Craft, Beauty and the search for meaning

On the relevance of handiwork for Indian contexts

Architecture is inherently a tool for meaning, for making, for giving our lives narrative order. The age-old indigenous practices of building that evolved in India did as a material response to their local contexts and beliefs. It is this amalgamation of crafting meaning in the inert that the craftsperson represents.

The craftsman seems to pour the artist in him into the thing he is working on, thus bringing out the inherent lines and grain to life—an inanimate object galvanised into a living thing in its entirety, not merely through a designed shape. Everything he creates is with purpose, imbuing the ordinary with a sense of beauty.

Indian traditions of crafts do not exist in isolation, but as part of a larger ecosystem of skilled artisans and industries. Thus, the contemporary design process must also engage these diverse stakeholders and be shaped by their inputs, with the architect acting as a mediator in an emergent and collaborative approach. Their varied perspectives and skill sets inform the final product, with <rt-red>artisans who improvise their craft in a dialectic approach tuning into the architect's vision.<rt-red>

In our work in the studio, we are constantly questioning the story we seek to tell through our buildings, and what our architecture communicates. We ask ourselves—“How can we utilise the immense skill of the craftspeople of the country and make the low-tech aspirational?” These questions are not isolated but are connected to wider significant issues. Our projects are guided by respect for the local and artisanal.

In our design for the Mehrangarh Visitor Centre, the question of reviving indigenous skills played a critical role in the design process. Conceptualised as a lightweight woven steel lattice system that would minimise the impact of construction on the site, the proposal seeks to create new linkages in the fort precinct. With the <rt-red>Mehrangarh Fort in the background, it was pertinent that any intervention enmesh with the existing, creating a dialogue between the old and the new. In this endeavour, we collaborated with local artisans, working with them to develop the jaalis that frame the steel skeleton<rt-red>. This process not only resulted in a space with an affective presence, but through our collaboration with these artisans, expanded both our perspectives.

Similarly in Krushi Bhawan, building on Koenigsberger's version of Bhubaneswar's master plan, our aim was to form a lively point for all kinds of public life in the town. Moving away from the glass-clad blocks that the administrators may have preferred, we collaborated, yet again, with over 100 local artisans to create a vibrant and contemporary narrative of traditional Odia craft, depicting agricultural folklore and mythological stories. Depicted through <rt-red>various local crafts, these elements give the space not only a unique visual identity but also a down-to-earth spirit that feels welcoming, inclusive and collectively owned<rt-red>. The Plaza, which occupies the ground level (acting as an extension of the street) thus, facilitates community engagement and exchange, emerging as a public node.

In a hyper-globalised world, it becomes imperative for architects to consider the message their built-form communicates. One way that we can begin to carve meaning in the homogenised world is by paying attention to our local context. India is a country with diverse cultures, so no single architectural response could ever be appropriate for it. It is only through an <rt-red> emergent process of design that includes all its stakeholders, from the contractors to the artisans that can result in an architecture responsive to environmental and sociocultural contexts.<rt-red>

Attached Projects