In candid talk with Ar. Darshan Medhi

Ar. Darshan Medhi is a gold medalist graduated from Pune University. He has worked in India for some time afterwards. However, his keenness to explore design and embed it in practice pushed him to further studies in Construction Management at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. With his passion and innate flair, he excelled there as well. After working on a variety of hospital projects as well as with Hopkins Architects he has acquired a unique skill-set in the architectural field of sports facilities. In 2010, he established Darshan Medhi Architects (DMA) to redefine a new face of architecture.

Can you tell a brief history before DMA and how DMA came to be?

I’ve worked with Hopkins Architects since 2005 till 2010. Grew up from an architectural assistant to the Country head manager. It had a lot of portfolios including Pune cricket stadium, Chennai cricket stadium, Kerala cricket stadium and lot many others. The work was primarily done in London and then I had to fly to India frequently to make sure that work was delivered. This was all before DMA started. During the visits to India, there were a lot of enquiries about other such projects but not everyone can afford to pay in pounds. People were searching for a cheaper architect. I wasn’t too keen on sticking to the job forever but I realised that there was some time to start-up on my own. I also spoke with Michael about starting my own practice. There was even a thought of starting Hopkins-India but it couldn’t materialise due to some of the risks involved; which both of us weren’t very comfortable with. So at the end of 2011, I came back to India and started DMA with an understanding that if Hopkins Architects decided to come to India with a possibility of association then we can work together on a project-to-project basis.

Darshan with Sir Michael Hopkins
Darshan with Sir Michael Hopkins

After starting, we didn’t have any work for over a year; but now we are doing alright. Currently, we are doing some stadiums, some sports facilities and even some hi-rise residences.

Every architect approaches design process with his own philosophy. What is the design philosophy at DMA? What are the core values that can be seen in embedded in every design? How do you approach every new project?

I don’t think there is any philosophy and I don’t think that you can decide a philosophy and work towards it. Philosophy comes from day-to-day living. The only link between philosophy and architecture is about expressing your thoughts in design.

Right from my childhood, I’m a very stingy man. I usually don’t carry the things that I don’t need. I’ve been like that for a long time. For example, If I want to purchase a kilo of potatoes, I’ll never go out with a bag that can carry 5 kilos. It’s same for me when it comes to design. If there’s a need of column to carry X amount of load, I’m okay with it; but if there’s going to be anything more than that, then I need a very strong reason for its presence and the reason better not be “because it looks good”.

Recreation club, DSK Developers, Pune

You don’t need to think different. The thinking can remain the same but you have to do things differently. If there are two elements meeting each other, accept it. It’s as Buckminster Fuller says, “ Don’t fight forces, use them.” So if something has to be done, it has to be done its raw form. If a steel member is taking the load and transferring it then I don’t see a point in covering it with a bunch of cladding material; it should look just steel member carrying the load. I think that is the architecture. The truth of the material and the structure has to be the architecture of the project and that is true for every project that we work on.

Tell us about you and your journey in architecture. How did you decide to be an architect? What made you reach this far? Was there some turning point?

Well, the journey of architecture started from the day when I was born. My father is an architect, so I saw him doing a lot of work in his office which then was a small corner of our house. I think I drew my first freehand perspective when I was in 7th. But when I finished my 12th, I wanted to be a pilot. My dad didn’t think it was a good idea; he thought I could become a better architect. Turns out he was right. Another reason why I chose architecture was that I used to see my father working on projects. Since he used to work on smaller projects, it was he who had to take the responsibility for project supervision. He used to take me to visit the construction sites and it was fascinating to see drawing turning into reality. That is also the reason that got me interested in construction, eventually. That’s what made me realise that it was as important to pay attention to construction as paying attention to architecture.

As for reaching this far, I’d say that we haven’t actually reached any far. In fact, we’ve just started out. But if you want to look at a turning point I’d say it was while working with the big architects like Uttam Jain and Prem Nath when I realised that I wanted to do big projects. In the huge library at Prem Nath’s office, I used to look at designs of the architects like Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and that’s when I felt the desire to design projects of that scale, that was the turning point.

Ar. Darshan Medhi with Ar. Prem Nath

You have designed quite a large number of public spaces. While building a public space like Maharashtra Association Cricket Stadium, how do you make the design evolve so that it fulfils all the purposes?

I think for any public place, small or large, the demands of everyone utilising it don’t matter. There are 2 ways of looking at it. First is how a user looks at a space that has been designed by the architect and the 2nd is how the architect looks at the space that he wants to design. If they are quite similar then it can be called as a very good public space. For example, if you are going to design a stadium then it’s not really important what you think about the stadium. The more important thing to understand is what the public wants to do. You have to understand which different categories of the people are going to be part of the stadium.

