Architecture helps me to connect physically and tangibly to people, nature, and emotions.

Architect Shishir Beri is a lover of nature, solitude, meditation, philosophy, yoga, photography, all arts, writing poetry, painting, films, gardening, farming, and deep ecology – all this is exemplified in his work as an architect and him today, as a design professional concerned deeply about nature and sustainability. From designing public spaces to educational, commercial and residential projects, this very capable man has done it all with the love for nature in mind. Read on to know more…

WORDS: RINKU B

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Shirish Beri is a man with simple looks and unconstrained philosophies, who has been whole-heartedly living with nature. One can say that his perspective towards life, society, spaces, architecture, architects is beyond a normal man’s thinking. An Architect, an Artist, a Photographer, a Poet, a Writer, a Philosopher, a Teacher and definitely a gifted human being to whom the world seems quite simple!

Born in November 1950, Shirish Beri graduated in architecture from School of Architecture (CEPT), Ahmedabad in Jan 1974. Instead of pursuing higher studies in the U.S., he opted for living and working in the mountains near Kolhapur (with his father and brother’s architectural firm in Kolhapur) from June 1974. He felt that after studying architecture for six years, it was necessary to decondition oneself and unlearn rather than spend two years learning for Masters’ degree abroad.

Ar. Shirish Beri’s works, which tend to reflect his values and concerns in life have been bearing their distinct mark on modern Indian architecture since 1975. They strive to address his life concerns of man moving further away from nature, from his fellow human beings and from his own self.

Through his work, Shirish Beri probes the multisensory and the immeasurable dimension of space while trying to evoke a reflective pause amidst todays clutter and background noise. He feels that issues of sustainability can be aptly addressed only through the right attitudes and goals. His designs try to achieve an inherent sense of unity and harmony with various natural and man-made elements and forces. He has designed a number of campuses for national & regional level institutions for research, rehabilitation, health care and education, along with various other types of buildings.

His has received tremendous worldwide fame and recognition for his work. His works have featured in various national & international publications on Modern Architecture, magazines and newspapers. His most recently published book “Spaces inspired by nature” is being received very well.

It is interesting to see the relationship between you and nature in everything you do. Please tell our readers about the human being in you.
As a human being too, my concern has always been to design spaces which would help in bringing people nearer to each other. I always prefer open, accessible and participatory spaces to closed, gated communities. Further, I feel very much concerned about the tremendous inequity in our society. We have people spending ₹ 50,000 a day and we also have people who do not eat one square meal a day.

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Thus, as a small gesture, I have created a “Humane Equity and Dignity Fund” from a major part of my personal earnings and savings. This money is used only for the truly needy, the ‘have nots’ of our society and for institutes working for these people. Seeing the smiles on these unfortunate faces is a great reward in itself.

Your poems, paintings, sketches, photography and designs reflect the philosophy in you. What made you choose architecture as a profession?
Architecture helps me to connect physically and tangibly to people, nature, emotions etc. simultaneously. Just as language is the medium for my poetry, space is the medium for my architecture and I have a great fascination for exploring this medium of space. I have been toying with the idea of making an hour longon ‘space’.

Your thought, “Can architecture become an expression of our human spirit, where the measurable and the immeasurable work together?” Could you elaborate on this?
Any architecture becomes an integral part of the users’ existential, spatio-temporal set up. But, many a time, architecture is conceived as a material, tangible, measurable envelope only. To me the intangible dimension of feelings is very important too. Our human spirit is immeasurable too.

So can our architecture strike the right balance between the measurable and the immeasurable?
My film “The unfolding white” tries to explore whether our work can help in taking us closer to this wholeness or oneness of life? It is an attempt to relate my work expressions to my journey, search, understandings and concerns in life. Its 12 minute version can be seen on you tube and on some other ‘world architecture’ sites.

Being a nature lover, how different is it to design an Agriculture college from other institutions?
Central landscaped courtyards as in other projects were proposed here too. As an agricultural college, I had provided special departmental courtyards to grow / display that particular department’s relationship plants.

