He was born in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh and has studied architecture at School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi. He has experienced a yogic life in Himalayas and is working as an architect in Mumbai. Although, his love for nature drew him to architecture, but Architect Kamal Malik is still longing for a yogic life, as he talks in length and breadth about yogic influences in architecture. He believes that architecture is a social science and one should rely on intuition as opposed to education for architectural direction. Before he set up his own design studio in 1975, he worked with Don Ashton (UK) from 1972 – 1973 and Willi Kaufhold (Germany) from 1973 - 1974. Kamal’s practice has won many design competitions, which include those for the Housing Complex at Delhi (Jury Stein + Kanvinde) in 1977 and the institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Studies, Delhi with Siemens (Germany) – 1981. The other prestigious projects won through competitions include the American school, Novell corporate building, Altana Research Centre and Unit Trust of India Ltd. Building, which are all in Mumbai and the Lupin Research Park in Pune. Meet the ‘yogi’ in architecture. Architect Kamal Malik in conversation with Debajyoti Samal.
Your work exudes a certain serenity and tranquillity, and, you have often spoken of architecture of silence. What do you mean by silence and how does this filter through your work?
I have studied the teachings of some of India’s spiritual masters, who have insisted on the existential approach, focusing on the center and not the circumference, on the subject and not on the object. This inner journey of self-realisation culminates in the attainment of ‘Sanyama’ or Balance: Total ‘Inner Silence’, the absence of all duality. It is beyond all theories, concepts and what we call conventional knowledge. The yogi is not concerned with mind which according to him is simply an accumulation of words from the time a person is born, words of parents, teachers etc. nothing of his own…all borrowed. He is only concerned with his own experience and therein lies the difference between western thought (be it Engles, Kant or Nietzsche based on Aristotelian logic or Nihilism) and the yogi whose journey into silence is metaphor beyond mind. This is not my inference or philosophy, but to embark on this journey leads to a reanalysis of one’s notions, it creates a sense of detachment, not insentience or apathy, but the separation of the observer, the witness.
There can be a possibility where this inner journey influences what we do. I have tried, in my own way, to bring that sense of silence, serenity, and even joy, that is my experience of this thought process, into the realm of the people whose habitat I am designing.
Nature seems to have been the inspiration for so much of your work and it seems to be intrinsic part of your life.
One of the main off-shoots of this journey is that it allows you to view ‘Nature’ with more compassion and intensity and when nature enters any domain, including architecture, there is a different kind of chemistry that comes into play. You suddenly become more aware; ‘activity’ recedes and is replaced by the ‘action’. Sensitivity to all: be it the climate, the sun and wind, sociology, local materials/craftsman, become the bulwark of the design process. Therefore, my approach to architecture is more fluid, no doctrines or ‘isms’ no baggage. Each site, each project presents a completely different set of conditions and therefore response cannot be the same: this brings in diversity and the only under-current that exists is the ‘Balance’.
Your firm logo features the terms Architecture, Ecology, and Spirit. How do ecology and spirit tie into your work?
Ecology speaks of a seamless, cohesive and integrated approach to design. This is achieved through the assembly of a group of highly motivated and evolved specialists in different disciplines. It is about creating lasting relationships that become so deeply intertwined that the whole ceases to be a sum of disparate parts and instead becomes a living, breathing organism in itself.
Luis Barragan said that architecture is the spatial execution of spiritual decisions. For me, spirit implies balance, understanding and tranquillity.
Does your son Arjun share your philosophy?
Arjun went to Columbia for his master’s study, and from what I gather, the school is a crucible of intense conjecture and speculation. I remember being present for his final jury, where his work was being evaluated by Steven Holl, Yehuda Safran, and Lebbeus Woods, just to name a few. What struck me most was the fluidity with which ideas were represented, and exchanged, and evaluated at so many different levels.
Arjun’s approach tends to be more theoretically analytical, but, we largely share the same philosophy. This works wonderfully as we essentially address each project with the same core principles in mind. But, we often interpret these ideas differently, the resultant being a renewed perspective that has strengthened our individual and collective thinking. I can’t recollect a single instance where either of us has had to make any substantial compromise in order to accommodate the other’s thoughts, and since neither of us is overly intransigent, the dialogue continues indefinitely.
You mention the ‘RECONCILIATION OF THE INTELLECTUAL AND INTUITIVE’ aspects of architecture. Could you shed some light on this?
