In conversation with Abin Chaudhuri

Architecture as an Offering

Vladimir Belogolovsky
29. February 2024
Gallery House in Bansberia, West Bengal, India (Photo courtesy of Abin Design Studio)

Abin Chaudhuri, founder of Abin Design Studio, told me over Zoom that his love for architecture was sparked by a glimpse of a house that he later learned was the 1962 Sen House designed by Charles Correa, one of India’s most prominent architects. He saw it together with his father while on a bus, on the way to the university he was applying to. “It was such a striking image, like an abstract minimalist painting — a blue box within a white frame,” he said. “It has shaken my idea of how I’ve seen buildings before that moment. Before seeing it, I was not even aware of architecture as a profession.” Immediately following the encounter, he enquired whether architecture was among the subjects. It was.

Abin Chaudhuri was born in 1975 in Bansberia, in West Bengal, 45 km (28 miles) north of Kolkata. His father was a distinguished mathematician, and three of Abin’s uncles and several cousins also became mathematicians. His parents moved to West Bengal with their families from nearby Bangladesh in 1948, following the Partition of India. Like many other immigrants, they came by boat over the Ganges with almost nothing and found employment at factories situated along the river.

After graduating from Jadavpur University in 1998, Chaudhuri had doubts about pursuing architecture as a profession. Because the school was more concerned with engineering aspects, he told me, he did not feel motivated. For a while he focused on design, which he felt was appreciated more than architecture by the public. After a short apprenticeship at a couple of local architectural studios, he worked for Lafarge, a cement manufacturer where he became a creative director in their Kolkata office. Still, there was an ambition to give architecture another chance. With the help of two colleagues he started his own practice, Adler & Associates, focusing on interior design. The work was not satisfactory. After several years he took a break to see the world and try to restart his career.

In 2003, the architect quit Adler and went to Milan to study at the Domus Academy with Andrea Branzi, Francesco Binfare, and other world-class designers. He learned that design can be about process. Analyzing global examples of design was a real breakthrough. “Most importantly,” he told me, “I gained confidence. I learned how to think and approach a problem.” Upon his return, in 2005, he started Abin Design Studio and immediately picked up a large project, the International Management Institute Kolkata. He asked his university classmate, Jui Mallik, to join him and the new practice began to grow. However, by 2013, the architect shifted his attention to smaller and more socially engaging projects. Controlling design became a priority. The practice now employs 43 architects. Among their current projects are multifamily housing, schools, a trade center, a couple of small museums, a corporate office, villas, pavilions, and art installations across India.

Gallery House in Bansberia, West Bengal, India (Photo courtesy of Abin Design Studio)
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You have said, “Our aim is to provide a soul in the shell.” What does it mean for you to provide a soul in the shell?

Abin Chaudhuri: There is an understanding of a building visually and there is a sense, a feel, of being inside of it physically. Images only give you an illusion of architecture. I am interested in the relationship between the purpose of the building and how it is used by people. I am interested in how people get attached to certain elements of architecture emotionally — steps, a column, or even a space in front of a building. It is this connection of buildings with people, whether through lightness, darkness, or other qualities and characteristics, that I want to emphasize. Why do we either love or hate buildings? I like to think of buildings as a unity of hardware and software, a soul in the shell. We aim to make our buildings livable and soulful, not merely expressionistic.

VB: I read that in 2014 you took the Glenn Murcutt masterclass in Australia, which you said was a transformative experience for you. How so?

AC: By 2013, I had become frustrated with working predominantly on larger projects. I started losing confidence. My focus was mainly on how to survive by keeping my large team constantly busy. Then, out of the blue, an architect friend suggested taking Glenn Murcutt’s masterclass. That experience set my practice on a different course. I relearned architecture, changed my view about it, and, in general, rejuvenated myself. I learned how to pay very careful attention to how to understand the site, its mechanics, and how to respond to nature and connect with it. How do you decide on designing a single line? How do you work with the sunlight? I understood that every project should be about a discovery. We should at least try. We discussed such profound questions in detail with Murcutt, Peter Stutchbury, and Richard Leplastrier. It was really powerful. 

Once I was back, I realized that large projects are too risky. I started focusing on small projects where I could control my design intentions and implement them precisely. Of course, I would love to work on large public projects, but only on those where I could retain control. I learned to see my projects holistically and that every detail matters. This ability to control the original design intentions remains the biggest challenge here in India. If you look at the production of Indian architects across the country you will see that they know how to handle small projects; they are often superbly well-crafted. But most large projects commissioned by the government fall apart. They are beyond control unless we come across a well-educated and motivated client, which is rare.

Arthshila in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India (Photo courtesy of Abin Design Studio)
VB: When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as ephemeral spaces, fantastic shadows, transparency, porosity, impermanence, improvisation, generosity, unfamiliar journey, shared spaces, transcending utilitarian, celebrating design and architecture, and joy. How else would you describe your work and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

AC: Most of all I am trying to navigate and respond to the context and figure out what my reaction to it is. What could be my reaction to the needs of my client? How do I design a space so people will take care of it for years to come? I never simply follow the brief; I challenge it if I see greater potential, both in the site and program. Then I start pushing the boundaries in terms of what architecture could become — developing ideas, a thought process, how we can engage local crafters, and what our building can offer to the people around it. I call it generosity because if the building does not offer something to people, then it has no meaning. Then it is entirely for the use of the individual, family, or company. But it must offer something to others as well, either through the sensitivity of its materials, symbolism, public space, etc. Buildings must have many layers and meanings. I believe architecture is not merely about creation, it is about a search. I try to turn every project into a discovery. I want to offer people something they have not encountered before. Wouldn’t it be a joy to invent something new? We need to discover something from this process. So, we try to ask the right question first. We want to know: What is the problem and what could be the solutions?