As an architect, one has to keep his eyes and ears open. A few days after I had started working with Sir Michael Hopkins, he one day came up and asked me if I had ever seen a match. At that time I didn’t like cricket so obviously, I hadn’t. So he told me to go and see a cricket match. Incidentally, the first match that I went to see was India vs. England being played on Lords. At that time when the people were cheering to the fours and sixes hit by Indian team, I was looking around at the stadium; and at that time I realised that you have to understand the game before you design a stadium; and I don’t mean what’s happening on the ground, I mean what’s happening off the ground as well. You have to hear everything, see everything, understand everything and then you’ve to respond to it.

Maharashtra Cricket Association Cricket Stadium, Gahunje (Principle Architect: Hopkins Architects)

Now, when you design all this, you’ll never be able to achieve 100% perfection because the project like that is a very huge in scale and apart from that, architecture is a continuously changing process. That’s why some things that are right today, may not be right tomorrow. So as an architect, you have to foresee the time for which you are designing; we call it a ‘design life’ of a project.

M. A. Chidambaram Cricket Stadium, Chennai (Principle Architect: Hopkins Architects)

It basically means that you have to envisage what’s going to happen in the project and how the project is going to shape itself once it is built and how can we, at the design stage cater to those changes. I think that is the important thing to look at when you design a public space.

What are the differences that fundamentally separate private spaces and public spaces from design philosophy’s perspective?

I don’t think there’s a difference in approach while designing private space and public spaces. I think more important is that when you design a private space you have to think about who are you designing it for and why are you designing what you are designing. Now, as long as you are happy to get answers to these questions, may it be a private space or may it be a public space, then I suppose, the design philosophy could remain the same.

You have stayed quite a few years in the UK and have practised architecture there as well as in India. What are the differences between the architecture practices?

It’s quite simple actually. India is a growing economy. India wants every answer before the question is going to be asked. I don’t know if it’s a right way or wrong way. If I was in the UK, we would almost take it one-by-one. We would strategise the design, we would enter the design development phase, we’d develop the design, we’d sit down for the co-ordination process and then we’ll move ahead. There might also be a few thousand drawings that come out of our boards. This is the process that we follow even in DMA right now. But apart from that, in India, we don’t get that time. In the UK the time that you spend on board is significantly high than what you spend in India.

International Cricket Stadium, Motera, Ahmedabad (Proposed)

If we were designing a project in the UK, what takes 3-3.5 years to finish the design and design development process, it would take a reasonable contractor around 2 years to finish the project. However, in India, it’s the other way around. In India, if we were designing a project for a year, it would take a contractor 4 years to finish it.

Capgemini IT Office Masterplan, Tathawade, Pune

If we generally talk about how we can improve the project’s architectural delivery in India then it’s about giving time to architects. They know how to design. A lot of architects in India do want to work in good faith and do want to do good architecture. However, they fell there’s lack of time. As architects, we do understand the importance of deadlines and we do work with deadlines. However, one has to understand that unless we have time to finish the study of architecture, unless we finish developing the design, we can’t really go into the next stage.

If an architect gives a concept drawing and if the contractor decides to go on site with that drawing then there’s nothing more we can do. What it means is that when a concept drawing is done, it has to go through several checkpoints before it goes on the site. Now if someone expects that the concept drawing has to be done today and the construction drawing has to be done within 5 days then it’s not reasonable. The way I see it, an architect has to be able to look at everything on the plate of a construction project and has to work as a team.

Residential Project, Antop hill, Mumbai

An architect cannot work on designing a building, then send it to a structural engineer to do the structure then move it ahead to the MEP Engineer who adds on to it some special engineering services and eventually it all comes back to the architect to put it all in drawing and then send it onto the construction. That’s a wrong way of looking at it. We have to strategize things. There has to be a design team and there has to be an execution team, and the architect and the project manager have to work together with the team. There’s nobody leading the team, there’s nobody following the team; the project has to be delivered by working together. So I think what we have to improve in India, is teamwork.

How did you develop yourself as an architect? Throughout your journey so far, what did you have to learn by yourself?

I think architecture is like music, the more you practice is the more you learn. So the best way to develop yourself is to keep on working and that’s what I’ve kept on doing. And I don’t think I have learned anything by myself. Everybody has taught me everything. It’s society that makes a man.

As the interview gets over it becomes clear why this architect is regarded as one of the best architects by his peers. Apart from his skill and intellect, his clear perception and principles have set him apart and that might be the very reason that he has won several awards including RIBA 2, IIA Award as well as Late Architect Gandhe Award.

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