Principal Architect – Architect Vistasp & Associates (Interview PART-1)
Vistasp Bhagwagar’s some insightful projections about the nature of Architecture in the 21st century, and how varying influences have evolved in the field of building and design. With over 25 years of experience, Vistasp Bhagwagar’s journey has been of an overachieving schoolboy who did everything in school the right way. From his words, we learned a lot about the ambitious force in the field of architecture that he is. He used to enjoy drawing, painting caricature, winning painting competitions, school newspaper, and a lot of creative things at an early age. It was very natural that he was good at drawing and thus wanted to get into design. So, he got into 3 schools of architecture, finally settling into the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi in 1987. He came last in the exam because there were limited seats. But, when he finished after 5 years he was awarded two gold medals and was the topper in the whole batch.That’s the story of his undergrad, after which Vistasp moved to the UK and acquired a master’s in Urban Design from Oxford University.
He came back and started his practice in 1996. As he rightly said, “It’s been a 25-year journey since then, and a lot of learnings on the way. No journey is without pain, but without pain, there is no gain.”
Further delving into the brilliant career of Vistasp Bhagwagar, the Best Creators were offered powerful and incisive insights into the structure of modern architecture and his influence in the field of design and building.
“The funny thing about philosophies is that they keep changing every 5 years. When I started, I may have had a certain philosophy that will not be relevant today. Today’s philosophy would not have been relevant then. But I think it’s part of the journey of life, that you keep changing and it’s good to have philosophies that evolve with time because it shows your thinking. Somebody who’s had the same philosophy for 25 years is either a God or he’s not thinking. It’s extreme. I’d say my way of thinking presently is in two aspects. One is in embracing more simplicity in terms of design. How do we get into a mindset which says less is more and more is less? These are famous words by both William Shakespeare and Mies van der Rohe, who’s considered a God in architecture. How to really encapsulate that in design. Can design really be stripped to its basics where structure and architecture combine together and actually form something without having to cover it up? I think minimalism is the result of this thinking. But one philosophy that has captured me always, for the last 10 years actually, is a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci who says Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. When thinking about it, the more layers you can remove and the simpler you can make your designs in architecture or building and make them relatable to human beings is when you reach the highest level of sophistication. The second part is the way we build, the way we look at our built environment which is a matter of great concern. There is every material today which is basically a cladding or a hiding kind of material that does not expose the real architecture. You make materials in RCC and brick and then you clad them in ACP, high-pressure laminate, or clad them in various materials that are pasted on. You can put on a mask, but in buildings, you have to remove the mask and show the building for what it really is. So, more and more, my feeling is to be truthful to architecture. To use materials, there is no material that is lesser. A wonderfully done brick wall can be as fabulous as an Italian stone wall. In fact, I’m a big subscriber that good design does not be expensive. It should be thoughtful, evocative, and experiential. It needs to make you actually want to use the space, get attached to space. Good design is not materials, not combinations of colors, that’s a misconception. It’s something that I feel requires a lot more tutoring and lecturing. Good design is more about space creation, human experiences, and more about the sensorial touch of a space more than anything else. True materials and less is more are my top two philosophies that I would advocate.”
As we progressed, Vistasp elaborated on the journey of an architect and how dreams will guide the way for each aspirant to achieve their goals. His congruent ideas were truly inspiring and we were provided with first-hand experiences of a decorated career spanning over more than 25 years in the industry.
“When you come to our office, which is a statement office, made in a manner to convey our message. There’s signage on the wall, which is a hand-painted art that says, “one life, make it a story worth telling.” What we mean to say to the young designers who come and go in our life, we want to tell them that they have one life and to make it a story worth telling. We also tell them on another level that any project that you’re handling, let it have a story, let it be something you can talk about. The biggest thing I would like to advocate is to have A that is part of any design person’s lifeline. That A would be D which is the dream and A which is Achieve and the in-between journey between dreaming and achieving requires hard work. That should be the focus and approach for any project, for the client or for yourselves. If 25 years back, somebody asked me whether I’d want a lot of money or to make a big name, I would obviously have chosen the Big Name. And I have achieved that in my own simple way. We are very highly regarded in the workspace design segment and now we’re into the hospitality segment. How did I make that journey? The journey was about dreaming and achieving. We were clear from day one that we will not repeat our designs. We were clear that we will keep our minds thinking about newer and newer things. They say you do something for 90 days and it becomes a habit. We have been doing this for 20 years and we have not repeated any designs of ours for any two projects. We’ve actually created a very enviable portfolio of works. They may not be the largest works. They may not be works that change the destiny of a city or nation. But within the segment we’re working on, we’ve created a name of being creative, out-of-the-box, and original in our thought process. We were 17 years in basements, our office was in a basement. Two years back, we had a dream and we said, let’s get out of the basement and let’s get into an office. We’re at a nice place now which looks out to a lot of trees in South Delhi. And we’ve got a very positive workspace that makes a great difference to the way we work. And we’ve been able to get more clients and convert more jobs than we ever could in the past. Dream and achieve, that’s my example.”
As fortune would tell, the ambitious and progressive thoughts shared are a reflection of his expertise in handling large projects and projecting value for clients as the bedrock to success. Vistasp further elaborated on the importance of understanding a client’s requirements and maintaining transparency.
