In Conversation with Yatin Pandya by Nitika Agarwal
Yatin Pandya is the founder of the Indian organisation Footprints E.A.R.T.H (environment, architecture, research, technology and housing) that is dedicated to research, documentation and demonstration of a lifestyle evolved from multiple approaches towards sustainability. As the associate director at Vastu Shilpa Consultants for more than 20 years, he has established standards and norms that are contextually, socially, environmentally and economically appropriate to the Indian context. His projects present a diverse scale, ranging from townships, mass housing schemes, slum improvements, institutions and residences to installations. Through his academic involvement and projects, he attempts to investigate and raise awareness towards an architecture that is holistic—one that is experientially engaging, environmentally sustaining, socioculturally responsive, and most importantly, contextually appropriate. He has been recognised with national and international awards for his work and was recently acknowledged as one of 12 honourees of the world by the Curry Stone Foundation for remarkable work on sustainability and affordable interventions.
NA: After your bachelor’s degree in architecture from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, what was
the focus of your master’s programme overseas? And thereafter, what made you come back
and start off a career in Ahmedabad?
YP: I pursued higher studies in low-cost housing from McGill University in Montreal. What we studied there
was also relevant to India as it addressed the universal issue of housing with three major concerns—how does
one account for sociocultural appropriateness, frugal resources and timeless aesthetics? So the parameters
were of course similar based on working in context with some of these severe conditions.
Simultaneously, I was also interested in the vernacular habitat. There have been two references since I started
my career, and as part of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation, we made efforts to evolve norms and standards that
are indigenous and related to our context. I would begin with the traditional habitat, not for nostalgic reasons
but because there are important lessons that they demonstrate purely by their performances. Despite harsh
conditions in Ahmedabad, if we can build environmentally friendly physical spaces with adequate comfort, why
can’t we learn from those principles today and develop them further instead of dismissing them, to rely entirely
on high-energy intensive means of comfort? I also refer to squatter settlements that were derived by the people
themselves. Built out of a severe resource crunch, they reveal needs and priorities better. Although deprived in
terms of physical infrastructure, they express a habitat much closer to their lifestyles and day-to-day needs.
The second point of reference is timeless aesthetics: how a building performs over the years and withstands
the challenges of time to not wear off from people’s memories and appreciation, like most of the ruins.
Although functionally obsolete, these structures built in scarce resource conditions continue to be an exciting
architectural space. So this quality of timelessness and sustainability has led me to delve into vernacular
architecture. Even in Montreal and later at Vastu Shilpa, we derived lessons from these habitats as they have
succeeded in bringing in sociocultural responses, greater interactivity and a timeless quality.
NA: Until recently, India was largely isolated from the world markets. Now, with globalisation
and the integration of world economies, do you believe these lessons are appropriate in the
YP: I believe human behavioural responses have not changed for centuries. Today, we base our existence
on technology that becomes obsolete in no time. We still go to the cinema even with the television at home
providing over 30 channels; we prefer meeting people over the phone or video call right? Certainly, those are
fundamentally more ‘human’.
Making a prototype independent of site, context and cultural lifestyle is rather regressive and strange. It lends
tremendous burden on the user to maintain the entire mechanised infrastructure. Taking clues from centuries-old traditional pol houses with shared walls, we can possibly release congestion from our urban land by building only four storeys to consume the available 1.8 free space index (FSI). I have learnt a lot from the pol house and traditional courtyard house typologies to contemporise the form of row houses with the front and back yards from the bungalow and street edges from the cluster. It brings light, ventilation, views with privacy and interactive edges, presenting a classic civic form to the city. There’s no denial of new technology; we are only recognising what is proven true performance wise and take it from there. Any development that bases its principles on these two equations—human to human (interaction and interdependency) and human to nature—has responded to the call of the environment, humanity and sustainability.
NA: How do you see the idea of sustainability being accepted as an underlying principle today?
More importantly, how would you demonstrate its development over the past few decades in India and otherwise?
YP: We are currently working on a book that demonstrates a study on contemporary Indian architecture where
we have traced the so-called pendulum swing. In post independent India, there was a collective euphoria of an
independent nation and political thinking to ‘begin again’. Corbusier and Kahn were invited to plan our cities
and suggest a way of living with brand new infrastructure and a modern image. That was a conscious denial
of the past. The next decade or so traced the admiration of the first planned city and many such structures by
the Indian masters that adopted similar grammar and aesthetics. Then about 25 years later, the late 1970s
and 80s were to me better phases of the Indian architecture and built environment, when we enquired into
finding local answers to infrastructure, poverty and housing. This was the introspection age and an example is
the work of architect Laurie Baker. His work in Kerala came to be recognised, although he built right from the
late 1940s of what he thought was appropriate to the environment, culture and economics. We got something
like the Aranya housing scheme commissioned in those days that incorporated all neighbourhood facilities in appropriate quantities to sustain community life. The character of a city is not derived by institutions or stand-alone buildings. Rather, it is defined by the way you treat housing, as it inhabits more than 60 per cent of the built form. So it was a socialist stand in terms of being plural, in every field of art, music, architecture and likewise.
Unfortunately, post 1980s, the economy gave us a huge setback and with tremendous exposure came a fancy
for external things. You started wrapping things up and the same gave rise to packaged architecture. Now,
once again, with a resurgence of looking for the Indian idiom and India being a global player, it’s important to
draw a line instead of competing on a global stance.
NA: How do you think the government policies in India are responding to the current need for
sustainable living and building norms?
