The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
We coincide with people and events all the time--wonder at its impossibility, marvel at its luck or blame it intelligent design--but it is when we bump into ourselves, some previous character or moment that wisps by us like a hand on a street or a fleck of dust, that we stop. We stop to remember, before it rolls away. We hold our breath because, not knowing what it is made of, we don't want it to set sail again, just yet. Human life is made up of a series of these encounters, what Rushdie calls, in A Ground Beneath Her Feet, a "bouncey-castle sequence of bumpings-into and tumbling apart".
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By Simone Dinshaw, Issue 22, Coincidence: Fortune's Strange Math.
Children form worlds out of lego bricks - putting them together, taking them apart, and remodeling them into previously unimagined permutations. Architects Madhav Raman and Vaibhav Dimri do something similar, creating larger than life anagrams that the rest of us can inhabit. Each brings their own unique creative genius to the blueprint, so that when their ideas criss-cross on paper, something awe-inspiring happens. As their designs move from studio to site, brick walls undulate like ocean waves, steel bends and twirls into the delicate fractals of a 'tree of dreams' and large stones usher in light rather than blocking it out. The common denominator across all their projects--as in the conversation that follows--is an underlying sense of playfulness, as they arrange and rearrange materials and the elements to create spaces that cause us to pause, reflect, and create anagrams of our own.  

The Fuschia Tree: How did the two of you chance upon each other?

Madhav Raman: We met in college (SPA, New Delhi). Being a year senior, Vaibhav was quite 'keen' to get to know me on the first day of college (I was as popular as only a fresher can be in a Delhi college in the mid-nineties). I had signed up for the theatre society, Spandan, within the first week and Vaibhav was an extremely passionate member. In fact, if memory serves me right, he was amongst the group of Spandan members who were herding the freshers, per force, into the introductory workshop. Once there, I found theatre liberating and Vaibhav extremely amiable.

Vaibhav Dimri: Madhav was a doomed wallflower when he came to college for the first time! Tall, lanky and slightly awkward, he stood out like a sore thumb and was a source of great amusement to us seniors. I had yanked him into our theatre society's workshop for freshers and got to know him quite well by the end of our first production that year.

TFT: Tell us a little about how Anagram Architects was born.

MR: There's a certain masochism involved in doing serious theatre in an architecture school. Vaibhav and I often found ourselves opting to collaborate on various design projects so that we could do both. I was also quite in awe of Dimri's passion, both for design and theatre, and figured his would be a useful set of coat tails to grab onto to get by the stress of senior year projects. We enjoyed our deep friendship and shared  enough design sensibilities to decide to start working together as soon as we graduated.

VD: Madhav and I worked on four or five projects together in our last two years in college. Madhav was well-read, articulate and uncannily good at conceiving quirky design concepts. He was also a stickler for deadlines and would work hard so that we didn't miss any. Also, our skill sets were perfectly complementary. For instance,  he was extremely skillful at sketching and I was happiest making models. I broached the idea of setting up studio together after we graduated in our final year and he immediately agreed.     

TFT: In retrospect, the road to success is often littered with coincidences only visible in hindsight. Looking back, can you recount any from your journey?

MR: Our commission to design SAHRDC (South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center) was a huge coincidence. A friend and senior from college was relocating to Dubai and wanted to offload his projects in hand. SAHRDC was one of them, in which he had only had a preliminary discussion with the client. Today it is one of our most recognised buildings.

VD: The success of our partnership and friendship is a coincidence really. There is nothing similar about our childhoods or personalities. I happened to lose a year in college and found myself in Madhav's design studio. I even think our decision to work together was fairly whimsical. Beyond the fact that we were really fond of each other, we didn't have a plan or a philosophy. It was, in all honesty, quite a clueless foray into what has now become our life.    

TFT: Take us through your unique process of creation at work, from the moment the first itch of an idea enters your consciousness to the moment you survey the finished product, replete with all the smiles, tears and beverages that accompany the process.

MR: Well Dimri doesn't drink, so there's that! We used to try and ensure that we work only designs together. Today, while that is more a self indulgence and not always feasible, we do always offer our designs to each other to challenge, tweak or even completely rubbish. Our mutual trust is comfortingly implicit and our honesty brutally explicit. The process is thus a mix of backslaps and slammed doors! So far, the tally for backslaps exceeds the count of slammed doors. Or at any rate, the memories of the former outweigh the latter! Each of our ways of thinking and doing are strangely paradoxical. They are wierdly inconsistent but predictably compatible. Dimri is by far a more courageous and talented designer than I am. I'd say I'm more dilligent. On the other hand, I have the  gift of the gab while Dimri is a very patient listener.

