Sameep Padora, the founder of Mumbai’s Sameep Padora and Associates, or sP+a, is among the most innovative architects in India today. Born in 1974, Padora belongs to the country’s most active generation of practitioners. And his buildings are strikingly beautiful. But he insists that his purpose is elsewhere – to pursue a kind of architecture that can perceptibly change people’s lives for the better.
Since opening his research-based practice in 2006, Padora has completed a broad range of projects, mainly across Maharashtra, a state in the western peninsular region: a homeless shelter, housing, community centres, schools, a cricket league stadium, lakefront landscape development and the adaptive reuse of the old fort. The studio currently employs 40 architects, researchers, and interior designers and is working on 20 to 25 projects. Buildings by sP+a are particularly characteristic in their fusion of vernacular and contemporary sensibilities. They don’t seem to flaunt an explicit stylistic signature and they fit well among rural India’s recent building booms, revealing a kind of trend in the making – they purposely rely on local construction techniques, materials and labour.
Architecture is a layered and intuitive art and Padora’s rich output was surely conditioned by both his upbringing and education. His grandfather was a trader of Kashmiri crafts, such as walnut wood furniture, carpets, papier-mâché and other delightful objects that instilled an innate sense of beauty in Padora. His interest in architecture started at the age of 15, when he first visited the ancient city of Mandu and then spent time trekking in the Himalayan foothills where he saw traditional houses that he particularly liked. All these experiences – along with parallel interests in cinematography and archeology – inspired him to pursue architecture professionally.
Padora studied at the Academy of Architecture in Mumbai, graduating in 1996. He was then accepted into SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, a city that encouraged his interest in the work of such architects as Thom Mayne, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss and Frank Israel. But when he started his studies there in 1999, he quickly realized they had little to do with the reality in India. He returned home before completing his degree to gain working experience first. By 2005, ready to continue his studies, he was accepted into the Master program at Harvard GSD; he studied finance, including that of low-income housing in developing countries, which gave him a broader understanding of the context in which he would one day operate. In my conversation with Padora, we speak about how to bring more value to projects, reading briefs between the lines, pushing materials to the limits, exploring techniques that are both regional and global, and seeing the role of an architect as a curator rather than an author.
You once said, “When a space offers a beautiful experience with no perceptible measure of how your life can change for the better, then I think beauty is quite pointless.” Could you tell me why you think so? Can’t experiencing a beautiful space or visiting a beautiful city in itself transform a person’s life for the better?
That’s a valid point. And at the beginning of my career, I was very interested in beauty and authoring beautiful objects. But over the years, I’ve lost the belief that beauty alone can improve people’s lives. Of course, it can offer a transformative experience. But by itself it is not enough, at least not in our context, here in India. Two-thirds of our people in Mumbai, for instance, live in slums. With my work, I want to respond to a very wide demographic, not just the wealthy, and I want to offer more than just an aesthetic experience. I want to be able to create values that are perceptible.
Also, looking back, starting from 1947, the year India gained its independence – when our architects took part in building the new nation – to the times after the economic liberalization was initiated in 1991, what’s evident is that since then architects have lost their social and civic mandate. By and large, architects turned into little more than service providers pandering to unqualified aspirations of what Rahul Mehrotra has referred to as “impatient capital.” I think now there is an opportunity and need to do more than just create beautiful spaces or objects.
What would you say your architecture is about? What kind of architecture do you try to pursue?
We are trying to search for answers in our projects. The question is always this: How can we bring more value to a project? How do we do more with less? Another characteristic is that we are always trying to develop projects through open frameworks so that they could adapt to many changes. We encourage that change, especially when nature takes over some parts of our projects. They can coexist. We are not looking for recognition through the similarities of the formal qualities of our projects. We don’t like to stamp our projects with recognizable authorship. Also, we don’t want our buildings to remain unchanged – quite the opposite. We want them to transform whether by people or nature in ways that we haven’t imagined before.
What words or phrases would you use to describe your work or the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
First, we come from the position of not knowing but with the determination to find out. And secondly, we try and keep our idealism without being naïve.
Could you talk about your main inspirations? You mentioned in one of your interviews being influenced by such architects as Carlo Scarpa and Frank Israel — both were known for juxtaposing new and old structures, creating completely dynamic aesthetics. You also spoke of being fond of the work of Richard Serra.
Serra was a huge influence on me, for sure. When I first encountered his retrospective in Los Angeles in 1999, it completely blew me away! It was a kind of provocation in space and form and through the simplicity of a single gesture that I had not experienced before. It was transformative. I was particularly influenced by his notion and interest in a kind of commentary on lightness while dealing with such enormous weight.
Could you talk about your design process? How do you start a project? How much is it predetermined and how much is it resolved on site?
We always start with the notion that we don’t know what the project will be. I want to find out what each project can become. Initially, we always draw little diagrams of which programs need to be incorporated. These are kinds of collages that we arrange in various combinations to understand the project scale. While we are doing these, nothing is defined.
In fact, I try to defer from decisions driven by an individual’s imagination to let projects evolve on their own. I want to postpone committing to specific ideas for as long as possible. I want to leave the process open enough to the point where it becomes, in a way, pregnant with possibilities, where its manifestation is, in some sense, beyond your control. The project should become what it needs to be. We also almost always research what’s typical for a particular type and what are the various possibilities to bring more value to the users. And we also always think about how the project may allow for various changes over time.
