Designing the Earth and Sky Connection | Daily News

Designing the Earth and Sky Connection

Samira Rathod’s Architecture

Samira Rathod has been visiting Sri Lanka on and off for 30 years, but when the Indian architect recently returned to Colombo for a project, she was struck by how the city has remained green in the wake of rapid development.

Now at the helm of a high rise in Rajagiriya, Rathod is a player in the construction of a 21st century Colombo and challenging herself to maintain the lush landscape that defines the city.

By building an unlikely harmony between the verdant earth and towering structures, Rathod brings us back to our roots, making the oft sterile and isolating modern space warm and social.

Reclaiming Slowness

When a business partner introduced Rathod at press conference as “fiercely independent” and “extremely opinionated,” she quipped, “I shall take that as a compliment.”

Rathod is quick and snappy with her opinions but slow and measured with her aesthetic judgments.

One minute, she is voicing her views on gender-specific awards—being a woman is not a handicap, she asserts—or expressing her disdain for the certificate-centric state of education—to really be an architect, Rathod told me, it takes 60 years of study, not a degree. First, you must master everything from literature to mathematics.

The next minute, her tone changes, waxing philosophical about imbuing buildings with poetry. Evincing a lifetime spent wrestling with aesthetic questions she articulates her thoughts on design with coherency and ease.

The Bombay-based designer blends cosmopolitan energy with bucolic contemplation. She laments the way the grind of modern life has snatched up our time. “Just to be able to savor a cup of tea, watching the rain sprinkle and spray while sitting on the veranda, those moments are lost,” she says, explaining that in her practice and product, she is trying to return to slowness.

“Whether it’s a skyscraper, a building, housing or a school I think it’s these moments that, as an architect, I want to bring it back.”

Rathod is methodical and painstaking in her approach. She values the process. “There’s no end that one is looking for, it’s the churning that one is enjoying. I am deeply interested in getting into details.” she says. “I really worry about the doorknob,” she adds, only half joking.

Reshaping Tradition

Rathod earned her Bachelor’s of Architecture in bustling Bombay and her masters at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne, USA. After a brief stint working in California, during which she assisted on a project for Clint Eastwood, the budding architect headed back to her hometown and founded Samira Rathod Design Atelier (SRDA) in 2000. Eighteen years later, her once small firm has grown into an internationally recognized brand, complete with an interior design counterpart and a research division called ‘Spade.’

Rathod’s repertoire ranges from imaginative schoolhouses to dizzying skyscrapers to cutting-edge office spaces.

A school comprised of “dancing arches” in Gujarat, where “hide and seek is perpetual;” an exhibition in Jaipur meditating on negative space; a “shadow house” in Bombay built strategically to offer respite from the heat, Rathod’s ideas and structures are scattered across the subcontinent.

To Sri Lanka, she is bringing Iconic Galaxy, a high-end, modern living space with a nod to the past.

Rathod is internationally-minded, but each of her designs is locally-inspired. With a knack for getting what she calls the “pulse” and “texture” of a place, Rathod places context at the center of her design. In preparation for Iconic Galaxy in Sri Lanka, she traveled the island observing and striving to understand the culture and aspirations of the people.

She says she studies context incrementally—first, Sri Lanka, then Colombo, then Rajagiriya. On her most recent visit to Sri Lanka, she hoped to learn what materials and colours Sri Lankans find comfortable.

In responding to context, Rathod strives to imbibe her work with the virtues and sensibilities of traditional craft, but is careful not to be kitschy. “One doesn’t want to get ethnic to the extent that it begins to feel as if it’s being emulated directly” she explains, “that, to my mind, is fairly senseless and very superficial and pastiche.”

“It has to come from within,” she says.

Reviving Community

While Rathod drops academic names like Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect known for his radical, compact housing, she also cites her childhood, growing up in a chawl in India, as inspiration for her design philosophy.

She recalls an upbringing spent playing in a courtyard wedged between four tall residential buildings, a space shared with families and friends. “You never had to worry about who to call for help,” she said and remembered walking down the shared corridor, populated by grandparents chattering in the veranda.

The chawls of India are notorious for their lack of privacy, and the way in which close living allows gossip to spread rapidly. “Everyone knows everything about everybody’s lives,” she remembers.

For Rathod, this alternative kind of privacy was a small price to pay for the benefits of communal living. “Privacy is in the mind. ‘I’m private because I’m thinking, you can watch me...’ it goes like that,” she says.

“It was such a joy, and I feel today’s children are so glued to the computer, iPad and TV that these joys are something that they are not able to savour. I don’t even know how to explain it to them. We had so much fun,” she remembers.

She won’t have to explain it if she can recreate a piece of it. In Iconic Galaxy, Rathod’s most recent project in Sri Lanka, she wants to harness the communal nature of human beings and consequently, pull us away from our devices.

But it’s no easy task.

A high rise, like Iconic Galaxy, is “a building that, by default, isolates everybody from the ground,” as Rathod explains. “When you’re on the ground, there’s a connect with the city, when you’re up in the air, there’s a disconnect from the city.”

And thus, to fight the isolation inherent to the shuttered living compartments and stacks of indiscriminate floors, community has to be created within the building.

Rathod believes shared spaces build communities and designed five levels of communal spaces—gyms, lounges, an observatory, and a children’s playground and placed them the very top of the structure.

The building functions less like an apartment complex and more like an entire neighbourhood—complete with a supermarket and collapsed into a single building.

“When you start sharing, you understand each other’s problems, you’re less intolerant”

Rathod reasons. “If I have to share something, if I have to use the same pathway, I have to share the swing, I have respect for the other because I expect respect from the other.”

Reconnecting with Nature

In the same way the Shadow House was built for cooling and the schoolhouse was built for imaginative exploration, the iconic galaxy will also be built to pull the best from its environment—but this time, to highlight green area around it.

Colombo’s parks and tree lined streets mediate the chaos of that urban environment. And for Rathod, keeping that intact in the midst of fast development was crucial.

“Colombo is one of very few cities in the world which is still so green, and I really hope it will stay that way,” she says.

It seems contradictory to make a structure built for the sky inspired by the world below, but it is in the unity of the air and the earth, the high and the low, the elevated and the grounded that the gap between the world and the apartment living space is mended.

In Rathod’s latest, the rooftop will be full of gardens. A topiary maze will provide space for winding strolls and a children’s garden will give space for play. Even at the highest point of this metal structure, the earth will not seem as far away.

But it’s not just about indulging in nature, preserving nature is equally, arguably more, important to Rathod. “We investigate ideas of sustainability, not necessarily in the way that gets you a certificate, but, more importantly, in how you can change the way people think about sustainability,” she says.

Even when talking about sustainability, Rathod invokes the same philosophy she uses in her life, “if we can make things beautiful so that we love them, we will not discard them easily“ she says. “Sustainability really means just slow. Just slow down and do things with care.”


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