Bijoy Jain: An Architect’s Reverie

Priya Khanchandani is a curator, writer and former lawyer based in London
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Bijoy Jain’s sculptures embody scale independent of size

ONE WOULD IMAGINE an architecture exhibition to include technical drawings and models of buildings made to mathematical scale, but a recent exhibition at Betts Project in London is quite apart from this. The objects on display are more like sculptures than models. Apart from being beautiful, they conceptually echo the built landscape and represent a way for the architect to think about broader concerns, like architecture’s relationship with humanity. If great architecture should speak of its time, then this exhibition goes some way towards setting its parameters for India.

The approach of Studio Mumbai, founded and led by Bijoy Jain, lends itself to this sort of display in its reflexivity. Its work is as much an essay on how we integrate our environment as it is architecture. Jain set up the practice in 1996, having returned to India after studying architecture at Washington University in the US and working for Richard Meir in Los Angeles and London. Studio Mumbai is now known best for designing carefully crafted private homes, predominantly in Maharashtra, that meld aesthetically and materially with their natural environment.

Most of the 19 installations in the exhibition (many of which comprise a group of objects rather than just one) were made over the years rather than specifically as exhibits for this show. Jain tells me that making models is a crucial part of his thinking process. “What I have always been interested in is how you can embody scale independent of size,” he explains. “What I am saying is that the dimension of an object, no matter how small or big, can contain the same resource in it.”

There is no shortage of ‘resource’ or tangibility of meaning in these sculptures, despite their diminutive size relative to full-scale architecture. A desire to speak of architecture beyond the literal is what is most evident in them, as well as in Jain’s own contemplations. “For me the show is an interior landscape of my own space, of the city I am in and of a larger context that I occupy,” says the architect, “and the important part is to find the links, you know; what is it that connects all the moments of experience that are varying in dimension, scale and size.”

Window Grids (2016) is one sculpture that overtly refers to the built landscape of Mumbai. It comprises a series of miniature grills installed over apartment block windows with varying geometric patterns set against a white gallery wall. Jain explains that at face value, such grills are used for security, but they have evolved a double function as a physical place people use to keep plants or to dry clothes. As he puts it, “It is like a no man’s land that can be occupied.” He then talks about the 60 centimetres of air space along the surface of a built form in Mumbai, which can apparently be used by the occupier at no extra cost.

Jain says he made works like this because he wanted to investigate the meaning of these ambiguous spaces. Another installation, which Studio Mumbai designed for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2010, titled In-between Architecture, similarly explored the way in which spaces between buildings are negotiated in a densely populated city. It was based on a dwelling crammed into a narrow urban allotment of the sort that characterises the unauthorised architecture of Mumbai. “I’ve been curious about what you can and what you cannot do and who defines that,” he says. “For me, the city has a kind of outlaw quality. There is a kind of give and take and an exchange that operates, that goes beyond our sense of morality, but it still functions… There is a vibrancy to it.”

The sculptures celebrate architecture in all its forms without preferring the grandiose over the mundane. Blue Model (2013) and Julie Taylor (2013), made of wood and paint, are miniature models, the former based on a cigarette shop and the latter apparently a seamstress’ studio. They each seem to celebrate the ordinary beauty of everyday spaces. Demolition Model (2014) is an opened-up building with fraying edges that is part-way through being destroyed, which appears vulnerable and exposed. And a series of six cow dung panels titled Imaginary Cities (2017) features elements of the city like a model carousel and the abstract shapes of rooftops. From a bird’s-eye view, they give us a fresh perspective on the everyday built landscape.

The architecture comes from the sculptures. This is the well-spring of what we are doing. If I did not do this, I could not do architecture and the reverse

Exhibition curator Marie Coulon explains that most of the works were lying around at the architect’s studio in Mumbai waiting to be discovered. Although none of them has been displayed before, a couple were made especially for the exhibition. “We decided we would do an exhibition about landscape, because everything is about architecture but not as we see it usually,” she says. “It is more a bigger picture about India, what Bijoy sees about India and what is important to show to the public.” Some of the works are clearly a homage to vernacular India.

Tazia (2017) is a sculptural tower of bamboo held together with cotton string and painted with lime, a form of natural paint made from limestone that builds up colour as it is applied in successive coats. It is based on model cenotaphs traditionally made for Shia Muslim processions that take place during Muharram and represent the tomb of Muhammad’s grandson. “People sit in a room and they are cutting and making these objects,” Jain explains. “Some are geometrical or very precise. They are like mandalas or cosmic diagrams if you break them down and really start looking at them closely, because of the proportions of how they come together.”

Jain’s sculptural version of the tazia not only appears in this exhibition, but also swells from the top of the MPavilion he designed for Melbourne, Australia, last year. For Jain, the tazia is interesting because of its symbolism, but also its ephemerality. “What I like about this particular object is that it is very fragile in the way that it is made because they tie it with a rope and put some mud around it and at the end of the procession, they take it and they immerse it in water,” he says, “so the bamboo opens up and the mud dissolves and it all kind of dismantles itself; then they start the same process over again the next year.”

