Culture  An architectural encounter

On the artists behind the CCA’s “Rooms You May Have Missed”

“All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” Whether you agree or not with this definition of “great architecture,” American architect Philip Johnson had a precise, modernist idea of what great architecture ought to be. Pursuing this idea that aesthetics should follow the sensory experiences we derive from building art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) is hosting “Rooms You May Have Missed: Bijoy Jain, Umberto Riva,” curated by the institution’s director Mirko Zardini. The exhibit showcases the projects of Indian architect Jain and Italian architect Riva, reflecting on concepts as diverse as rooms, globalization, identity, and contemporary living.

During the introductory statement of the press visit, Zardini discussed the importance of valuing our personal spaces today, profiting from their fundamental qualities instead of just using them as “machines for living.” Zardini stressed that “in architecture, standardized forms tend to blur cultural differences.” This idea, which can be extended to other aspects of globalized Western cultures, seemingly carries the criticism that although we are more efficient than past generations, our societies – and buildings – suffer cultural impoverishments, which affect our spiritual and emotional lives in turn. Zardini suggests that “we have to remove ourselves from the homogenization of global cultural currents and overcome our general dependence on powerful systems of production,” at least when it comes to architecture.

Their shared concern for the “act of inhabiting architecture” led Zardini to bring together Jain and Riva, two diametrically opposed architects, in Montreal. Separate from modern standardized architecture, the architects share the vision of harmoniously equating our personal needs and desires with the spaces in which we will live. Their rooms offer ways in which to protect our most human daily practices, individual identities, and desires.

Jain, the orchestra conductor

Born in 1965 in Mumbai, Jain was trained at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri before returning to India to found his own firm – Studio Mumbai. In this open-air office, artisans and architects work hand-in-hand to explore design problems on large-scale models. At the press visit, Jain described his work as “strategic design” – this certainly comes through in the “monsoon-rain-resistant-tape-drawings-on-plywood” presented, made to study angles and space on a full scale.

Overall, Jain is particularly sensitive to a place’s distinctive characteristics, its climate, and its cultural environment. He has developed this sensitivity through patient contemplation of his surroundings, as shown by his “Demolition Series” – a series of pictures taken during a building’s demolition, showing its interior structure and particularities. The series depicts the economic, political, and physical forces that have shaped the building through time. Jain’s attentive observation to this process allows for a deeper understanding of the life and evolution of a structure.

In the past years, Jain’s work has also had to consider changing socioeconomic forces and growing ecological pressures in India. He contextualizes his work in existing sustainable architectural production systems, and promotes economies of scale. For example, the bricks used in some of his projects are directly made on construction sites in order to prevent undesirable traffic.

The architect is also very attached to the idea of the courtyard, believing it to “collect the rain and the sky.” In this exhibit, one particular courtyard stands out, beautifully transcribed in his Ahmedabad house along with its marble pool. Balancing the poetic and the practical, Jain describes himself as an “orchestra conductor” – structures are his symphonies.

Riva, the enlightened craftsman

Born in 1928 in Milan, Riva has been a discrete but active player in the Italian architectural landscape. Since the 1960s, he has remodelled the contemporary habitat, staying away from dominant currents in the field. The combination of organizational simplicity and geometrical complexity in his hand drawings – he claims he has never touched a computer – appear as an allegory of patience, maturity, and wisdom.

Through meticulous observation of our daily lives, Riva also tries to penetrate the essence of small architectural details, in order to give them new forms and significance. He designs every detail of the spaces he creates, from lamps and doorknobs to pergolas and skylight. Riva confers dignity to even the smallest details – he claims “there is no hierarchy in the elements of [his] work,” which certainly brings harmony to his architecture.

“Intermediate spaces” such as anterooms and entrances, aspects more common in Latin architecture, play an important role in his spatial organization. His work highlights smaller, human-scale spaces, as seen in his arrangement of the Casa Insing, an apartment in downtown Milan. Riva, the enlightened craftsman, reminds us that good architects ought to take into account every physical feature relevant to the spaces they create.

The encounter

Without doubt, there is a clear difference in the atmosphere of the spaces these two architects create, demonstrating that architecture is a dynamic process that evolves through time and differs across cultures. The different practices and philosophies framing their styles make for an illuminating encounter.

The CCA recreates the spaces these architects build in their respective countries by remodelling the main gallery into two separate spaces: one for Riva, and one for Jain. Wooden walls and furnishing taken from Jain’s projects, as well as angular walls for Riva’s exhibition space, provide a sensory immersion for the viewer. Aside from their shared concern for details, the exhibit also sheds light on a common affinity for faded colours and harmonious integration of light. Together they draw attention to the details that we have missed but which influence our daily lives.

In short, “Rooms You May Have Missed” is a reverence to all those rooms we inhabit mindlessly in our busy contemporary lives. “Rooms You May Have Missed” is also the story of a not-to-be-missed encounter between two distinctive artists that – against all odds – get along fairly well. After visiting this exhibit, you may never think about a small room, a lamp, or a doorknob the same way again.

“Rooms You May Have Missed” is on exhibit in the CCA’s main galleries (1920 Rue Baile) from November 4 2014 until April 19 2015.