Architectural Language and Standardization - #Analysis03
Taking on an ideological position or prescribing to a set of values is common amongst architects. Our studio investigates the relationship between ideology and practice and thus by extension-design. In this blog post we will be looking at two questions:
Do these ideologies translate to a signature architecture; in other words can we recognize a building designed by a practice?
What kind of standardization happens in the practice as result of specific design processes and values?
Ranging from typical details to drawing templates; how do practices’ view standardization and systemization in the office. Has this changed over a period of time?
Let’s take a look at what different practices had to say.
If a project or building can be recognized as our building then I believe we have not evolved. We don’t want our work to be identified by us, we don’t want to commit to anything aesthetic, and visual, etc. we want to do quiet work that has a longer shelf life. People might recognize our work later but we don’t do it with that intention.
Our primary way of working is by an extensive reinterpretation of the brief – I believe in delaying pen to paper- and acknowledge the shakiness of the ground. We do have standard templates for execution drawings. We copy a lot, like some other architects do a new thing, we want to do the same thing to understand how it works, like a reverse engineering, I feel no shame in copying. It’s become an important tool of learning for us.
There are certain aspects about the architecture of a project, which are prominent and certain aspects of language whose grammar may be recognizable. That is also to do more with how things are made than the process. There is definitely a fascination with crafts and its exploration.
The process is very different (for different scales of projects), it would involve a series of sketches and plans in the conceptual stage, then several study models for different spatial possibilities at a 200 scale, then we arrive at a plan and finalize with the client, then a physical model at 50 scale and work on 3ds like sketch up an 3d renders to explain to the client our vision, then detailing each space, so the number of drawings involved are nothing short of 300 drawings per house.
Whereas for an onsite type of project, these are usually the nature of a renovation, one is we have something already that we are responding to, so it’s not a blank space of paper, what happens is at site, in that place, in terms of a simple conversation - this is the space and these are the possibilities and options, they decide between a/b/c and after choosing immediately we start drawing, and then we choose doors and windows in the conversation itself. So 2-3 architects are part of this conversation who are also drawing and right there we decide over many options.
There is great extent of standardization, working with steel and lap joints a few years ago, now after working with steel for so many years, we now have a large volume of detail that we can just borrow from instead of inventing again, another example – wood details, we also provide quantities of wood to the carpenter for every piece, sometimes the sections are bigger and sometimes smaller, the type of wood indicates what size will be needed and we have those set details, so when a new intern and architect join a project we lead them to these folders of details that they can pick up and use. Similarly for the errors, we eliminate them from the archives so they are not repeated. Even toilets and residences
(Do these details cut across project types?)
Yes of course, when we make a bedroom, we are careful to make one wall which has a large opening and other walls have smaller openings, to a certain extent, we know the size, the type of window etc. for the small windows. For the large one it is different in every project, the small ones are fixed with the sun shade detail developed overtime. Standardization is not just about simplifying the process, it’s also a way of documentation, and you record your discoveries.
Maybe you're referring to recent works which can seem like they have planarity in common. Our practice is made of frugal projects, very simple, mostly brick concrete, there's also high emphasis on efficiency, certain typologies allow more play than others, what can you do within that typology, the planar outputs have come out of those things, and not our desire to do it. There is also a desire to systemizing things, categorizing it plays a huge role, systemic architectural output is the quest. Then how do you do tectonic things? One also has to see our work more carefully, because our work is not the most photogenic in the sea of photographs out there.
Some things are method based, we are a rationale thinkers, so we would start with notes and tabulate things or not even a model, and this is not sacred and changes. But largely, that happens. It’s not a kit of parts, we are intense about trying different combinations, and every little thing like grip, edge, nature etc. is articulated in depth. It’s an exhausting process, the way our studio works, and sometimes feels foolish to operate like this in today’s context, of course it may end up resembling an existing detail, but that is not premeditated.
In India you have to shout to be heard, now we are getting more restrained and clean in our approach, it depends on the time. People around us say they can recognize our building, but we don’t have commonalities in material, form etc., because we respond to context holistically which is bold. That means you can’t use the same solutions everywhere. There are affinities to brick etc., but it’s not compulsion, we deliberately try to do different things. Hence only the attitude remains common. It does happen that similarities can be seen in the projects of the same time, like one teams work will talk to other teams more than they should and inform each other.
For us, cultural things, method and communication have standardized, like they will always see a collage first to give the full emotional vibe of a project when we start the process.
There’s a little bit of a signature that one wishes to do. But I think architecture is about evolution from project to project. - I wish we do not do standardized details and that we have the time to develop new details for each new project. You know that if you don't standardize certain basic details, you'll never be able to use that springboard to go and develop something else. Then you'll be struggling to develop procedures everywhere. So what works well, you should standardize and move on so that you can develop and evolve in every aspect- refining and getting better. So I believe more as an evolutionary idea, where you build on one project after the other and after the other.
Any project requires time to mature and evolve. What we have consciously done is to say no to delivering things overnight. Some clients understand this and some don’t. It doesn't mean demanding endless time but we structure time for projects - for a house maybe a month as design time, for larger projects two months which we have to give or else the project would fall apart. We tried to cater to the clients' needs as they required earlier but with time realized that we were not happy or satisfied and neither was the client as we weren't able to deliver as much as the project deserved.
Time is an important part of our ideology and once it’s been set, it’s rigorous. We try to work hard during the weeks and continuously take Saturdays and Sundays off to recharge and come back. Only if there’s a competition or deadline or site visit, do we work on Saturdays.
