Snaptrude ArchiTalks: In Conversation with Suman Paul
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With over two decades of experience spanning corporate architectural practice, teaching and research, Architect Suman Paul holds the position of Partner at DKP Architects based out of Bangalore, India. He has designed one of the world’s most sophisticated buildings- CMTI Underground Nano Technology Lab in Bangalore. Suman also teaches at various architectural schools and has presented his research findings at diverse gatherings such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientists’ meet. Suman was the recipient of the prestigious Architecture+Design’s Architect of the Year 2013 award in Bangkok.
In the first of our series Snaptrude ArchiTalks, where we cover conversations with architects and designers from around the globe, we bring to you our tete-a-tete with architect Suman Paul.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Your career is dotted with many highs like winning the Architect of the Year Award in 2013 and multiple design competitions. Could you please take us through your professional journey?
Suman Paul: It has been amazing. I could not have asked for more than this! Life has been very kind to unite me with a lot of good souls along the way.
I was born and brought up in Kolkata and after my high schooling there, I studied architecture from RV College of Engineering in Bangalore, starting 1997. That was my first formal schooling of 5 years and I will tell you in a bit why that was not the only schooling that I had so far.
After graduation in early 2002, I started my professional career at WS ATKINS. That was the place where I learnt the most valuable lessons of how to think big and handle large scale architectural set-ups. Since it was a global company, I got the privilege to learn from well-known architects like Tom Wright who designed the Burj Al Arab, and at that point of time he was designing many prestigious projects all over the world. Once he came to India to design a project near Pune at Amby Valley. That was a very exciting time for me to learn about his design process and gather a lot of insights. Even though I was not directly involved in the project, my colleagues and very close friends were working on it and I used to follow them very closely in order to know more about Tom’s working style. I still have some of his sketches in my archive and I keep looking at them till date. I sometimes wonder how a man could do all of that by himself.
After Atkins, I practiced in a Singapore based company called Jurong Consultants, which was just establishing its operations in India back then. There, I was involved in setting up the office besides design work as it was in its formative stage and I quite enjoyed that experience.
Post which, I got involved with a firm which was an Australian company based out of Singapore called CPG Consultants. I was doing many things at that time and I had a belief that whatever I was trying to do were above average and there was a potential to become better. That’s when I realised that I need to have proper grooming and learning in order to become a comprehensive architect and most importantly it had to be done right then or else I would miss the train.
And I was fortunate enough when I got a call from CnT Architects to join them as a Studio Head since they were expanding. I didn’t waste any more time and joined the legacy of CnT. This soon proved to be my second schooling, which lasted for 10 years. In Indian modern architectural history, there would hardly be anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the institutional value of CnT and what it has contributed. Prem Chandavarkar had been my mentor there from whom I have learnt a great deal about architecture. Over the decade Prem had pointed me towards many new directions and I have gone on to deconstruct and reconstruct many philosophies of architecture. With this great collaboration I could create a lot of meaningful work, which brought in valuable recognition and we won many vital design competitions. This phase of my practice concretised the idea of my ‘position in architectural practice’.
By the time I completed 10 years of practice in CnT, my career had seen a very rare blend of ‘corporate culture’ and ‘hard core design culture’ in this sub-continent. This pushed me to seek a different path. My friends from college days, Indraneel Dutta and Brinda Kannan had been practicing in Bangalore as “Dutta & Kannan Architects” for more than a decade. We got in touch and felt that it was a good time to join hands and practice together. Hence, the three of us formed a new partnership firm called “Dutta Kannan & Partners” DKP Architects in 2018 and a new journey started. We created this firm with a vision of inducting new partners along the way suitably.
“For me it’s not only about creating good architecture but it’s also about creating a culture of good architecture as a practice”.
Now I have started looking into the ‘sacred’ part of space making and it’s going to be even more interesting way forward.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: What’s your design philosophy?
Suman Paul: I learnt from Prem Chandavarkar that philosophies are not permanent. In order to grow intellectually, one must continuously re-construct philosophies. This aspect has many folds. It might seem contradictory that if you are changing your philosophies continuously then how do you anchor yourself to a certain point, which can be called a “position in practice”. But here reconstruction of philosophy points towards what you do and not how you do it. That means there is an underlying way of doing things which breaks the stereotypes everytime.
I keep it very simple. For every new commission, I start with many questions and simultaneously keep exploring possibilities. Then, there comes a point when these two intersect and a new idea is born. This helps me to eliminate randomness and addresses many issues which are extremely important at various levels. This approach is rigorous and relevant which architect Sanjay Mohe refers to as ‘simple but not simplistic’.
Design by Architect Suman Paul, DKP Architects
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Which project is closest to your heart? And why?
