THE NOMAD'S ABODES
the design practice of Girish Dariyav Karnawat   
Siddhartha, May 2o11

"…an attempt to break away from the familiar…"

On graduating in the first quarter of the '90s Girish Dariyav Karnawat soon realized the limitations of architectural education in preparing an individual to take a design beyond the drawing board and through the other half that constitutes project execution: dealing with the numerous other participants involved, running a project and building it on site. The coming decade was to bring upon GDK the 'real' training.

Though working with various architects in Ahmedabad and Zurich in the first half of the decade brought him valuable experience, it is the second half of the decade that would prove to be a critical period of transition. An attempt at setting up office in Ahmedabad in the third quarter of the decade met with severely discouraging results. Nonetheless, his assistance to Kurula Varkey at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad and, later on, engagements with the studio of Bijoy Jain in Alibag offered GDK critical insights into the discipline and practice of architecture.

In 2001 he moved base to Mumbai to set up ATELIER GDK: a unique one-man architectural practice that would be his primary medium for addressing concerns of tradition, creativity, intention, contextuality, education and industry.


"…the practice of architecture cannot be confined to mere consultancy…"

In almost two decades since GDK's graduation a lot many tools - hard and soft - have flooded the processes of conceiving and realizing buildings. However, we are left wanting in how far the discipline of architecture has progressed in its education and in the industry which materializes it. It is noticeable from a random pick of projects and cities that as architects our homes are yet to celebrate the mundane and our urbanities are yet to accommodate the humane. Architecture, in a misplaced sense of identity, is made to compete with a myopic form of 'media'. Sensational imagery is the currency which has displaced the sensorial, the tactile, the serene and even the cultural and climatic appropriateness from buildings. Perhaps we can console ourselves that it is the government agencies and the real estate developers - the largest patrons to today's imaginations on built environments - who are responsible for short-changing our habitats for unsustainable shiny caskets. However, through inaction, we are sharing the pie as well. Architectural enterprises which engage in commissions for the sole purpose of sustenance turn a blind eye to their impact on the environment - in the broadest and deepest sense of the term. The young are learning from this race of mediocrity which perpetuates sensationalism. Mistaking glamour for power does irreparable damage - it corrupts the potential of cultures to grow.

GDK, nevertheless, seeks real power. Indeed, the kind that comes with equal or greater responsibility. He'd rather dwell into the appropriateness of a prospective project than worry about the pay check of an apathetic employee. Though it has its share of anxieties, this one-man-and-a-project-assistant enterprise is light on foot and unburdened by the paraphernalia of the white-collar clergy. Over the last decade, when and where-ever he has moved - Ahmedabad, Surat, Alibag, Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru and Mangaluru (current base) - the bare essentials have travelled with him. This nomadic existence is owing to the enterprise's subservient relation to design; design encompassing the studio as well as the site.
Majority of the construction industry in India is comprised of unskilled labor; perhaps the reason why it is the largest employer as a sector. Literacy levels are negligible and, consequently, even a complete set of working drawings is inconsequential when it comes to executing any given project. Besides, our country is a treasure-house of traditional craftsmanship which, again, cannot be remote-controlled if one intends to adapt these vernacular building crafts to contemporary use. These conditions of labor coupled with GDK's necessity for explorations in appropriate material applications make it inevitable that his presence on site is virtually continual. This mode of operation is consequent of the choices towards a truthful practice of the medium rather than any predetermined image. He does occasionally work on commissions as a consultant; however, more often than not these engagements fall way short of his acceptable standards. The choice of living and growing with the project underscores a basic precondition of architecture: body as the measure. Not o be mistaken for any suggestion of scale, what is proposed here, or rather recollected, is the essentiality of our bodies in conceiving, manifesting and experiencing space, which we seem to be forgetting in the clutter of gadgets. Unarguably, the way his building touches, sits upon, holds or grows from the ground is the embodiment of ideas, contexts and processes that he and the project meander through.

