Negotiating Between Varying Scales: Ar. Biju Kuriakose on running architectureRED

The Lucknow Architecture Festival was held from 04th November to 06th November, 2022. The second day of the event saw a keynote presentation by Ar. Biju Kuriakose. Based on the presentation, we had a conversation with Ar. Biju on the anatomy of his practice, architectureRED.

The following content (text, images, illustrations and videos) for the project is provided by the design firm. 

Every project we do has a bit of us and a bit of our understanding of the world.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose, co-founder and partner, architectureRED

In conversation with Ar. Biju Kuriakose- Co-founder and Partner, architectureRED at Lucknow Architecture Festival

Day 2 of the Lucknow Architecture Festival (LAF) observed a keynote presentation by Ar. Biju Kuriakose, co-founder and partner at architectureRED, on the importance of ‘thinking about the context’ through a practice’s work. In continuation of his presentation, Ar. Biju shared with us the anatomy of his practice, its ethos, and what it strives to contribute to society through its projects.

architectureRED was established in 2008 by architects Biju Kuriakose and Kishore Panikkar, the same year that witnessed the Global Financial Crisis. It took them another year to receive their initial projects, including an Institutional building. Commissioned by a client they previously worked with on a 4000 sq feet commercial project, the 2 lakh square feet project marked the beginning of the Practice’s involvement with projects of varying scales. With Charles Correa as an inspiration, Ar. Biju Kuriakose points out this involvement with projects ranging from the intimate scale of designing homes and home interiors to large-scale Masterplans and public spaces.

As a practice involved in large-scale projects, shaping and developing the practice itself is a critical component in taking it forward. This is the most challenging part for many practitioners in today’s time. In his article on Charles Correa, Masud Taj mentioned how Correa’s practice (called Cottage Industry) operated between largescale urban and the craft-focussed realms, allowing him to effectively shift between any of these- he could design small intimate spaces and also approach large-scale more intellectually and analytically at the same time. In this space, constant negotiation comes into play. This is where the real change happens- transformation happens in these negotiated spaces.

This negotiation starts with developing a business model as an industry and an individual model as a craft.

Every project we do has a bit of us and a bit of our understanding of the world. It’s a space where constant negotiation happens. We can’t ignore the many complexities and contradictions that happen in our context. So, if we are doing a housing project, it isn’t just about the site and the program- we cannot ignore that housing as a typology faces many issues in our context. Hence how do we bring that thinking into the projects that we do? Projects then become a way to demonstrate many thought processes, concerns and observations we have of the typology. They become hypothesis testing- we test through the project and see if it works. It isn’t just about a highly-crafted object. It is about going there and testing these ideas and seeing how to negotiate with them using projects.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

The firm is involved in several large-scale projects, such as a City Masterplan in Oman, several institutional projects, Public Space projects, Townships etc. Biju points out the challenges in dealing with large-scale projects in today’s context.

I often wonder how someone like Correa would have practised on this scale (large-scale projects) in today’s context. Impatient money and thinking direct the projects today. I have heard that projects like IIM Bangalore took so many years to complete. One cannot imagine having a client ready to give 10-15 years to a building today. 

We are constantly thinking about how to develop our practice and continue doing meaningful work. In many ways, the final end product is secondary, our effort is an attempt to address the issues and, through projects, ask meaningful questions. Every project that we do remains incomplete- it leaves us with more questions than answers and we attempt to continue that into the next project. In that sense, we keep doing the same thing again and again responding to the site, climate and context in specific ways.

As a practice, one of the things we did was to bring in 6 associates. They have been with us for 4-5 years now. They are very young in the larger context of the architectural profession, but our thinking was to identify people with similar value systems and passions. We brought them on board to mould them into positions of leadership.

So, how do you develop people to be sensitive and have similar value systems- in other words, can large be a collection of small (individual)? I always tell people in the studio, especially the associates, that you have to self-construct yourself first. Self-construction is the most crucial part of being a creative person. It is a part of who one is as an architect, so you can bring who you are to the table. It then collectively becomes a practice. But, if you don’t bring it in, a large part of you loses out during the collaboration. 

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

He points out the need to maintain one’s individuality, despite the collaborative nature of architecture.

Architecture is collaborative, but there are times when you need to introspect- that doesn’t always happen sitting around the table. We can critique, collaborate, and give comments, but deep thinking and personal reflection are when you connect the many dots and start looking at things holistically. 

architectureRED is attempting to develop a practice handling large-scale projects with this intimacy. To achieve this, they are trying different approaches.

