‘Sustainability makes a project cheaper’: Sonali Rastogi

Fresh off jury duty at the Dezeen Awards this year, Sonali Rastogi, co-founder of Morphogenesis, on running a female-friendly architecture firm, and building a new (and sustainable) India

Updated - October 08, 2019 03:04 pm IST

Published - October 04, 2019 02:34 pm IST

An artistic representation of the Surat Diamond Bourse project

An artistic representation of the Surat Diamond Bourse project

This is the eighth consecutive year that Morphogenesis, a Delhi-based architecture firm, has made it to the World Architecture 100. The annual list is a compilation of the largest architecture practices in the world, by Building Design Magazine in the U.K.

2019 marks 10 years since Morphogenesis, which is headed by Sonali and Manit Rastogi and is now 23 years old, became the first Indian firm to win at the World Architecture Festival, held that year in Barcelona. “WA is like the Oscars for the architecture and design industry,” says Sonali, who was on the jury at the second annual Dezeen Awards this year, the winners for which will be announced online by mid-October.

Back in India, Sonali spoke about her firm’s philosophies and how they align with their upcoming big-ticket projects. Edited excerpts.

Being on WA 100 for eight consecutive years. What does that mean?

Why WA 100 gives me pride is that Indian firms would earlier never feature. Because firms here would never get to be of a certain [size], which is a condition to even be considered. Also, earlier, smaller boutique firms were the call of the day. But scale becomes important for a nation-building exercise. For a first-generation firm, achieving this scale is a big source of pride.

It’s emerged that your pay gap is skewed marginally in favour of women...

We were surprised to have pay parity such that it is 2% more on the side of women. That’s unheard of! When we looked through the data, we realised it’s because women stay here (in the company) longer here, and naturally they accrue better benefits.

Other Indian firms on WA100
  • DSP Design Associates in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Gurgaon and Hyderabad, 57th rank
  • CP Kukreja Architects in Delhi, 79th rank (tied with Morphogenesis, which has offices in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Delhi)
  • Sikka Associates Architects in Delhi, 91st rank

Why do women stay on longer with your firm?

It’s the small reasons — and all of [these practices] are very easy to absorb in other architectural firms or informal work environments. For instance, an extended maternity leave. It’s crazy to think how on the one hand we are [advocating] breast milk for the baby’s wellness, but you still insist on thinking that just three months later, the child will be weaned off.It’s more likely to make her leave. And then there’s a soft grooving back into work. Because you can’t be breast-feeding one day, and then disappear on your baby for 10 hours the next.

To lose people just because you didn’t understand how to use that trained and talented person for 4 hours a day as opposed to 8 hours is stupid. This is not a charitable decision. We are actually taking, but we are taking at their pace.

Does the WA100 ranking give you access that’s difficult otherwise?

Absolutely. It puts you on a global playing field. It makes you a [firm] of choice when discussing the future of architecture. It puts you on a judging platform, where you decide, with other equals from around the world, about the next steps for the community. Our choices would then give cues and icons for the next generation to pick up on. It makes you a change-maker; that’s the vision with which this firm was set up.

How are you aligning your philosophy of using local design practices with your SMART City projects for Aligarh and Port Blair?

In Aligargh, an old town, you have to fix what is broken, to bring back accepted norms of urban design and town planning. In Port Blair whatever was developed was very little, so it is a great place for intervention, and allows us to set a new framework for how the island should develop from here-on in a way that keeps environment sensitivity, cultural continuity.

In Aligarh for example, we revitalised an abandoned lake, where people used to keep throwing junk, into a lake with a community centre that people want to go to. We are dealing with overcrowded roads, hawkers, and unorganised car parking. So we work with ideas of digital parking meters, backed with timing-specific data, and provide liveable alternatives for today’s vendors and their customers.

Morphogenesis takes inspiration from ancient architecture. How do you bring elements of that into modern design?

About 10 or so years ago, an image from the studio, of using matkas for insulation in one of our projects, became popular. Everyone got caught in the romantic notion of traditional methods. The finished building, which is the Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur, won various awards, including World Architecture Festival Award (Learning), in Barcelona, 2009.

Basically when we studied the region, we learnt that double chhat s (roof) were built with kulhar (earthen cups) in between for insulation — because they didn’t have an insulating foam like today. The finished building has a completely contemporary look, just a different style of insulation, which worked better than much more expensive synthetic insulation. It gave work to potters, too.

I’d like to separate aspirational aesthetics from whether the same can be achieved in an environmentally sustainable way. Most things can be.

You’ve used similar principles at The British School in Delhi. Is the model replicable in schools with smaller budgets too?

The first thing that [working like] this achieves is that it makes everything cheaper. Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur is the cheapest project this firm has done. Similarly, The British School is simple kota stone and ceramic tiles, paint-plaster walls, and small panes of glass. Sustainability makes a project cheaper. Plus, simple things — like a central courtyard format design, where you get tempered air from the courtyard and air movement in the corridor — brought the air-conditioning load down to about one-fourth of what it would’ve been.

Surat Diamond Bourse in numbers
  • 2018: start date
  • 2021: expected completion
  • $310,000,000: total cost
  • 35.5 acres
  • 620,000 sq. m. built area
  • 65,000 people
  • 10,000 cars
  • ~4,500 offices
  • <7 minutes: travel time from the entrance to individual offices
  • 15 acres: resort-style landscape
  • 22 kms: circulation space

Given that you’re a part of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC), have you thought about pushing forward such a proposal for any municipal buildings?

The government itself came up with a good initiative some years ago, which said that for all government projects, a 4-5 star rating on the GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment), which is a very good green rating system in India, is mandatory. British School is the first 5-star rated on this.

Your upcoming Surat Diamond Bourse project has been billed as the largest single office space in the world. Can you talk about this project?

Firstly, it’s amazing that the world’s largest such project is getting made in India, and so silently. If it were being made anywhere else in the Western world, it’d have been on stamps by now. The project itself is a community-funded one. It’s not the world’s biggest developer making a mall and monetising it. This one big mammoth of a building is not just a place of work for 65,000 people — it’s those many people and their families. All this is happening because of this one building, which also reflects the nuances and cohesiveness of a community, which has managed to control about 90% of the world’s diamonds in some form. One of their first briefs was that they wanted trading efficiency, which comes from how quickly they can get from one place in the building to another.

We convinced the clients that the corridors don’t need to be air conditioned, it just needs a tempered environment, which we’ve done through sustainable methods, like shading and radiant cooling, which is simply about using water to create cooling in these 22-km long corridors.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.