Practice Profile: Samira Rathod Design Atelier

James Parker finds out how the award-winning firm of Indian architect Samira Rathod pursues its goals of creating sensual, context-focused beauty using locally-sourced natural materials

Mumbai-based architect Samira Rathod attended the renowned Sir J. J. College of Architecture in the city, and then attained a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Illinois in 1988. After this she worked for Californian practice Don Wald and Associates (with clients including Clint Eastwood), before returning to India to work under Ratan Batliboi and in a partnership, RLC, from 1995.

She set up Samira Rathod Design Atelier (SRDA) in Mumbai in 2000 with two other partners, but, says the architect, “over time we realised that our ideologies of practice differed,” and they “amicably parted,” with Rathod continuing as head of a practice with a mission to pursue “investigation into ideas of design, architecture and research.”

The practice’s initial goal, which remains a constant mantra for its leader, was a “commitment to the idea of beauty, and an integrity in practice.” So while it tackles the practicalities of spatial problem-solving for clients, SRDA also sees architecture as “informed at a subliminal level by the finer arts like literature, poetry, art and sculpture.”

In addition, Rathod maintains a focus on “creating sensual experiences,” in spaces which can have “reformative influence on human behaviour and emotions.”

The studio founded with just two employees and no commissions, but with “a zeal to design relentlessly.” Perhaps unusually, its first work was to design avant-garde furniture pieces for an exhibition, which immediately led to the firm being commissioned to design buildings.

Healthy growth

The studio has grown “slowly and gradually,” says Rathod, and now has a team of 20 designers, architects and “visualisers.” Being a small, tightly knit unit better enables the firm to prioritise quality over quantity, she says. “We work intensely, on projects that push our boundaries, and reinvent ways of making architecture, rather than undertake quantum work to make ends meet.”

While keen to employ architects with skill sets in areas such as management, drawing ability and research, the firm “above all looks for individuals with an unending desire to learn and grow, and who have a responsible attitude to rigorous process,” says Rathod.

Following its debut furniture designs, SRDA branched out into similarly esoteric territory, designing a tree house, which led to the first of many residential commissions. In the past decade however, the firm’s range has broadened significantly, with it completing a variety of projects across India including art galleries, schools and skyscrapers, as well as masterplans for villas and several interior design projects.

Case by case

The practice’s founder affirms that its focus is not on explicit specialisation, but rather to “take up design challenges, irrespective of their scale.” Rathod adds: “We enjoy designing the smallest furniture piece as much as the very large institutional projects. Our driving force is the challenge or opportunity to express an idea.”

The studio has an all-encompassing motto which is captured in the acronym ‘BLIRS’ – ‘Beautiful, Local, Indigenous, Recycle and Reuse, and Small.’ Rathod explains: “We believe that the context of buildings is a starting point to design. Architecture should rely heavily on its context, including the materials available, local craft etc.” She goes further to say that the firm’s designers “strongly believe in objects as characters that speak to you. In the same way, architecture influences and speaks to the person inhabiting the space.”

The architect says that the firm, rather than merely prioritising functional space planning, devotes a large part of its work to “creating experiences, using space to interpret – rather than reiterating the definitive,” using light and texture.

She compares architecture to poetry, in the sense that poetry is the “unravelling of layers of meaning, whereas architecture is unravelling of experiences; surprise, serendipity, comfort, relief, romance.” However Rathod explains that “esoteric” sources of inspiration such “stories, books, conversations” may be brought into designs, but subliminally, “not necessarily as physical manifestations.”

Intellectual rigour & local inspiration

The practice prides itself in its rigour in terms of lateral thinking, group discussions and extensive research,” underlying the success of its commissions, many of which have picked up awards. Rathod says that the studio “undergoes a rigorous process of design, ideation, drawing, model making and research” when it takes on a commission, giving the example of the School of Dancing Arches, a playful terracotta education project in Bhadran, Gujarat that crystallises a lot of what SRDA is about. “Conceptualised from a child’s early scribbles that turned into a series of dancing arches, the school is an experiment with materials and forms,” she says, explaining the resulting uneven set of arches, set within an overall articulated form in plan.

“A scribble is indicative of having freedom; it’s the only form a child knows. The dancing arches are a reminder of this freedom. The arches’ asymmetry reiterates that it is not always mandatory to be straight or conventional.” She continues: The plan’s irregularity echoes critical thinking, questioning and breaking away from convention; it also allows for a meander.” The building’s materiality roots it into the local landscape: it’s entirely made from brick sourced from a local kiln and which has been hand crafted by local masons.

The Community Centre in Bysandrum near Bangalore is another project built using materials made by local craftsmen. It “appears as a stone monolith,” made of granite from a nearby quarry, each piece having been manually cut, chiselled and installed. Rathod says: “For us, every project is a large painting which people inhabit – many of the textures found their inspiration from the landscape of fields around the site.”

In terms of bringing clients along with them, Rathod says the firm spends “a lot of time persuading them of the ideas we are passionate about, but we also believe in striving to change things until the client is satisfied. The practice’s approach has led to it winning a clutch of awards, from commercial, office and urban design categories to its work in copper, plus an Elle Deco design award for lighting and a ‘Women and Architecture’ award from arc Vision in Italy. Despite this accolade however, her gender, says Rathod, has been “irrelevant” in her work.

Harnessing research

Having made its name in the commercial and education sectors, the practice is firmly setting its sights on larger urban masterplanning projects in future, “a realm not many niche practices decide to enter,” says Rathod. Short term, she says SRDA will be looking to bring to life, a range of concepts that they have been researching recently.

These include ‘Project Boject,’ which has looked at the idea of “dismantling” buildings for sustainable reuse, rather than demolition. ‘Museum of Trees’ is a research project that documented the many trees in the Rani Baug zoo of Mumbai to propose it become a botanical garden instead.

Further projects looked at the potential regeneration of the town of Bhadran, where the practice created the School of Dancing Arches, and a design concept for a house that retains water in its walls. Such efforts show a practice not only delivering beautiful, context-responsive design for individual clients, but also thinking deeply about the wider ramifications and potential of architecture in India.