Good morning sir! Thank you for consenting to our interview. Firstly, we’d like to ask you a bit about how the CVA started, its history and your founder’s vision for the firm.
CVA was founded by Mr. Kumar. He was part of an NGO called the CIEDS collective, in Bangalore, a woman’s organization which fights for women’s rights, dowry etc. Kumar was one of the primary members of the NGO. He was a CA graduate and had nothing to do with Architecture. On his travels, he happened to meet Laurie Baker and was influenced by his philosophies, thoughts, and ideas. He also had a few Architect friends who were strong followers of Laurie Baker. That’s how he decided he would become a self-taught architect. Being part of an NGO, he would get many projects and with basic sketches on paper, he worked with contractors to build.
Because he was not of an architectural background, his thinking was unparalleled. He wasn’t thinking along the lines like other architects would; it was more of common sense and questioning. His designs had a lot of meaning because they had a connection with history and how the common people built by themselves. That’s the big difference in how the centre was run. It used to be called a ‘shramik’ and we were pretty much a part of the collective for a long time. After a few years since I joined, due to various reasons, Mr. R. L. Kumar decided to come out of the NGO and that’s when we decided will start a trust and named ourselves Centre for Vernacular Architecture.
So, the principal architects are you and Mr. Khalid Rehman, with you handling the Chennai projects, in and around Tamil Nadu.
Yes, Khalid works based in Bangalore and we decide which projects we do base on the proximity of site. We’re still one entity. In the longer vision, as I Kumar always had, I believe new architects who join us would carry it forward in their own way. We definitely need more people to do this kind of Architecture. We get many enquiries from northern parts of India but unfortunately, we don’t have the time or workforce to execute a project there with proper justice. Ideally, we need more architects who are patient enough to really stick to this kind of work and can toil and learn the hard way, like we did. But today’s generation wants everything fast, so it’s not going to happen easily.
With regard to the work that you’ve done over the years, do you follow a strict rigid code of only vernacular procedure (with local materials in an around the project site) or have you also experimented with other forms of architecture?
We try to keep it as vernacular as possible, that being our basic principle. But the definition of what is vernacular really changes with time because we are in an age of globalisation. For example, If I need to use a certain marble from Makrana, which has to come all the way from Rajasthan. But when you compare that with locally available marbles in the market, we feel that is more vernacular. It cannot be DOT vernacular, as you should understand; however big an architect you are, there are various parameters that decide what the design is and how the project is approached. We also have to give weightage for the client’s dreams and needs because we’re building a house where they are going to dwell, possibly for the rest of their lives.
In that sense, yes, we try to stick to our basic principles of architecture as much as possible. For example, if I get a project where the soil structure is good enough for a basic stone foundation to suffice, we would never do a column structure even if the client insists and is ready to spend 3-4 lakhs. We at least work at that basic level of ideology and philosophy.
Image source: Centre for Vernacular Architecture
Could you tell us about one of your projects that you’re personally very proud of?
For me, a design of a building has to do with the spaces. Recently, I read a book by Sathguru, of Isha where he describes the proper way to eat –we have to assume that whatever we eat also has life in it and it adds onto your life.
And that’s how I imagine Architecture and spaces. The perspective with which you look at it makes an immense difference. It has to do with the environment, the way the spaces are, the way you get the light and ventilation into the house and how it’s treated. For me, something that is really close to my heart, which I’ve personally experienced is a project we built for my cousin in Bangalore, Krishna Prakash. When you’re open to the elements, it brings in a lot of souls. It’s not just about Architecture it’s not just about art, it has to do with the emotion that you get. It cannot be explained with words, you have to experience it. Only then you will understand what I am talking about.
How much demand would you say is there for vernacular architecture today? How do you find clients who are aware of the kind of architecture you do?
10 years ago it was only through word of mouth, we never had a website and not many people will know about vernacular architecture. In today’s world there is a lot of exposure for this kind of work because of the web and media, but when you break down on the numbers it’s still very less compared to regular concrete-steel buildings. This is also because of our limited resources difficulty in scaling up. It is non-standard work, as what we build differs from place to place in terms of materials, technique etc. And people always associate this kind of work with low cost, which is not true in every case; it can be really expensive as well, depending on various factors.
We never market or go up to any clients for any project. Most of our clients find us through our website or word of mouth about our previous projects. Fortunately, we get the kind of clients who want our kind of work. Because of the knowledge and the kind of information available online, they are well-read and know what they want most of the time and it’s easy to build a good relationship with these clients.
What is the frequency of projects throughout a year? Do you swing between hectic and lull periods of work?
We are a small firm and most of our projects are turnkey. We do very few design consultancies. Even if we get around 20 projects a year, we don’t have the capacity to do that many since we’re are a small firm. In today’s world, the real challenge is finding skilled labour and craftsmen. I am still finding it really tough to carry on this kind of work, and it’s going to be even more so in the future.
We are content with the minimum number of projects per year, we don’t necessarily look at the business part as the main factor. Our firm is run mainly because of passion, ideologies, and philosophies. We do not have any kind of lull period; I started working from 2003 and frankly, till now I have never got a break. Whether I do four projects a time or two projects at a time it takes the same time and effort. That’s how taxing this kind of work can be.
Vernacular architecture would often demand that you find particular or very specific craftsmen for custom-made elements. How do you go about finding the right craftsmen?
