Interview : In Conversation with Ar. Prashant Pradhan, Founder of PPA (Prashant Pradhan Architects)

Tete-A-Tete with Experts Dated:  Oct. 25, 2017
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Courtesy PPA

Prashant Pradhan(MCA, MIIA) the principal architect of Prashant Pradhan Architects is a graduate from CEPT and has done his post graduation from the Berlage Institute, Netherlands. He has spent  a good amount of time working in offices in Amsterdam and New York and has also taught at the City University in NYC. His design philosophy is rooted in the context therefore; issues of identity and culture get as much attention as architecture in the contemporary context. He is currently working on a number of hospitality projects since Tourism is the most important industry of the region. During conversation with ZingyHomes he gets candid about architecture, life and projects emphasizing on the "passion" factor in the field as a must! 

What made you choose architecture as your career path? 

My father is an engineer who worked for the Government and was stationed as the engineer in charge for the construction of the (old) Embassy of Sikkim. I grew up with construction around me as I used to accompany my dad on site visits occasionally. Later I went to a boarding school where a close friend of dad was an architect and we used to play games designing buildings for fun. I guess I was hooked from quite an early age.  It just seemed magical to me how one could imagine a design, draw it and suddenly, it would be built – just like that. The joy and thrill of having something so permanent result from just a thought or an idea was an addiction that I wanted to pursue.

OfficeCourtesy PPA

What is your firm’s strongest asset and how has it evolved over the time?

I don’t really know how to answer that. There are certain design methods that we practice that have evolved over the years. We make it a point to spend a good amount of time in research – most of it is done by myself and, some senior architects help with the collation and presentation of it. Sometimes, just the concept can be given to the architect who can develop the research and the ensuing design as per their sensibilities – provided it meets with the overall design approach of the office. 

We spend time to make beautiful and meticulous physical models. We make models of the topography before a design approach is in place so it can better inform the process. These models are instrumental in helping with the development of the design and also to explain to clients what their building would actually turn out like (leaving less room for unpleasant surprises).

Probably the most important practice that we follow is that we work together with clients and allow the design to emerge / evolve as a result of this very meaningful interaction. Therefore we try and work with clients who share our vision and design philosphy / taste. Usually, the client chooses the architect but sometime, we have to try and be selective about the kind of people we design for so that the journey from the concept to the construction is relatively smooth, on the same wavelength and enriching for both. 
Balancing culture with contemporary is not an easy task, and at times it becomes crucial to impart the latest technological trends.  

TatskeCourtesy PPA

How did you manage to keep the context of Gangtok alive, in your local projects such as Taktse International School? 

The extension for the Taktse International School was only a very enthusiastic proposal which was shared by the principal of the school and us. The primary wing of the school was to be designed like a local village with small houses and huts to serve as classrooms. These spaces would open out into verandahs and finally an outdoor space thereby creating multiple spatial experiences for kids to explore, wonder and let their minds wander. We would bring back the building of the vernacular prevalence in the region – also helping the children reconnect with their roots – left behind in the villages.

Unfortunately the giddy enthusiasm was not shared by the board who replaced it by a large concrete building. This, they said was the correct approach since they required a functional building with classrooms and corridor concept. It would perhaps be practical but totally miss the point – hence we decided to give a miss to the concrete block and politely declined from moving forward with the project from our side.
 
Describe the challenges you faced, while working over the slum upgradation project in Bhanugram?

I had worked for the ‘Rajiv Awas Yojna’ – as part of the team of ‘experts’. This was a Central Government Mission for the upgradation of slums across India. Bhanugram, one such slum had been identified to be the pilot project for the implementation of the upgradation. This address lay between two natural watersheds making it an extremely vulnerable spot. It was labelled as a ‘sinking area’ and no construction was permitted there. Illegal occupation of this area began with the local dhobis using it to wash their clothes and later on inhabit it with shanty houses.

The proposal was to strengthen the two streams that defined the boundary of the slum to prevent water from leaking and spilling over onto the the inhabited areas. The retaining structure used to strengthen these dams would be used as the foundation to support light weight homes provided to the inhabitants to upgrade their homes.

Pinetree ResortCourtesy PPA

It’s a fact that places such as Gangtok, Darjeeling receive a major amount of rainfall. How did you treat these critical issues, while constructing the marvellous edifices? 

Protection! Protection! Protection! – one has to ensure that the buildings are protected from the elements in order to ensure longevity. The protection is predominantly from the incessant monsoons so, providing adequate cover and shade for the openings as well as the walls is standard practice. 

Our building designs are based on the prevailing wind direction and solar path – keeping smaller openings to the north to protect against the cold winds and to open up larger windows in the south and west direction. This is diametricaly opposite to working in the hot dry climates such as Ahmedabad where we have designed and buillt some buildings.
Many a times, some designers tend to overlook the “human factor” or comfort, as a result of which, the architecture and society do not cross paths, rather go in opposite directions. 

What in your opinion should be done to bridge this gap between them?

Every building must be designed keeping in mind the overall experience of the user. The eventual success of the building will be based on the user finally – otherwise, it is a work of art, an artefact and a sculpture that one can inhabit. 

