Narrating Architecture

May 2015

Studio Mumbai’s authentic ways
urban studio of Studio Mumbai located near Saat Rasta, in Mumbai, India.
Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mumbai is composed of a human infrastructure of skilled artisans and architects that together design and build. Immersing themselves in an ever-changing environment, they experiment and explore ideas. Uninterested in hype or fame, the studio believes in remaining curious, vulnerable, open, and humble; treating every project anew, with the aim of achieving the most appropriate solution. Drawing from traditional skills, local building techniques, materials, and an ingenuity that arises from limited resources, the essence of the work lies in the relationship between land and architecture. Studio Mumbai has its feet firmly on the ground, inspired by the human condition and compelled to understand complex relationships.
With a name like Bijoy, it would seem the man has a mission in life... (in Bengali, Bijoy means triumph). “My interest lies primarily in doing what I do, with care. As an architect, the way you imagine opening a door, developing a chair, designing the texture of a wall or a floor, is very important. It’s about quality, about the consideration you apply to the making of something. And it’s about being attentive to the environment, the materials, and the inhabitants. It has to be inclusive.” DAMN° speaks with the founder of Studio Mumbai as he prepares to contribute to a conference promoted by the Lisbon Architecture Triennial.
Saree Building in Surat, a residential building where migrant workers put the finishing touches on the sarees - the traditional dress for Indian women. These garments are left out to dry, with the form of the building used for efficiency, lending it a new
Jain says he wants to stimulate architecture students attending the conference to use their imagination. “They have to have the will to imagine, and they have to develop patience – something I myself am still learning...” His own patience was seriously challenged during the years he spent in London and Los Angeles, where he studied and worked – along with others in the office of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Meier, and where, as a young architect, he discovered the infinitive possibilities not yet within his reach. “We’re all confronted with situations in our life when forces obstruct us. There are a 100 things that can keep you from doing what you had foreseen or what you wanted to do, so we have to find the gap in-between”, says Jain, explaining his philosophy of life and the way he manages his architecture practice, which utilises aspects of both Indian and Western cultures. “We have to embrace the idea of change – which also requires letting go. This whole idea is part of what I use in making architecture. We humans are all looking for the path of least resistance – we look for predictability, not for change. Still, the universe is structured by chaos. It requires us to be tolerant. It’s then a question of where we put our energy. There will always be limitations; the question is: how does one find the space to operate within them?”
Knowing all this, Bijoy Jain developed an interesting modus operandi. The impatient yet consistent Indian – born in Bombay in 1965 – moved from the USA back to India in 1995 and started Studio Mumbai, an ambitious collective comprised of a handful of architects and well over 100 artisans (bricklayers, stonemasons, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters), working together in the same place, with locally available materials and building techniques familiar to all. They handle everything, from design through to construction. In 2009, the studio received the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture from L’Institut Français d’Architecture, and also gained worldwide recognition with the installation Work-Place at the 2010 Venice Biennale, offering a look into its unique process of learning through making.
Jain developed a way to communicate with the various different artisans who form part of Studio Mumbai, many of whom cannot read an architectural plan. Thus, Jain uses drawings, sketches, models, and large-scale mock-ups to enable an inclusive, collaborative way for the artisans and architects alike to explore ideas, solve problems, feel the place, and construct a collective narrative. This way of working brings into existence innovation and new ideas, and keeps traditional skills alive, as well.
“Going back in time, if you look at the architectural landscape in India, most buildings were self-built, without the assistance of an architect. People constructed their houses themselves. So, in India, sustainable architecture is a given reality; the notion of DIY is ingrained in our tradition. The fact that there are over 1.2 billion Indians and that in our agrarian society millions of people have a trade in the seasons they don’t farm, means we have a huge resource of artisans.” Jain calls them artisans rather than craftspeople because “they just do what everybody does in an agrarian society, and even though they are often very skilled, they are not craftspeople in the true sense, because a craftsperson is someone who transforms his/her skill into something contemporary.” With his sensitive architectural approach, Jain felt he had to go back to his roots when living outside of India. “I was very mindful of the importance to reconnect. So I returned to the place where my senses were formed, which was important for my well being. It actually had less to do with India itself and more to do with myself. Being in the USA gave me a better view of where I come from, and I therefore developed a strong desire to reconnect.”
The sketches, draughts, models, and mock-ups Jain uses in his architectural practice “are just all different tools to shape a project – instruments required to be able to communicate, to draw out the knowledge all members of the team carry within them, to bring everybody into focusing towards the endeavour to create buildings that emerge through a process of collective dialogue, imagination, and intimacy. Building mock-ups is a way to narrate; it’s part of storytelling.”

Currently, Studio Mumbai is constructing buildings in several countries, working only with clients who accept its conditions: taking the time it needs and working with a local team of artisans. One of these projects is a studio for weavers close to the Himalayas, the client being a Japanese lady who is a weaver herself. In the studio, there are up to 50 young weavers at work, producing things like indigo and silk. “This weaving studio uses local resources and all work is done by hand. It’s an intrinsic project.” Studio Mumbai is also erecting private houses in Zurich and working on a regeneration project in Onomichi, near Hiroshima. Additionally on the go is a master plan for 20 units in an old agricultural area in India, and a housing project in Spain. 

As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Studio Mumbai seems to fully embody this. ‹
Bijoy Jain in Lisbon; portrait by Stéphane Béchaud / Yves Callewaert Studio.
Demolition study
Study of Tazia bamboo structure.
New project: weavers' studio lose to the Himalayas, under construction.
This article appeared in DAM50. Order your personal copy.