Designers Kalhan and Santha Mattoo of Planet 3 Studios are still experimenting with designs and vow not to subscribe to any principles and ‘isms’ that will confine them to any particular style, writes Anuja Abraham
Destiny brought Kalhan Mattoo from Kashmir to Mumbai to pursue his passion for designing where he not only met the love of his life Santha Gour while studying at JJ School of Architecture but they also went on to set up a successful design firm together – Planet 3 Studios. They are self-claimed lifelong students who refuse to restrict their design style to one ideology and choose to evolve as per times and changing client requirements. Having won several awards and recognition for their projects from India and international, they continue to grow their portfolio with a wide body of work. In a candid conversation, they open up about their their initial struggle as students, ideologies and expectations from life.
What influenced you to take up designing?
KM: In the 1990s our family migrated out of Kashmir. Since childhood playing with colours, paper and fonts, shapes and doodling made me happy. There was comfort with some sort of creativity. I was not much into academics and sports. I might have been a writer. But my parents were professors and as all middle-class parents, they too dreamt of me becoming an engineer. So I did what a good kid would do, took up architecture since it was also related to science in some way. When I was in standard eight, I saw this very impressionable film In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), a cult movie starring Arundhati Roy. What I saw in that movie, the culture and all, echoed some of my deeper expectations of my life and that’s how I ended up at JJ. But later I realised it was nothing like the movie.
SM: My father is a civil engineer; he used to bring drawings of buildings at home. As he was working with the BMC, I had grown up seeing these drawings and visualisations of buildings. I got interested and pursued architecture seriously after 12th standard. I grew aware about what the profession entails at an early age.
So how did you both fare as students?
KM: I was ok with the curriculum but I was not ok with the subjective evaluation of my ideas. I continued studying due to the fear of my dad. I was doing well in class, but somewhere I had a disconnect with people who were teaching me. I had flunked seven out of 10 design studios including my thesis. From my fourth semester onward, I flunked every design studio. And designs were the only thing I cared about. I would study two hours before the exam and I would pass well. I would also get a distinction in some of the papers. But I did not perform well in design. Beyond a point, some semesters I wouldn’t submit my designs because the teachers and I didn’t get along.
SM: As a student I felt I was a bit lost. I could have been a bit more focused. But I had clarity of some things. I wasn’t like those good students, who would attend class regularly, submit all their assignments on time. Because I figured early on that there were not the parameters for success in the real field.
Where is the Indian education system lacking?
KM: It is lacking on all levels. The qualification to be a professor doesn’t give you the ability to profess. At the end of the day we are in a profession where we are supposed to build. So I don’t think the theoreticians should be allowed to contaminate young minds so early. In India, the curriculum itself is archaic and not updated as per international standards. It teaches the history of building technology. There is an inherent suspicion of any theory that doesn’t conform to architectural theory. Secondly, it is a ridiculously long course. Whatever you learn in the first three and a half years is what stays with you and rest is what adds to the frustration of the students. For whatever it is worth, my suggestion is that the course must be truncated to three and a half years.
Who has been your biggest supporter/mentor?
KM: So while I was at J.J., I was suffering a bit of a Stockholm complex. I had some bad experiences. There was this one professor who was extremely kind to me, Prof. Masood Taj. He is a well-known poet, calligrapher and an architect. He’s the only one I could talk to. Those conversations helped get through the course.
SM: My parents were the biggest supporter, allowing me to explore what I wanted to do. My dad sent me to classes when I showed interest in giving an entrance exam.
In roughly a decade of your practice, how has your design philosophy evolved over the years?
KM: I am not too weighed down by philosophy and it is ironic because I was a student of philosophy at some time. I am wary of too much of theoretical articulation because that tends to be self-indulgent. We look at projects with a fresh perspective and then suggest something which is of value to that client. In that sense, we see ourselves as a medium of positive change when that happens. We generally question everything. We have a healthy disregard for convention. We understand behavioural psychology and contextual relationships when it comes to projects; the realities of time, budget and constructability in India do matter a lot. I am sure we are not committed to paper architecture; the profession is about building stuff. Therefore anything we do is to that end.
What segment really excites you?
KM+SM: Of late, urban projects seem exciting. Smart city projects are growing in our portfolio. We are doing a smart city project in Mumbai. We have just been appointed to take up an urban renewal project in small town Uri, a wayside facility project in Salamabad in J&K, Katra and Poonch, so it is interesting working with small towns and we’ve got a mix of Brownfield and Greenfield projects in our portfolio. We will continue with our, hotels, educational, residential and housing projects.
What sets your firm apart from all your contemporaries?
KM: We are mostly foolhardy, sometimes careless. We sometimes step into unknown, we have no particular style. We don’t follow any particular theory. We don’t subscribe to ‘isms’. We are not even educated in the architect speak to be included in the elite. We are slightly oddballs. So we do everything from smart cities to product designs and see no difference there. We experiment with all types of stylistic responses. We do not know what the output of the design process will be. We step into the unknown each time.
Have you ever drawn any influence from architecture from around the world?
KM: Plenty of architectural works have wowed us but we have not followed and tried to imitate any. We have too much respect for their ideas and ideology to copy it. True, one gets influenced from a lot of things seen and heard before. I am sure at some subliminal level we must have absorbed those inputs and enriched our thought process. But we believe the project is often influenced by the dynamics shared between the client and the architect.
Any Indian / international architect you look up to…
KM+SM: We have immense respect for Charles Correa, he was way ahead of his times. He designed with CPWD and till date, we struggle to design any project with the government. We admire Frank Gehry for liberating architecture from former language, Frank Lloyd Wright for the sheer aesthetics, Philip Johnson for his chutzpah and sheer daring to do what is relevant. Zaha Hadid designed remarkably well and stated her point of view in a profession dominated by men. Among contemporary architects, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) share similar a thought process like our firm.
One design mistake you avoid
KM: I would avoid recreating traditional architecture in relevant style. I would not design something that is not intuitive. I define the process by adding value, so I won’t design a project with no character.
SM: We will not be caught dead doing a same style across two projects. We do not have a signature design we experiment.
Describe your dream house
KM: I am a mountain’s person. It would be perched on a slope in the middle of a pine forest done up in glass from floor to ceiling.
SM: I like the expanse of the sea and loftiness of the mountains, so I wouldn’t mind a house closer to either. I agree it must be in the midst of nature allowing the nature indoors. It can be built with natural materials, done up in rustic tones. I love expansive spaces, unhindered views. I would also prefer a small farm or an aviary in sight.
What do you do for leisure?
KM: I used to read a lot. Off late, I’ve been reading on Flipboard. I used to go to the national park twice a week. It gave us a complete break from the city. We do camping, treks and travel whenever we can.
SM: We extend business trips and explore the city. Last year we got an award at Turkey. It was for three days. We extended the travel to explore.
One advice to the next generation of architects
KM: I’m not qualified for advice. But I’d to say that it is a demanding profession, it looks easier from outside. Satisfaction from this profession is complex and it is not just monetary. So figure out what you want and then enter the field.
SM: Youngsters come with idealistic perception and wish to change the way people think and change the world. Take it as a serious profession. Don’t be too idealistic, be pragmatic.