Morphing into the New: Morphogenesis

Morphogenesis is one of India’s leading award-winning Architecture and Urban Design practices. It prides itself for reinterpreting India’s architectural roots and consistently employs passive design solutions for a unique contextual language. Its work encompasses a range of typologies across Architecture, Interiors and Landscape Urbanism…

WORDS BY: RINKU B

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Morphogenesis, as the name suggests, is not your everyday architecture firm that is built around a single idea or practice or, the ideology of the founders. The name Morphogenesis as it essentially means refers to the origins and development of form in response to nature which includes process, and structure. Set up in 1996 by Manit Rastogi and his wife and partner, Sonali, built the firm with a shared vision of defining a new emergent Indian architecture. The core ethos of the company is a very bottom-up approach of pursuing process whereby the product would be an outcome of that process. The firm firmly believes that not pursuing a definitive style or to be identified by the work or ideology of the founders but a result of the process that they were pursuing.

Manit studied architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi from 1986, while his earlier formative years were spent in Africa and England. Belonging to a family of Engineers, mostly from the reputed IITs, his interest in architecture comes as no surprise. He says in an interview, “I think it just sort of happens, like a generational thing. The expectation is that you would be an engineer and mine was definitely not to be one.

I cannot really say that I went to architecture school because I am one of those people who always wanted to be an architect but I always wanted to make things. I was contemplating Genetic Engineering at one point- Generics more than anything else. But architecture was something that was very close.”
His father is a civil engineer and during his career, spent his work life in building roads, bridges and highways. For Manit, the choice of architecture came more as a choice based on his experiences, knowing and observing his family. He added, “Architecture was sort of that one profession that allowed me the potential to build something and at the same time let me be the generalist across the board. Hence it was architecture. I then gave the entrance and joined SPA.”

After completing their Architecture studies from SPA, Delhi, Sonali and Manit proceeded to spend a long stint at The Architectural Association, London where Manit pursued his interest in the study of nature, evolution and design processes in association with John Frazer. He also acquired a degree in energy and Environment Studies with Simos Yannas. Sonali studied Housing and Urbanism with

George Fiori and at ‘The Design Lab’ with Jeff Kipnis. Bringing together their bouquet of interests Morphogenesis was born with a vision to contribute to the definition of sustainable architecture for modern India. It was during those formative years in London when Sonali and Manit were completing their Masters, that they both first felt the absence of “India” in the global architectural circuit. While it was exciting for them to attend public lectures, the lack of mention of Indian Architecture was pinching. She recollected – it was in that moment when the entrepreneurial instinct first stung them and the desire to tell the world about their perception of ‘futuristic architecture’ triggered- and, thus, Morphogenesis came into existence in 1996, when the two returned to India.

Sonali is ardently interested in the materiality and craft in architecture and is deeply invested in the detail of building. A strong proponent of the arts, she is also a founder member of Manthan, a platform for creative individuals who seek to share, discuss, engage with and evolve concepts and ideologies. A Fellow of the IIA (Indian Institute of Architects) and the RSA (Royal Society of Arts, UK), she also extends her impact on the built environment as council member of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission.

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According to the Founders, they have tried their best to maintain the core ethos of Morphogenesis as they had wished when they first started out. They add that as much of their focus is on the process of design, they spend even more time on the process of how they work now. Manit adds, “There are 4-5 things that determine how our working processes function.

STARTING OUT AND THE FIRST BREAK:
Some of the firm’s early work included teaching, helping people organise exhibitions and so on. They had an exhibition in Norway at Galleri Rom and then at the RIBA in London in their initial years.

Mahit adds, “Between teachings and the early days of practice, we got our first project which was a small, 400 square feet interior project. That project sort of did well with a few little things which seemed clever at the time, but probably not and someone saw that. Before we knew it we were participating in our first competition in our first year of practice which was the Apollo Tyres Corporate Office.

There were five very established firms that were shortlisted, from mid to large size firms across India and we were sort of by then just four-person firm that participated in the bid. That was a great, fun exercise and I still do not know how they gave us that project.

It was a reasonably large project at that time and a lakh and a half square feet to give to a start-up practice! I think what they saw in our work at the time was what excited them and all credit goes to the Board of Apollo Tyres as they had the faith that someone who has never built anything more than a 400 square feet interior would deliver a 1,00,000 square feet building and achieve all that we had pledged.”

Needless to say that it was a good break for the new firm especially with a reputed brand like Apollo and of course, they gave it their very best. They did many firsts with this building at that time. Firstly, they deconstructed the idea of the office as a singular building, broke it up into multiple parts, built a type of mini city, brought in everything that they knew about passive design, orientations, courtyards, terrace gardens, 100 percent day lighting, linked all the building services to human occupancy etc.

In a way they were the first to working on building intelligence but linked to human occupancy that had to do a lot of coding at that time. He says, “Probably it is quite common to do these things, but the various bits of technologies did not talk to each other.

