‘There is need for a fundamental rethink about the notion of housing’

An exclusive interview by the renowned, Delhi-based architect, Madhav Raman

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An architect and urbanist, Madhav Raman founded Anagram Architects in New Delhi in 2001, in partnership with Vaibhav Dimri.
It is internationally recognised as amongst the top emerging practices in the world with a commitment towards delivering deeply contextual designs that encourage sustainable lifestyles.

Over the years, the practice has garnered much international acclaim including a nomination for the Aga Khan Award 2010 and inclusion in Wallpaper Magazine’s “Architects Directory 2009”.
Its work has been premiated at the Architectural Review’s World Emerging Architecture Awards 2007, the Cityscape Architectural Awards 2008, 2010 and 2016, the Wienerberger Brick Awards 2010, the SAIE Bologna 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction 2011, Asia Pacific Design Awards 2012 and the International Design and Architecture Awards 2013.

Anagram Architects has also featured in the International Architecture Biennale 2010 in Rotterdam and Biennial of Design (BIO23) 2012 held in Ljubljana, Slovenia. For four years in a row (from 2014), it has been included in AD50, the Architectural Digest Magazine’s list of the 50 most influential Indian designers.

Madhav has presented talks at many prestigious forums including the Spring Lecture Series at RIBA, London, the Planning Commission’s mid-term appraisal of the 11th Five Year Plan and the Urban Mobility India 2010.

He has also conducted lectures and workshops on architecture, urbanism, sustainability, non-motorised transit (NMT), Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and information and communication technology (ICT) at the Charles Correa Foundation (Panjim),

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The Doon School, Dehradun, Uttarakhand

Indian School of Business (Hyderabad), Sushant School of Art & Architecture (Gurgaon), Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (Mumbai), Centre for Environmental Planning Technology (Ahmedabad), School of Environment and Architecture (Mumbai) and Institute of Urban Transport (Delhi).
Keenly involved in academia, Madhav conducts a design studio at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, where he also guides dissertations, seminars and research papers.

He moderates the annual Design X Design roundtable in Delhi which aims at building discourse around Indian design across disciplines.
He writes regularly for the Architectural Digest and the Times of India in addition to being published in the “Bahaus” magazine, Architektur Fachmagazin, Designboom and Archdaily.

Excerpts from an interview with the prominent architect:

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What are your views on the evolution of Indian architecture in recent years? And where do you see it headed for in the future?
Youngsters who have graduated have to rethink and reconsider their decision of joining architecture colleges or firms working on large townships.

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More than 15 years ago, there was not much activity, which was why it was a bad time for start-ups. Technologically there has been a transition in the formats of how architecture can be practiced.
There are opportunities that involve working in collaboration, with architects getting together and discussing issues. And with IT being harnessed globally, it has created quite a buzz.
The last five years have seen sustainability become a debate in India. There is now more maturity in understanding the concept.
While things don’t necessarily need to look green, tangible tangibly sustainable strategies have started coming up.
Nevertheless, it is important for things to look green for us to be able to understand them better, which is important in mitigating climate change. Architects must take up the responsibility.
Today, there are 6,200 architects registered with the Council of Architecture, constituted by the Indian government.

In the past five years, the ones was on how to deal with the impact of the slowing down of the real estate sector. What one sees in the sector today is the bottom-end of the drop in real estate and construction.
What happened was a lot of speculation on paper but on ground the situation was different. Hence creating a problem relating to the backlog of built space in urban India (of housing or of infrastructure development).
The slowdown started about five years ago and has now become a crisis which Indian architecture has to deal with. People involved with government projects have also witnessed the slowdown because of the change in government.

The changing political scenarios affect architects, developers and it ultimately affects the end users.
What are your solutions to improve the quality of life in urban India, both in terms of what planners, designers and architects can do, and what citizens have to follow?
Projects like smart cities are not required. We lived in cities even before we were colonised and we’ve had cities of excellence. We had a good quality of life in cities like Varanasi (one of the oldest inhabited places), Delhi and Kolkata.