We are almost 40 architects at this point- beyond 25-30, the scale starts getting a bit overwhelming. So, we are exploring many possibilities to try and shape the practice in a way that we don’t lose the values that allowed us to get here. We are playing with the idea of another small office space close to our current office, which could also be from where we interface with the city. 

For Biju, spreading awareness amongst non-architects is a part of running a practice. Architectural Practice, according to him, goes beyond the projects.

We are starting to get involved in many public projects. How do we make them truly public? Can we have a series of exhibitions which present the public projects to the larger public? How would the studio contribute towards this? Apart from the end product of the project itself, can the design process itself become something that brings about awareness, engagement and participation? If you wait for the policymakers and public officials to do this – it may never happen. So, is the practice just a set of projects, or is it trying to influence something?

With an attempt to bring in an impact, architectureRED as a practice revolves around three parameters.

1. Practice: I call traditional Architectural Practice reactionary- clients reach out, and architects react to their requirements and aspirations to try and figure out the projects.

2. Role towards the profession and academics: Every practising architect has a larger role towards the profession- how can they strengthen it? We are involved with academics. Recently we did a studio at CARE college in Trichy- I, along with four of my associates, developed the brief as an extension to some of the thinking and explorations within our practice. Explorations dealt with hyperdensity, the meaning of ground and many other issues that we deal with within the practice. The larger idea was to take back our learnings from our practice into academics. 

Our firm does not practice any one theory; we are more edged towards the theoretical framework that could emerge from the practice itself. For me, practice is, in many ways, about negotiating with the World.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

If you look at any art form, any art in its pure form gets negotiated when you get into practice. Consider a book writer, for instance- they can write 20,000 pages, but that may not capture the reader- so negotiation starts there. Architecture is no different- I strongly believe that what we create through negotiation is a much more meaningful work of art. We may have lost a bit of ourselves in the process, but we allowed many other stakeholders to come in and make it their own as well. It’s much more sustainable and meaningful when this happens. That said, we remain interested in value and are constantly evaluating that. Architecture is the beginning of the generative process, not the end of it. So, we need to believe that the work created through this negotiation is also a work of art.

For us deriving these theoretical frameworks and passing them on to academics is very important because the world is fast changing- every five years, you have a new context, whether regarding politics, economics, or social- the world keeps evolving. So how can we practice a theory that was derived several decades ago in a completely different context?

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

This is where practice contributes to academics. I studied architecture during the prime of revered architects like Prof. Doshi, Charles Correa, Raj Rewal and several others. These practices influenced us more than books. Because you don’t just talk about one project of Correa, you talk about his practice. It is a philosophy of its own. These kinds of practices that produce consistent thoughtful work are very rare today. It’s a complex world and negotiations are tough. Many of us lose our way in the process. How many, in today’s time, are involved in mega projects and intimate spaces that maintain consistency in language and thinking? It is challenging!

3. Role of practice in society: How do we influence and contribute to society? This is part of our thinking within the practice. As a practice, we take up research where we try to understand cities and look at theoretical frameworks within the urban space besides being engaged with many public projects.

These three things are critical parts of our practice- we attempt to influence these three areas. 

architectureRED maintains that the practice is still exploring.

We are very much a work in progress. We are in a very early stage of practice, so we don’t know if most of this will succeed or fail- but we are very excited and fascinated about the practice we do and exploring ways to add value to the world we live in.

It is easy to follow what has been done. Over the years, I have looked at many models of architectural practices- none fit into ours because architecture practice is in many ways personal- several individuals are involved. So, the system has to be adapted such that it fits into our personalities which influence our thinking. If you allow the system to take over, you change as a person and then there is no creativity left because you gave up on who you are. I still believe that the most powerful ideas are shaped within us and are intuitive. No book or teacher can teach you architecture. They can only mentor you. You allow what comes intuitively to negotiate with the conscious intellect.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

Presently, the practice is involved with several projects over varying scales.

We are doing small individual homes and interiors as small as 1000 sq ft. We finished a Masterplan for the city of Salalah in Oman. We are working with the corporation of Chennai to look at the neighbourhood of Adyar in collaboration with UDC and Grain Collective to create public spaces and pedestrian-friendly streets. We are doing a master plan for the new Godrej township in Panvel, Navi Mumbai in collaboration with Sameep’s (Padora) and Abin’s (Chaudhuri) teams.

Despite dealing with various scales, the practice ensures that each member is familiar with every project.

