The Indian architect explains why he considers air, water and light to be as important to his creative process as bricks and mortar.
When Bijoy Jain talks about architecture, he doesn’t use words like “foundations” and “plinths”, “rammed earth” and “reinforced concrete”. “We can get drawn into the technical aspects of building but that wouldn’t challenge our conditioning of how we create architecture,” he says as he sits down with monocle in a sunny courtyard at his South Mumbai home, where we’re surrounded by his squad of dogs. Jain has reimagined the former warehouse as an office-cum-residence in his signature style.
When talking about his creative process, Jain prefers terms that are more commonly associated with philosophy, liberally using words such as “haptic” and “priori”. Whether he is working on a residence in Chondi, India, or furniture for Hermès, philosophy helps him to conceive, design, refine and construct with “optimum efficacy of all moving parts” (by which he means everything from cultural norms to material choices). Jain is known for picking what he considers to be the right materials for a job – such as locally available stone – instead of following standard practice. He explains that this outlook “comes from the immediacy of what a place can afford and how something can emerge from that”.
Jain describes his approach to design as a “continual process”. “You fall, pick yourself up; you try again,” he says. After graduating from Washington University in St Louis, he started making maquettes (sketch models) for American artist and architect Richard Meier in Los Angeles. “It allowed insight into what it meant to make things, about what’s involved,” he says. He continues to use models as part of his creative process. “Just as musicians use sheet music, a model allows you to communicate the construction of a place.” This, he explains, is especially important for artisans who are part of the give-and-take involved in making any building or object. “There are five people in a free-jazz orchestra,” he says, continuing the musical metaphor. “Someone starts. A sound is made. Then there’s a response to that. What occurs next is something that you only discover when the movement settles.”
From LA, Jain moved to London before returning to India in the mid-1990s to build powerhouse architecture practice Studio Mumbai. Today he is constantly on the move but the city he named his studio after – and calls home, at least for parts of the year – is never far away.
Ask him if he thinks this dense metropolis of more than 20 million can be transformed for the better and he falls back on his often-repeated trope of “capturing” air, water and light or “atmosphere”. Jain believes that consideration of these three elements is fundamental to good design and construction. “Those are the ingredients that construct us as people,” he says. “I want to make things that are, as close as they can be, in tune with that which constructs us.”
What he’s suggesting is creating a development framework – concept, design and implementation – that focuses on making Mumbai airier, light-filled and water aware, which he says “would shape the city in a different way and very quickly”. In simpler terms, he means actions such as using water resources better and creating open spaces where citizens can come out for a walk. “There’s a freedom in strolling,” he says. “That might be something that needs to be reintroduced to the city.” Almost on cue, it’s time to walk the dogs.
1965: Born in Mumbai.
1990: Graduates with a master’s in architecture from Washington State University in St Louis and begins working for Richard Meier.
1995: Founds Studio Mumbai.
2009: Wins Global Award for Sustainable Architecture from L’Institut Français d’Architecture.
2010: Presents work at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.
2016: Wins commission to design the prestigious M Pavilion in Melbourne.
2017: His seat “Brick Study II” is included in the collection of the Centre Pompidou.
2021: Awarded Alvar Aalto Medal for his innovative use of traditional artisanship in architecture.