Meet Maverick Architect Bijoy Jain
Sunlight streams over us uninterrupted while I sit on a cane chair adjoining the rustic charpoy seating the tall-and-taut frame of Bijoy Jain. The pebble-and-brick flooring pricks my unclad feet into a consciousness that we are outside even as we sit inside the Byculla home of the Indian architect. Until not so long ago, Alibaug, a once-verdant seaside town whose name has traversed the oceans to sit lightly on the tongues of aspiring architects who vie for internships at his Studio Mumbai, had become synonymous with Jain — since it was his home and office for over a decade. For now, though, he is back in the city of his childhood that gave his studio its name.
He is not just another brick in the wall, and with this move, the homing pigeon has broken out of the pigeonhole yet again — proving that nothing can contain an unfettered imagination that soars beyond the out of the box. He may be known for uprooting himself from the city to plant his studio in a remote location and yet run a flourishing practice. But that scarcely stopped him from returning to his roots when he felt the urge to do so.
An innovative use of modern technology alongside traditional Indian building techniques has made Jain a much-sought-after mentor for Indian and international students of architecture who are intrigued by a practice that designs and constructs every aspect of buildings — right down to the handles and hinges. Contrary to perceptions, Jain did not deliberately set out to be radical — but ventures to suggest that growing up in suburban Juhu in the ’60s may have played a role. It was the post-Independence era, when India’s intellectuals, playwrights and artists were trying to make sense of the tumult that surrounded the country and the world.
“There was a community spirit in Juhu — theatre, film, communism — it was all there! You could have a point of view,” recalls the 51-year-old, but shrugs off the idea that he was different. “I was a regular kid. The idea is not to think out of the box for the sake of it. It’s more, how does one remain contemporary? As long as we can accommodate change, that’s the guiding principle.”
Jain is in a reflective mood, and rambles on in a stream-of-consciousness manner of speaking, punctuated by the chirping of birds in the sunlit courtyard of his new home. What drives his choices, he muses, are the things that make him happy. “I enjoy doing certain things more than others. I guess, for me, it was just something that one gets led into. My main interest is being intuitive. It’s the intuitive side that’s the creative side. That’s the one that sparks. Creative means being open; that’s my understanding of it. So, if you remain close to that sensation, then it becomes part of the way one is. I think certain decisions are guided by certain phenomena that happen in all our lives. That is what influences. It’s not so much about being revolutionary, but it’s about asking some questions.”
Asking questions is something that Jain tries to do every moment of every day. In fact, he seems to be doing it as we speak. The best way that he can describe his choice of the road less-travelled is by saying he was led by his nose! Coming from a family of doctors, he was certain that he didn’t want to be one. “I saw the kind of hours they were putting in and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that’,” he recalls, about his knee-jerk teenage reaction. “Little did I know that I would be doing the same thing!” Architecture was the next best thing for him, but he discovered his affinity for it only once he began studying. Till then, swimming had been a major part of his life, as he used to swim professionally for the state. “It was the transition from swimming to finding something that fulfilled that part…till I discovered another one,” he says nostalgically.
A sudden personal tragedy prompted him to leave the country after studying for two years at the Academy of Architecture in Prabhadevi, Mumbai. “I lost my family at the time…heart attack, accident,” discloses Jain, who took on the challenge of swimming across the English Channel and then completed his master’s in architecture from the Washington University in St Louis, USA, in 1990. “I was in a bit of a daze then,” he admits, adding that he worked in Los Angeles and London from 1989 to 1995, and returned to India in 1995 to found his practice.
Less than a decade later, he presented his work at the Venice Biennale and the Victoria and Albert Museum; and his genius has been acknowledged with several international prizes — including the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture (2009) run by the LOCUS Fund under the patronage of UNESCO, the seventh Spirit of Nature Wood Architecture Award, Finland (2012) and the third BSI Swiss Architecture Award (2012). Recently, he was invited to design the MPavilion 2016 which can be seen at the Queen Victoria Gardens in Melbourne till January.
Closer home, in 2013, Jain was the only architect honoured with a solo show at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road. In line with the gallery’s interest in the fluidity between art and architecture, it presented a series of installations by Studio Mumbai. Titled Demolition Series, the attempt was to present an environment that’s elemental and sensorial, a field of varying conditions curated from the studio’s observations of everyday life. “These conditions are formed to instigate and negotiate inside and outside,” he said. “The pieces, independently and collectively, evoke indeterminate experiences. The idea is not to guide viewers through a specific process, but to allow discoveries through visual layers.”
When Jain narrates how he worked for three or four years in the USA in a model shop of an architecture firm, the materials and models that formed the installations for this show flash back in my mind’s eye. “It was like a carpentry job. I was making models out of wood, so I learnt to do things with my hands,” says Jain, who discovered his affinity for space during his study and practice. “It’s not just a love for architecture, but for architecture that’s related to making space…and not necessarily physical space,” he clarifies. “What I’m trying to say is that at some point when you enter into a dialogue with things you have an affinity for, then what unfolds can be a world of discovery. That is what keeps you thinking, keeps you engaged.”
Now engaged in making space for himself, his new partner and his studio in the city, he reflects that his earlier decision to move to Alibaug had stemmed from a desire to experience another way of living, a different quality of life. “I had come back from the US, and my partner…my wife at that time…had two dogs. I was not anti-city, but it was a way to be connected with what I was doing. It enables you to look at things a little more broadly. For me, what was interesting was to have a different viewing lens for the same place. I grew up in Bombay and it will always be a part of my blood. You get kind of straitjacketed if you remain in one place.”
Straitjacketed is certainly not a term that one could apply to this master architect. Though he has been teaching abroad for some years now, he has decided not to teach for the next year and a half — as he would like to make time and space for himself. But Jain has a message for the next generation: do not fear trying. It’s worth giving something a chance.
Maria Louis, who works with ITP Publishing, writes regularly on architecture and design.