Such an approach is a counterpoint to the propaganda of hegemonies: the notion of efficiency of being able to operate from anywhere and anytime, which only produces indifferent responses to contexts. Most design practices are more than eager to define what lies beyond the ambit of their professional responsibilities. Perhaps this avails a run-of-the-mill office lot more space, time and resources to take more projects on board and last a few days longer. GDK, on the other hand, prefers luminosity to longevity, producing may be one project a year. The richness of these constructs - irrespective of their austerity or embellishment - exudes the intensity of his processes. GDK Designs Collaborative is usually the project managing agency for any engagement that it is commissioned for.  Occasionally it also delivers projects on turn-key. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference when one compares his approach to other design-and-build enterprises as well. There is no patronizing of materials, diagrams, language or crafts-persons in favor of business pragmatism. All subsequent components necessary for realizing an idea depend upon the discoveries of uniqueness in that particular project.

What this perseverance has managed and continues to do is reaffirm one's faith in the joyful immersion in a medium. Challenging the popular idea of growth as expansion in assets, numbers, size and all that, GDK has, and not without tremendous struggle, re-placed the focus of growth in learning.


"…can I be in harmony without being a conformist…"

The intimacy and intensity of GDK's design processes can be unnerving for other participants and may appear absurd to observers. However, if one lets go of presumptions and prejudices the apparent turbidity and turbulence reveal some discernible order of enquiries which are fundamental and forthright.

GDK seeks historical discursions - attempting to touch the primordial in order to propose for the contemporary. Traditional forms, types, elements, materials and ways of bringing them together are all subjected to severe scrutiny. He seeks joy in the seemingly unproductive labor of reinventing the archetype. Contemporary methods too are put to the grind. He believes that it is his professional and, more importantly, creative obligation to offer a unique response to the uniqueness of a situation: site, requirements, client/ occupants and so on. Hence, a majority of his efforts go into questioning the appropriateness of his choices. Following his old-school faith in intimate mediums of enquiry and expression, the questioning is primarily through sketches, drawings, rendering, models and so forth. The metamorphosis that a project is likely to go through makes one curious about the unremitting source of energy at GDK's disposal. Besides the ceaseless studies, the processes owe their vibrancy to continual formal and informal collaborations as debates and discussions with associates, peers and the project assistant, who is also the vital translator in digitizing the produce of the primary mediums.
Throughout the course of design, in the constant churning of intentions, contexts and materiality, there is hardly ever a stage when decisions are not alterable, if not reversible. On an average GDK spends more than a year in the studio processes of a commissioned project. With the incessant questioning at the conceptual stage, through design development and into the meticulous working drawings, the envelope of anticipation is pushed to the farthest possible extents. This helps envisage the project in almost its entirety; bringing to fore all the requirements of labor, material, procedures, time and money. This, by and large, keeps surprises from becoming shocks; and further, appropriate project estimation helps maintain transparency with the clients. Consequently GDK Designs Collaborative delivers a project in half the construction time in comparison to the normally accepted construction period for a building of similar size.

The construction site is only a transformed design environment where questions of appropriateness continue to chisel the project in material. GDK does not place much value on the jargon of 'green building' which is currently in frantic circulation. For him the genesis of a sustainable habitat lies in conceiving the building as a living being; and its realization lies in economy - of not material alone but also in the processes of their application. He acknowledges the humor he finds in his relatively small attempts at mimicking magnanimous nature. His continual efforts are at engaging in conversations, through the forms and spaces of his buildings, with the earth, the sky and the horizon, and with light, shadow, foliage, water and breeze.


"…my attempt…so far…has been to reinterpret and find…place in the moment…"

The interval between two projects is a necessary sabbatical for GDK, to treat himself out of the 'hangover' of ideas and processes of the previous project, to disengage and to re-engage in other mediums of enquiry and expression. Mediums that plug the interludes are numerous and diverse:  cooking, painting, photography, short compositions in verse, Royal Enfield motorbike customization, product design and travelling - either on public transport or preferable on his own: by motorbike, by car, or by foot on a trek. These engagements too are as earnest and intense as the design processes for projects. His yearning to start afresh borders obsession and its occurrence is not limited only to the interludes either; in fact, it could form part of a project's process itself when he finds himself out of sync with the design's trajectories.

GDK's reference to 'pilgrimage' sums up his approach to design and, perhaps, to life itself: a pilgrimage is a journey one embarks upon without the comforts and conveniences of our day-to-day lives, and without the fallacy of our power to buy them. We make our body and being vulnerable, exposing ourselves to others and to nature. The suffering is to remind us of the bare essentials of our lives, and the homecoming is a realization of humility, of immense gratitude and of a purpose to offer back to the world.
GDK is a nomad and his works are abodes on a pilgrimage.

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