in different parts of the state. Tell us about the design of the centres in Pudupattinam and Tharangambadi.

We were involved in schools, community halls and a vocational training centre in three villages (Tharangambadi, Chinakudi and Pudupattinam) badly effected by the tsunami in 2004. We had worked with Hope Foundation on our first architectural commission - an orphanage in Trichy, Tamil Nadu and they were now raising money and planning facilities in tsunami hit areas.

We did seven buildings with the Foundation working with Mark Templar, Ian Correa, Samuel Thomas and Gimms Andrews from Hope, a wonderful set of local contractors - M. Manimaran and N. Ramesh and a great engineer, M. Rajendran. These were nice buildings to do with some incredibly committed people. Someone from Hope would call with their requirements (say 8 classrooms), a budget and a date. We would rarely meet the clients again till the building was done. As long as we gave them the rooms they needed within the budget we were free to try anything! We got a lot of support from these local contractors who were in many ways responsible for the many alternative building techniques we used to address the heat and the cost.

Given that all these buildings were built within very limited budgets (on an average around Rs.700/sft) we were forced to consider what was truly indispensable - settling often for a careful articulation of structure and choice of material to establish the aesthetic of these buildings. In hindsight, these early projects have informed our practice in fundamental ways. We continue to approach our work with a certain pragmatism and resist the ever-present temptation to be willful or capricious.

Alila, BangaloreAlila Mixed Use Building, Bangalore

The design of IIM Bangalore campus is quite rooted with the context. On the other hand, Architect Doshi had a failure project ‘Diamond Bourse’. What is your say on failures?

See https://vimeo.com/13362976

Also, please tell us about the experience in making a movie on the country’s pride, BV Doshi.

My time with Dr. Doshi, making the film, has had a profound impact on the way I see the world. It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to work with my brother, Premjit who directed the film.

We called Dr. Doshi on a Friday and were in Ahmedabad without a camera or any equipment on Monday to begin shooting. Scrambling around for equipment we finally got to Sangath at around 11 and immediately began recording - no script, no plan! In some sense this spontaneous way of working produced conversations of rare candour and I think our film is valuable because of this.

Premjit also edited and wrote the score for the film.
You can see more of his films here: https://vimeo.com/hinterland

In 2008, you had written- ‘It is time now for the leaders of our business community and our politicians and bureaucrats to come together and collaborate with the architectural community to begin talking about a vision document for the city’. Now, in 2015, would your statement still be the same? If not, why?

I would probably now include a lot many more stakeholders in this conversation about our cities. Public process, though messy, ensures cities are equitable and inclusive places. I was probably also a bit more inclined towards the ‘master plan’ route then but now believe that communities should initiate improvements within their wards or neighborhoods - taking small localised steps.

Your exceptional writings prove to impart immense knowledge about design, spaces and history. On the same note, what could be your say on the cliché- ‘An Architect is the one who knows something about everything and an Engineer is the one who knows everything about one thing’.

Well, thanks for the compliment and the quick aside!
Architects need to be a bit of both things, foxes and hedgehogs!
Generalists - interested in the larger import of their work, the workings of our communities and society and with a working understanding of the myriad systems that go into making buildings these days and specialists - looking in detail at the use of materials, structure and particular strategies.

I could recollect the monochrome models and the sober, pleasant office step of Hundred Hands. There are many who wish to know the work culture at your office.

We are a small practice operating like a cottage industry. We currently have around 10 architects and a floating population of trainees from all over the country. Our design process is a bit anachronistic in that we continue to do a lot of our initial studies through process of the hand - drawing, model-making and some hand-wringing!

Apart from the day-to-day work we normally have a movie screening or an intern presentation every Wednesday and every year the office helps organize an event along with the Vimal Jain Foundation which usually brings prominent architects and academicians to Bangalore to participate.

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