Smita Khanna And Hemant Purohit On Being Design Experimentalists
The duo talks about their journey in architecture and interiors and lets us in on what makes them run like clockwork
Bending the rules, even breaking them, is the architecture and interiors firm Note D (Nature of the Experiment Design) in action. The result could be a disaster or a masterpiece of design. Tomoe villa is the latter. A contemporary interpretation of the traditional Indian courtyard house, its ingenious solutions to the problems of context and climate have placed its creators — Smita Khanna and Hemant Purohit, co-founders of Note D — firmly in the media spotlight. Feted by design journals, the award-winning duo is justifiably proud of this luxury dwelling in Alibaug, which has also found its way to Living Under The Sun — a book on tropical architecture and interiors published by Gestalten.
A vision in white and blue, Khanna ushers me into the long cabin occupied by her and Purohit — who also sports a white shirt. White seems to be a shared preference, as one can see in the models of their built and ongoing projects displayed all over the office and in their cabin too. It is a colour that brilliantly shows off the blue of the sky and the green of the landscaping around the compelling architectural form of Tomoe villa. The pool’s location takes advantage of the site’s wind direction to naturally cool the house, while the central plaza dissolves the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces — its spiral geometry providing a range of shaded spaces. Large windows welcome the daylight as well as external views of refreshing greenery.
Seated in their new office space at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, which is larger than their earlier one at Colaba (“though still cluttered,” laughs Khanna) — thanks to the slew of projects that has seen the firm grow in size and scale of work – I find out more about their oeuvre.Apart from residences, each unique including one built to house a dog trainer with his company of canines, there is a school in Bengaluru managed by a charitable trust committed to superior education that brings a glint to their eyes when they show me the prototypes. Watching them look towards each other for affirmation or to complete their sentences while responding to my curious queries, I can guess why this partnership works — but I wonder what brought them together.
Like most naive youngsters, Khanna chose her career path for reasons that varied from why she decided to continue in the same direction. Coming from a long line of accountants on one side of her family and businessmen on the other side, she seemed to be headed for the financial sector — until her late teens. She recalls that, as a child, painting came to her intuitively; and she understood emotions as physical abstractions of colour and form — yet she also had an inclination towards the sciences and maths. By the time she was in high school, she realised that “architecture was the logical alternative to studying business.”
Purohit, on the other hand, was always drawn to architectural plans and layout maps — if not necessarily to buildings. “I might not have been aware of the terms, but way finding, massing or sculpting were interesting topics for me,” he elaborates, “as were gardens because of their landscapes — if not for recreational activities. I don’t remember a family holiday without a historic building or landmark. And even though it was impossible to not think of computer engineering in the 1990s, all engineering exams allowed you to opt for the architectural stream. I knew I was going to go for that.” Arcades in Jaipur and temple halls in Madurai are among Purohit’s early influences. “I remembered areas because of sounds and streetscapes,” he discloses. “These ‘circulation spaces’ would leave the biggest impression of any place on me. I would recall promenades, but not beaches. It is hard to identify specific places that influenced me. They could have been in movies — Manhattan streets in Hannah and her Sisters, the Mediterranean waterfront in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or landscapes in any Western.”
Even though he had seen a number of modern buildings during the five years he spent studying at the Chandigarh College of Architecture, Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal seemed softer and natural. Calling it one of those structures that grow on you, Purohit describes, “It was absent from the city and yet in a world of its own, it had its own lake.”
After completing his Bachelor’s he studied at the IAAC Barcelona – from where he graduated in 2008. Insisting that one never stops learning or being a student, he points out, “I worked on a 300-meter long terminal underground metro station even before I graduated. And this afternoon, I was detailing the brass joinery for a stone dining table. In between, I pursued higher education and taught students in their 20s to 40s. Work cannot be divided into scales or types like interior and architecture.”
“I have worked with Serie Architects, Guallart Architects and Cannon Design. I felt lucky working as a senior designer at a time when projects like 500-acre green-field campuses for IITs, IIMs and Central Universities and the biggest of them all — smart cities were being undertaken. No one around the globe is building campuses from scratch. It was an extremely valuable experience.”
Khanna, whose initiation into this field came later in life, admits that her original decision was changed by her high school and college — United World College (UWC) Wales and the Architectural Association (AA) in London — both pioneering institutions for alternative education. “UWC showed me that there was a world greater than what I knew, and that the power of the individual is humble and great at the same time,” she explains.
