Pioneering architect duo Lijo Jos and Reny Lijo of LIJO.RENY.Architects from Kerala speak on creating spaces that evoke artistic workmanship and contemporary trends in an interview with Anuja Abraham
Founded in 2005, Thrissur-based Lijo. Reny Architects is a multi-award winning architecture studio that has changed the face of contemporary architecture in Kerala. The couple have dabbled with art and installations, experimenting with architecture and creating unique projects that have won them in recognition in India and abroad. In the following interview, the duo talks about their passion for art that has trickled into designing spaces.
What inspired you both to take up architecture as a profession?
Lijo Jos: Although I liked art, but I never wanted to pursue art as a subject. I wanted to explore it in a manner that was quite personal to me. If I were to learn something, I had decided that it would be in the field of design as I could explore and extend my interest in art. My interest in making ‘weird’ structures as a part of school projects prompted me to take up architecture as it satisfied all quarters.
Reny Lijo: I was always fascinated by interesting designs (not just buildings) and my dad being a structural engineer, I was inclined towards that field, but I felt it lacked a creative edge to it which I was sure I would get in architecture.
How has your journey been in the field of architecture?
Lijo Jos: The most important part of my education was my apprenticeship under Ar. Sanjay Mohe. The limited time that I spent there did help streamline what I was about to do in architecture. Returning to Kerala after becoming an architect, the first thing that I did was not to look for work. Instead I embarked my onward journey by doing a large-scale installation titled ‘whirlpool of life’ with school benches and desks forming a large spiral pathway on a mini football field. This gave me the confidence to do several art projects in Thrissur though not many here understood what I was doing as they were not familiar with the medium. Soon I was invited to join my senior’s architectural firm, Team Plus. As this firm, was then one of those few doing large scale project, before I realised I was designing projects bigger that I had expected to handle at that juncture. The lack of long term formal training under an architect soon gave way to confidence in handling anything that came my way. After five years of working there, started LIJO.RENY.architects with Reny. Ever since then we have been doing Art as well Architecture with equal passion.
Reny Lijo: It was during my training period that I got a clearer perspective. It was influential in a way that it made and broke certain notions about architecture that I had already framed in my mind. From there I continued as an architect in a firm named Team Plus closer to home, where I met Lijo, who has been my mentor and influence ever since. He brought me into practicing art and ever since I too share the same passion.
What has been your biggest source of inspiration?
Lijo Jos: I was always inspired by art and artists more than architects and architecture. During college days, I happened to visit an exhibition of German art in Bangalore hosted by the Max Muller Bhavan. A piece of work by legendary artist Joseph Beuys bore a major impact on me. The direction of my architectural thesis changed after this visit and as a result I started to research on ‘installation art’ in detail. It was a time when installation art was not a big thing in India. But I was fascinated by the possibilities that it offered as it primarily dealt with space and the viewer, a common thread shared with architecture.
Reny Lijo: As a student of architecture, one obviously studies the master’s works. Of the lot I was influenced by the boldness displayed by Ar.Philip Johnson’s through his Glass House and the horizontal proportions of Ar.Frank Lloyd Wright’s many residences. Later it was Ar.Luis Barragan and Ar.Marcio Kogan. And lately I find lots of inspiration from architects unknown (to me) doing such good, thoughtful works. And the internet helps us with getting to know them better.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Lijo+Reny: As long as one wants to create good design, a client’s brief will always be a challenge. Strategy is always a little different for each project/client; it has to be as no two person and the sites are the same. We try to reflect the character of the client in each project. It’s the strategy that brings in the excitement and interest in each challenge.
Your work has greatly influenced the way contemporary architecture is practiced in Kerala. What is the way forward?
As we have always considered ourselves to be ‘architects by profession’ and ‘artists by passion’ we try to strike a balance in the way we practise both. This has helped us see most of our projects beyond just being mere buildings. During the initial stages of our practice we constantly reminded ourselves that ‘taking inspiration from the past was fine but replicating images from the past for the sake of nostalgia could arrest growth’ This prompted us to explore and experiment with new languages for the region. This could be a never ending process as it can only be done is small dosages or else it would be difficult for the public to digest.
The situation in Kerala was generally difficult for a contemporary practice. Times have changed as a group of young architects spread all over Kerala are working towards a similar goal. However it was relatively easy for us here as we were well published/ recognised/awarded for one of our projects during the initial stages of our practice.
Moreover the public has taken a fancy for contemporary architecture since the last few years due the strong presence of several magazines and TV programs solely dedicated to architecture. Unfortunately their liking for clean straight line and box like designs only, could arrest the possibility of a much needed evolution in this genre. This could also deter those trying to find that contextual balance in contemporary design. However we are still working on it.
We look forward to a time when Kerala would also find a place for itself in the world map of contemporary architecture.
Which projects are the closest to your heart and why?
The one of the very first projects that we did, (which was for Lijo’s brother), soon after forming LIJO.RENY.architects, won us two awards – the ‘IIA Kerala Chapter Award for excellence in Architecture’ (2007) and ‘JK State Architect of the Year Award (2008)’. Until then Kerala never had a history of contemporary architectural practice. Though there were lone examples here and there, it was not available in the public eye and hence general practice here was limited to either traditional or pseudo-traditional. As this project was widely accepted and published it propelled us as one of the important contemporary practices of Kerala.
The second project that brought us critical acclaim was ‘the green roof residence’. Unfortunately this project was not completed to our satisfaction. Nevertheless it helped us explore an area/language in design that was new to Kerala. The recent project of ours titled ‘the running wall residence’ was also noted and has brought us two awards – ‘All India Stone Architectural Awards (2012)’ and the Golden Leaf at the ‘IIA Kerala Chapter Award for excellence in Architecture’ (2012).
Also to mention is ‘Attempt-01’ the space Specific Installation that helped project us as artists.
These projects and the many other that we have done in between and have been doing, help us push the way we see architecture in Kerala a step each time. We are quite glad that the general public of Kerala opened up and accepted these.
Tell us about your future plans.
Apart from the many individual residences that come our way regularly, we are working on a novitiate home, a media studies institute, and a few art projects these days.