When asked how the sculptures relate to his architecture, Jain is adamant that they are one and the same thing. “The architecture comes from this. This is the well-spring of what we are doing,” he says. “If I did not do this, I could not do architecture and the reverse.” The difference is at the very least a question of dimension. Since the sculptures are miniature counterparts to the cityscapes and structures they depict, they disorient us and play on our preconceptions of size and space. “The idea is that you lose a sense of dimension… that they become open in that way, more universal,” he says.

Although on one level Studio Mumbai’s work concerns India, it is also about more universal ideas. Jain talks often about architecture in meditative terms. He refers to his desire to be ‘present’ as one would be during yoga practice; to drawing out ‘fundamental things’ from the environment; and of ‘affection’ in cultivating one’s surroundings. He is also interested in abstract, poetic concepts, which he defines using carefully selected words. This is evident not just in the erudite manner in which he talks through ideas (he is the Norman R Foster Visiting Professor of Architectural Design at Yale University), but also in the choice of a particular lexicon that inspires him. He describes the words that comprise that lexicon as ‘symbols’.

Jain’s Tara House exudes passion for the environment through its design. It is a wooden structure configured around a tropical garden

Jain defines one such word, ‘repose’, as being “a state of rest, be it standing or sitting”, adding that, “if you extend that further it is complete balance; and for me what is important is the pursuit towards that.” In somewhat transcendental terms, he says that as an architect he is disturbing the earth’s status quo and that his interest is in finding its resting place in order to maintain a balance. Another word he brings up, ‘reverie’, is equally abstract, but finds tangible form in his work, in the backlit pictures taken at Mahim Fair in Bandra, Mumbai, in the exhibition.

Although he refuses to classify himself as a modernist, Jain’s work recalls aspects of Indian modernism expounded by the late Charles Correa, who was preoccupied with open-to-sky space and low-rise architecture that is sensitive to its environment in material and form. Studio Mumbai has become known internationally for crafting houses that merge the outside and inside, rely on local resources and artisanship and show a concern for the relationship between man and nature. In part, this approach seems to stem from a belief that architecture in India is different from elsewhere and should be treated as such. “More than 50 per cent of our physical landscape over a period of time going back thousands of years has been built outside of the profession of architecture,” says Jain.

India’s approach to contemporary architecture, in an age of rapid urbanisation, has not embraced the existence of informal structures made beyond the confines of the formal discipline. One of the tragedies of this approach, according to Jain, is the consequences for the environment. “I am not saying smart cities are good and I am not saying they’re bad,” he explains, “[but] I do think we are denuding the landscape.” He cites the example of the Mumbai Metro which is currently under development. “Bombay had an incredible foliage that in time has been over-developed; 50,000 trees will be cut in the next three months for the building of the Metro,” he says. “Now, I pass this every day and my heart hurts when I see these huge, beautiful rain trees cut.”

Jain is ultimately an optimist, though, who seeks solutions through what he calls ‘counter balance,’ another abstract term he uses to describe the way in which architecture can be cohesive with its surroundings. A work that Jain cites as being among his seminal, Tara House (2005), exudes passion for the environment through its design. It is a wooden structure configured around a tropical garden of ferns, grasses bamboo and jasmine, set between mountains, forest and the Arabian sea. Vertical wooden slats form an enclosure that plays with the surrounding landscape, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the view. Underground is a pool filled with natural water from an aquifer that is recharged with rainwater.

Studio Mumbai has recently completed work on a weavers’ studio at a location in Uttarakhand between Rishikesh and Dehradun. Jain talks at length about the ‘affection’ that was applied to the land through the ‘caress’ of planting trees, cleaning the ground, cutting the grass or even through construction. He seems to admire the way in which the women who will live and work there are completely self- reliant. “Her entire universe, from food to clothing to shelter to her colours to her dyes to her materials, all come from that land,” he says. “She is not a weaver—she goes beyond that—between a farmer, weaver. I don’t know. There are so many layers.” There is a distinct emphasis on local materials, techniques and the natural environs, along with an understanding of architecture as being instrumental to a more holistic experience of living, throughout Studio Mumbai’s work.

Jain’s approach to architecture transcends architecture itself. It is about the cohesion of materials, both natural and constructed, within a space. But it is also about self-consciously recognising the role of human intervention. “For me, the people who built it were the material who built it, they were the real material,” he says of the weaver’s studio. “What you are experiencing in the brick is the people who built it.” Of utmost concern is the human experience and its existential role in the universe vis-à-vis other forms of matter. It is perhaps this acute consciousness that gives Studio Mumbai’s work such a distinctively soulful character.