I am in complete disagreement of the use of the word ‘start-up’ in the context of architectural practices.- Ar. Sushant Jai-Amita Verma, rat[LAB]

Interview by Shubhayan Modak

rat[LAB] – Research in Architecture & Technology, is an independent research organization and network of designers & researchers specializing in computational design or similar technology-related domains. rat[LAB] is operated as a cloud-based organization with an international network of researchers & computational designers spread across UK, USA, Europe & Asia, and a studio in New Delhi, India, the research cell functions as a global collaborative and multidisciplinary laboratory facilitating design research that leads to novel spatial tectonics and smart built environments.

The research agendas broadly focus on use of computational design & parametric design in architecture, with intersections between design & technology spread across scales and disciplines. rat[LAB] offers collaborations to architecture and design firms to develop systemic models using advanced computational techniques and carry out project-specific or agenda-specific work in all fields of design.

In our very last interview of the series, Sushant Verma ponders upon the word ‘start-up’ and its relevance in the architecture industry before proceeding with the answers! Firstly, he is in complete disagreement of the use of the word ‘start-up’ in the context of architectural practices. Secondly, he has a high regard for the individuals and architects who chose ‘not’ to take the ‘simple’ route of starting their practices, which is usually uninformed and less of a ‘practice’ but more of just-another-service provider to the general public.

I completely believe that there needs to be a change in the general thought process of architectural practices, especially those who are in their first decade of practice.

Before going into details on the first part of terminology of start-up, Sushant takes us through a simple definition of start-up by investopedia: “A start-up is a young company that is just beginning to develop. Start-ups are usually small and initially financed and operated by a handful of founders or one individual. These companies offer a product or service that is not currently being offered elsewhere in the market, or that the founders believe is being offered in an inferior manner.” source

From here on, it is best to simply quote him so as to capture the right meaning of his expressions!

Sushant:

This is very much different from how we are trying to use this term for ‘young and emerging’ design practices’ as most of them (well, about 95%+) are not offering any ‘new’ or ‘unique’ products or services but merely trying to do things in their own limited ways. Also, there is a huge difference between a start-up and a small business or an SME and has large connections with the financial model of the company as well. Most of this would not be a matter of concern for younger architects as we are hardly taught about the ‘business’ of running or even starting a practice.

The second aspect I spoke about in the beginning is more to do with choices in life. Most of the young designers make a conscious choice of starting a practice, or a brand or a studio or just-another-Instagram-account! When we talk about the role of social media and digital marketing here, it has largely to do with socio-cultural reasons of today that govern this decision. There is also an issue in our education system which subconsciously seeds in that having your ‘own’ studio/practice/office is far ‘superior’ to ‘working for someone’! Well, I truly believe that working in an organization with a large commitment towards the profession-at-large is far more superior, bold and courageous (if not equal) to having your ‘own’ practice. Designers often don’t think this way and that is the reason why more than 80% of architects wish to start their ‘own’ practices and more than 90% fail even before they understand how to file an IT return in the next fiscal year.

I run my own architectural practice which is more of a design technology consultancy extending its services in various streams of design and focussing on education as a strong backbone, this was not something that happened without any predetermined market study or thought. But I would refrain from making this a self-celebratory interview about my organization & its verticals that I handle and would try to focus on small and large lessons that I can provide which may help my fellow professionals, young architects, and ‘wanting-to-emerge’ practices.

You would also be noticing that I am trying to use the term ‘practice’ a number of times because this is how, in my opinion, an architectural journey should be dictated. Whether it is a ‘my name & associates’, or ‘a sci-fi studio’ or ‘some animal-like lab’ (Yes, I am taking a dig at my ‘practice’ too!), at the end of the day we are all practitioners of the design profession, constantly learning, unlearning, inventing, re-inventing and blending science and art in our own ways using our limited conscious knowledge and unlimited subconscious being. The moment this gets dictated or overridden by merely visual inspirations that we wish to replicate or mimic in the built environment, we lose our larger role of a design practitioner. This is also legit for those who are working with and for organizations as a part of it, irrespective of how small or big their position in the corporate hierarchy may be. I believe that all of us, as designers, need to make our role and mark visible to the public and showcase our contributions to the profession and this need not be done only by individuals who ‘run their practices’. At the end of the day, we are working towards a larger goal of contributing positively towards our built (or unbuilt) environment.

Let us move to some insights about my start-up, which is no more a start-up anymore.

To be honest, I never thought about starting my own practice. I was truly inspired by the reason why I and Pradeep started to team up to bridge the gap between Design and Technology and started to build an organization which started to grow with the works we started to develop to drive innovation at a root level. It is a completely different operational model for design practice and we like it this way as our works, services, innovations, and research sets itself apart from the general practice model. By no means, we may be doing the right thing, but we are trying to do things differently and innovation at all levels of work is what inspires us. I did feel that it will be challenging but due to our associative model of working with so many designers and organizations across India, we are trying to redefine a new style of collaboration to mark a niche for ourselves.

We still face many challenges and continue to learn as we ‘practice’ architecture and design which aims towards innovation. The biggest challenge is the lack of time that people wish to commit to bring about a change and make innovation happen. Changing a conventional thought process of working and being inventive is the biggest challenge we face. We continue to take all challenges as opportunities of learning as we evolve in our first decade of practice.

There have been plenty of moments of success & failures. And we have stopped counting both! There are numerous moments of joy that we come across – often on a daily basis as we continue to follow the same paths with which we started, to drive innovation. Same way, as there are challenges and hurdles on a daily basis, there are a lot of driving moments too that helps us evolve. We find joy in times wherever we are able to push the envelope and create work or methodologies that we hadn’t been able to do in the past.

In the coming years, we hope to possibly have more projects and research that can help built environment in direct and indirect ways, and positively affect the lives of people. Hopefully, an impact in design education so we can have smarter designers building smarter cities soon. As far as work goes, it is hard to predict where we would be by that time. If we start to analyse our evolution & growth, it has certainly been a roller-coaster ride for the entire team, which continues to evolve with our methods. Since we use technology at the core of our practice and like to evolve rapidly with changing technologies, it is quite certain that we would continue the same approach and would potentially have tech-embedded design environments in near future. Our work should ideally follow the same pace and we hope to be able to demonstrate this through built as well as unbuilt projects that form the plethora of design research we nurture in the practice. Computation and other tech-tools and methods would certainly be a part of the work that we aim to do in the future. We are hopeful that the scale of work should increase to be able to make larger global impacts. We look forward to a very exciting and collaborative future!

To my fellow practitioners and young designers I would urge you all to try to make a mark wherever you are and contribute to the profession at large. There is a no secret formula to success, nor a right time and path to shift gears. Focus on your skills, learn as much as you can and build expertise before trying to change the world in one go. We all have our own time zones and will get our own tastes of failures and success. It is how we perform and react to both these situations, that will define what we become at the end and how we are able to contribute to the architectural profession – be it working in some organization or running your own practice. Architecture is a teamwork and will always succeed in collaborations.

Let us stop glorifying independent practices only and also start acknowledging architects who work with full focus and dedication as a part of practices that are headed by someone else!

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