I appreciate how you once said, “I enjoy the design process when it goes beyond a project brief.” Could you elaborate?
Yes, I like reading the brief, especially between the lines, so to speak. We try to find what other ideas we could bring to the project, which may not have to do directly with the program. We are looking for ways to enrich the program. For example, when we did the Temple of Steps in Andhra Pradesh, we realized that it was sitting on a system of water canals that provide irrigation to the surrounding cotton and chili farms. So, what was originally a temple design assignment became an important water engineering project. In other words, the program can be just the starting point to doing more.
In your Jetavan project, you worked with waste materials to build walls. Could you touch on this strategy of reusing and recycling materials in your practice?
What we were really going after are efficiency and frugality. We wanted to do more with less. We used waste basalt dust that came out of the nearby quarry to create load-bearing walls of rammed stone dust and we used recycled wood that was salvaged from old ships for the building’s roof structure. Roof tiles came from houses that were being demolished in that area at the time and we used local clay and soil for the flooring that stays cool in the hot summers. The roof understructure is put together out of mud rolls made of recycled burlap/jute bags, which serve as great insulation.
Similarly, when we designed Maya Somaya Library, we used minimum material to try enclosing the maximum area possible without using expensive reinforced steel structures. So, we are trying to push materials to the limits of their capacity to minimize their use to reduce the waste cycle of materials as much as possible.
You’ve said that among the various inspirations for your Maya Somaya Library, along with the catenary curves of 16th-century Spain and the mid-20th-century projects of Eladio Dieste in Uruguay, are the works of Philippe Block. Could you touch on that connection?
Unfortunately, we were put in touch with Philippe only after the library was built. While researching curved surfaces in architecture we had come across RhinoVAULT from the Block Research Group at the ETH. Another inspiration for us was the work of Rafael Guastavino, who adapted the Catalan vaulting technique from 16th-century Spain, for constructing self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar, to his New York projects of the late 1800s. So, it is a multi-referential project, which we began with a simple desire to make a building as a landscape that children could climb. That idea came out of the realization that so much reading and research is now done online and through the use of digital media.
For us, this building was an opportunity to create architecture that would engage children physically. It was more than just about giving children an opportunity to read books. We were also questioning in a sense the image of what is assumed as being regional. The world is now so global that various construction techniques, from regional ones to the most advanced, are readily available and can be explored around the world. The global and the local are no longer in conflict. I like the idea of mixing the two to make both local and global projects richer. The notion of what is regional should not be driven by its image. Instead, it should be questioned, and projects should no longer be bound by local knowledge alone.
What I find most interesting in your work is a strong tension between techniques that are local and global, working with local materials while not being limited to an image of what’s local. This attitude liberates you from what is expected regionally but also from an artistic signature that your generation of architects has rejected quite consciously. Still, what about such a notion as authorship? Is that at all not relevant to you?
Yes, these are similar notions and they each limit the kind of architecture that can be achieved. An image of what is or should be local imposes a certain expectation. It’s the same with authorship. The goal is to be able to see the need for a specific site. If I, as an architect, can distance myself from this idea of an author and instead concentrate on identifying all the forces that define the site and the program, it will result in a much richer project. I prefer the editorial role of a curator of various forces rather than that of an author. So, the role of the architect is more of a catalyst.
Of course, I am sure that there is a great deal of individual intent that may be found in our work, but I would argue that it is perhaps reflexive, almost like it happens subconsciously. The philosopher J. Krishnamurti, someone who inspired me a lot, spoke about how if you want to find “the truth” you should be able to shake off the social conditioning that you grow up with. This attempt at eschewing authorship is perhaps also a way to overcome the limits of my own conditioning. I find that idea intriguing.
You’ve advocated an experimental attitude that pushes you to progress, saying, “Our practice questions the nostalgia involved with the static ‘museumification’ of craft and tradition as well as the nature of what today comprises the ‘regional’ in contexts amplified by their place in global and regional networks.”
Exactly. If building techniques don’t evolve, they die.
If I ask you to talk about Indian identity in architecture, you might say that India is too diverse for that. Nevertheless, there must be certain aspects that make it different from architecture in other regions. What do you think about that?
The Indian poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan wrote an important cultural essay titled, “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?“ In each of the four otherwise identical lines of the essay, he emphasized a different word reframing the question and its meaning:
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
The point he was making is that India is a country where everything is subjective. Even truth is subjective, and the only consistency is the diversity and the dynamics that help this diversity persist despite various kinds of socio-political and cultural upheavals. But I do think the common concerns that we architects should address are equity and compassionate ways of development.
Specifically, we should look for opportunities to take positions on more affordable housing and infrastructure projects. Perhaps looking at the current standards for those projects and trying to challenge them with research and practice. So, we may not have a common monolithic physical form that prescribes an “Indian” way, but we can surely identify societal challenges and address them collectively as a profession. These, of course, need to dovetail into universal or global concerns for resilience to better address climate change.
Mumbai architect Sameep Padora is creating architecture that is strikingly beautiful – but that’s besides the point. He wants to improve the lives of his fellow Indians.