We have our own team of in-house craftsmen. I’m fortunate enough to come from a culture where Mr. R. L. Kumar and Mr.Murugesan have already set a big team of craftsmen in Bangalore. And I’ve learned from them. After I choose to come back to Chennai, I found it little hard to build a team by myself like that, but if you believe in something, you have to do it. Sometimes you have to be brave enough to think that things will fall in place. For example, I have personally not done thatch-work before, I have only seen places where it’s been done and learned some theory from Mr. Kumar. But now I have built an office in Uthandi and another project using thatch. I went to villages and saw how it’s done. For learning vernacular techniques, the best examples are from the villages. You go there, talk to the villagers, ask them how they source their material, how they build their houses and learn from them. I had learned from Mr.Kumar that the best grass for thatch comes from lakebeds, so when I did a project in Tirukalukundram where the site was right next to a lakebed, I thought of using thatch. In that village, they used only palm leaves for thatch and nobody used grass. I just cut the grass, got a team of people and a project manager and we got another team from Mayavaram to do the thatch. Over experience, you get something called a gut-feeling and when I was at the site, I felt they were not doing it the proper way, but I didn’t know how to do it either. There are no videos, no proper text or guidance on how to do thatch-work with that particular kind of grass. I stopped the work and got another team of people who did it well. Now I know two types of grasses available in and around Chennai which we can source and do fantastic thatch-work.
If you have to do this kind of work, you have to be brave and confident enough to experiment. But you cannot experiment on the clients’ money unless they are okay with it. The way to work with a Vernacular architecture practice is to be brutally transparent and honest with anybody you work with.
Image source: Centre for Vernacular Architecture
Sir, on that note, what would your criteria for rejection be? When have you rejected a project or clients’ demands?
Project rejection happens once in a while, and not only in the initial stages but sometimes even during the process the clients wish to change the whole project into a column-frame structure. This beats our basic ideologies and philosophies and so It doesn’t make sense to take the project, especially as a turnkey, wherein we have to proceed with it for the next one or one and half years. Frustration, anger, fights – all do come in your way when you’re really passionate about something.
Could you briefly articulate the core philosophy behind your practice?
We use naturally and locally available building materials as much as possible. That’s first.
Second, we always work with craftsmen whereby the work is done by hand. We try to give importance for handmade craftsman work rather than industry-processed goods.
When did it first click that vernacular architecture was your calling?
During my fourth year in college, I and a senior of mine were inclined towards climatic design. I started reading about vernacular architecture to get few ideas about this kind of work. After architecture, the only place I knew where similar kind of work was done was Auroville. I was thinking of going there when I got a call from one of my friends who worked in a similar firm in Bangalore, who referred me to Mr. Kumar. Unfortunately, I was the only architect at the time. It was just me and Kumar. Khalid joined just a few months later as a trainee first after which he joined as an architect.
What would you call your criteria for judging an architect’s success? How would you, as an Architect, define ‘success’?
For our kind of firm, I would assume success would have to do with the integrity of what we believe in. For a project, our criteria for success would be how well it can be executed with our strong ideologies, philosophies, and beliefs. It is also about the satisfaction of the self, and of the person for whom you’ve built for. It HAS to be both for the project to be a success.
In terms of success for a firm, it’s essential to first understand that the basic building bricks here are the craftsmen. Our biggest challenge is to get more skilled craftsmen and to retain the workforce that we currently have. We can consider it a success if we manage to get the kind of craftsmen we have now from the future generations, where they take pride in the kind of work they do, and don’t feel inferior about their work but rather find it artistic and are happy about it. I don’t see this happening unless we work on a large scale where many other architects also give some importance to this kind of craftsmanship. A person who has not gone to school or who has been a school dropout and has toiled his hard way in the sun and rain to work and be a master craftsman would need some recognition in society as someone important. If some kind of an institution recognises that and gives them proper certificates, wouldn’t that mean something to somebody? To be a success we have to grow as a society, we have to grow as a team.
Image source: Centre for Vernacular Architecture
Any advice you’d like to give to upcoming architects, builders, craftsmen, etc., anybody who would be interested in vernacular architecture and wanting to pursue a career in the same?
Architects have to be really patient. This kind of work cannot be learned in few days. You have to work many years before you can even think of starting your own practice. Learn in and out, put your heart and soul into what you work, that’s the only way to get better. It’s not only about knowledge but also how you pass it on to various people and build a team for yourself to execute a project. This is vital because you don’t get any contractors for this kind of work or they will be very expensive.
How do you feel we can better equip students of Architecture for practice and spread awareness of vernacular architecture?
Unfortunately, the education scenario today is very bad. Architecture is the most complex profession; it involves history, politics, social strata – it’s not just design. If somebody thinks he’s a great architect because he is a great designer, then he’s a fool. The moment you lose your identity you are no one in this world. Imagine if everybody lives in a concrete glass house, and everybody eats pizzas and pasta, would there be any charm? Would there be any interest for an avid traveler? If you go all around the world and it looks the same, just imagine! That’s what globalization is all about, they want to push into your head that if it has to be an office space it has to be a glass façade and an air-conditioned space but the truth is we don’t have computers which need ACs in today’s world. Only when people start thinking, or questioning what is happening around them, that’s when you bring a change.7