Not for the builder, but for society. An interview with Karan Grover

The second annual high-level international interior architecture symposium SISU was held late in spring of this year, from 27–30 May at Tallinn’s Von Krahl Theater. This year’s event was titled “The Impact of Space”, and aimed to analyze and more closely observe the influences that surrounding space has upon a person.

The central focus of the presentations was (interior) architecture as an area of study that has deep biological and cultural roots, and which carries forth within itself an intellectual essence. Speakers affirmed that architecture not only directs our behavior, but also actually alters our brain. 1*

Among the other outstanding speakers was a prestigious Indian architect, an advocate for “green and space-centric architecture” in the world – Karan Grover. Grover is an extremely lively, sparkling, and warm personality whose honest and direct approach to the symposium’s topic had an inspiring and unexpected opening effect on everyone who is accustomed to the politically-correct manner of expression that has once again gained ground in Estonia.

Grover is the head of the Karan Grover and Associates design studio in the Indian state of Gujarat, a visiting Professor at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Editor-in-Chief of the pro-green-architecture publication Design Detail, and one of the leaders of the Indian heritage-protection movement.

After 30 years of advocacy, he and his non-profit Heritage Trust achieved in 2004 UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the 2,000-year-old lost city of Champaner-Pavagath.

In 2003, his designed CII – Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad was the first structure located outside of the US to be awarded platinum certification as one of the world’s most environmentally-friendly buildings.

In addition to many other architectural awards and international recognitions not mentioned here, Grover was named one of Asia’s top 14 most important architects of the coming millennium during the 1999 ROOTS exhibition in Tokyo.

Karan Grover’s architectural works are based upon the “space of place” – space, the roots of which lie in the regional culture and geographical context. He believes that culture is precisely what defines us.

In his structures, Grover follows building traditions that derive from the local climate and conditions.

According to him, it is possible to achieve up to 50% energy economy with the right architectural solution and material use (ones suitable for the given climate).

Grover’s works are characterized by deep verandas, stone roofs, and thick kiln-fired brick walls, all found in traditional Indian architecture. One important place in his structures is an atrium that lets light into the space; a site, where warm air caused by the hot climate can cool and enter the building through small openings. This inner courtyard is also a place where everyday life takes place – it makes the structure into a whole.

So that all of the rooms may receive natural light, the structures he designs are never too deep. In the case of larger buildings, he implements ventilation towers characteristic of southern architecture, which he says can bring up to a 10* C temperature drop. If air from these openings is channeled onward into the building, then climate-control devices are less burdened. Living plant-walls embedded in the architecture are also characteristic of his works, producing oxygen and helping to lower temperatures. Recyclable water is funneled through the roots of these plants.

According to Grover, “green” buildings certainly cost a small percentage more to build, but this cost is compensated in a couple of years on account of the energy savings made in maintaining the structures.

Just like the works of all other truly great architects, the architectural strength of Grover’s structures is based in their harmony with the surrounding environment. His buildings are simply a part of that environment, never standing out too much, while at the same time not succumbing entirely to that powerful culture and nature in any way. They are a fantastic example of contemporary sustainable architecture that is founded in a respect for one’s own national history and building traditions.

What kinds of interior architecture bureaus are there in India? Do they work together with architects, or separately?

There are very few studios in India that perform only interior architecture; usually, they work together. For instance, I am an architect by education, but I also work with interiors.

Is it at all possible to study interior architecture as a separate field in India?

Yes, we have a few schools of architecture where you can study interior architecture, but they number very few – somewhere around ten schools, while architecture itself is taught in around 450.

As such, the conception of interior architecture as a separate profession is quite a new idea in India. Earlier, it was assumed that the architect himself would also design the interior.

What is your bureau like? How many employees are there?

I’ve had my studio for 40 years. I had a partner from 1975–1985, but that didn’t work out. I started my own studio in 1985, so right now is its 30th year of operation. We’ve always had 25 employees. I don’t want to grow any larger, since I think that I could lose control over the quality then, but we still do rather big projects with those 25 people. Among other projects, we’ve designed buildings for government institutions and offices as well as hotels and residential neighborhoods.

How does your bureau work? Is it according to your own drafts?

The way our studio works is that when we get a new project, we all make sketches for the first few days, then we hang them on the wall and see whose is most suitable for the given project.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be my own.

What is the division of labor like at your bureau? Do architects do the architectural part and interior architects the interior part?

No – so far, architects have done both, but now, I’ve also started to hire people who are specialized only in the interior. In reality, I don’t believe in a distinction between the architectural and the interior-architectural space. I never view interior architecture as separate from architecture.

In the talk you gave at the symposium, you mentioned that you’ve worked for years to restore India’s cultural heritage and to boost its respect. Please speak about that in a little more detail.

I spoke about the 2,000-year-old lost city of Champaner in the state of Gujarat in Western India, about 50 km to the east of my university town of Vadodara. About 115 of the structures are above ground, and about 4,000 are buried. My instructor, Professor of Archaeology R.N. Mehta had been involved in unearthing it for years already. I was 19 when he took me there for the first time. From that day on, I spent all of my weekends outside of my architectural studies there.

I’d been working under him for already close to four years when one day, he came up to me and said: “Look, I’ve given 30 years of my life to Champaner, but now, I want to give it to you.” I just laughed, and replied: “I’m 23, it’s a buried city—how can you give it to me?” But he kept on about it until I finally agreed and promised him 30 years of my life and that I would achieve his wish and make Champaner a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He died the next day. The night before, however, he packed all of the drawings he did during the excavations into a suitcase for me.

