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In conversation with Sharukh Mistry

Meet India’s biggest green crusader in architecture and design

Long before ‘going green’ became the inspiration du jour, Sharukh Mistry had been incorporating sustainable practices in his designs. Even today, the Bengaluru-based architect loves to experiment with recycled products, natural and alternative materials, as well as with stone. From his very first project—his own home in Bangalore—to now, Mistry has been at the forefront of changing the vocabulary of building and design. He shares with us not just his experiences at work but also who he really is as a person—a joyologist.

Did you always want to become an architect?
In college—this was in 1968—I simply played the fool; chasing girls was more important than architecture. Noshir and Rumi were my early mentors, and then walked in [now-wife] Renu. She was beautiful... she still is! Her designs at IIT Kharagpur bowled me over. It was then that I started to look at the profession of architecture in a different light. I am still not serious, a joyologist, if you please. I fell in love with architecture and the ‘cerebral Southie’ whom I have been married to for the last 41 years.

What kind of work excites you the most?
I haven’t come across any project that has not excited me. I like to engage in diversity. That’s possibly the reason why our practice has a much larger bandwidth. It also helps us leave our baggage or ‘experience’ and go in as a ‘beginner’. To answer your question in a straightforward way, I am excited about projects in the socially relevant space, where architects are least afforded and where, as a professional I can ‘design like I give a damn’. Projects like the SOS children’s villages, Tsunami Rehabilitation work along the coast of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Earthquake responses in Nepal, Agastya International to promote rural education and Ranga Shankara, a theatre for the community. Bringing hope is the ultimate joy.

Which project do you consider as the turning point for your own venture?
There have been many and in different phases of my life. The first one is our own home. No experience, little money, new place, no cement (it was 1980). So looking at alternative building methods became critical to our survival. This continues. We question status quo, break disciplines and have a ball doing it. Then came the SOS villages, Ranga Shankara, Agastya and others that moulded us, while we continued to look for the ah, aha and the haha moments.

Tell us about the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
In recent times, I would say it is our endeavour to create a meaningful life by building homes, schools and community centres in Nepal. It’s an on-going project, one part in the alpine range and another in the riverine valley. The sheer difficulty of approaching the site (back-breaking), the difference in geographies, culture and climate means that we stepped out of our comfort zones, marshalling up resources and qualities that we were not prepared for. It has been a great learning experience. Our minds were flooded with questions and it created the space for ‘listening’, which helped us connect with local communities. We asked ourselves: What, as designers, are we bringing to the table? Are we designing with pride or pity, hope or despair? And are we truly ‘listening’ to their fears, apprehensions and aspirations?

What were the challenges you faced?
The Nepal reconstruction authority decided that the entire process has to be ‘owner-driven construction’. So, we have a team of engineers, masons, plumbers, fabricators and electricians training hundreds of farmers and their families to build their own homes. It is tough but amazingly rewarding. When you see the smile on the faces of the villagers, women and children, it is worth every bit.

What are you inspired by?
Nothing exotic. I am inspired by my simple, everyday surroundings, wherever I am. It could be a garbage heap or a rainbow behind it.

Do you have a mentor?
My many mentors on this journey are not only humans but also beings, forests, rivers and oceans. I am downright in awe of all the everyday happenings. Currently, my mentor is a raven. She is on my terrace everyday, sharing my food and teaching us some values that only she can—to live and let live. I could write a book on her.

One structure you wish you'd designed...and why?
It is a structure but not a building. It’s a tree. I am besotted by this rubber tree in our garden. I was involved in its growth. You see, Renu and I were expecting our second child, Umeed. I was in Bangalore and she was in Mumbai. This plant was in a pot. Every time I travelled to Mumbai, it would wither and dry up. On my return, I would talk to it, water it, love it and new shoots would emerge. As soon as we completed our home in 1980, I planted it in our garden. Now, 36 years later, it is a giant with a 100 ft-canopy and a girth of close to eight feet. Its roots are under our home and last year, it decided to bless me by dropping a huge branch that gave me 10 stitches on my head. I do consider it a blessing!

You have such unique experiences and reactions. How would your friends describe you?
A mad ‘bawaji’ who likes to guffaw every 10 minutes; one who sees a funny side in the most serious of situations.

The first thing you do, when you start your workday?
Stretch like my dog Khichdi, wriggle (a bit), dunk biscuits in my Parsi pudhina chai, and then, I am ready to take on the world.

During a project, what part do you enjoy the most?
Developing a connection to the site—it is the most important design intervention. Followed by listening to the person I am designing for. Also allowing myself to wait for other triggers while ideation begins.

In your opinion, the best-planned cities in the world are…
Out of my travels, I’d say, the two ancient cities of Iran—Isfahan and Shiraz.

Your pet peeve is...
Negativity – in all its aspects.

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