Grace & Fluidity
It was serendipity, a happy accident, by which I met Krithika Subrahmanian. A long conversation, a few days before a scheduled trip to Chennai with art gallery owner, Sharan Apparao, had led me to call the architect to explore the changing lifestyles in the southern metropolis. And, that was enough to initiate a meeting in her home, to discover that the soft-spoken architect/dancer merges her several worlds – that demand different creative sensibilities – into one synergised whole.
Her firm – Transform – was launched in 1996 and in the interim years she has worked on some of the most high-value homes of Chennai and in a few other cities of India as well. Her first project was an apartment building with seven residents – and it is still standing. Transform began with one employee and it now boasts of 78 full-time architects and engineers. The firm specialises in retail spaces that are design oriented, corporate offices, individual firms and the largest volume of villas and apartment buildings in the city.
I walk into her home in a shaded by-lane in Besant Nagar – my first impression is one of ample space, a sense of openness that is derived from the generous use of glass in its structure. As one room leads to another and one floor to the next, there is a feeling of fluidity in the way the spaces complement each other.
She chooses to wear saris for the camera stating that this is how she dresses to work, even though she may wear more casual Indians and Westerns for other occasions. There is a grace in her movements that comes from her years of learning dance – in fact, she was a dancer long before she became an architect and Subrahmanian says the performing art has honed her sensibilities in many ways.
After we walk up to the sunlit terrace and capture her in an Anju Modi drape in the lovely sit-out that she has created there, we troop down to her living room and, we shoot her this time in a Sabyasachi Mukherjee creation, against the piano that reflects one aspect of her creativity – music that stems from her dance experience. Subrahmanian states, “I started dancing as a kid, was a performing artiste by the time I was 15 and that has shaped who I am. When we dance we have to be aware of every little nuance – like rhythm and expression. Every part of our body has to be co-relative in how we present ourselves. That subsequently made me a nitpicking perfectionist and more sensitive to detail in my work also. This was groomed in me years before I began working as an architect.”
Hailing from a conservative Mylapore Brahmin family where the focus was on education and culture, Subrahmanian grew up wanting to be an architect. She recalls, “Architecture is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I think it was my father who basically motivated me. And it is also because I read a lot of Ayn Rand – I was inspired by her Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. My maternal grandfather was a builder-contractor. My father wanted to be an architect but was asked to be an engineer. That is why he motivated me to follow my dream. After marriage, my husband (Sumanth Subrahmanian), who is a property developer, has helped widen my mind and groom my capabilities as an architect.”
Her love for spaces was nurtured in her formative years. “I grew up amongst many lovely old family homes – each had private compounds and lots of space for cousins to play in,” she reminisces. “My younger sister and I shared a room and we would often redecorate it. She is a wonderful artistic person and once we created a mural on a whole wall just out of magazine paper – it was absolutely stunning and people would come to our room just to see it. We have always had vibrant decor ideas around our personal spaces even thought the family home was fairly conservative. And, no our mother did not take that mural down. She encouraged us in all these little things we wanted to do.”
Traditionally men have dominated the world of buildings and structures, even though in contemporary times, women have made an inroad into the sphere. And ‘image’ is what makes Subrahmanian wear saris to work. She explains, “I started young. In India, if you go to a construction site wearing tights and a T-shirt, you can be sure that workers and your contractors will be distracted. Why would they focus on what you are saying? Wearing a sari, like a teacher or a senior banker, helps. In certain spheres which are male-dominated the sari is regarded as a business suit.”
Subrahmanian believes that every space has its own synergy and is unique. She emphasises, “My basic philosophy is that when what I design is a copy of what I have already made or if I start repeating myself that is the time I should stop working. I’ve always been creative and respect the individualistic streak of every project. My project should not stand out with my signature on it, because it is my work. It should stand out only because of its quality and creativity – not because it looks like another home or office that I have done. The character of the person or of the corporate or the brand needs to come out in the space if I am a good architect.”
Her home has a harmony that links up every room. Though she is a globe-trotter, her essence comes from her roots. “Travel is most essential for an architect because you can’t really learn a whole lot just sitting with your books inside your studio. You need to go out there and see what’s happening and be sensitive to detail. I travel a great deal to Italy because of work – we have tie ups with firms there and we have travelled across the globe. Yet I’m very Indian. So I have made my home very contemporary-Asian. Most of our art and accessories (pop Indian art, Kerala murals, paintings and antiques) are very Indian for that is who we are.”
Deadlines – ‘extreme deliverance oriented’ is what defines her firm – do tend to stress her out. But that as she says, comes with the territory. “It’s a part of our lives. I practise Reiki, meditate and dance which, to me, is a superior form of meditation. In a high-impact stress situation, I step away and find a moment of calm. Then I step back in.”
At the end of the day, a finished project gives her immense satisfaction. “It is almost as if I have given birth to a baby. The other day I visited a home that is 33,000 square feet – which I had designed in Chennai for a very wealthy individual. His family has moved in and it is now mildly cluttered. When I saw that I smiled. For it is wrong not to respect the fact that it is their space, as the architect, I need to let go at some point. But I do design my spaces – not superficially – but by going to the depth of the art so that ultimately, people do not change them too much when they begin to live there, as a great deal of thought has already gone into it.”
Right now, Subrahmanian is also working on her PhD in architecture. “I study in the night. I bring less work home now. I design very early in the morning – 4 a.m. – 5 a.m. when the world is sleeping! After that, I get ready and do my dance riyaaz. I just want to keep growing, find more layers to me.”