VD: Madhav is my worst critic and best friend! He is the first person I share the beginning of an idea with regardless of how idiotic it may be. He is also the first person I show off a design to. We have constant and often irrelavant conversations in the studio about our lives, experiences, films, theatre, design and even the state of our nation! I think what's unique about us is that we consciously and constantly try and learn something new with every project. That's the reason why no two designs are similar and we aren't afraid of trying our hand at something we are not experts at. This also gives us the opportunity to research and study, which we never got a chance to do during our academic career.

TFT: Now walk us through your process of creation in life. How would you go about creating an unforgettable experience, or bring together the elements for the perfect picnic?

MR: I honestly can't really say! Now all I can think of is that its been ages since I went on a picnic!

VD: To create an unforgettable experience for someone, you need to empathise with them. You can't dictate terms. You have to desire that goal enough to change yourself into them. If you can do that then all you need to do is to trust your gut.

TFT: What is your favourite material to work with? Your favourite sense (vision/ sound/ taste/ smell/ touch) to entice through design? Your favourite season to work in?

MR: I have no favourite materials. The joy is in trying to work with as many different materials with as many alternative techniques as possible. I would say since architecture tends to be judged rather unfairly only sensually my passion is to pique people's sensibilities through design. I am a winter person but I work all the time.

VD: How can one play favourites with material or seasons?  As an architect, that would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? Unfortunately we are trained to “look” at architecture and so we are taught to only concern ourselves with the visual. I am happy if I can also entice any other sense in  whatever way, small or large.

TFT: Tell us about the dynamic between form and functionality in your designs. Are there instances in which you sacrifice one for the sake of the other?

MR: In my personal opinion, this is a pretty dated way of thinking, at least about architecture. I strongly feel the reduction of architectural thought to a conflict resolution between two is only a devious modernist device to reaffirm the relevance of architects to the building project. It shackles our ways of introducing design thinking into new realms that needn't be driven by the creation and evaluation of an object. There is so much more to think about beyond these that I am staggered that  questions of form and function continue to inform architectural discourse nearly two centuries after it began.

VD: To say form follows function or vice versa is to argue that, in architecture, there are inherently two schools of thought , one whimsical and the other logical. You can either look at the architecture as an opportunity to create or as a problem to solve. Both are equally presumptive, arrogant and prescriptive. Actually, their resolution preoccupies, or should at least, the very last stages of a design-driven thought process. I'd say, its better to spend time and effort thinking about the 'why' of architecture and flip a coin for these two to decide the 'what'. The coin's going to land on its edge in any case!  

TFT: What would you do if you had unlimited resources and absolute artistic freedom?

MR: Retire, invest the unlimited resources, get a planter's chair and offer my opinion expressly when it's not sought. (Yes, I nurse a secret ambition of being the world's worst grandfather!)

VD: Definitely not architecture!

TFT: If we define coincidence as the probability of synchronicity, can you explore how it features in your work, if at all?

MR: Design, and in particular architecture, is all about seeking alignment and 'appropriate' response. It is also an iterative process. So I guess these characteristics should heighten the 'perception' of coincidence. On the other hand, a building project demands very little being left to chance and architects pride themselves in their power to predict. So I guess the admission of coincidence in design challenges the notion that an architect is, by nature and training, infallible. There are of course more examples of architects getting it wrong than getting it right! I can't be specific about this within our work. Suffice it to say, coincidence, in our work, or anyone's, I imagine, is  most obvious when things go splendidly well or horribly wrong!

VD: What? No!

TFT: What happens when both disagree on something related to work?

MR: We rage with the maturity of a married couple!

VD: We argue, sulk a bit, attack each other personally, sulk a bit more, apologize profusely, and go ahead and do what the other guy said!

TFT: One of my favorite designs of Anagram Architects is your award-winning work on the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center. The facade integrates the dynamic movement of the street below with a fluidity that seems counterintuitive to the dense, monomorphic brick material it is made out of. Can you tell us a little more about how this visual paradox was achieved?