Suman Paul: Every time I complete a project and handover it to the inhabitants, I get into a void. From an intense involvement to complete detachment. That changes the entire perception of what I had in my mind about the spaces of that particular project till it was handed over. Because so far I would have imagined and re-imagined all the inhabitants and placed them accordingly in the spaces in my mind many times in different ways but when it is done and the real characters are occupying those spaces, the feel is very different. It is no longer imagination, it is real manifestation. So, that way every project gives me a story to preserve and each one of them are done with equal amounts of rigour. It would not be fair to give judgement as such but probably I can look things from a perspective of ‘purpose’ which to a certain extent can justify.
That way, presently I am creating a neighbourhood school which appeals to me enormously for its novelty. I looked at its purpose beyond the boundary. A neighbourhood school closes down its operations by late afternoon and then the place is empty till the next morning. I felt that’s not enough. Since it is occupying a footprint and sitting in the middle of a neighbourhood, it must anchor into the surrounding and co-exist. That opened up the idea of the school premise being used by different sets of people after the school hours. This opportunity is infinite. This aspect addresses many issues of urbanism and I fondly call this ‘borrowing and lending’ in space making.
3D printed model- designed by Architect Suman Paul
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your journey? And, how did you overcome them?
Suman Paul: Aligning everyone to my dream!
It may sound very simple but it actually takes a bit of effort to achieve. When I say ‘everyone’, I mean all the stakeholders in the project – my team members, client, builder, end user, contractor, vendor, supplier, operator, craftsman, other design consultants, other collaborators, authorities and financier. At times, the list gets longer.
“In this scenario, if you look at it carefully, it is no one else but only me, who can see through almost everything. And that is not possible without dreaming.”
Crafting a 3D model of his architectural vision
Here, the difficulty is that I cannot show the complete dream to anyone apart from it in parts. Here I’m talking about experiential qualities and not only existential qualities. There comes the individual’s capability of comprehension and that usually never matches. So, it takes really really long interactions with everyone to put things together. It can be seen as a challenge but I look at it as a prolonged dialogue.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Can you share some of your most successful moments?
Suman Paul: Recently, I was watching a video of my spiritual Guru Master Choa Kok Sui, where he says that Mother Teressa never worked to become famous but she just loved to help people who were in need.
“I never worked on any project to get an award or be published or to draw attention but always kept the space between me and my project very sacred, where I can celebrate every moment in it.”
That’s a higher high for me on a daily basis to celebrate whatever I do. I don’t know what successful moments mean – is it for me or for the project or for the inhabitants or for the better world for mankind? You see, there are many facets to one truth and it reveals over a really long time.
Sketch by Architect Suman Paul, DKP Architects
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Could you tell us about the partnership with Sir Norman Foster?
Suman Paul: When my two partners Indraneel Dutta and Brinda Kannan used to practice in the US & UK, they had built a relationship with Norman Fosters and Partners. Now, we collaborate with them if they are working on any project in this part of the world.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Bangalore in the 1990s vs Bangalore in 2020. How’s the skyline changing?
Suman Paul: Every city has its own dynamics. It absorbs whatever you throw at it. That is because the city as such is the physicality in which we all live. The soul of the city is its citizens. So every city’s character will depend on the citizens. Bangalore comes with a very long history but that history is not known to its citizens largely. One major reason behind that is majority of Bangalore’s population is originally not from Bangalore.
It developed as a place of opportunity and many people from different places have come here and eventually settled. In that process, no one has owned the city in a constructive way. So, the growth of the physical city has been quite uncharacteristic. That has led to a very unplanned organic growth. Till mid 90’s Bangalore was a beautiful place. The real consumption started after that. And it skyrocketed through the first decade of this century. In that process the index of growth was so high that everything was oriented towards the economy at the cost of ecology of the land. It’s a classic example of non-visionary rapid urbanism. Without creating any reserve, just exhausting the available resources is by no means an intelligent act. And the second decade of this century is seeing the effect of that. In the last 25 years, the citizens of Bangalore have emptied the city in terms of land, water, vegetation, quality of air and quality of life at large. And it has been a collective act. So, we are at a juncture where role reversals are the need of the hour. It is not impossible to revive Bangalore again. It might take longer to do that but it is possible to rejuvenate the landscape and revitalise the ecology as well as economy. It would require a lot of sensitivity, care and love for the land.
So, the skyline has changed for sure but the future is flickering.
Architect Suman Paul’s – A vision for future
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: What is your point of view on technology in architecture?
“Charles Correa once said, ‘Architecture is dependent on four major aspects – culture, climatology, technology and aspiration’. Without technology it is impossible to progress.”
