India is going through a cultural colonization, says Shimul Javeri

Award-winning architect Shimul Javeri on the conflict between design practice and the hype about sustainable and culturally authentic spaces


Shimul Javeri says two delusions have permeated the profession: that architects can be selected through an assessment of their fee proposals and architecture that is unusual is good. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Shimul Javeri says two delusions have permeated the profession: that architects can be selected through an assessment of their fee proposals and architecture that is unusual is good. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

New Delhi: Shimul Javeri, one of India’s best-known architects, was awarded the Prix Versailles award for restaurants and the special prize for an exterior (hotels category) at a ceremony held on Thursday in Paris, the world headquarters of Unesco. Javeri was honoured with the World Architecture award for commercial stores, hotels and restaurants for her work on the Marasa Sarovar Premiere Hotel in Tirupati, completed last year. For the hotel, she interpreted the Dashavataras, the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu, through symbology, colour and emotion, an intangible yet powerful architectural tool. The founder and primary architect of Mumbai-based architectural firm SJK Architects, the 53-year-old Javeri speaks in an interview about the dangers of public architecture being assigned to the lowest bidder and the significance of an architect’s role as a professional to help unearth cultural legacies. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea of interpreting the ‘Dashavataras’ of Lord Vishnu for the hotel in Tirupati come up?

Tirupati is synonymous with the worship of Lord Vishnu. The hotel services temple devotees—individuals and families, wedding parties and conferences who choose this location for the divinity it offers. The rich mythological stories associated with Lord Vishnu find expression in the walls of the temple and its ancillary areas. Images of varaha the boar, matsya the fish and even the axe of Lord Parasurama abound in the relief work on the stone walls. The Dashavataras or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu is a beautiful mythological story about the evolution of man from a fish to a king to a spiritual man. The story lent itself well to the idea of various public spaces in a hotel—each fulfilling a different need in human life—water, food, peace, strength, competition, social interaction, intellectual interaction, each represented by an avatar through colour, symbology and emotion.

Is there a segment of religious tourists who understand, seek and appreciate ‘divinity inspired architecture’?

Marasa Hotels intends to set up a chain of hotels catering to religious tourism. The other proposed locations are Bodhgaya, Rishikesh, Shirdi and perhaps Konark. Our belief is that clients for these hotels will primarily be devotees who will enjoy a continuation of their divine experience in the hotel they choose to reside in. The design for each hotel draws from the tenets of the religious environment of the city as well as the climate, mythology and materials of the region. This creates a unique opportunity to reinterpret some of the elements of religious architecture in areas as diverse as Tirupati and Bodhgaya where the practice of religion and its manifestation in architecture is distinctive and unique.

The project in Bodhgaya, for instance, draws from the traditional architecture of the Bodhi temple derived from the brick- making traditions of the East of India—the simple brick arches and vaults of that region. It also embodies the more austere, middle path of Buddhism.

Can architecture offer solace to human existence?

I would hate to answer this question in the negative because it would devastate all the idealism that architects live by. Architecture is both a symptom as well as an influence on the society it exists within. I have no doubt in my mind that an environment is hugely influential on thought, emotion and general well-being. However, humans have immense resilience and adaptation, and therefore the ability to ignore and desensitize themselves from their environment. That is another form of alienation that capitalized globalized economies have created.

There is so much hype about sustainable design in architecture. At the same time, urban spaces reveal a huge chasm between the professed and the practiced. What do you think?

That’s a very important question and one that is true for life in general. The more alienated human beings feel from certain core values, the more they profess to practice them. It’s a way that human beings deal with a reality that they know to be intrinsically problematic but feel overwhelmed by or incapable of changing. Both capitalism and colonization led to an alienation from people and nature, and the loss is pronounced and obvious.

In India particularly, we are going through a form of cultural colonization where we believe that our late entry into globalization warrants a speedy inclusion of the symbols of global success—glass and aluminium; steel and concrete.

With multinational practices, the need to be culturally relevant is clearly seen as important, but the language seems to remain somewhat universal. Global trends then get packaged as local influences. For instance, the metal “skin” over buildings is a global trend that now attempts to shroud the glass box in a more palatable outer layer that can speak of local influences or simply add uniqueness or aesthetic value. The glass box can then remain a highly conditioned, monolithic solution to the more complex needs of diverse people and situations. In India, this skin will then be referred to as the reinterpreted jali even if it does not bring in light and ventilation like the real thing.

What do you think about patronage for art and architecture in the public domain in India?

Historically, one gauges the evolution of a society and its leaders through the patronage provided to art and architecture. Europe, even today, has an incredible number of public projects being commissioned using architectural competitions and patronizing architects—with sensible fees and capable referees. This is beneficial to the built landscape and the creation of a breed of productive architects. The State of Architecture Exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art recently highlighted this issue through the timeline of post-independence buildings. While there was government patronage in the early days of independence, this has reduced greatly.

Current public architecture is being auctioned to the lowest bidder. There is a serious lack of understanding of what constitutes good architecture both in the public and private sectors.

Two delusions have permeated the practice of the profession. One is that architects can be selected through an assessment of their fee proposals. The other is that architecture that is unusual, over designed and contrived, is good. An architect’s fees are a small percentage of the project cost, but his inputs can make a huge difference both to the cost as well as the impact. Besides, architecture has not been discussed adequately in public forums for clients to understand nuances and critique it intelligently. Once again, the “patron” is the one that understands, encourages and facilitates good architecture— currently a rarity in India.

How do you define your convictions as an architect?

I think aesthetics is a reflection of how one views the world. Egalitarian democratic societies, a deep respect for nature and living with it, and a fundamental belief in people and their connectedness drives my world view. This translates to buildings that sit comfortably and naturally in their environments— shorn of a certain egotistic individualistic character—buildings that embrace natural materials, the sun and the wind.

My personal preference for cotton clothes, all things natural—including ventilation and light; pure, whole foods as opposed to anything processed—is the basis of my design philosophy. I have little tolerance or aptitude for anything false, including false ceilings—we consider them an excuse not to think.

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