Shilpa Architects Planners Designers is an international award winning architectural design firm founded in 1979 by Sheila Sri Prakash, an architect & designer internationally acclaimed for trendsetting indo-centric and environment friendly designs. In 2004, her firm acquired SGBL Studio, an architecture and urban design firm with offices in Chicago, New York and Seoul. She also executes high-end turnkey design-build solutions through a wholly-owned subsidiary called Stone Lotus. Pavitra Sriprakash, the second generation architect and urban designer is the Chief Designer and Director at Chennai based Global Design Studio of Shilpa Architects. She talks to Buildotech about the firm’s design philosophy, her own architectural perspective and what it means to be part of a legacy.
The firm’s growth, direction and learnings from founder Sheila Sri Prakash
Being one of the few women-led organizations in the field, Shilpa Architects has always had a different approach to design. The firm believes in providing unique solutions to each and every design problem, and always takes into account the ecology, geography and the humanity that is to surround the architecture. Shilpa has always had a focus on sustainable architecture and is known for her socio-economically sensitive planning. After graduating from School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University and Masters in Architecture and Urban Design from Columbia University I joined the firm. Having practiced urban design and planning in New York and Chicago, my own work has been India focused since 2008.
The basis of evolution of design is as important as the end result in itself. As long as any design solution takes into account the requirements for the community and nature to flourish, it will automatically be a unique architecture that cannot be copied or reproduced in any other context than the one it was intended for. The biggest influence and inspiration for me is the city and the complexities within which it functions. Living and working in New York will always be my biggest inspiration. The layers within which the urban fabric works has always fascinated me. There is so much learning that comes from a simple understanding of the demographics and the nature of the space.
Being a second generation architect, there is a lot to learn from the experience and foundation that has been provided by my mother. I am proud of the fact that she is the first Indian woman architect to be named as “Top 100″ most influential architects in the world, by the Journal of Architecture – Il Giornale dell’ Architettura and I am fortunate to be part of that continuing legacy.
The design approach and working methodology for a project
An important element to accept is that the process of architecture is non-linear. We are all taught that we progress on a project step by step from planning a concept, to understanding references and contexts etc. Real projects are much more dynamic and require lateral thinking. The first thing we do while starting a project is to consider all the parameters that are likely to influence the design solution and deal with all of them at the same time. It is important to balance between costs, time, requirements, energy usage, and programmatic use. The firm adopts a lateral approach to any project, which involves a series of iterative discussions to arrive at the final solution. We encourage our clients to interact and participate in the design process, as the evolution of design has to account for their needs at the end of the day. We also like to keep the process flexible and open so that any updates can be accounted for without much change to original ideas agreed upon.
The construction parameters are often defined at the first few interactions with the client. As a firm, while we believe that all projects need to “sustain”, we also believe in Reciprocity as a principle – meaning that a key group of stakeholders can help define the parameters that are important for the shaping of the development. This can vary from implementation of Vastu to the usage of certain materials. The Reciprocal Design Index (RDI) is a benchmarking system devised by the firm and adopted by the World Economic Forum. RDI helps keep an in internal checklist on how a project ranks for Holistic Sustainability. The RDI deals on subjects that vary from directly building related issues such as orientation and climate up to the more abstract health and job creation.
The changes witnessed in the industry during the journey of the firm
Our firm has been in the industry for more than 35 years and has seen the growth pattern emerge over the decades. In the 90’s the boom was in new technology and creating new large office complexes whereas in the new millennium the focus has been on urbanization and coping with rural migration and the demand for housing in urban centers. All of this has happened under the umbrella of sustainability and affordability which is indeed commendable. India is the third largest footprint of green buildings in the world and considering this movement began in the west, we have been quick to adapt and follow. A lot of the initial work by Sheila Sriprakash has been in the field of affordability and cost effective design in building technology. Sustainable development needs to be both energy and cost effective for a sensitive economy and these ideals have always aligned to the overall growth story of our urban centers. That way design solutions remain relevant through the various ‘development booms’ – be it in commercial or residential development of cities.
Today, there are many design firms in the construction industry that have evolved over time with a lot of experience. These players have recognized the importance of organization and a professional setup and are handling large projects. However, with the various economic segments in the country, there are several smaller players still working on informal setups. It is a constantly changing scenario and the market currently lacks the maturity for demanding a highly organized sector in many parts of the country.
At the same time, the professional developers and contractors have started following stringent quality measures. Right from the safety of workers at site to the design process and respect for fellow professionals, there is a lot that has improved in the last few decades. Change across all sectors irrespective of the scale of the project is where we have to catch up. In today’s media, there is a lot of coverage when buildings fail to perform. With this type of widespread knowledge, the market will also start demanding more from the industry in terms of quality and adhering to standards thereby demanding a more professional approach in general
I think the biggest factor shaping our environments is the new empowered Indian, one who is proud and respectful of his heritage, but has enough worldly exposure to demand an outstanding space. With people traveling and seeing past their boundaries, there is the appreciation of what India has to offer as well as the potential of learning from outside. This is what makes a compelling contemporary architecture. For instance, Shilpa Architects design ideal of indo-centric design closely ties in with India’s cultural and artistic heritage while creating and designing modern contemporary structures. All projects engage local artists or local architectural technique that blends in seamlessly within a contemporary framework.
Shilpa Architects design philosophy is based on Socio-Economic-Ecologic Sustainability – Holistic Sustainability. This can be defined as the creation of socially sustainable development while ensuring the highest levels of energy efficiency for the same. While today’s definition of sustainability refers purely to the performance of the building in terms of energy usage, Shilpa’s designs aim at ensuring that a building solution takes into account the economic sustainability of the community at large.
Role of specialized consultants and international design firms in India
There is no way with the complexities of projects in today’s context that the architect can be the sole designer or design decision maker. There is definitely a lot of value add from having specialized consultants as part of any development team. However, I do believe that architect is still the sole decision maker of a project – in the sense, the final coordination between various disciplines have to be vetted by the architects to maintain coherence and a unified design aesthetic. Communication is paramount – we have to make sure the entire team is on the same wavelength and this is only possible if there is a single voice that is constantly reinforcing this.
The trend of international firms coming into the country is one that has seen its peak in the last few years. With growing opportunities in the country, it was only a matter of time before international players came in. The challenge that most international firms face is that they are not prepared for the complexity of the building process in India. The permitting and the decision making process here is truly unique and requires a lot of local know how to be able to work within.