MD: It's built on a tiny site and the largest surface that it offered also, for practical purposes of privacy, costs and heat, seemed to beg to be a massive, monolithic fortification. And yet, everything around the site screamed for a more intelligent response. There was the street corner leading to the urban village, full of life in the mornings and evenings. It sat next to a park that had kids running around all the time. So we knew we would need to focus all our efforts in  designing the facade. Dimri had the brainwave, I remember, of it being like a breathing fabric and later of twisting the bricks to achieve this. We worked on various permutations with models we built in the studio and on the computer.

Being complete novices, we hadn't figured out that twisting brick courses were completely impractical for gauging the plumbness of the wall. It just kept toppling over and threatened to delay the project to the point of failure . Finally, it was the masons on site who suggested we create  triangular wedges of wood as templates for the exact angle of deviation between each course. They laid it as they would any normal wall, checking and rechecking the alignment of the courses with the wooden wedges that they had fashioned.

VD: Something obviously had to be done with the facade. It was such an important part of the building. I think our conversations were made up of what it should be rather than what it could be. I guess the fact that it was one of our first buildings helped us come up with the masonry pattern. Had we had any construction experience, we would have summarily dismissed the idea, even if the thought had occurred. The masons on site laughed at us and our fancy CAD drawings! I think the wall got built because they humored us, in a sense allowing us our flights of fancy. But they were all extremely proud when the building was completed.

TFT: I'm also very intrigued by the treatment of light in your designs; the ways in which you capture it, confine it, shatter it. Have you ever had an experience in which a design, once brought to life, has played on an element - visual, auditory, tactile or even olfactory - in a way you didn't expect or account for?

MR: Seeing kids running a stick up and down along the  SAHRDC wall, playing it like a xylophone, was a surprise.  

VD: We had designed the gabion wall for the pooja rooms in Kindred House. The fact that it behaves like a gentle water curtain in the monsoon was not designed and pleasantly unexpected.

TFT: A lot of your work brings to life happy coincidences of material that catch us unaware, such as luminaries made out of glass bangles or rippling waves of brick. In the creative yet competitive field of design, how much importance do you attribute to the element of surprise?

MR: Purely competitively speaking, quirk and surprise are often very useful elements to have in one's design to get them noticed. Contrarily, we've also lost out on projects because our work was considered too varied and its unpredictability unsuitable. I hope one day we design a white cube that surprises the living daylights out of everyone!

VD: I think I am glad if our designs surprise people. It means that we are still trying out different things. That we are not too afraid or too self-possessed to experiment. However, I must say it would be disappointing if that is all that all our designs do. If we could design something absolutely mundane and unremarkable looking and yet get the people who use or visit our design to think long and hard about themselves and/or the space, that would be ideal.

TFT: We've touched upon your relationship with material and design, but what about the silent element responsible for actually bringing your visions to life - the labour force. How do you interact with workers, if at all?

MR: I am a very good friend to the labour on my sites. I am, however, their contractor's worst nightmare! I think we in India are prone to be fans of punditry and continue to place intellect above physical labour on most occasions. I know my privileged life has given me my education, intellect, helped me hone my talents and has put me in a relative position of power. I try my best not to let that prevent me from having a real conversation with the people who, at least as far as they are concerned, let me indulge myself by building what I design.

VD: Not having had any work experience before starting work, both Madhav and I have learnt from  builders, masons and fabricators. And asking them incessant and asinine questions. Our purposes as designers, including gaining insight, are best served by being able to have dialogues with the people who construct our buildings. Like any other relationship in life or work, it must be built on mutual respect.

TFT: Which of your designs is your personal favourite? Tell us a little about it.

MR: Difficult one. I really enjoy our collaborative projects. These include Kalpavriksha and the Food Lab. They were awesome fun as projects to do and  there's something very special about their outcomes.

VD: I like our Ring (T)rail project the most. Primarily because it's not a building. Also it is so simple and yet at the same time engages with such complex urban spaces.  It also brings to fore one of the primary issues in our cities: the recognition and the legitimacy of the informal.

TFT: Finally, if you were an architectural/design tool, what would you be and why?

MR: I guess I'd want  to be an open source CAD software. Minimum specification, maximum impact, a little bugging perhaps but righteous nonetheless!

VD: I wouldn't mind being a sketchpad. Full of ideas, with the ability of instant recall.

As told to Simone Dinshaw, a writer living in Bombay.

Madhav Raman and Vaibhav Dimri are each other's supporting pillars, with a foundation in Delhi.
More lines with Anagram Architects can be drawn here:

Also in this issue

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.