My Design Philosophy - Ar. PRS Sivakumar

Opinions Dated:  Feb. 13, 2015
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As an architect I feel, we owe it to ourselves to have a strong design philosophy for the simple reason that unlike painters or sculptors or musicians, the art we create is used day in and day out by the people it was created for. When one is doing a building for somebody, if it does not turn out to the fair expectations of the occupier, if it does not fulfill the requirements it was meant to have met, if it does not turn out to be what was promised by the designer / architect, the occupier has no choice (unlike with other forms of art). Having spent so much of money & time on it, there is very little choice but to occupy it with all kinds of compromises making him uncomfortable both physically and mentally. In this case, the designer / architect has become a sinner by making the occupier physically and mentally uncomfortable for as long as the building existed and occupied.

The above mentioned impact by the architect forms my own design philosophy. The design must first fulfill the functional requirements of the clients, be technically sound & fall under good taste (taste which is generally accepted as good, as it differs from person to person) And all these should happen within the clients' budgets. (it is taken for granted here that the client's requirements and expectations could be done with the budget proposed by the client).

Most of the time I abide by the principle “Form Follows Function”. I always aim to do something stunning based on this principle. But where I am presented with a large site with relatively small building and where the requirements of the building are not too tight, then I shall fit the requirements / functionality into  preconceived forms.  ( couple of examples done by others are “Matri Mandir” at Auroville, Pondichery & the “Bahai's Temple” / Lotus Temple at Delhi) I am always of the opinion that traditional rules are meant to be broken. I always tell my juniors and interns & to students of architecture : “Break out from the barriers of traditional thinking. Reinvent the wheel if you have to come out with a better wheel”.

JC Hotel - Madurai

My philosophy also calls for buildings to befit the site & environment on which they are built. If it is a hilly area, do not destroy the terrain / re-shape the land so that it does not look like a patch on the terrain. The building should more or less flow with the terrain. ( I am a lover of nature).

I do not believe in “Contextual Architecture” (except that it is contextual with the living habits of that area) because “Contextual Architecture” - in my humble opinion - has become an irrelevant word in India. Almost every city or town in India is flooded with non - contextual architecture mostly after the country's independence. The colonial architecture of the British were quite contextual - gone was that when the British left India. So we mostly have “Corrupted Architecture” - I am referring here to the general bulk of the common people's buildings - which form the dominant built forms in the Indian cities and towns. So where is the question of a new building being “Contextual”? If one “aped” Jaipur Architecture in a city in Rajasthan (where the bulk of the old Jaipur style buildings got demolished and rebuilt with rubbish architecture) I would emphatically say that this Jaipur style new building is certainly not “Contextual Architecture” - may be it was built because a Hotel of that style would attract foreigners as guests - or  may be a Bungalow / Villa was demanded by a rich client to have that kind of style.

JC Hotel - Kodaikanal

So in a city which has lost its “Context”,  doing “Contextual Architecture” is meaningless. It could be only taken as “aping” that style. I too have done it - though I am proud of the hotel which I did in the style of traditional “Madurai Architecture”, I would certainly not call it “Contextual”. Why I am going to so much of length in saying this is that still today many high and mighty architects preach and talk about “ Contextual Architecture” as a design philosophy. Well, my philosophy differs !!

And there is something else too that I don't believe in. That is Utopian Architecture. It is good thinking and it is also good philosophizing on Utopian ideas - it does purify your mind and it does make you aware of the necessities to fulfill the society's real needs - from the elites down to the man on the street.  But Utopian ideas have only remained as ideas. Never so far, a single Utopian idea has ever been realized successfully in reality. Even Paolo Soleri's  Utopian “Arcosanti” colony is not a big success (it is said so). I have seen Soleri & heard his lectures when this was being built.

So even though I love to read Utopian ideas and see Utopian concepts as visualizations etc, I believe in down to earth and practical solutions for the long term needs of the clients. My architecture / designs have to respect the climate of the place where I build. Passive cooling in hot area and passive avoidance of cold in cold climate regions do reflect in my architecture.

Even though I do have my own strong philosophies, I am not able to fully implement them except in about 40 percent of my buildings. Here, in “Down South” of Tamilnadu, most of the clients have blind faith in Vaasthu and Manai Adi (Manai Adi means the dimensions of a room in feet and inches) And because quite a few of my clients are brain washed by the self styled “Vaasthu Pundits” who do nothing but to misinterpret Vaasthu and make their huge money utilizing the “Fear” of the client. So, the zoning may not be in context with the climate, the massing also suffers from it. In some cases I am able to “Counter Brain Wash” the clients and pull them towards my ideologies. Sometimes it is not. Here, I try to stick to my principles as much as possible and still give them a functional & comfortable building  &  aesthetically appealing exteriors and interiors. Here the architecture evolves from the limitations done by “Vaasthu Misinterpreted”.

Miscellaneous Buildings

When a client with a poor taste or poor sense of aesthetics (owing to his/her circumstances) comes to me, I spend hours, “Brain Washing” him/her to correct his “Poor Taste” and expose him/her to better aesthetics. This process of “Brain Washing” is also part of my philosophy. One elevates the standards of “taste” in such of those who do not have good taste. If I happen to fail in this process to someone, then I decline to work for them.

And if you plan well and are strong-willed, you can very well afford to stay true to your design philosophies instead of aping others. Let me illustrate how it has worked for me, largely because of the following three facts:

1) My Practice / Office / Establishment is not large enough to handle a very large number of clients at the same point of time. The sheer inability to handle a large number of clients / projects at a given point of  time may possibly have not brought me such challenges  - may be I avoided such clients / projects - because I already had enough projects on hand. I have no great ambition !! I never wished to have a large establishment - nor do I cherish any idea of having one in the future too. ( I always believed in the holy principles of “ there is nothing to be won, nothing to be conquered - in the materialistic life - but everything  to be won, everything to be conquered, in spiritual life !  - in my case, through Karma Yoga).

2) New clients come to me by hearing my existence through “Word of Mouth” from my present or past clients. So when they desire to have me as their architect, they already know my stubborn and unyielding & inflexible attitude. They have mentally accepted me for what I am. Projects large and small and clients from large corporates down to a common man - all come to me this way only - through word of mouth. I don't even have a website of my own.

3) My profession is also my full time hobby or rather my hobby has happened to be my profession. Designing is joy & pleasure to me. It is not work and it should be noted that my Architectural Practice - even though it is one hundred percent full time practice, it is not my only “bread winning” source. I hail from a “turnkey projects” background. My late father who was a very popular civil engineer and a professional who executed construction of buildings on remuneration basis (not on contract basis which becomes a business rather than a profession) a self made man of the highest moral integrity - made me join his establishment and assist him in his turnkey projects “Design & Build”  for quite a long time before I established myself a separate consultancy office & after the closure of his establishment at a time when all our labour forces were taken over by the younger generation and the elders retired - this younger generation became lethargic, irresponsible, unreliable and started to have political background - hence my father decided to close the establishment and retire from this and I became a full time consultant. This was about 18 years back. By then, my father & I had acquired land and built properties for a steady rental income. To save that money to invest , both of us lived a frugal life. Every paisa earned was from our blood & sweat.

So since I have this back-up income now (which has become substantial owing to real estate price escalation) I could very well lose any project which I did not like. It may sound haughty if I said “ I choose my clients” ; well, it is a fact - so many come to me and I cannot handle all the projects - so I reject  clients when I do not like them and reject projects that I don't like (however large that may be).

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