We do not have verticals in our studio- someone could be working on a house’s interiors one week and a city masterplan the other. That is because we are looking at the larger connection. Everything we do contributes to it.

In that scale is the relationship- the living room in a house, a park in a community or a regional park in the city- it is all about the scale. So, when we are working on a house, we are interested in creating a sense of belonging for the inhabitants. In a housing project, the focus is on creating a sense of belonging for the community. Eventually, it is about creating spaces that allow people to come together- create a sense of identity and a sense of place.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

Architecture is about life and people- we are not looking for expertise in specific typologies- then you are a technical expert. While knowing the technique is expected of an architect, architecture is more than that. It is about how you see the larger picture.

When we get commissioned a project, we identify the people who’d be working on it. The culture of the studio is also developed along this. Our intent is always to check if the process is in place.

When we get a project, we ask the client to give us six weeks to conceptualise the project. In these six weeks, we are intensively working and identifying the people who’d be a part of the project. In the last two weeks of the process, we bring almost the entire studio together to work on the presentation. It allows us to come together and develop a culture in the studio and everyone learns from the project. This also allows everyone to get comfortable in working with varying scales. These are intangibles. No system will help you achieve this. Its about the culture that needs to be constantly nurtured.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

When working across multiple scales, people need to be comfortable with the scale.

Everyone is aware of each project. Some people are more comfortable handling small scale, so we do not force them to change that. But, even they need to understand the large scale, so the larger discussion is always about that. 

The project goes beyond the site- we attempt to transcend every project beyond the site and the brief. What are the other things that can be achieved?

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

architectureRED is also working in collaboration with other practices on various projects. Biju shared the work that goes behind each.

Sameep (Padora) and Abin (Chaudhuri) are great friends- we had been discussing coming together and doing projects. We are also working with Urban Design Collective for the public spaces in the Adyar project. It is a collaboration from which we can all learn and benefit. With Abin and Sameep, we are working on 3-4 projects, where each studio takes the lead in one. 

Collaboration can also become ‘Khichdi’. For us, leadership is very important in design- it can be a collection of ideas that, when put together, might not be meaningful. All of us need to give input and contribute, but leadership is important to see things holistically. Its more so in large projects. The negotiations in these projects are not just about design. There are many stakeholders involved with different aspirations.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

Between architectureRED, SP&A and ADS, we have a separate company through which we take some projects together, and that company subcontracts to each firm depending on who is leading it. It allows you to collaborate- you enrich yourself as an architect. We do not emphasise this enough. I was in New York for ten years, where to keep your license, you need to continuously learn to receive points every year from the Institute of Architects. But here, we feel merely graduating is enough- it is not.

He further emphasises the need for Architects to keep up with the changing world.

If you carefully study Charles Correa’s work, you will realize that he was constantly providing solutions to the changing world. He believed in a more European kind of horizontal density built to the perimeter but still built Kanchenjunga in the early 1980s. Similarly, the Salt Lake City Centre in Kolkata. Malls do not contribute to a city’s fabric, yet he designed that mall to almost demonstrate that if you have to do a mall, there is a better way of doing it.

He (Charles Correa) always talked about climate, culture and aspirations. Aspiration is very powerful. To me, he had this understanding that while people’s aspirations were beyond his control, he could show a better way of doing things.

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

That is our role as architects- to constantly provide solutions in the context. And our practice is a response to the context we practice in. We are both a critique of the context we practice as well as attempting to demonstrate design processes that utilise opportunities within this systemic framework, to focus on creating places for people, strengthening communities and facilitating the expression of identities. Our efforts are to provide solutions that are meaningful to the context.

Our role is to inspire people through the work that we do. We believe that if we do that, all the other conversations (on fees, for instance) will end. We need to think if we are adding value or if we are mere cake decorators.

Most of our learnings came from the projects that we did. Some things come intuitively, but when you reach the studio, you analyse them intellectually and see if it gives meaning to the context, site and program. So, you challenge what came intuitively. 

I analyse each project of ours- what came naturally to us? Our work is a reflection of us. A lot of it is trying to find who we are through these projects and then connecting the dots. How did we achieve this? What are the building laws and regulations? How do you produce meaningful work despite many challenging regulations?

Ar. Biju Kuriakose

Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it fails, but learnings are always there. We try to place each project in a very specific way to the site, the context, the program etc. Some things connect the thinking within the practice- the CoE competition (CoE Bangalore, architectureRED was declared the winner of) was an opportunity for us to go all out and explore all this- what is the role of the architecture community to society? What is our attitude? Our approach? How do we deal with context? This is where the design is involved

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