‘A blend of art and architecture has been my fantastic journey — and I am still learning’

Home / Samvaad / ‘A blend of art and architecture has been my fantastic journey — and I am still learning’

Samwad means baatcheet, conversation or dialogue — which has, this time, been initiated between Abir Pothi’s Ruby Jagrut and leading architect Hiren Patel, who shares with us delightful anecdotes on efforts to incorporate art into architectural projects, his personal associations to the world of art, and the digital way forward for this sphere

 

It was 27 years ago that a young Hiren Patel started practicing from Ahmedabad, Gujarat — today, he is one of India’s foremost architects, and helms his eponymous firm, Hiren Patel Architects. As the principal architect here, his work has come to be synonymous with better design, better living, innovative ideas, sustainability, beautiful landscapes and houses made full of love. And, he is an artist in his own right, with a deep and abiding connect to art, both personally and professionally.

Welcome! It is an honour to have you here with us today, speaking to Abir Pothi in Samwad. Can we start off this conversation by learning a little bit more about you for those who may not be familiar with your trajectory? Who is Hiren Patel? How did he start his journey and how has it been?

Art is and always has been very near and dear to my heart. I believe it unlocks the professional realms I follow, from architecture to interior design and landscaping. It is right from my childhood that I have always been connected with art.

I graduated in 1989 from CEPT University of Ahmedabad, one of the finest places to study architecture in our country. It has been over two decades now! I thereafter went to Switzerland to work for a while and then came back to my hometown here and immediately began working on some projects. I started out as an architect in this profession, but eventually came to interior design; after 15-odd years of practice, I also became inclined to landscape design and took that into my hands, too. These are the three legs of our practice.

And, art is very much an integral part of the effort. Whenever I have the opportunity to involve art in our project, I am always in favour! There are, indeed, many stories on how art connects to my life…

We must talk about your relationship with art. But before that, can we also touch upon the twin tenets of sustainability and minimalism that find a place of prominence on your profile? How do you subscribe to this philosophy? They say architecture is the brother of all art and there is always an artist behind an architect. In this vein, why are sustainability and minimalism your way to go?

Sustainability is a new word — when I was studying my graduation, we were not taught this. But if you ask me, we Indians already have sustainability in our DNA. I had gone to the US and sat for the LEED exam for sustainable design — a tough test that certifies you as a ‘green associate’. I got this and it made me familiar with the Western way of analyzing sustainable design. This in turn helped me realize who sorted we Indians are! In our homes, when we are sitting in the living room, we will shut off all the lights and fans in the kitchen, or dining room, etc. — even in our office spaces, we show this attitude and keep the lights and AC on wherever we need it only. This is now what you will see in an American establishment or home. We hardly need sensors here, because we already have that sensitivity towards sustainability.

What is missing though is some pride of our own. This may be a good path to seek. Rather than going abroad for certifications, we need to create more awareness here on ground via discussions and dialogues about the sustainable approach one can have. It is a vast subject and I don’t claim to be a master. But, it is an important beginning and we must do whatever we can for the betterment of planet Earth. There’s nothing like it.

I would say one need not feel frustrated or down about what they did or didn’t do — the fact that they are even thinking about sustainability is a big thing now.

Indeed. They say that “a thought is the beginning of a good journey”. Now that we have explored your philosophy somewhat, let us chat about your design process. You are known to design beautiful houses across India. You also said you are an art lover and also do some wonderful work with watercolours as a painter yourself. So, when you design a house, is art a part of the design from the beginning or does it come at a later stage of designing? How do you amalgamate art into your architecture?

The art connection is always there, and it helps me a lot. This can prominently be split into two ways. One is if you directly display it in your projects. Secondly, one retains the heavy connect with art while creating your own elements of architecture or interior design or landscaping. Either way, it is a vital thing. This painting behind me right now (indicates an artwork in the frame depicting the Himalayas) could inspire you to create an element like a mountain in your garden, perhaps! Inspiration can come from anywhere. That is why it is very important for me for art to be a part of my surroundings when working, because it breeds a lot of positivity.

This same positivity also carries forward to the client. One tries to tell them how important art is to their spaces. It may be a small aspect, but this is also how we promote original works of art.

This realization also did not come overnight. I still remember when I was a graduate architect and had to decorate a sample two-bedroom apartment and furnish the décor as well. The amount spent on painting was quite little as we had not bothered with expensive samples. Something struck me — I went to some friends who were young painters at the time. I asked them to give their original artworks, which I would frame and keep for one year in the sample house. I told them it was my responsibility to frame and maintain them once I took them. Once the house was sold, the artwork would go back to the artist, or be returned in 1.5 years. It was a win-win! Sometimes I wondered how this even worked! Nobody had taught me all this, but it probably stemmed from an abiding love for original art. This kind of affection gets slowly cultivated over time.

