Life, the universe and everything: A Wknd interview with architect Bijoy Jain - Hindustan Times
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Life, the universe and everything: A Wknd interview with architect Bijoy Jain

ByNatasha Rego
Apr 19, 2024 09:24 PM IST

He has designed furniture for Hermès, luxury homes and hotels. But the shapes he has formed aren’t his true legacy, says Jain, 59. Read about the idea that is.

Architect Bijoy Jain likes to say that his materials of choice are air, water and light.

 (Photo courtesy Fondation Cartier / Thibaut Voisin) PREMIUM
(Photo courtesy Fondation Cartier / Thibaut Voisin)

His latest exhibition, Breath of an Architect, has been on display at Paris’s prestigious contemporary art museum, Fondation Cartier, since December 9 (the show concludes today). And it is an embodiment of these elements, arranged over two floors.

The centrepiece is a giant orb of bamboo, smeared with cow dung, entwined with thread and coloured with turmeric. It sits in a bamboo enclosure that is immediately open yet intimate, surrounded by primitive-looking seats crafted out of stone and clay.

Elsewhere in the space are animal-inspired stone carvings, bamboo frameworks and a line drawing on a chalk platform that was created in situ.

Jain’s collaborators on the exhibition are Danish ceramist Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye, whose minimalist creations sit atop brick tables, and the Chinese painter Hu Liu, whose graphite drawings of rolling waves adorn the walls.

The pieces are meticulously placed around the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel’s iconic building, an enormous glass cube that lets in a view of a lush garden and plenty of light.

The space in between the many installations gives rise to a particular tension between the viewer and the artefacts. There is an almost ritualistic quality to the presentation. Silent. Distilled. Minimal.

“The making of the work sits outside the realm of electricity and predates industrial production. At its core, the fundamental nature of the show is one (intended) to instil silence and stillness,” says Jain, 59.

Everything was crafted by hand. But the hand, he points out, is a medium of expression. “It is the movement of the hand synchronised with the movement of our breath that gives form to what is being expressed.”

Just as a musician may merge with their instrument, for Jain, architecture is no longer about making buildings. It is now about oneness.

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Jain’s practice as an architect is more than two decades old. He has designed a five-sided textile studio in the foothills of the Himalayas, for the Japanese textile weaver Chiaki Maki. Drawn villas in a pine forest in the Himalayas, for a luxury resort. Envisioned the Lantern Onomichi Garden, a boutique hotel in Hiroshima, which sits within an old, avant-garde mountainside apartment block on the slopes of Mount Senkoji.

He has designed luxury homes in India, and his own home-and-studio in Mumbai’s Byculla. Built in 2015, it is an old warehouse reimagined as somehow both open and intimate, punctuated by verandahs and courtyards, awash with sunlight.

He uses local materials, not particularly for the usual reasons. With his use of wood, basalt, bamboo, concrete and earth, Jain is always looking to link the indoors and outdoors; always returning to his preferred mediums of light, water and air.

He has also designed furniture, and created a papier-mâché armchair and stone table for the French fashion house Hermès. His drawings, models, material samples, architectural constructions and furniture have been exhibited globally, and acquired by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“Whatever the medium is, the objective is to influence the trajectory of light in a space,” Jain says. “Any constricted space can be made open in its experience and perception. That is the potential that architecture holds.”

He is currently working on projects in India, a townhouse in Brooklyn, restoring a neighbourhood on a remote Greek island and a winery in France. “For me, working on the winery holds the possibility of influencing the way the taste of the wine evolves,” he says. From the use of natural light to deciding where barrels and bottles will sit, and how the air will move around them, “learning is part of discovery”.

Another element he uses in his work, is time. He aims to not be rushed or beset by a deadline, but to let time flow freely and influence a space as it needs to.

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Jain grew up in Mumbai in the 1960s and ’70s. His parents, both physicians, took trips across the country with him, in his early years. He still remembers the impression that the 2,000-year-old Ajanta and Ellora caves made, when he was five.

They moved him; that early travel shaped his worldview, he says. “The Ellora caves are a living space... They transcend time,” Jain says. “You may have an immediate (response) or it may take a length of time… but (eventually) you are not the same person as when you entered into the space.”

His parents also surrounded him with classical Hindustani music, which his mother practised, as well as the writings of Tagore, Shakespeare, Aldous Huxley and many others. “I would ask my father, ‘Why all these books?’ And he would say, ‘If you don’t find them, they will find you’.”

He was right, Jain adds. “There is a universe in most things, if you are open to it.”

He moved to the US in the 1980s and studied architecture at Washington University in St Louis, spent a few years working in the US and later in London. He returned to India in the mid-1990s and set up a small studio in Alibaug. With time on his hands, he spent his days learning about local ideas of architecture.

He worked with local artisans (he still does), and fondly remembers a stonemason named Eknath Shinde, whom he called Shinde Maama, and whom he accompanied around the coastal town, learning, watching, seeking. Shinde Maama was driven by the power of ideas, Jain says. “He would often say: ‘The rocks have something to offer in and of themselves. What is it that you have to offer of yourself?’”

Jain has spent decades answering that question. But it isn’t the shapes he has formed, first in his mind and then in the world, that he considers his true legacy. It is an idea.

“Life and practice have given me a glimpse into the fact that we are bodies of light in movement in space-time. I believe this is something to be celebrated, through the discipline of doing things that are meaningful, and architecture is one of them,” Jain says. It’s an idea that, ironically, underlines the transience of all things.

His legacy is not the prizes or shows or other wins. It is the realisation of a far deeper truth: “There are no prizes to be won here.”

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