Brightly colored fabric hangs from the ceiling, dancing in the breeze at an exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre. A concept for a public plaza in Monterrey, Mexico unfolds from the ground like a flower reaching toward the sun. The halls of the Jal Mahal water palace in Jaipur sparkle with the intricate work of traditional craftsmen from the area. Such are the evocative undertakings of Siddhartha Das, a designer whose work far exceeds any single design discipline, extending into architecture, lighting, fashion, and curatorial practice. After graduating as an exhibition designer from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in India, his interest in heritage and tradition translates directly into the more than a hundred projects he has designed with Siddhartha Das Studio around the world.
In 2008, Das was awarded the International Young Creative Entrepreneur award by the British Council in collaboration with the 100% Design showcase in London. Here, Das speaks about the importance of incorporating culture into design work, how he seeks the right projects, and the most pressing issues to address the gap between architectural education and practice today.
Abigail Sobotka-Briner: Your studio works on such diverse projects. How do you find those projects and determine which will be a good fit for your team?
Siddhartha Das: The most important element of my career has been to find people and institutions who are doing projects that I can relate to. I began as an exhibition designer, and as I started working I became interested in design, art and craft, and architecture. That’s what I’ve gravitated toward, and I’ve sought out institutions that do projects in that realm. I’ve worked in the industry for about fifteen years now, and especially in the last three or four years, people have sought my practice out because they’ve seen projects we’ve done, or heard about our work. The question I ask myself then is, “Can I relate to that kind of work?” I grew up in a lower-middle-class family with parents who worked in the arts, and I think that—combined with the fact that India was much more of a welfare state then—meant that, in my eyes, the character of that era was far more bohemian and allowed one to transcend boundaries much more seamlessly.
India is a country that has immense disparities and divides along class, gender, religious lines. There's a clash between two very different paradigms—an urban one that’s western and a rural one that’s traditional. I choose projects, whether institutional or cultural, that somehow transcend these boundaries and work for both regions and people.
I’ve heard you speak about finding specialists to help with certain projects. How do you weave them into your teams for each project?
I have a very multi-disciplinary team to begin with. We have about twelve or fourteen people— they are designers, architects, art historians, museologists, and sometimes conservationists. The interns' backgrounds are even more varied. I seek out people I know, because in India it’s very important to know the people you are working with to be sure they will deliver on a project. When we collaborate with someone, I want us to see and learn from each other’s work. We find people from elsewhere in the city, the country, and the world depending on the project parameters and budget.
It’s evident that culture, heritage, and tradition are very important to you and your work. How do you approach each project and place differently?
Many of our projects are in the realm of culture. We’re currently developing concepts for a museum complex, garden, playground, artist residency, and a heritage site. With culture, it doesn’t always have to be traditional. It’s a mix. I try to include the elements of the local traditional culture into many of our projects. I grew up in an era where we felt just as Western as we felt Indian. I think the younger generation is far more Western than Indian, and the generation before me was far more Indian than Western. We were kind of a transitional generation, and I think it’s important for us to balance a strong contemporary approach with a tradition-based approach. Sadly, in India we don’t have this balance or the same appreciation for tradition as, say, in Japan, but we do have strong traditions, so I think it’s relevant to work with them.
If you have visited several cities and done a project in each one, you’d want at least some part of the place to come into your project—no matter where the place or what the project may be. That’s the approach I strive for in my studio. Traditional craft is the fourth largest employment sector in India, but it’s also one of the poorest. When I visit a site, I try to meet different makers from that region so there’s a sense of belonging, ownership, and heritage.
You speak about culture as the driving force behind the economy. How do you respond to the variation that comes with working in different locations?
We’re doing a museum complex in Jodhpur where there is a princely estate, Mehrengarth Fort. It’s beautiful, but it’s in an area with an extremely parochial and sexist societal structure. With the museum, we thought, “How do we allow people who come in with their families, who come with their loved ones to forget those divides?”