And, when you get clients who are ready to take some efforts in this direction, any good architect or designer educates them about their options.

What you said right now is important — even in a humble 2BHK, or in low cost house, you still wanted to tell people that art can be part of their décor. Art is often seen as a matter of luxury, only for rich people… But, it can very much be a part of the smallest schemes, like when you borrowed work from your artist friends and incorporated it into your project in these younger days. So, you did your bit by letting it be visualized by the buyers of a small flat that even a diminutive space can have an original artwork that is beautifully framed — a good beginning. Perhaps, you may even have unknowingly influenced thousands more to think along these lines, whilst simultaneously being of great help to the young art community, whose works were getting exposure in your projects.

 

Now, about artwork in a project. You deal at the scale of huge houses, huge budgets and lots of artworks. While it may be the architect’s decision at first, ultimately the client is the master of the project, especially say if you are designing a bungalow space. So, how do you convince a client who has no aptitude or attitude for art to include it? How do you manage to tell clients that it is not just for aesthetics, but will also add a lot of sensitivity to the project?

I agree fully. At least 95 per cent of people have no inclination for art. Out of the few who do, they will respect your views but still also push back. Art can be expensive so many do not gravitate towards it right away. Then, it becomes a last-minute endeavour. By that stage, whatever the scale of the project, those involved do tend to feel burnt out, or don’t have the budget anymore. Either way, it becomes difficult to incorporate it at this juncture. Moreover, the clients and designers alike are not just tired but may have opposing inclinations. When a client is new to this process of art inclusion, they may not understand or like a piece of art.

It is a business and invariably, your administrative or accounting team is going to ask you why you are wasting your time with this element, and tell you to wrap up!

This is an inescapable back and forth — but when you love art and meeting artists, it clicks. It has even happened on occasion that a client simply sees the dialogue between me and an artist and it appeals to him, because it comes from a truly genuine place. Maybe they wonder if I am so crazy to be so involved in getting art into the project? And then they think, maybe it makes sense? They do have some respect for you already if you are creating a beautiful house for them, but one has to build on it. It is admittedly difficult.

Once they agree, pricing is the next obstacle. People are not able to digest the prices! They tend to compare it to, say, electronics… If a painting costs Rs 50,000, they could get a flat TV for that amount. Next, many times, I have to fight to collect the fees of the artists, rather than my own. Sometimes, we get an artwork done and installed because we love it, but then the payment remains pending from the client and stretches on. The artist feels we took their effort and got our own money, but neglected theirs. I have to explain that I am doing my best. The aim is to promote their art, and my effort also goes into ensuring that they are duly paid the fee. Often, we wait half a year and then simply get the artwork back. One has to understand this entire exercise from the point of view of the artist as well.

I remember that in my sixth month of an interior design project, each time I was insisting on the client going and buying an original artwork, when a good exhibition was on. I told them to at least go see what is on offer, even if they did not buy it. One fine day, when I was almost done, the client said she had bought some paintings and told me to figure out how to place them. They turned out to be three works by Haku Shah! I was simply zapped and also so happy that they had gotten this beautiful art into their lives. I am sure they are also happy about it now.

After all was said and done, I was invited to the opening of the apartment, and curiously asked the client couple how they ended up investing in such expensive artwork. The gentleman explained that they had actually postponed buying a BMW that year to the next, so that they could buy this art!

It was a big achievement for me to have been part of that process.

In another similar story, it was a Gujarati thali restaurant being designed. The foyer worked out as a good place to install some art, and I was mulling a sculpture. The owner felt that the mythological elephant Airavat is an auspicious omen for business. We got an artist on board for a really experimental piece, a background of red, a Maruti car door for each year of the pachyderm, bike silencers to depict the multiple trunks. It was a beautiful piece of modern art. In the evening, I get a call saying that the installation is up and I should come have a look before they take it down! I was taken aback! Apologetically the owner said they had just wanted a traditional marble sculpture… I rushed there and had to convince them to keep it up for some time, as it was a fantastic piece of art. Even in the rest of the area, the owner wished to put up his small daughter’s paintings. I understand the emotion behind it, but comparing the works of a child to an artist… Later, the artist’s payment was getting hugely delayed. Finally, I resorted to telling any of my friends who dined there to make it a point to call the manager and say that the art collection in the restaurant is very good, so that he finally realizes what he is undervaluing! I have so many stories like this…

 

You must write a book on how you have managed to work with clients to use art in projects!

They do end up agreeing later on, mostly. The process might be a bit gimmicky, but I genuinely believe art adds value to lives. If you remove art from a project, it looks like a furniture showroom. I ask people if that is the kind of setting they wish to stay in, or imbibe some sensitive, aesthetic corners to which they can relate and feel happy within. Eventually, they come around.