How special is Kolhapur Institute of Technology to you? What was the thought process behind the design?
It was special then, in the first ten years of its existence. Later the main trustees’ changed and insensitive additions, expansions were done, the amphitheatre was reduced in size, the workshops were mutilated and unfortunately, the spirit of the design got lost.

In 1997, the 8th International design competition, Osaka, Japan, yours was one of the winning entries to win an award. How does it feel to think of it now?
There were a number of Indian entries in this competition. My entry was the only Indian entry to win an award from the 1021 entries from around the world. It felt good to receive this important international award in Japan that year.

Every teacher should be a co-learner. What is that one important learning you get from students of today’s generation?
I always learn through the process of answering their questions. Some of the issues raised are worthwhile and while articulating my answers, I get a better sense of clarity myself. Even in terms of technical questions, I have to be prepared or I have to prepare myself to answer them. Besides this, one stays young and abreast with new concepts and ideas.

An excerpt from your philosophy: ‘Man is being isolated and is missing the meaningful interaction with fellow human beings’. How do you look at ‘technology’?
The problem starts when technology is looked upon as an end rather than as a means. If used judiciously, it can help in bringing people together. But many a times, technology reduces warm, humane interaction. Spaces too can be designed in such a way that they act as catalysts in better human interaction.

You are a different person with simple looks and beautiful philosophies. Do you find anything challenging in life? If so, please tell us about it.
Every person, every happening, everything is a challenge in life…. especially today when all these are commodified for material gains. I see three major challenges and sicknesses of today’s times. We seem to be suffering from.. .. N.D.D. – Nature deficit disorder -where we are cocooning ourselves in an artificial, secure, sanitized man made world that is alienated from nature. .. Poverty of time- where we are rushing around without appreciating what is near us. .. A fatty degeneration of our conscience (in Nani Palakhiwala’s words) where our single minded pursuit of money is impoverishing our mind, shriveling our imagination and desiccating our heart. Thus, I try to and have actually managed to stay away from all these modern ailments. To do so, I have opted to stay out of the rat race and one upmanship; I have been very choosy about jobs so that my involvement in the works in hand is not diluted. Somehow, money was never an incentive.

What inspires you other than nature?
I am inspired by any genuine, creative expression in any art form. I also feel inspired by the lives of people who are contented and happy even with very few material possessions; by people who delve deep inside themselves to realize their fullness and oneness with this life energy; by people who live to make others happy – humans as well as other living creatures.

How should a person be, to work with you? What is the work culture at your office?
That person should first of all be a good human being who is passionate about design. He /she should be on a continuous journey of discovery in life and in design. The work culture in my personal studio /office is informal but with a sense of discipline and commitment.

“Any serious architect’s approach to his architectural design would evolve from his understanding of life.” – Ar. Shirish Beri

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Almost all the production staff sits in my associates’ offices, so my office is small with only 3-4 persons. I do not have a special closed cabin and the entire office is not air conditioned.

Your advice for architecture students opting to spend two years abroad for Masters’ degree.
After graduation, each of them needs to spend some quiet time – a few days alone by himself/herself, to find out what their true potential, their true aspirations are. They should not just go abroad for Post-Graduation just because that is the trend. If what they aspire for matches with what they will achieve abroad, they must go. Once there, they must be open to absorb, adsorb all that they experience there in order to make their repertoire a rich, fertile ground for their designs to mature and fruition. They must remain alert and aware to avoid excessive conditioning.

Major Recognitions:
– Great Master’s award for 26th JK AYA 2017. Only one architect from 11 countries is selected for this award in every two years.

‘Architecture+Design & CERA Awards’ 2014 – “The hall of fame award”. Only one Indian architect is selected / voted to receive this award.

8th International Design competition, Japan – 1996 his was the only Indian entry to bag one of the prizes awarded to outstanding works from the 1021 entries from over sixty countries.

Arcasia gold medal 2009-2010 for the best designed public-institutional building in Asia.

Arcasia gold medal 2017 for the best designed single family residence in Asia.

Cityscape + Architectural review award 2006 at Dubai –in the first three from 260 worldwide entries.

This interview is contributed by ‘The Economic Times Architecture & Design Summit’.