An innovative combination of traditional craft and local materials propels us to rethink how craft is understood
Tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas sits the Ganga Maki Textile Studio – a small ensemble of buildings by Studio Mumbai. In Bhogpur, near Rishikesh, this weaving facility is, like the textiles produced here, handmade, intimate and sensitive. If craft is, as writer Teleri Lloyd-Jones defined, ‘a language of materials, provenance and making’, this building is exemplary. Founding principal Bijoy Jain and his team have innovatively and carefully combined different natural materials to produce a finely textured, functioning facility.
The project, coming two decades after Jain started his practice, shows both continuity and departure from his oeuvre. One of his first major non-residential projects, the design – like his previous buildings – is rooted in craft, place, people and the environment. The scheme sensitively fuses locally harvested bricks and lime, stone and marble from Rajasthan, and Bengali bamboo; likewise, the craftspeople hail from different places: brick masons are local, lime and bamboo workers are from Bengal, stone masons and carpenters from Uttar Pradesh. The departure is in how Jain understands the craft and the restraint the practice has shown in making it consciously visible.
The workshop is a venture by Chiaki Maki, a renowned Japanese textile designer, and Rakesh Singh, a chef turned entrepreneur from the local area. At its heart are four L-shaped studios where weavers and craftspeople make handwoven fabrics and garments. Arranged around a courtyard, the simple rectangular boxes are buttressed on one side by a narrow storage and service space, and on the other by a slightly elevated workspace. The main spaces are made of bricks, finished with lime, covered by asbestos-free cement sheet roofs, and paved with stone floors. Adjacent work areas have stone slab roofs and lime floors. Sumptuously lit, earthy and comfortable, the studios accommodate weavers – mostly men – who sit at their looms in the central, sky-lit area. Women who knit, stitch and spin yarns cosily use the raised workspace.
Of the four studios, the one designed for Maki is distinctive. Not linked to the others, the structure is built with bamboo frames, plastered with mud mixed with dung and covered by a transparent roof with a bamboo trellis beneath, resembling an eloquent earthen house. It is designed specifically for her use while the others are more collective. Maki’s studio accommodates a few looms, with a long, sliced log serving as a table. She develops designs here before they are converted by the weavers into exquisite fabrics in the adjacent workshops.
North of the central courtyard run the blocks housing the dyeing workshop, guest dining and other amenities. Right at the top of the campus sit the owner and guest residences. At the entrance, a gallery invites visitors; this double-height space is covered by a translucent white marble roof that sits atop walls plastered by local craftspeople after they were trained by the Japanese and Swiss artisans who had created samples for the interior and exterior.
This project has gained virtue not because it has used an impressive array of natural materials – nor because it was handmade. It has gained value because of how the materials are used – in keeping with their intrinsic character and purpose. This resonates with Peter Zumthor’s insightful remarks that ‘materials in themselves are not poetic’. ‘They can assume a poetic quality … only if an architect is able to generate a meaningful situation for them.’ In this sense, the practice’s projects are not spontaneous (as some commentators have romanticised them) but carefully considered and mediated. Intention and aesthetic values permeate all decisions. Collaboration with artisans may lead to unexpected outcomes and infuse an open attitude that prevents predetermination of the final state, without indicating that motivation and innovation have ceased. History of craft is not a story of stagnation but of sensible emergence.
Studio Mumbai’s 1,400m2 complex has taken almost four years to complete. Jain’s process of design and construction demands time. Careful sourcing of materials, attention to detail, model making and collaboration is a slow process. Electrical boxes are customised, door bolts specially fabricated, pathway stones laid one by one. Materials also demand that their life cycles be respected: for instance, lime, when used on roofs, requires a patient tapping of its surfaces so the liquid within rises to seal the perforations. The craftspeople at work explained that a surface area of 10m2 requires almost five days to finish. The whole building emanates care and patience.
In this project the process has moved from collaboration to ‘cultivation’, Jain explains. People have not only come together and shared their ideas and skills, but also nourished each other. That is evident in the fluid communication between client, artisan and architect, the level of engagement and the self-reliance that is engendered, he proudly points out.
Jain is not the first person to take such an approach or emphasise the language of materials and making. Laurie Baker, Nimish Patel, Parul Zaveri, Hunnarshala Foundation and many others also adopted this attitude. What distinguishes Studio Mumbai’s work is that it is neither political nor social – it stays away from the discourse of conservation.
Jain’s work is neither about producing affordable buildings, nor perpetuating the integrity of traditional skills – he innovates and embraces change. This is evidenced in the way in which Studio Mumbai has used stone, explored bamboo and juxtaposed materials. Craft, Jain believes, is not merely embedded in materials. It is also about sensibilities and how these are communicated. His view disrupts a tangible understanding, splits the term wide open and compels us to rethink how craft – along with its social concerns – is understood. However, Jain’s provocative position has lost some of its critical potential since his participation in the craft-fetish consumption market such as those promoted by Maniera, a Brussels-based company that commissions architects and artists to design pricey limited-edition furniture.
When questioned about the relevance and scalability of his approach to address the needs of burgeoning urban India, Jain stresses the windows of possibility the practice’s explorations have opened. He insists that the opportunities created by his approach can grow exponentially – and that India has the capacity for that.