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Step into the imaginarium of architect Samira Rathod

At Chemould Prescott Road, Samira Rathod presents a host of objects that are functional and yet can be perceived as art

The floating black shapes in the gallery come from the idea of a Nolli map. Photo: courtesy Chemould Prescott Road

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When you enter Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, it’s like you have stepped into an imaginarium. Floating black shapes fill the space. In a part of the gallery, one can see a host of tables, the surfaces of which have turned into landscapes. Some feature inverted objects below the table tops; others have staircases that turn into drawers; and some more in which trays emerge from courtyard-like shapes. “The table has turned into an architectural site. I have taken the idea of architecture and transported that into furniture,” says Samira Rathod, founder of Samira Rathod Design Atelier, about the objects in her exhibition, “Dismantling Building: A Kit of Parts”.

The show, on view till 2 August, carries forth the ethos of Rathod’s architectural practice. A lot of these elements—such as trays emerging from courtyards—are inspired by interstitial spaces in buildings, which she considers some of the most important aspects of design. Porticos, porches, staircases, large thresholds are spaces that help you move between rooms and allow an architect to create a sense of drama. “Rest of the rooms have a specific function but you can play with these interstitial spaces. And I have tried to recreate that in the tables,” she adds.

At her studio, she and her team don’t go about designing buildings in a conventional way. They create narratives based on influences drawn from nature and see how that connects with the context of the building. When Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road asked Rathod about an exhibition of objects, which had some purpose and a function and which could be perceived as art and/or furniture, she decided to work on it the same way that she does for her buildings.

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“We started looking at some of our past projects. At the studio, we have a vertical that does research and documentation. One of the exercises I gave them was to look at the idea of ‘architectonic’ or to look at the actual processes and not at the brick, cement and more that go into a building,” she elaborates. Each building was pared down and dismantled to get different shapes. “Also, the way a person perceived the form or process resulted in a different shape,” she adds.

At the end of this exercise, the team was left with a whole body of different forms. These elements were intriguing when viewed without the context of the building—all physical context, the climate of the site, the volumes and thickness were removed to yield black shapes. The black floating forms in the gallery are a manifestation of those. “We reversed the process and scale. Usually in architecture, you go from the smallest element to the largest, which is the building. Here, we have brought it down from large to the smallest denominator,” explains Rathod.

The show features drawings and 17 models of Rathod's own buildings, where you can see the connection between the built structures and the objects
The show features drawings and 17 models of Rathod's own buildings, where you can see the connection between the built structures and the objects

The exhibition also features a lot of drawings and Nollis, which are essentially black-and-white maps to understand built spaces, named after architect and surveyor Giambattista Nolli (1701-1756), who created the first ichnographic plan of Rome. These are now used widely by architects across the world. “The floating black shapes in the gallery come from the idea of a Nolli map,” says Rathod.

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The show also features 17 models of our own buildings, where you can see the connection between the built structures and the objects but in a subtle way. “There is another section called ‘Lost Moments’. During construction, there are some moments that are so beautiful and intriguing. However, as you add layer upon layer—the final finishing, or when the windows are added—those moments get buried. So, we have created a collage of 50 odd photos of such elements during construction,” she adds.

Rathod’s practice is based on the ideas of sustainability. At her studio, the team follows the philosophy of BLIRS, which stands for beautiful, local, indigenous, recycle/responsible, small and sustainable. “One doesn’t start with a pre-ordained image. If we did that, there would be no process left and you would not be allowing an idea to germinate. As we let the design develop, we incorporate ideas of BLIRS. This means using local materials. In this exhibition too, I have only used recycled Indian woods from Maharashtra,” she explains. She has tried to eliminate the use of screws and has instead used wooden joinery—harking back to traditional ways of wood craftsmanship. “After covid, people are looking at technology differently. So are we. To me, the idea of craft is important as it connects the body and mind,” adds Rathod.

Her design studio is divided into three verticals, which are united in their exploration of ideas. It doesn’t matter to her if some of these concepts don’t fructify as long as they inspire people to think, pave the way for a better future and help exercise the mind. “Such ideas also come about when you create installations. Take, for instance, the wall as a room, which was created for an exhibition at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur. The concept was that everything you use could fit within three feet of space—a toilet, a staircase, storage, bed,” says Rathod.

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After working on such installations, she elevates the idea to the next step, which is extensive research leading to collaboration with other design processes. The other idea that Rathod has taken forward is that of ”holding water” or exploring water as a material. She has drawn inspiration from old homes, which used to be built around a water tank, resulting in very cool interiors. “What if we could create huge hollow walls, which could hold water through the year? We have made staff quarters in a building like that in Alibaug, which will be ready soon. My quest is always to find new ways of looking at old material,” says Rathod.

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