Architect Sen Kapadia and a tale of 5 cities

The architect’s new book, Sen Kapadia: In Pursuance of Meanings, explores seminal projects and contemporary design, from Bombay to New York

Updated - March 23, 2023 01:01 pm IST

Published - March 23, 2023 11:34 am IST

Sen Kapadia at the National Institute of Design

Sen Kapadia at the National Institute of Design | Photo Credit: Vinay Panjwani

Sen Kapadia, an architect rooted in modernism (while also critical of it), belongs to the generation that left a mark on contemporary Indian architecture. He worked with American architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and in India on buildings for the IIM in Ahmedabad before setting up his architectural practice in 1977.

Sen Kapadia with American architect Louis Kahn

Sen Kapadia with American architect Louis Kahn

In his long career, he has contributed to the discourse as a practitioner, a theorist, and an academic. His designs include the postgraduate campus of the National Institute of Design, the Computer Management Centre in Hyderabad, and a Buddhist pilgrimage centre in Kushinagar. Kapadia’s architecture departs from the normative through a rigorous process of disassembly. He loves the departure from the tangible — his buildings are brought together as places of activity, creating new narratives out of space, light, and context, that are rooted in the experiential. In doing so, his designs critique both precedent and the present, making them relevant in an increasingly non-linear world.

Early this year, his new book, Sen Kapadia: In Pursuance of Meanings (CEPT University Press), was released on the grounds of the CSMVS in Mumbai. For his colleagues in architecture, his friends and students, so many of whom were present, this is a book that has been a long time coming.

Sen Kapadia: In Pursuance of Meanings

Sen Kapadia: In Pursuance of Meanings

Kapadia collaborated with architect Pinkish Shah (as editor) to create this book, using the former’s specific forms of representation — through drawings, images, conversations, and text.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Shah.

How did the book come to be? It is not a conventional monograph, but a multifaceted presentation of Kapadia’s work and ideas.

A book was in the works for a considerable period of time, since Sen retired a few years back. Then the pandemic struck and, egged on by his wife, he took it on himself to try and express his search and philosophy in his own words. In June 2021, Sen invited me to work on it. I was delighted but terrified. Delighted, because I have long felt that his work needed to reach out to a larger audience, especially younger generations who are often not aware or exposed to his work. Terrified, because I knew Sen’s exacting standards and high expectations. This is in spite of [or maybe because of] having known Sen for more than 35 years. It was important to bring the work and his ideas to the fore again, to allow us to reassess its relevance then and its meaning for contemporary times. Through the course of several ‘Saturdays with Sen’, the format of the book came to light quite naturally. It was not meant or ever imagined as a monograph but a first-person account of an architect’s search, practice and influences.

“The book is a first-person account by the architect, who was now ‘re-looking’ at his practice of more than 40 years through a selection of eight seminal projects, along with new essays that shared and reflected on his philosophy and values.”Pinkish ShahArchitect-editor

Pinkish Shah

Pinkish Shah

When Kapadia develops concepts for projects, there is a great relevance on the exploratory image. How does he use this as a means to create buildings?

We must not mistake it for a ‘diagram’ as we normally understand it [reductive/essential/abstract/organisational]; it is a search for the ‘generative image’ of the building. A poetic drawing that encapsulates the story of what the building is about, or what it can become. It has oscillated from both the compositional and painterly, to the technical. Over the course of his practice, Sen has used various devices like collages of Indian miniatures, serigraphs, flat projections, axonometrics, colour blocking, early wire frame computer models, three dimensional renders, and combinations thereof, in the unwavering search for alternate conceptions of space and form. In his archives, one can find multiple iterations of this search through various explorations of drawings. Sen’s portfolio of these representations is unique across the country.

Projections and drawings from the book

Projections and drawings from the book

The essence of a place
For Sen Kapadia, the pursuance of meanings has been an ongoing quest. In an email interaction, he clarifies: “Without fear, one should search for meanings of the inner essence of things. That is what I learnt from the work of Le Corbusier and Kahn. That architecture spoke of place rather than a space, one that is deeply rooted in the psyche of the user.” The conception of ‘place’ holds a central location in Kapadia’s vision for design. “Very early in my career, I realised that architectural space holds a central value when it transforms itself into a place. Though place holds central position in a composition, its true essence is not understood till we are moved by its quality of other-worldliness,” he says.
Broker House in Pune

Broker House in Pune

Gujarat Research Society, Mumbai

Gujarat Research Society, Mumbai

Rendering of the New National Gallery and Ludwig Museum, Budapest

Rendering of the New National Gallery and Ludwig Museum, Budapest

Take us through the choices of cities that form the spine of this book. What meaning does Kapadia seek from the cities he designs in?

The device of the five cities was conceptualised as a means for readers to informally engage with another facet of Sen’s persona, besides acting as a sidebar to the main texts and projects. Sen has reflected upon five key cities that have had a deep impact on his growth and are a personal insight into his formation as an architect. These cities make Sen who he is: Bombay, for the fearlessness of growing up in a joint family in Girgaon amidst a rapidly transforming city; Nathdwara, for his deep roots and search for Indianness; Ahmedabad, for the freedom that came from his love of flying kites in the dense inner-city pols [housing clusters]; Pondicherry, for his spiritual awakening and a search for higher meaning; and finally New York, for transforming him into the modern man he likes to think he is. Sen’s ability to draw from his environments is due to his sensibility to simultaneously immerse and engage, but also to detach and distance, bringing perspective and reflection along with felt experience. This heightened sense of understanding and self-awareness has allowed for a largely intuitive and poetic method of working, where he can be both rooted and free concurrently.

The writer is Professor of Architecture at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai.

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