Both educational influences were about re-thinking, re-contextualising and providing the right tools, though the AA was about creating platforms for thinking. Unlike traditional architecture schools, it does not have a rigid curriculum — but, within a framework, students can create their own briefs and develop their own interests. “I found myself coming full circle and rediscovering my love for abstraction,” recounts Khanna. “I studied texts — which had nothing on the surface to do with architecture. I discovered my interest in philosophy and socio-economic theories. All this converted to architecture and form! It was, in a way, the hardest and most exciting time of my life!”
Her house was frequented by young visiting artists whom her mother supported when Khanna was a child — and she believes it was these people who shaped the way she looks at the world. “She would take us to exhibitions at Jehangir Art Gallery and I remember the first Anjolie Ela Menon show I went to. The joy of the work was strangely optimistic – the world made sense beyond the spoken word. I still have the first Menon print my mother got for me from the show,” she says, recalling that her mother was also “constantly breaking and making the interiors of our home. Our house (along with the artists!) was always filled with contractors, carpenters and painters.”
It is the interaction between the designers (her mother) and the executors (contractors, carpenters, painters) that the young architect finds the most humble and profound form of collaborative creation. “We know today, at Note, how important our extended team is — we work with some wonderful people in making our regular and not-so-regular designs come alive,” she says. “At UWC, I met amazing people who made me aware of the freedom I had to choose; in my second year, I switched all my majors — Economics, Physics etc. to the Arts. It was here that I learnt about Dan Graham, David Hockney and Marlene Dumas. It was here that I designed my first product — a new type of raincoat!”
Once she had decided to study architecture, Khanna filled her holidays by working with design practices. Her first internship was in London, at Arup. “This was a conscious decision coming out of the AA. The two were extremely different — the AA being more about the theoretical nature of design, while Arup were the engineering masters of contemporary architecture,” she explains. “At Arup, I worked on the Cricket World Cup Stadiums in the Caribbean — I started off (in the usual cliched way) designing toilets! I was then slowly allowed to move within the team to learn other aspects of design and engineering. The best reward was to be sent to the site in West Indies, to actually witness the move from paper to ground — my first time — and something I will never forget.”
Khanna also worked at Serie Architects – and that is where the two partners met. “Hemant and I were colleagues there,” she confirms. “Serie is closely related to the AA (Kapil Gupta studied there, and his partner Chris Lee was a tutor there as well). The work was hard and beautiful — going into the office was exhilarating. I was the intern and had the best mentors anyone could hope for. Although Arup was a great experience, Serie was like coming home. I worked there every holiday after going back to college….”
After graduating in 2008, Khanna chose to return to Mumbai temporarily. “At this time, a friend of mine, Swati and I decided to do a personal project together. This was probably, in a way, the birth of Note,” she discloses. “We wanted to find a new way of patterning on surface — something that could last, and something that could feel organic. We spent months on R&D, and finally developed a material that was resin-based. We found ways of patterning, embroidering and lighting within it. We finally concluded with an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art. The potential of this sort of ‘new’ work led to the slow birth of Note as it is today.”
Purohit calls their partnership “a happy coincidence,” but admits that it does seem like the result of an appropriate process. “We were colleagues and friends, catching up regularly for events or general design chat. Our debates invariably led to ‘how we would do things instead’ — the idea of setting up a practice never really leaves an architect,” he explains. “If one of us discussed culture and trends, the other complemented with systems and feasibility. We argued well!”
That remains the foundation of their collaborative process at Note. “We would never really feel that we have experienced enough of our profession, but we were sure there was a lot we could change…and we began to collaborate,” he recalls. “No matter how small the design exercises were, we were brimming with ideas and concepts. Project scales and complexities grew rapidly. It spontaneously turned into a formal partnership one day. We might have been doing a verandah layout that day (in 2013), when the documents came in. It was just another busy day at work.”
It is no coincidence that Khanna echoes Purohit’s sentiments when she says she still feels like a student of architecture. “Each project at Note has offered us something new to learn and discover,” she reiterates, and her partner agrees wholeheartedly. “Every day, there is a new realisation of what is the most important thing in design. Between Smita and me, the project proposal must defend itself. It is our unique process of ‘quality control’ where relevance of an idea is a benchmark of good taste.” Noted.
Maria Louis, who works with ITP Publishing, specialises in writing about architecture and design.
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