YP: Our policies in the recent past have been formed by a government that has conformed to autocratic
decision-making with no platform for collective thinking. Several communities in the past with the right
direction and support from the government were successful in initiating a number of welfare works for
their cities. Taking cues from an inappropriate development model, the current government is responsible
for enforcing an American model that gives priority to high-rises and integrated township over contextual
development. For instance, if instead of applying a mandatory 10- to 15-feet side margin on a plot, a reversed
typology with internal margin was enforced, it would provide for a usable open space to the residents.
Additionally, I feel a reverse by-law of mandatory terrace on every floor should be enforced with a cascading
built form instead of vertical accumulation and adaption of inappropriate norms. It would still meet the
maximum FSI. So it’s not about compromising the density, but the direction and right intent. My emphasis
on the government is not to blame them, but only they can form the means of control and by-laws that are
mandatory to all. I believe as an architect, we should evolve from the traditional typologies as they were built
for the people, by the people.
NA: Would you explain the position of professionals as role models in bringing awareness and
advocating an appropriate way of living?
YP: A large majority of professionals have somehow been subjugated by the development patrons and
haven’t been honest to the profession’s ethics. As a result, we have lost our faith value, (prioritising) personal
gain (over) the end user’s. I always say holistic architecture is about a few diverse perspectives. It should
be experimentally engaging, environmentally sustaining, socioculturally responsive, and most importantly,
contextually appropriate. Hotel corridors without light and ventilation, south-facing double glass, artificial
light in summer afternoon—these are the factors that I deem inappropriate. Need we chart an agenda for
20 per cent reduction in air-conditioning load or resolve to find comfort without one? I think our professional
obligation has to be to the people, to the place where it belongs and to the planet of which we are a part of. As
architects, we are called to take six basic decisions where the sum total of which is architecture:
|1. Siting and location
||4. Elements of space making
|2. Form and mass
||5. Material and construction techniques
|3. Space organisation
||6. Finishes and surface articulation
Any building, good or bad, demands architectural decisions based on these six aspects. Only when we
understand the wider implications of these decisions would we be able to make informed choices and arrive
at the resolutions. So the debate is not about shying away from the technological advancements but rather
to let them play second fiddle and not hide architectural fallacies behind the façades of energy-intensive
To bring awareness, the first and foremost is to provide the right value system during education. The second
would be demonstration and right professionalism. I always say that there’s no one way of doing things.
For everything, there are many approaches. Sustainable architecture is a sampling of the different scales
and diversified approaches in which recycling and waste management could be one approach, traditional
knowledge and its reinterpretation, changing certain norms and mindset, using local materials and giving equal
importance to participatory process as others. And above all, it is critical to engage in collective thinking and
have by-laws that actively participate in improving the quality of life.
NA: What is your opinion on the Green building movements in India and worldwide? What do
they offer in terms of bringing people closer to a sustainable lifestyle?
YP: Green has become a fashionable word these days. Unfortunately, more often than not, it has remained a
word rather than a colour. As a result, it gets interpreted in numerous shades. On the one hand, fully glazed
buildings using photosensitive glass products may be rendered as Green; on the other hand, buildings with
adequate comfort conditions without air-conditioners would not find favours with the LEED rating system. Five
hundred miles as distance to local materials, which is beyond states in India, has advantages over vernacular
architecture despite functional and regional responses. Green has to be our resolve rather than mere
rendering. So, the problem is about formula and universalisation; not intent and phenomenon.
NA: Your practice demonstrates a dedication towards raising awareness on Green architecture
far beyond just the built environment. What standards or development norms have been
evolved that can facilitate a change in the lifestyle of a wider audience?
YP: Our practice is research-driven and for every project, we evolve local solutions appropriate to context,
climate and costing. Our understanding of Green and its diverse interpretations are demonstrated in projects
of varying scales, as we firmly believe that sustainability is not a formula but a phenomenon that needs to
find appropriate interpretations according to context. For example, the Environmental Sanitation Institute that
was built in 2004 is a holistically sustainable campus, from water harvesting and waste recycling to passive
cooling and solar-active strategies, etc.; Manav Sadhna is about waste recycling as building components;
Evosys is about eco-friendly interiors; and Karma is a stand-alone office building with multiple solar passive
strategies, and so on. We have always documented our research and processes with actual figures for relevant
application, which is handed out as monographs, free of cost to schools and colleges.
The project Ujasiyu was initiated to provide natural daylight and air ventilation in the dark and dingy spaces
of slum houses of the urban poor. Simple, affordable, alternative solutions were devised and were installed in
140 houses in the slums of Ahmedabad alone in less than two years. As a participatory solution, it is in the
progress to spread through many more settlements even outside of Gujarat. Through publications and academic
endeavours, we are more than happy to propagate sustainable living, and that is in fact the larger intent.
NA: What are the things that inspire you?
YP: Like I said, some traditional architecture, as its survival itself is a proof of its values. I also love the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial. To me, it’s a fantastic example of just two walls and sloping ground that has the
strength to inform, indulge and inspire. I have interpreted it in many ways and as a student of architecture, it
has taught me a lot.
The Pompidou Centre—not for its function because I would still get intimidated of going inside. What is
unbelievable is the impact of its façade that has turned its surroundings into an active civic plaza! I don’t recall
any contemporary building of being able to succeed in igniting such impromptu responses. It’s the way the
building stimulates communication and gives people the liberty to make it their own. Likewise, there are many
other examples that interest and excite me, including the jelly bean installation in Chicago by Anish Kapoor.
That intervention has turned the park into an absolutely amazing active civic space.
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