Each city had its own peculiarity which was enjoyed without having to adhere to a set of standards or benchmarks. It is just that a course correction needs to occur.
So from all perspectives, city dwelling is not new to us, but we have now post-liberalisation started adopting a way of dwelling that is alien to us and different from how we have naturally lived in cities.
There is a particular way in which we have grown up and have found ourselves attached and comfortable in the way where we go down the house into the mohalla where we can interact with people, buy, haggle, get together, gossips etc.
For instance, what would Kolkata be without these addas, how would we have produced the culture that is now a commonplace. Why else would you live in a city if it were not for people?
We need to connect to urban life again whether it is through architecture or urban planning. We need to realise that the only democratic spatial asset that our cities have are not the maidans/waterfront parks/malls, but the streets and mohallas.

Do you take up projects abroad? Is there good demand for top Indian architects internationally?
Anagram Architects has ventured internationally; not for architectural projects, but we have taken up academic

exercises in the realm of planning. We were involved in a programme called Urban Exchanger.
We were working on a project in India where we tried to make an edge between Sangam Vihar, one of Asia’s largest slum colonies, located on the edge of Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in Delhi.
The poorest of the poor stay there and the edge gets flooded and with all the garbage from the slums. So, they were trying to bring about a change.
Group housing projects abroad are characterised by mass housing, which includes high rise and low-income projects, many of which are falling apart.
There is a place in Germany, which had a bad reputation for crime, prostitution, drugs and so forth. It was the place where first time immigrants from Berlin moved in so it is characterised by a diverse population from all over the world, but not essentially very well off.

Since you are also active in group housing, could you share your ideas on how this could help in solving the lack of housing for the poor in India?
There is a need for a fundamental rethink about the notion of housing. It is important to recognise how one agrees with each element associated with housing. The sense of housing belongs in the village. There now exists unnecessary segregation in urban housing and the houses have become receptacles for storing possessions.

What is your advice for budding architects who are pursuing their courses across various universities in India?
It is a fact that blessings, luck and your status affects your career to a great extent. What then remains, minus your fortune is the way you are involved in practising something special and unique in your field of architecture which can have two angles to it.
First where you think it’s a complete waste wherein people don’t count and second where you wish to make a difference and do something for the good of the society.

My advice:
• Choose wisely
• Make sensible decisions
• Give mind and heart the space to expand since design education expands the mind in a manner no other field perhaps can. It is real and deep unlike in philosophy where it is just deep in the mind.
• Tap into the zone whereby just being an architect gives you a sense of satisfaction and immense joy

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How would you define architecture in one word or phrase?
It is hope, it is optimism which gives you a way to think of new details, ideas and designs – it gives you the positivity devoid of which, one would perhaps be hopeless.

Which of the projects have been your personal favourites to work on?
• Our first project, the SHRDC building was the most celebrated one because it was the first one the firm worked on.
• Also, the Ring T Rail Project in Delhi gave an insight at the urban level and was a kind of motivation setter. Another one was a non-architectural revitalisation project wherein just the power of reimagining was the ingredient. Its proposal had zero architecture in it, which was unique and different than previously done projects.

How did college life, to be specific the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, influence you in the way you design, live or think?
Yes it has influenced in the way I used to live, coming from an army background family with stints of studying within boundaries of the residential area where the maximum distance travelled was 10 minutes.
Life at SPA was a game changer and with its culture, a lot of exposure and great memories were imbibed in us which have continued to shape our decisions.

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Major Projects

Anagram Architects is currently involved in several major projects in different areas. A look at some of them:
Hospitality
Business Hotel, Igatpuri-250000 sqft
Ecological Resort, Gir Gujarat-87000 sqft
Hotel Goa -56000 sqft
Business Hotel, Siliguri-13745 sqft
Housing
Housing for Teachers at chestnut, The Doon School, Dehradun-35000 sqft
Luxury Housing, Dehradun-54228 sqm
Group Housing, Dehradun-5.25 lakhs sqft
Commercial
Mixed use development complex, Muzaffarpur-3,218 sqm
Integrated Commercial Complex, Gwalior- 3.21 acres
Institutional
Senior Secondary School, Noida-125,000 sqft
Senior Secondary Sports School, Noida-300,000 sqft

Speaking academically, it has not remained up to the mark and does not bask in the same repute as it earlier did maybe because they are doing the best they can but not the best they should!

What is that one thing you learnt in architecture which no other book could teach?
Managing egos. When you reach a certain level, you must be humble enough and not bear egos against yourself or your clients. Only practice can teach you that, starting from college life where you learn to defend yourself in front of the jury, but to be modest enough to accept mistakes without being egoistic and similar everyday situations.

If not architecture which other profession would you have taken up?
I would have loved to become an economist as the passion of the subject which is still intact and alive.