In an interview, the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain mentioned that the introduction of mic has helped him realise how he could play the semi-tones or mid-tones suitably which used to be otherwise unnoticed before the era of mic technology in his concerts. So over the age, technology will evolve and it must be included in architecture to make many new things possible. Technology is a subtle instrument of the architect’s mind and the mind is a subtle instrument of the architect’s soul, hence what we prioritise will help to balance things.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Do you see any technology as a major game changer?
Suman Paul: I think any technology which is intuitive and friendly, will be highly appreciated. For example – among so many smartphones, iPhones are considered to be the most sought after. Because they are extremely intuitive, friendly and highly capable. Architects are basically dreamers. And I think it should be their priority to dream. The rest of the things which support in manifesting their dreams should be highly sophisticated and intelligently capable.
Way back in the mid 90’s when AutoCAD came and replaced manual drafting, it was radical and people still talk about it. Just like how people talk about cinematography with films or digital. But after AutoCAD, no other major radical shift has taken place in the last 25 years. Say, if I just discuss my dreams about a project and some technology translates that into drawings or physical models or virtual models and carries on with the process, then my mind will be free from any resource oriented limitations. I’m interested to see some technology like that. That would be a real game changer.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Is there any particular technology that DKP Architects’ plans to invest in the near future?
Suman Paul: I look at it in two folds – dreaming is intuitive and other means of manifesting that dream is partially mundane. If some technology can help me to replace that mundane part then I would be interested in investing in that technology. I will save so much of time by that and I can utilise that gained time into something more productive.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: What importance does hand drawing have in the concept design and idea testing stage? Can you share some examples?
Suman Paul: Bjarke Ingels argues that an idea is not an idea until you take it out of your head and put that down on a piece of paper to hold in front of your eyes. Here, what comes into play is the equation of the mind, body and soul. The soul creates the thoughtform and through the mind it sends a signal to the hands to manifest it. Now, if the hand draws it directly then you save some time by avoiding processing time of another tool. So, hand drawing at the concept level is much faster and is a direct transfer of your thoughts and emotions.
Legendary architect, B V Doshi recalls how Le Corbusier gave him a small conceptual sketch of Mill Owners Association building at Ahmedabad and eventually it became a landmark building. There are many examples like that in the history of architectural practice where a simple unsophisticated conceptual sketch turned into important architectural landmarks. BV Doshi also remembers seeing Louis Kahn holding his piece of charcoal to sketch on the paper and how he would hesitate to touch the paper as it might get hurt if the right pressure is not exerted. So, it is not only about drawing or sketching something on paper but it is an involvement of the full body and its consciousness, which actually brings out so many emotions, which would otherwise be absent in a mechanically produced drawing.
Prem Chandavarkar brings out another dimension to this aspect. He says that when you touch your pencil on paper, draw a line, lift up for a while and again touch it down to draw the next, you are actually thinking through many different possibilities in that momentary pause.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Who are the architects you look up to?
Suman Paul: I can relate to the works of Charles Correa, BV Doshi, Bijoy Jain and Sanjay Mohe to name a few from India. Their works make a lot of sense to me and I can learn from them. On this count, Charles Correa gave an excellent example from Hindu mythology of Ekalavya who learnt archery by watching. He says that all of us have an Ekalavya in us to learn distantly. Globally, there are also so many masters whom I really admire – Geoffrey Bawa, Tadao Ando, Peter Zumthor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
There are many other architects from the past and present time who keep inspiring me and I’m very grateful to them as I learn a great deal through their works.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: Please tell us about your experience as a lecturer?
Suman Paul: I always keep telling people that I don’t teach, I just impart. Somebody took the effort to hold my hand and showed me the way and now it is my turn to do the same. Recently, I learnt from my Spiritual Guru Master Choa Kok Sui that one can become an Educator when teaching, training and instructing are put together. I am more inclined towards becoming an Educator rather than just a Teacher. So, I go to different architectural schools and spend time with students. The more knowledge that I impart to them, the more I realize the importance of my teachers.
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: How do you keep yourself updated on the latest in architecture ?
Suman Paul: It is an ocean out there and literally impossible to keep a track of everything that’s happening around you. So, I try to be as aware as possible about the great masters and my peers. That way, my basic understanding is always on track. Earlier the sources used to be limited only to the printed medium but now there is no limit to accessing the information easily. So, presently the challenge is to filter out the right kind of information and be aware of that. I follow a very simple rule to do this – just unlearn to learn something new.
Architect Suman Paul, Principal Architect and Founder, DKP Architects
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: What is your life mantra?
“Architecture is a way of life. And everything else fits into that.”
Snaptrude ArchiTalks: If not an architect, what would you have been?
Suman Paul: Probably a Formula One driver.
That said, Suman concluded this interview with a smile, leaving us wondering if speed and creativity can go hand in hand! To know more about Architect Suman Paul, please visit www.sumanpaul.net
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