Anne Geenen of Site Practice talks about architecture

Interview —

Within the framework of the lecture series ‘TALKS about architecture’, on 17 October the Mumbai and Amsterdam-based Dutch architect and co-founder of Site Practice Anne Geenen will speak about her projects. ArchiNed asked her four questions.

The office of Anne Geenen, Site Practice

1 What do you see when you look out the window? Our studio is located in an ‘industrial estate’, a sort of multi-tenant building mostly housing printing presses and sewing workshops. We look out at a row of trees. Behind them lies Lower Parel, part of Mumbai that has undergone rapid change in recent years as the former cotton mills made way for businesses, financial institutes and cultural organizations. 2 What are the blocks for? The blocks are made of solid brass. We use them as paperweights to prevent the sketches from blowing away beneath the ceiling ventilators. 3 What’s the title of the small book with the yellow cover? We made that booklet just after starting our project on Bali and it summarizes our concept design. It’s a document we still come back to during the design process. We make lots of booklets like this. 4 What’s this? This is a mock-up of curtains that we’re making for our studio. They divide our studio from the workshop. Welding curtains facing the workshop, and finely woven silver fabric facing the studio. 5 What do we see here? The photo was taken on Bali. The stone comes from a local quarry and was a source of inspiration for our project there. 6 What do we see in this picture? This photo was also taken on Bali. It’s a wall built of the typical brick you find on the island. The colours, patterns and textures created by the types of vegetation that grow on the wall make it stunningly beautiful.

What is architecture?
Architecture is about the built environment and the way it is created. Architecture is about the meaning and narrative of a place or space. This is much more the human dimension of architecture, as opposed to the physical aspect.

 

While studying at TU Delft you worked for Doshi in India. After graduating, you returned to India and worked as a partner with Case Design. And in October 2018 you started Site Practice. What makes working in India so attractive?
What fascinates me about working in India is the presence of craft and the resulting immediacy of the process of making. As an architect, you can get much closer to the process of making and constructing, so that has become part of my way of working. The design process becomes more dynamic. Instead of handing the contractor a fully elaborated detail that he has to build, you work with him to create details that are good, beautiful and relevant, and that build on existing knowledge and expertise. This calls for another attitude, a receptiveness to input and ideas from other people during the design and construction process.

 

In what way could your way of working – making by doing and site practice – be exported to, say, the Netherlands or Belgium?
Although we carry out a thorough study into specific construction methods, materials and cultural aspects, these themes concern a much more generic way of conscious building while paying attention to ecological and cultural issues. They are relevant everywhere. Our name refers to that, but we try not to be too dogmatic. It’s ultimately about building up relationships and trust, because that’s the only way to kindle a process of dialogue and exchange that must ultimately result in good buildings. And so the location itself doesn’t really matter much.
In India, or Asia, work is usually based on a relationship with artisans and craftsmanship that is still much more closely connected to local materials that therefore reflects the landscape (although that is changing rapidly). Industrialization and cheap transport have already blurred that relationship in Europe, for example, but that doesn’t make such connections any less relevant. We are committed to re-establishing the value of this relationship without lapsing into nostalgia but, instead, giving it a contemporary relevance.

 

What can Dutch architects learn from Indian building practice?
India is an extremely dynamic country, and the scale and impact of what happens there is unthinkable from a Dutch perspective. It’s also a highly inventive country, something that is visible in ‘jugaad’, for example, the word used to denote an improvised solution that deviates from normal standards. To outsiders, they often come across as pretty chaotic, but they often conceal a really simple logic that I often find highly inspiring as an architect.
Another fine example is brick production in India, a very big industry that was standardized when India was still part of the British Empire. That meant that every brick had the same dimensions. Up until then, the size of bricks depended on the composition and quality of the clay, which meant that bricks had an optimum format in each region. If the clay was of poor quality, then the bricks would be small. Good clay made bigger bricks possible. The logic of this system is quite remarkable, but standardization destroyed the relationship. I think we can learn a lot from that.

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