You also paint a lot of watercolour landscapes of your own. When did this start?

I used to live near Vasna, and when I was in Class XII, someone told me about a professional artist who could help me learn art. And that is how I met Piraji Sagara, even before I joined architecture school. Later, he was also on our painting faculty for the first and second years, along with Mahendra Patel — this subject was compulsory for our first two years. Since I knew him from before, there was respect and liking in the equation. We had electives every year, and I chose the fine arts. From years three to five, there were just about two people in these painting sessions! The rest of the students probably thought I had failed in this subject my first two years, but it was actually a wonderful guru-student relationship that propelled me to pursue it.

Piraji Sagara took me through a vast range of art knowledge — one semester we would focus on portraits, the next on sculpture, and so on. I got five years learning from him and it was almost as if I had a fine arts degree alongside architecture, by default, at the end! This is why I know something more about technique, and how it came about was a wonderful story.

There was another teacher of ours who would always carry around a sketchbook and draw — this is another habit I was inspired by, and now it has become a valuable tool, used extensively in the design process.

When we are in the architecture practice in the beginning, there is a lot of professional pressure. One misses their friends, and actually one’s friends at the time are their competitors — and that is the reality! One gets disconnected with the good contacts of school and there comes to be a huge vacuum of that friendly intimacy.

Somehow at this time, I came across artists Nabibakhsh Mansoori and Apurva Desai — who became good friends. I learnt a lot from them as well and was suddenly seeing the world of art in a much larger way. Today, I paint more abstract art. I even get it into my architectural imaginings sometimes — green skies instead of blue! A blend of art and architecture if you will — it has been a fantastic journey and I am still learning every day.

You have been promoting art with so much sincerity. What has been your experience with younger artists? How are they different from a Piraji Sagara or a Haku Shah in the way they treat their art? Do they take newer dimensions now? How do you perceive young artists’ work now?

I tend to always be critical when I meet young artists. The idea, for them and us all, is to work very hard. They see ours as a successful profession but do not always see the hard work behind it. I would even say now that the economy is in a much better place, and people are spending more in today’s world. There are certainly more opportunities than when we started our practices! When I go to Europe and meet artists there, see their work… I realize how little hard work we do here! Many of them are innovative, and work beyond the mastery they have already achieved, with a lot of depth and sincerity. Perhaps, I feel, our young artists are not as hard working.

I remember myself when I was younger, doing a watercolour, which I finished in five minutes. Senior Jaipur artist Himmat Shah was there and he told me to work on it for five more years — “then we will see how it works out”.

The young ones will quote Rs 25,000 for a single painting, and I feel like reminding them how we have worked on a single project for three whole years for that same amount, and perhaps the last Rs 5,000 is still yet to be paid!

Their life is definitely much better now, compared to how much we worked and how less we got. So, my advice would be not to fear the struggle. Success will come when it comes. There is a thin line between mastery and less mature work. If it is the latter, nobody will buy it. Work hard.

There is certainly no substitute for hard work. There are of course also those young artists who have had to struggle to convince their families to pursue this line, a community that we as a society may know less about. At the same time, there are many people who design and build houses but make no effort to incorporate art. In such an ecosystem, how does the young artist survive? These are difficult questions we must all ask each other and be ready to face, or take responsibility. The young artist has to survive before a good gallery or art promoter or architect will hold their hand, and during their early years, need all the help they can get. Abir is trying to do this very thing, and we have been privy to young artists who are working hard as we are able to gauge their progress and sincerity — something that is very reassuring and validating.

 

Today, we are all on digital platforms, with physical spaces being compromised due to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving us unable to go to galleries or exhibits. As someone closely associated with art, how do you see this new platform and change in our lives?

Abir has been and is doing a fabulous job. There are so many artists I have discovered due to your efforts, even in my own city. This is the kind of platform I appreciate. It is our job to promote art as well, and such a forum is very important to help artists form that connection.

As an architect, I don’t enjoy deciding my fees — someone in my office takes care of that. But as an artist, they also need to understand this aspect. Selling and marketing is another forte they need to have. And when they cannot, a platform like yours can step in and help immeasurably, taking care of these facets while the artist can perhaps dedicate that time to making 10 more paintings!

There are other factors, like the ease of purchase, selection, assessment and sheer variety available online; one could have return policies if an artwork does not click with a buyer; discounts on deliveries can be offered for repeated patronage, and so on and so forth. Checking something virtually instead of having to go to a location each time is also simpler, and fun. Moreover, today I think most of us have become finely attuned to the art of communicating online. And so, digital platforms for art are more important than ever.

 

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