So we had to get down and use our handcrafting skills to set up systems so that at least the drawing matches my hand. For our generation of architects, our hand drawings are still our reference. Standardization as an output from a computer on paper. I would say that's the primary reason and that's just to focus on design.
We try not to have a set language, we don’t want to blend in or be recognized as a language, now we have larger context or a certain latitude and longitude that we try to address, we are interested in the subconscious, hence the body, form, structural system is immaterial to us, the sub layer is what matters to us.
SOPs are for drawing, model, resolution, detail related etc. If using 3d model, all steps are put in system for all softwares, 20-page employee contract – which include everything you do, like cigarette breaks, which is a 3minute break. It’s not set in stone, but it’s there to time yourself and being aware, not that we follow like strict code, but it’s to understand what is efficient and what is not. Thanks to zoom now we now have SOPs recorded as lectures, for electrical services which interns go through, for Lumion etc., a whole archive of all these exists now.
Other people have sometimes recognized our buildings, but we don't look for having any continuity in language. I always think of doing the “leave a mark in every project” but I am never able to. Like leaving a plaque not as an ownership but just as a record of its history. I’ve never been able to do it though, maybe because time never permits.
I think architectural language is also a kind of uniform, if you don’t make it wear one that then it won’t be recognized, the point is not what clothes they are wearing but how they feel in them, that should be the focus, if a uniform fits, that’s great, but if its forced like maroon for management, maybe then it’s the large scale which depends on those conditions. There will be clients who have fancy briefs for the show in society, stones from around the world just for one manship through a building, Italian marble even if it’s mined in turkey. A Zaha Hadid would not mind, as long as the building uniform is coming out well, these small things don’t matter, but they do to us.
We don’t have a particular language aesthetically, but rather a diagrammatic value. But that can also be any other house, but we do insist on a diagrammatic take away and not just go on making buildings. Say it is a house in a house, we like to do tests and go back to study the project after its done, to learn. We aren’t so sure of ourselves, so it helps us. Or let the clients tell us what’s not working and change it for them. We usually are responding to client tastes and interests.
We avoid standardizations, we have those things for drawing standardizations, like for software and quality of the drawings generated, we have guidelines for how to go about a project, but we don’t insist on all teams following it, each have their own methods, how drawings should be sent, how minutes are to be recorded, so logistics are standardized, none are for design related reasons. We are very vary of having a library of design details, we like to maintain that integrity of a diagram, materiality, ideas etc. but for things like a standard railing detail, it can be done, we insist on a vigorous review before repeating it.
I did my masters in digital-scaping, parametric, a very postmodern language – the education tended towards breaking programs and departments. Everything influences architectural language, my masters was open ended, it’s been an amalgamation of various influences, language can be about many things, like it can be just about communication. It’s the deeper concerns of human behaviors and climate etc., those are the first principles that guide design and not a fixed language. For example for openings – we have a rational explanation – location oriented- say we use louvers, we’ll find ways of justifying that and making simulations to prove that it’s not architects ego, you also have to see if the client is capable of maintaining the design details you propose.
Standards definitely affect projects like hospitals, but we don’t go back to our own work as much either. We don’t have standards even in the same project and that’s a problem, there should be some standards, we have a layering system AIA, from a firm we worked at, we borrowed that, so standards exist for drawing but nothing else as such. We know now that certain modularities allow non-standardization, so sometimes there are strategies like that that are standardized which allow different design, but we have not done that for detailing, but the design strategy as standardizations is really amazing.
There's a difference in saying - “I have a project for you” instead of “give me a project”. You get an appointment with the CEO and get to explain. But out of 15 pitches only 2 got accepted and then they didn’t get built, but years later they brought us different projects, which was good, that’s how I grew the network - (about project process) it developed comes with a land size diagram, this has a lot of legal issues, land has many aspects that way, so we start with numbers, built up area possible, then the decisions come in 2-3 months, then they will have competitions with 2-3 architects for 1 week, you have to be very quick, you have to know how the developer thinks and what kind of designs they tend to, so you need to have templates you can play with and organize, and send it.. We add value with greenery, they give us the project, then we throw the template and ask for a month since we already have the advance, so we can test all possibilities with consultants etc., and make it more efficient.
We find a reference project – draw inspiration – the working drawing has a protocol, checklists, peer reviews, standards for openings etc. that get fine-tuned over time with every project. What is working today, will not work two years later. We have now moved in to full 3d modelling, we have never done a physical model, and also I personally dislike the pressure put on a physical model in the fraternity.
We use this project management software made by architect for architects. You log in, all emails come there, it has centralized contacts, action lists, time sheets are also built in, it automatically computes, you can add client meeting and events, the events fill time sheet automatically, also emails are based on projects, no individual emails, saves a lot of email hour time,
It’s something outsiders would be able to notice, but we internally never intend on that. We have heard that from people, they recognize a building as ours. Because of our conditioning and admiration from a long time for modernists it stays in some ways in the language, but it depends where you are. Gujarat and Surat are very different contexts. Surat is tending towards Mumbai in terms of aspiration and aesthetic. It’s changing now too, but it was a challenge for us to do those things and get that sensibility in to the clients also. In terms of standardization we have SOP’s for everything, we have an extensive excel sheet system for all kinds of process stages, even snags and errors in projects. We also have an extensive drawing system.
There is no signature with our work, we do not depend too much on a standard bank of details because we think every project has to be dealt with differently. Even though details are available but still we never copy it, we like the learning that happens in redoing and reinventing the details. Every new person that takes that up adds value or questions those standard details. We do particular attitudes towards certain things like material expressions and details. It’s not about efficiency for us, we don’t want to be efficient because it makes us lose the ability to question things.