Along those same lines, we also considered how we could contribute to the local economy and invite the community to become inexplicably intertwined with the museum. If I have to find tour guides for the museum, wouldn’t it be nice if I could advertise locally to find people who have a background in history, anthropology, or literature, or find people who may have no formal education but are known to be great storytellers? Wouldn’t it be nice if we worked with local gardeners for the twenty-four-acre garden? The idea is to work with indigenous trees and indigenous knowledges and then see what technology and people can be best thrown into that mix. I feel that the minute we can work with someone who makes rather than someone who trades, that is a lovely, immediate link. It is an approach we take to every project we do.
Are there intersections between your approach to curatorial and architectural work?
The approaches are very similar. When we get a request for proposal from someone—an individual client or an institution—first, we think about whether it is a project we are interested in and second, how we can contribute new ideas and designs to the project. For example, we might discover a need in the community where we had situated our work. One of the projects we are doing now is located in a city with very few gardens and public spaces. Even though we are not landscape designers, we thought, “Why don’t we create a garden?” Once we understand the best way to approach a project, we sketch out the projected life cycle of the project and then see how best to execute it based on our intended audience. I think our projects are quite inclusive and responsible in every sense of the word, be it architecture and design or ecology and community. With all of our projects, we want to be sure we make best use of available resources and money, which varies greatly between rural and urban contexts.
How has branching into other fields of design changed your outlook on your architectural projects?
Since I grew up with an arts background, I naturally aim to bring elements of design, the built environment, and craft together in our projects. It’s not about the media or the material, but much more about the complexity of the concept and the needs of the client. I’ve traveled extensively around India and have spent time in other parts of the world, and these experiences have helped to develop my critical outlook when approaching new material and cultures. This translates directly to how we draw together different elements into a project.
In my office, there’s a lamp that I designed, for example. I designed the shirt that I’m wearing because I thought, “If I’m designing buildings, it would be sad if I couldn’t design a garment that I wear.” I designed most of the studio’s furniture—the table I’m sitting at, a bamboo stool outside my room. I think the media and format aren’t the things to focus on—it’s more about envisioning a larger idea first, then detailing so that the smaller bits fit together.
You started your career as a middle school teacher before becoming a designer. What are the gaps you see between practicing architecture and the way you were taught?
I see issues in lots of different places. The first thing is that I think, increasingly, there’s a lot of attention taken away from doing things by hand. That’s a big problem, because as soon as you make design more cerebral, you forget how to make things using your own hands. Architecture school doesn’t teach students how to make a wall or foundation—not just understanding how brick and mortar work, but physically doing a workshop where you actually build a whole building. That goes for furniture as well. I should be able to make furniture in a workshop with precision, structural stability, understanding the tensile strength, joineries, hardware details, and then intellectualize it, rather than the other way around.
Another important thing is the appreciation of other cultures. If I’m working with wood, for instance, how does a traditional craftsperson in Western India work with wood? That is very different from a craftsperson in Eastern India, or a bamboo craftsperson in Japan? Exposure to tradition and modernity in different cultures helps us to understand material and a way of working, which has far more depth than you could ever imagine.
I was doing a project in Japan a few years ago. There was an engineer, an anthropologist, a person who worked at a home for the elderly, and an architect, and we all worked together to envision how we could energize the city of Yokohama. We were brought together to problem solve in a way that was really fascinating and much more representative of what actually happens in the real world than what we’re exposed to in a standard curriculum. There are many places that emphasise this hands-on approach, but sadly too few.
What advice would you give to students hoping to work in an integrated design practice like yours?
I think it’s exciting that as a student you are able to experiment in a way you can’t in your professional life. That is one thing I hold dear. If I were a student, and I looked at the projects we are doing right now, I would really want to be part of them, and that is a really nice feeling. It’s quite nice to have the luxury to experiment professionally as one can as a student and push boundaries. During an internship and thesis students set a high benchmark for what they can do in the profession. I realize that I may not have total freedom of choice all the time, but I want the luxury and responsibility to do far more than what is required of me. That’s what I’d like for myself, and when I teach and lecture I hope that’s what I can pass on.
Abigail Sobotka-Briner was an editorial intern for Point Line Projects at the time of this interview. She now works for Siddhartha Das Studio in New Delhi on exhibition, publication, and building projects.