Arthshila in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India (Photo courtesy of Abin Design Studio)
VB: You said you are drawing inspiration from ordinary things. Any examples?

AC: Here in India I often travel by train. You need a special navigation skill for that. The system is congested, insufficient, uncomfortable, and so on. To reach your destination you have to come in contact with many people. Our cities are exactly like that. People make special efforts to make a journey to reach a bridge, a house, or a community place. All of these constraints I bring to my projects. I can’t approach a project as if it were located on barren land. It has to be contextual and it has to be designed with a sense of belonging to its surroundings. For that, you need to be inspired by ordinary things, mundane things people experience daily. 

For example, here in Kolkata, there are hardly any sidewalks. What about handicapped people? Or, there are no guidelines for bus shelter design; each is different. I bring these observations to my projects. I always try to make the city a part of my projects. I learn from these encounters and they are reflected both in my public and private works. These are my main inspirations — trying to connect to real people. The goal is not merely to achieve a beautiful image; I want my building to offer something tangible to the people around it. Not only does it have to satisfy my ego, but it must also become part of other people’s lives. 

For me, architecture is always about a process. I want to celebrate different seasons and different meanings. Architecture is never about a wall or a roof; it is rather a sensorial manifestation of space. Architecture is always changing. We never see it as an image but rather as a physical and engaging intervention.

As far as my preferences in expressing my ideas, I like to pursue something calm and articulated clearly. As I mentioned, I love the work of Charles Correa. He succeeded in creating welcoming spaces, shadows, and connections to the sky. I love his idea of simplicity; his projects alternate between open and closed, they unfold. The labyrinths of navigating Correa’s spaces are most mesmerizing. I traveled all over India to see his architecture. For me, he is the most influential Indian architect. 

Bamboo Installation in Bansberia, West Bengal, India (Photo courtesy of Abin Design Studio)
VB: Could you touch on your idea of initiating projects, such as in the case of your Bamboo Pavilion?

AC: For that, we proposed an area across from one of our projects in Bansberia, my hometown. That area was a space in front of a local soccer club. There was a peculiar problem: There were many cows that wandered inside and ruined the soccer field, especially during the monsoon. There was a festival organized by the club and I proposed a kind of pavilion that would have a double function — to highlight the festivities and protect the stadium from the cows. The festival was the excuse to build the pavilion. When we were raising the money, we could not mention anything about the cows because they are sacred and no one would want to limit their roaming around. So, we designed the pavilion as a field of bamboo sticks with lots of colors and lights, and it was approved as a celebration piece. After the festivities, the bamboo pavilion stayed and it now acts as a guard to keep the cows away. [Laughs.]  

VB: I like your quote, “I believe that architecture becomes more meaningful when it expands its sphere of influence beyond its physical entity, transforming not only the surroundings but also the lives of its users, becoming an emblem of generosity.”

AC: I believe in architecture that’s about offering. Public projects typically have that quality. But we believe that even private projects can be generous as well. For example, we have done private clubs where we convinced our clients not to build a wall around them. In one of our clubs, we created a platform for tribal people to have their performances on Saturdays. These projects influence both the surroundings and the clients who become more socially mindful and responsible. This is how generosity can grow. Generous architectural projects have the potential to ignite an appreciation for architecture in the global south. There is currently a lack of awareness or engagement with architecture. I believe impactful projects can serve as catalysts for change, transforming the landscape and fostering a new kind of appreciation for beauty in architecture.

Narayantala Thakurdalan in Bansberia, West Bengal, India (Photo © Edmund Sumner)
VB: You run a workshop in Bansberia. How did it start and how does it operate?

AC: A few years ago, while working on one of the villas there, we encountered a very skilled local carpenter. We realized how brilliant he was, so we decided to use him on some of our projects — mockups, furniture, installations, and all kinds of material explorations and experimentations. So, we acquired land, designed, and built this workshop. Then more local crafters joined us. In the beginning, we only employed them part-time and let them use our facilities for their own projects for a small fee. Now we have between 40 and 50 people who work full-time there. We also run the Kolkata Design Collective and Kolkata Architecture Foundation. 

The Design Collective serves as a platform for artists. We invite them to work on their pieces and elements within our projects, and on projects by other architects. Currently, there are three studios including us; we work with artisans, sculptors, painters, ceramic artists, textile artists, bamboo fabricators, and so on. We engage them in the process of making architecture, not simply acquiring their artworks. These artists come from across India. The Kolkata Architecture Foundation focuses on projects in Kolkata; we run it with a few other architect friends. We initiate urban interventions and projects that enhance public life. We work with local artists who are immensely talented but have few opportunities. We integrate them into projects designed either by us or our colleagues. 

VB: About your studio’s work you have said, “We are not afraid of unfamiliar things.”

AC: We aren’t! The bigger the challenge the more I am interested in a project. That’s my forte. I always try to explore what’s unfamiliar. It could be anything that has never been explored or thought of before. We never shy away from such explorations. For example, when we did our Unbox Pavilion we focused on creating a unit that could be multiplied and put together into any kind of configuration. The idea was to use it not just once but reuse these units in other configurations. We never set that kind of question before, but we took the challenge. That pavilion was built as a temporary installation and later reconfigured into a permanent structure at another location. 

VB: When you design your projects do you think about what may constitute Indian architecture?

AC: Never. I try not to constrain myself.

Other articles in this category