We met architect and designer Siddharth Bathla at the magnificent corridors of the National Museum of Red Fort. Working with spaces that come with a legacy brings with it the burden of expectations. But for Bathla, whose oeuvre includes museums, places with historical value and other public projects, this is not new. His impressive repertoire includes the Museum of Socialism, Subhash Chandra Bose Museum, the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind Museum, among many others. “The contemporary design strategy of the Red Fort Visitor Centre had to live up to the fortress’s multi-layered history while being valid for today’s function,” explains Bathla. The design intervention is subtle; it navigates the building’s legacy with ease. In the process, it enhances the human experience and creates a new legacy for the country to cherish and remember. It’s a challenging narrative to articulate; create something for the present, talk about the past, and stay relevant in the future. Bathla executes this deftly. For someone who is rewriting a little piece of history with every project he takes on, Bathla is rather unpretentious. His work is eloquent enough. We were curious about his creative journey, and he was willing to oblige. Here, we give you an insight into Bathla’s life in design.
THE BIRTH OF AN ARCHITECT
Ask him about his first tryst with design, and he says, “Life through design has been a journey for me. As a designer I don’t restrain myself from getting into a silo of being an architect, product designer, or scenographer. It was intuitive to be able to associate with all the creative things happening around me during childhood, be it art class, extracurricular events, or travelling extensively. As I remember, I always wanted to be a designer designing everything and anything. This took me to pursue an architecture course at Uttar Pradesh Technical University, then to Industrial Design from IIT Kanpur and to the Product Programme at Aalto University, Finland.”
“The architecture course made me realise that I was at the right place, gave me the rigour to create and the perseverance to take them along. Industrial design taught me the design process and how design is multidisciplinary. Aalto University taught me the power of teamwork and collaboration. Design is an intuitive yet a process-driven, non-linear, non-silo and collaborative process—an awakening leading to a designer’s birth in me.”
INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS: THE ADVENT OF HIS DESIGN ODYSSEY
Bathla was always drawn towards the multidisciplinary aspect of design. “Observing the works of Charles and Ray Eames brought me closer to the nuances of design. I am highly inspired by the duo, known for their disruptive contributions to architecture, furniture design, industrial design, graphic design, manufacturing, and the photographic arts,” says the architect as he talks about this approach evident in the various projects including the Museum of Socialism, where he designed the elements of the building to exhibits to furniture to graphics to films.
Designers like Achille Castiglioni and Massimo Vignelli too left a deep impression on Bathla. “They designed everything — from buildings to housewares and furniture to public signage systems. A significant part of learning comes from the Bauhaus movement, which corresponds to a logical and contemporary way of life. It was a ‘thought’ and not a place that is so valid even after 100 years.”
“Influences in later years came from studios like Archohm and Fabrique. Architect Sourabh Gupta’s approach to design in practical lines and Indian context, with an approach of designing cities to chairs has been deeply inspiring. Designer Jeroen Van Erp’s approach to mixing intuition with the process says that process is to free you, not fix you. What I have adapted with time is the sense of storytelling—storytelling in space. The works of practices like Atelier Bruckner and Kossmann Dejong too are very engaging.”
DESIGNING MUSEUMS: CHALLENGES AND COMPLEXITIES
Talking about some of his most intellectually stimulating work, he says, “I cannot pick a particular project but a lot of parts of different projects and at varying scales.” With his work, he intends to understand and solve the complexities of a system ranging from urban space to joining detail.
“Museums are far more than what we perceive—they can be a piece of furniture telling a story to an urban space like the ghats of Varanasi. They all have layers of function, and they are all a work of art. When it comes to museums in the actual scenario, storytelling takes a giant leap.”
With projects like the ghats of Varanasi, Taj Ganj redevelopment or the Hussainabad project, Bathla illustrates his nuanced approach to social architecture. Or the museums—the recently completed Red Fort Center and the Subhash Chandra Bose Museums, where he navigates the intersection of legacy, contemporary architecture, the art of storytelling, and the science of human experience and engagement deftly. “With the Museum of Socialism, we have acquired the most ambitious aspirations in terms of visual language, scenography, lighting design, and installations. From the nest of details, everything critically preserves the character of Jayaprakash Narayan and slyly takes the visitors back in time to deliberate, act, or retreat with the eternal messages by him.”
“With every museum, one needs to focus on the basics of context, services, materials, colour, scale and proportions as the first layer. The second layer comes with a vision of what the content is and who will perceive it. It gets more and more complex as we go deeper into the project.”
DESIGN SIGNATURE AND MATERIAL OBSESSION
Design is a process of self-satisfaction and user satisfaction. For him, both are varied but go hand in hand. He insists that one needs to understand the user experience before designing anything. “The design signature is the outcome, and it is constantly evolving. In our design, we believe that content is the king and everything else takes a secondary stage. This defines our choice of materials too—the materials come with a narrative.”
“For instance, the porous lime plaster that breathes. One needs to make it by hand using age-old sustainable materials. It includes lime, surkhi (powdered bricks), stalls of jute, bail water and Badarpur sand. It ages with the changing weather to provide a robust, archaic yet beautiful contemporary appearance. We have used it at the Red Fort Center and national museum extensively.
Corten steel is resilient in nature. It changes in appearance and narrative every year, every hour, every second. The whole Varanasi Ghats redevelopment is done with Corten steel. With atmospheric corrosion, it forms a protective and rustic layer on its surface that ages with time.
Mild steel is as raw as one can get with internal strength to support structures, installations, and mechanics. We use it to make kinetic sculptures to CNC cut dioramas to furniture.
Glass is preferred for its play of reflections, refractions and visibility. We used it for various installations with depth; this material provides another visual space inside an existing one. This can be experienced at the Nirbhik Subhas, Victoria Memorial Calcutta. Here, the experience commences with a mirror installation housing the statue of Queen Victoria at the central dome. The mirror acts as a metaphor for the visitors to ‘withdraw with the reflective perspectives, look back again, and rearm Bose’s views’.”
ARCHITECTURE: AS AN ANTIDOTE TO THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD
Disorder and determination. Exhaustion and extensibility. Variants and vaccines. The pandemic has challenged every aspect of our lives. Can design save the world? To this oft-asked question, he responds, “More than anything else, the pandemic has also given rise to an unstoppable spirit of unity and resilience, perhaps more in the design and architecture industry, the primary building blocks of society and our future. This opportunity has risen from the need; we should look at it with a sense of pragmatism and derive solutions that rise to the challenge of this new paradigm.” He concedes that architects and designers can best meet the search for optimism by creating cities and spaces that meet our most fundamental needs: Reconnection, responsiveness, and responsibility.
It is a process-based approach undergoing research and analysis, conceptualization, detail design, and execution. I believe that getting to the root of issues, analyzing problems from all possible angles, and applying systematic design thinking approaches that are refreshingly creative yet rational, seek to create meaningful design experiences for the end-users. These experiences may be registered consciously through actual usage or subconsciously through emotional responses; the intent eventually should be to shape a better world.”
THE ‘FORM FOLLOWS CONTENT’ NARRATIVE
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