So the card access technology did not talk to the chiller plant, which did not talk to the lighting system, which did not talk to the fire alarm! Nothing was talking to each other and we had to write protocols to do this which is generally not an architect’s job and I guess should not be but it was great fun. We started that building in ’97 and finished it in ’99. By ’99 March in 15 months flat, all done- full interiors, everything, won an IA award for it, never looked back.”

At Morphogenesis, learning is an integral part of the experience. The Founders feel that when people leave, whether they leave after a year or after 20 years – this must have been the best learning experience of their life and that is the environment that they constantly strive to create and work towards.

TWO DECADES LATER:
According to the Founders, they have tried their best to maintain the core ethos of Morphogenesis as they had wished when they first started out. They add that as much of their focus is on the process of design, they spend even more time on the process of how they work now. Manit adds, “There are 4-5 things that determine how our working processes function. And we have got names for these processes. The first process is ‘First Time Right’. It essentially means that no architect in this firm, from the time you have finished your 4th or 5th year and you come in as a trainee or as a first year; should be made to do the same thing twice because the instructions were incorrect. It is a very rigorous process of first getting all the information, getting your research right, working out what the metrics are for the success of the project, and then everyone in the team works towards that. The objectives are clear. And the winning team is the one where everyone can sense the way it should be at the right point in time and therefore you pre-empt everything. That is ‘First Time Right’.”

The second principle that they pursue is ‘Jack of All and Master of One’. Here, the team is exposed to everything and then they begin to pick something that they are interested in and then they become a ‘Master of One’. They also have to write and publish research papers on that idea so that this thought spreads to everyone else. This helps architects to cope and they can learn from a successful hospitality project and apply it to an affordable housing projector to a master planning project. The firm believes that there are bits and pieces that fit everywhere and it is that ‘connecting the dots’ that sort of leads to a holistic growth.

Then the third principle is ‘Train to Re-place’ which every organisation can learn from. Manit explains, “As you move through the years, you only move up the ladder so to speak if you can train the person below you to take your place.

And that we found was important so that no one hoards information, and information is not used as means of part. Everyone’s culture here is to make sure that whoever they are working with, they are enabling them to be able to take their place, only then will they be able to take someone else’s. It is a learning cycle which is our ‘Train to Place’ program and then we have the ‘Publish or Perish’.”He says, “In our firm as a piece of advice to anyone who joins it – ‘Doing good work is not about managing your own competency. It is about managing everyone else’s incompetency.’ So you should understand that everyone that is doing work here may not be doing their job and you have to work with that and through that deliver excellence and you will get it right.”

Over the past two decades, the firm has evolved into a vibrant cross-disciplinary team comprised of Architects, Interior Designers, Landscape Architects, Urban Designers, 3D Visualizers and Researchers, with diverse backgrounds and specializations from universities the world over. With offices in Delhi and Bangalore, their work spans across India, SAARC Countries and South Africa.

AWARDS & ACCOLADES:
Morphogenesis has been ranked yet again for the sixth time running, among the Top 100 Architectural Design Firms worldwide in the definitive WA100 2017 list, UK. The practice is the recipient of over 80 awards which include being India’s first WAF award winners, 5 IIA Awards to its credit, and 2014 Laureates of the Singapore Institute of Architects Getz Award. Its work has featured in over 600 publications, both International and National. Sonali and Manit Rastogi have co-authored an architectural monograph released in March 2017; ‘Morphogenesis: The Indian Perspective, The Global Context’ published by Images Australia under their Master Architect Series.

In 2009, Morphogenesis became the first Indian practice to win a World Architecture Festival (WAF) Award and the Laureates of Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) Getz Award in 2014 for their work.

Some of their clients include Ascendas Singbridge, Tata Housing, TRIL, Mahindra Lifespaces, Maker, Adani Realty, Piramal Fund Mgmt, Ambuja Neotia, TRUMP, Bharti Land, Infosys, Wipro, ITC, BSE, Zydus Cadila, The British Council, Micromax, RP-SG, Ascott, Starwood, Lalit, ITC Hotels, Somerset and IHG.

THE FUTURE:
Manit adds that the firm was set up with the idea that it perpetuate beyond its founders which is why it was named Morphogenesis to begin with. But for that to happen, he feels that practices all around must learn, and architectural practices in particular must learn not only to create buildings but to create environments that bring in talent, nurture talent, and grow talent. More we see the number of schools increase, more the number of students of architecture are graduating. He feels that it is useless to see why everyone in their field must go out and setup a practice to face again the rigmarole that has already been set up.

At Morphogenesis, learning is an integral part of the experience. The Founders feel that when people leave, whether they leave after a year or after 20 years – this must have been the best learning experience of their life and that is the environment that they constantly strive to create and work towards.

In conclusion Manit adds, “Morphogenesis is an incubation centre. It has to be. It is the ‘Old Bold Ateliers’ that lead the school of architecture like The Apprentice. And the apprentice eventually becomes the Master and that cycle and that process has to continue.