It is not impossible to design a building which meets both the criteria – and caters to both approaches – infact the building has to cater to many more than just the creation of architecture with a capital A and making sure that it takes into account the ‘human factor’. It has to respond appropriately to the context- whether its local or global.

Design should be seen as creating an experience for the user. The architects should be involved in every aspect of the experience process – urban context where possible, the building and the architecture from the exterior, the interior – right down to the furniture.
The architect should be able to be involved in or have an opinion about every scale of building – from the urban to furnishing and furniture.  All these objects, entities and dimensions have an impact on the overall experience of the architecture hence, I don’t believe that one has to be a niche architect designing only a certain type of building. Every project is a new challenge and every new project type is approached with renewed vigor – it is an opportunity to learn something new. That is exciting – but at the end of the day, it is designed for the experience of the user. That for us is the bottom line.

Courtesy PPA

Sadly, we seem to be losing upon the culture factor. As architects, we believe it’s our duty to connect the masses with their culture in the trending times. In one of your blogs you discussed with the students, about Purabhi – a study of the Traditional House Form of the Eastern States of India. Our readers would love to know a brief about it in your words. 

Purabhi was a project sponsored by the Ambuja-Neotia group based in Kolkata. It was a unique study documenting the traditional houseform of the Eastern part of India through the lens of an architect, a botanist and an anthropologist. We developed the premise that the factors that influence houseform were – the context and the culture. The content defined what material was available for construction.

The architect  - Ar. Zamyang Bhutia from our office, would study the construction, the spatial attributes and the houseform.  He would document the physical form of the house and locate it in the immediate context of the houses around and the village.

The botanist would have to look at the house based on the material – predominantly bamboo – thus we had taken Dr. Tika Prasad Sharma – an expert in the field. He would identify the species used, the benefits of using the type for the specific structural element. It would go further to understand and explain the  growing methods and propogation of the species and possible substitutes.

The anthropologist – Dr. Ganesh Malik, would study the cultural aspects of the tribe and focus on the ones that would inform the house form. He would study and document how the house was used at different times of the day / month and year. Rituals observed were recorded and how the house was used in perfoming each one.

The study was supposed to result in a publication as well as the design of a village style museum / resort asking craftsmen and artisans from the village to come to the location where this was to be built and rebuild it in the same style.

The primary objective to the project was to address the fact that our society was losing touch with our traditions and, artisans and craftsmen were opting for different more financially secure carreer paths.

Your blog discusses of this unique yet critically relevant notion, “Form follows context”. Brief us over the issue.
  
Context is defined by climate, topography and geography. We are referring to the physical context. One question that I asked myself as a student – Where does form come from? What is the logic of form? It was a perrenial question  that I never seemed to have an appropriate answer for. How do we decide what is the shape, form and design of the building  - what gives us clues to decide that ? It seems that my architectural  practice in a way has been to discover and respond to the context and the primary factor in shaping the buildings designed by us.
For the Zone 2 59th Zonal NASA in Bhopal, I had given a Talk / Seminar on ‘Form Follows Context’ – a look at architecture informed by the context through the projects of our office – Prashant Pradhan Architects in Gangtok.
The premise – Form follows Function is irrelevant today since there is so much similarity in building styles, forms and designs. On the search for the factors that give shape to a building, our office has been working on different projects that are formed by following the parameters defined by the context. The context in this case is defined by – geography, topography and climate.
The seminar began with showing my final year project – the Museum of Sikkimese Culture that was almost entirely shaped by following the contours of the site. This set the tone for the rest of the talk – moving on to an urban scale  – ‘Walkways and Allied Facilities at Namnang’ – a pedestrian walkway on a steep incline of Gangtok. A slum rehabilitation project also in Gangtok was followed by a Organic Farmers Market in Namchi. The final project was set in the urban setting of Ahmedabad where the context was defined by the network of streets. This led to a triangular plot thereby defining the form of the building to be triangular. The lecture was concluded with a manifesto for building in the hills – highlighting the best practices to be followed for design on a contoured site.

Zingy Five Rapid Fire :

Shah Residence Courtesy PPA

a. A project close to your heart. Why?
Shah Residence  - the thrill of trying to adapt a single family residence on a triangular plot and the ways in which we had to steer the design process so as to create habitable rooms and a timelessness to the architecture. This could so easily have become’trendy’ and ‘funky’ but, I was happy with the building after completion.

b. Favourite “Archi-read” / Book. 
SMLXL by OMA. This is a timeless book. 

c. If you had an alter ego, what role would he be playing apart from the architect version? 
Photographer/Artist & Printmaker

d. One architecture lesson you learnt, during your college days in CEPT.
Multitasking. At CEPT, it was possible to intermingle different related fields which enhanced the learning experience. Not focussing on design but simultainously working on printmaking in the allied Arts center, photography, music, travel etc. all influenced the design process positively.

mill owner buildingCourtesy Wikipedia

e. A built marvel from around the nation, which you personally admire.
The Millowners Building in Ahmedabad by Le Corbusier. It is a timeless masterpiece relevant even today and forever I imagine.

Your words of wisdom to the aspirants. 
-Be Passionate about Architecture.
-Make your Carreer out of your passion – and never reduce it to ‘work’!
-Practice to learn and evolve constantly. Travelling is learning.
-Wonder and wander / Observe and absorb

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