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Workshop by Studio Mumbai, Alibaug, India

Based in a plantation in Alibaug, the Studio Mumbai workshop demonstrates a return to craft

‘It’s impossible to have a favourite,’ explains Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) curator Abraham Thomas, ‘however, Studio Mumbai captured the spirit of our exhibition perfectly’. Staged to demonstrate ideas about refuge and retreat, the V&A’s recent exhibition, 1:1 - Architects Build Small Spaces (www.vam.ac.uk/smallspaces), features seven temporary pavilions designed by practices yet to build in the UK.

Thomas credits the AR’s Awards for Emerging Architecture as his principal source of inspiration, with many of the 19 firms who were invited to make proposals being familiar to these pages. This study focuses on one of the seven finalists, Studio Mumbai’s entry, In-Between Architecture, and follows a visit to Alibaug, India, where the AR witnessed the prefabrication of the piece at first hand.

With a more conventional design studio in Mumbai, most of the firm’s hard graft takes place in a rural plantation 30km away, where founder Bijoy Jain and over 100 craftsmen work together in simple shelters or beneath the trees, designing, prototyping and constructing.

‘In our practice,’ explains Jain, ‘there is no separation between artisan and architect. Every part of the process is exposed and everyone takes their share of responsibility.’

This equitable, craft-led attitude to producing architecture was first introduced to Jain in Los Angeles, where he worked in the model shop of Richard Meier (making models for the Getty Museum) while studying under Studio Works founder Robert Mangurian.

His tutor was, he says, instrumental in initiating him into this method of working. Following a brief period practising in London, Jain returned to India in 1995 to set up the Studio Mumbai workshop, a vast operation that makes Renzo Piano’s urban equivalent look insignificant by comparison.

Recalling other influences Jain says: ‘We were constantly chasing guys to come to our sites to properly finish their work. Having to settle for substandard work and still having to spend money made no sense. So we thought, let’s just do it ourselves.’ That was 14 years ago and since then the firm’s reputation and scale of output continues to grow.

‘Our way is quite medieval, recalling a time when architects were builders,’ says Jain. It is, however, far from archaic, with Jain running an extremely tight ship. Working closely with their clients on bespoke houses they operate on an open-book, cost-plus-profit basis, so the client always knows where their money is going. They also produce large-scale mock-ups and prototypes that add a creative transparency to the process, which gives clients the confidence to proceed with what are often quite sizeable investments.

Studio Mumbai currently produces two or three houses a year, but Jain is confident that he will be able to take on bigger contracts. This is largely down to his increasingly confident and highly skilled workforce. ‘It’s incredible,’ he says, ‘people with skills just turn up to work and some are part of a 60-generation lineage of craftsmen.’ Prior to coming here to work, it is likely that few of these men had any idea of their true value. Now they have a contemporary focus for their skill, and with many of them becoming long term collaborators, there can be no suspicion of exploitation.

If Jain was ripping these men off, they would simply get trained and then vote with their feet; there is no shortage of work in this country. As it is, however, Studio Mumbai is shaping a highly sustainable and productive operation of which Jain can be extremely proud. It has harnessed one of India’s most precious resources, affordable skilled craftsmanship, and adapted traditional techniques for a more contemporary purpose.

As we walk, he introduces most people by name, including a 22-year-old who has worked in the plantation since he was 16. ‘That’s a yoga position,’ he explains as the young man deftly sits on the floor, using both hands and feet to work a piece of teak. ‘He can sit like that for hours,’ he confirms.

When asked for other influences, Jain again refers to the US west coast. ‘In some ways we operate in a similar manner to how Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra did,’ he asserts, ‘at a time when California was an open territory of opportunity, with architecture responding to large post-war migration to LA. These guys did a lot of the work themselves, and they too had to build stuff affordably’.

Walking through the stunning plantation that is part workshop, part archive and part showroom, Jain is constantly picking up samples and sketchbooks: a traditional glue-free timber joint here, a piece of ironmongery there, all of which have been designed and manufactured on site. Many larger elements also remain here, with full size mock-ups standing among the trees like works of art.

Pointing to a model, he says: ‘something like this will take three days to build, the same time it would take our men to produce a drawing of it. The mock-up is much better, giving the client a greater sense of what to expect by touching it and making our ideas tangible.’

Walking past a large part of Palmyra House (AR December 2008) and a section of the Belavali House that we were to visit later that day, Jain finally stops next to what appears to be another 1:1 mock up. It is in fact the V&A installation in preparation. ‘This piece is a record, like a measured drawing of a slither space behind our studio in Mumbai,’ says Jain. Complete with a temple, a veranda, a place to sleep and a courtyard, Jain describes how the installation communicates the dignity with which people occupy these sorts of places.

‘Slither spaces are illegal settlements, and as such represent an architecture that should not officially exist.’ Nevertheless they exist all over the city, often stacked on top of each other, self regulated and even with understood networks of fire escapes. ‘Everyone knows these settlements exist, but they appear to be camouflaged, says Jain. He originally wanted the installation to communicate the nature of this camouflage, through an eclectic palette of materials. However, when Thomas offered him a location in one of the V&A’s fine plaster halls, Jain switched to that material, casting pale plaster against smooth plywood and corrugated sheeting to replicate different textures.

Mimicking the surface of many of Mumbai’s slither spaces, he created heavily pitted panels, which were used to clad the ingenious timber egg-crate structure. With work on the installation nearing completion, Jain was looking forward to giving eight of his home-grown carpenters the opportunity to spend time in London, when they would ship the installation to the V&A. ‘Many of them have never even left the region, so they are very excited,’ he says. So for a few at least the benefit of working for an internationally renowned outfit is clear, spending time in London, where Jain was able to take them on an impromptu architectural tour.

This operation is very much about the exchange of cultures and of knowledge. And with echoes of the sort of education offered by Rural Studio in the US, Studio Mumbai is an ideal place for overseas architects and makers, young or old, to spend time. However, as Jain says with caution, don’t be in any hurry. He is sceptical of short-term internships and won’t accommodate them. ‘I have discovered there is an urgency with most interns to get to the end of the process. So I say they have to be here for at least a year.

But even then, they want to start in the middle of the process. By comparison, most of my guys started work when they were 10, spending months just learning how to sharpen blades. Working as an apprentice is more about tempering than about trying to get somewhere in a rush.’ Pausing to reflect for a moment he concludes, ‘this is a fact that I too had to learn from myself, not so very long ago, when I came back to this amazing place.

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