When I speak of the ‘intellectual’ aspect, I am referring to the emphasis on the visual and conceptual dimensions of architecture. I tend to view design as more of a polymorphous construct and less of a linear process. The core issue has always been ‘balance’, the balance between nature and built form, light and shade, and reticence and action. The analysis, assimilation, and extrapolation of information are an essential part of the design process but so is instinct or ‘intuition’. The experience of space is so subjective, so personal, and so complex, that it cannot be contained within the narrow confines of diagrams or models. I personally feel that, like meaningful cinema or literature, the experience of architecture should be a gradual process of revealing, where, with every successive ‘viewing‘ or ‘reading’, layers are peeled back and embedded constructs and metaphors are allowed to emerge.
An overly theoretical approach can skew the balance towards excessive mediation, and the latent potential for a richly complex and heterogeneous experience that evolves, can easily be supplanted by an architecture that is visually complex, but lacking in holistic balance.
But at the same time technology plays a pivotal role in today’s architecture.
Yes, truly, rapidly evolving technology has changed the world, but I would argue that primeval human response systems have not changed too much, and this creates some interesting collisions in the design process, a crossroad, so to speak, where we have the opportunity to make things more intellectually appealing, at the cost of sacrificing something more basic, and in this case, we would unequivocally lean towards the solution that favours the integrity of human experience.
Architecture needs to be humane, it needs to address the human spirit, and for me ‘poetry in architecture is timeless’.
How have globalization affected your work, which is essentially sub-continent-centric?
When I think of architectural production in post-independence India, my first thought is of a massive cultural derailment, with exceptions of course. The bulk of our contemporary architectural community seems to be content with either, internalising the symbols of the West or trivializing our past, rather than making a concerted efforts to rediscover and re-interpret rich heritage. Master craftsmanship, detailing, sensitivity with our past, has been supplanted by a culture of instant consumption.
Since most of our work is in within the subcontinent, the context has to include the larger question of content. Our planning typologies harness the cumulative intelligence of historical parametric forms, some empirical and some intuitive. There are volumetric and spatial allusions to the past embedded in our work.
Yes, some of your projects is also inspired from the works of master architects of pre-independence era, some from the traditional Indian craftsmanship.
One of the first homes I designed was in Delhi, where I referenced the axiality and almost infinite vistas of Lutyen’s plan. We worked with bricklayers who had earlier built some of Laurie Baker’s projects and we sued locally sourced bricks from Agra (narrow bricks) to construct a complex structural vault.
Rajasthan, a region famous for its natural stones, we worked with local stone masons, starting at the stone quarries where we insisted that the traditional method of quarrying be adopted, which preserved the natural grain of the stone. We are working on a home in Alibaug that uses a hybrid wood and steel structure, for which we have brought in a team from the south, a region renowned for its traditional wood craft.
When one eschews style and embraces fluidity and intuition, it becomes more about penetrating the surface of phenomena rather than being captivated by its superficial expression.
The immediate urban context is addressed through more complex typological operations, example the ‘GMS GRANCE PALLADIUM’ where the built mass was lifted over the ground, to free up ground floor space for landscape and trees.
We believe you rely more on sketches and hand drawing than computers.
I tend to view the increasing bias towards computers with some scepticism and as far as I am concerned, they are tools meant to translate our thoughts.
It is true that digital tools have made life so much easier for us; it is the thought process, the ability of the human mind to assimilate vast amounts of tangible and intangible data that determines the output.
There is too much novelty and form finding cloaked beneath a veneer of intellectual rhetoric, what complicates issues even more are the vast amounts of information being disseminated in the media. With attention spans dropping exponentially, the seductive visuals so often associated with digital architecture are fast becoming the norm.
In a sense, that brings me back a full circle to the topic of the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘intuitive’ but it seems that an increasing amount of work is more focused on the piquing the interest of the millions who ‘see’ their work through the media, rather than the few hundreds who will actually occupy these spaces.
How does your practice intend to address the future?
There is an intriguing Sanskrit work ‘Manthan’. Its literal meaning implies a ‘churning’. Every era brings with it a fresh set of conditions. These along with the old when subjected to this process of ‘manthan’ will yield possible directions and solutions that will become the future. Today, there are two major issues to my mind: The ecological devastation that has come about through both the greed and indifference of mankind as also the economic/social turbulence that arises out of excess and inequality. It is now more important than ever for this and future generations to address these critical imbalances, if we are to leave a habitable planet behind. During my last visit to the Himalayan region of Ladakh, I was pained to see the receding glaciers. Does it mean that these major rivers emanating from the majestic mountains will cease to flow? This spectre still torments me and drives my resolve to maintain sustainability and ecological sensitivity as a bulwark for the design process. For without this, where is the future?