Then, I realized that I had to do it in his honor. In 2004, Champaner was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site register.

Throughout all of the years that I worked there, it was, for me, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to familiarize with the principles of Indian architecture and construction. I’m very grateful to my teacher for having given me such an opportunity.

Champaner 2

How has that experience affected your work as an architect?

I believe that all of my work as an architect is based on what I learned in connection with those digs. It’s entirely based on Indian culture, and focuses on the context. I haven’t been influenced by the West. Many Indian architects copy structures in New York and Singapore; I don’t.

I believe that it’s all thanks to the teachings of that exceptional man.

In a speech given at the WIM 2013 World Interiors Meeting in Amsterdam, you emphasized the importance of identity in the development of national design.

Speaking before you were the Chinese, the most populous country in the world, who were also worried about the disappearance of identity. For me, as the representative of a small nation, a topic like that being raised by nations with such large and long cultural traditions was a surprise. I thought it was only a problem for small nations.

Yes, [your nation] has the same problem. You were occupied by Russia, which didn’t want you to have your own identity. It wanted to give you its own identity. It’s the exact same thing the British did with us. As I also said in my talk yesterday, Estonians have to find and shape their own identity once again. You have to take a look at your old buildings, study where and how you built, what you used to build, and what your culture was like. You need to find ways to restore it, because at the moment, Estonia doesn’t have its own architectural identity. It is a borrowed identity; it isn’t your own.

Why should the exact same kinds of buildings that are in Europe be built in Tallinn? In reality, it isn’t Europe here. You don’t think like Europeans, your culture is different. I can sense it.

I observed your old wooden buildings – they’re something entirely different.

You have to restore your culture by searching its roots for support. Your own culture has been dead because Russia didn’t want your culture to develop.

And before the Russians, we were under German power.

Yes, just like us. Before the British, we were under Mughal control, but we have to go even further back and discover who we ourselves were, and find forms of expression for how to present it to the world. I, for instance, feel happy when I’m able to do that.

Why do we need identity?

Because we’re different and we don’t want to be identical. Our mentalities are different. For example, it’s our culture to say: “Namaste” 2*; in our culture, the elderly are revered, and it’s inappropriate to sit down before an older person has. That’s our culture. Why should I lose it?

But what is the deeper meaning of recognizing and owning your culture?

That’s very simple to understand. If you’re ruled by someone, then the ruler wishes to destroy your culture. That’s how it gains power over you. When you get your culture back, then that ruler loses power over you. It’s purely a question of power.

A person must know and understand their culture thoroughly; they must study its patterns and its background.

Having an interest in one’s culture is very important here. But this only forms when you’re proud of who you are. Knowledge about your culture gives you self-worth, inner strength, and pride to be Estonian, and a desire to tell the whole world about it.

A question about contemporary Estonian architecture. As you yourself noted, two new problematic types of buildings have cropped up in our cities lately: featureless glass cubes (office buildings) and metal hangars (shopping centers), which don’t fit the context of our earlier architecture or our climate. They’re cheap to build, costly to maintain, and furthermore have poor interior climates. Power is in the hands of the developers. How can that be changed?

It’s like that because the architects are weak. It should be opposed, [architects] should write in the newspapers and clearly state that that’s wrong. Politicians have to understand that they should talk to architects instead of builders in order to keep the interests of their state and people in mind.

I don’t work for the good of the builder – I work for the good of people and society.

What I’m trying to say is that you here in Estonia put too much importance on the role of the builder.

People have asked me before – how do you dare to say that so frankly? But if you feel that you’re right, then there’s no need to be afraid, either.

How is it in India – who’s in the leading position with construction?

With good architecture, the architect is the leader; with bad architecture, it’s the builder.

As the interview took place during a drive from Lahemaa to Tallinn and we had just entered the city by the time this question was asked, Grover points out the car window towards the groups of Khrushchev-era brick buildings and slightly-later panel apartment blocks, and says:

For example, all of those buildings were made by the builders.

Driving past them, he also notices a few more attractive architects’ buildings, but then the builders’ ones come again.

It seems to me that your architects don’t talk enough, don’t fight for their rights enough or believe in what they’re doing.

Politicians and the mayor certainly should have been at your symposium, too. The event was planned with the idea of doing something good for Tallinn.

Then, the lecturers and leading experts in the field from around the world could have told them the truth, which is hard for you yourselves to do here. It’s a sort of international architectural politics – architects’ mutual support. I’d expect the same from you when you come to India.

You have to learn how to take advantage of the potential of the people who come to visit you. They notice what’s wrong here more quickly. There’s a lot that you need to change.

Could Rabindranath Tagore’s opinion (3*) hold up here? That rationality comes from the West and spirituality comes from the East, and that’s the reason why we need each other?

Yes, I think so, too. Only that spirituality is oftentimes underrated in the West.

They don’t understand people’s need for spiritual values.

So is that why the architectureless structures in our urban landscape are based on the developers’ economic calculations?

It certainly seems so.

Translated by Adam Cullen

1* Excerpt from Juhan Pallasmaa’s speech: “Keha, mõistus ja arhitektuur – arhitektuuri vaimne põhiolemus”. SISU 29.05.15

2* “Namaste” is an Indian greeting. It means much more than just “hello”. Namaste means that I greet you as you are on the deepest level – I bow before you and the godliness within you. The godliness in me honors the godliness in you. Namaste comes from Sanskrit, “namah” meaning “to bow” and “te” meaning “you”. (from the blog “Minu elu hetkede raamat”)

3* Rabindranath Tagore, Creative Unity, translation in the Estonian published by Olion, 2000, p 81