“I have a very clear message to everybody who’s going to be reading this blog. That is that Rome was never built in a day. I think we need to get out of this business of instant gratifications or instant success. There is no such thing as instant success or overnight fame. Things take a lot of time to develop. We need to get out of this instant noodle mindset we’re all in and think that the next project is going to catapult you to another level. Success is a series of small steps, not a high jump. In a high jump, you jump high and then you fall down. Success is a series of small steps that you take. You define a direction and you take those steps and go towards that direction. Every day you are working on one step or two steps on this massive flight of steps towards a certain success that you want. I think setting a direction is far more important. People often confuse speed with direction. I think to set the right direction is more important, and going there at a constant speed is more important than going at a very fast speed in a direction you may not be interested in.”
“The biggest challenge as a creative person is to make sure that your creativity which is on paper translates into actuals. The gap between the portrayed and actually should not be so big that the client questions you that you showed me something and you delivered something way under. I think it’s better to bring the expectations a little down and deliver way higher. In doing that, you have a very happy client. Often a lot of studios make a lot of overhyped views just to win a project. Thereafter, they’re only able to deliver 60% of that. You will be amazed at the number of brochures that show glittery buildings and finishes picked up from Google or Pinterest somewhere but have not been delivered. They have been poorer cousins of what has been shown. The top challenge for anybody in the creative line is to do and deliver. Can the two be at the same level? That’s a question of trust and bringing back trust into our profession. We have a lot of fly-by-night builders and marketing people who sell anything and move on. As architects, interior designers, or designers in any field, we should be responsible people known as professionals. A professional is something who has a certain constant level of performance and who will deliver on what he has committed. The biggest challenge is to have this sort of delivery matching the promises you have made. You achieve that by being stubborn and very pushy. As an architect, you have to be like a steam engine, that pushing through and pushing a whole team in a certain direction, making sure that you are going in the direction that you’ve said. You have to be a leader by example in the profession. You have to think things clearly and go down that route with a very clear focus, be very pushy, challenge every excuse that comes in the way to really make things happen, so that at the end of the day, what you deliver is what you had shown.”
“I am actually very sympathetic towards the client and I think every architect should be sympathetic to the client. He is putting his hard-earned money into the project. He is putting his trust in you as a profession, which is a very big deal. The biggest thing that clients look at when designing a space is meeting their needs, achieving their aspirations. Then if you surpass the expectations it’s good, but certainly meeting their needs is important. Somebody who comes to you with a housing project will require a certain number of dwelling units to make his project viable. There are many star architects who would say don’t do this, do it like this. I think that you become a star architect when you listen to your clients and the client gives you five stars, rather than you assuming yourself to be a star architect and suggesting otherwise. I think every client is smart enough to know what they want. If we take that as the starting point, then we can build on it further. That’s when there’s a happy client-architect relationship. Meeting the needs, achieving aspirations, and surpassing expectations is what the client wants.”
As we explored the poignant thoughts of the master in this field, we realized that Vistasp was driven and committed to serving the best to his clients, even on his day off. His inspiring work ethic is built on transparency and a vision for betterment at every stage of the journey. He revealed the powerful word that resonates with the very ethos of every creative mind. He shared with the Best Creators, a window into the brilliance of bringing projects to life. He elaborated on the importance of learning to improve the life of people who come to you with a project.
“We go by the four letters that make the wonderful word called the SOUL. In fact, I have made a video in the past which has been well-appreciated. I have said that good design is not about Google searching but it is about soul searching. Every project must have a soul, a certain quality to it like a human being. You should be able to describe every project because it has certain attributes which you have created that make a big difference. SOUL stands for four letters, it should be Sustainable, it should be Optimized, it should be Utilitarian and it should be Livable. If one takes care of these four aspects in the nature of design, whether a workspace, a housing project, a hotel, we do all these different verticals in our studio, but the common verticals are the same. We make sure that we try and look to have a soul, or also what others call an X factor you can talk about.
All practicing architects are constantly in a learning mode. Learning through subscribing to various design websites, or understanding trends internationally is important. There is a lot of information we can get. It’s all about how you categorize information, make it reachable, and how much you absorb it into your mind. If you have a learner’s mindset, constantly willing to learn and discover new things, if you have an explorer inside you that’s constantly exploring newer ways of doing the same things, that’s when real learning happens. Real updating happens through learning. From visual media, even a magazine, if that does not go into your head and settle in there, then it does not register. As it is, we live in an information overload time, it’s more about analyzing and being a little slower. Analyzing what makes something more special, what can you learn from it and how can you apply it to your projects. I think architects should be in a constant state to take inspiration. Inspiration is perhaps the biggest word for learning. You can only learn if you get inspired. That’s something that becomes second nature to you as an architect. I am often accused when I go into a new hotel or a new restaurant, where I first look around and observe everything and woul’t know whether my wife has taken a set. We’re often accused of that. Once it becomes a learning mindset, you are trying to pick up stimuli and design from wherever you go. That’s what opens the mind up because it’s all subconsciously getting into your mind and you’re able to pull up the right things at the right time in the future.”
“Somewhere I recognize there was a switch about 10 years back, from being a design person to being a solution person. We are all taught in design schools at all levels, about focusing too much on design, on how something looks, the aesthetics of it, but not so much on how it functions, or how it’s built, or what’s the most feasible thing, or to the engineering aspect of what you’re suggesting. We got into this very large housing project in North India, which was at a very large scale that we had perhaps not handled before. That’s the time where a true wake-up call emerged about the multi-dimensional nature of our profession, where we actually understand that the fellow engineer sitting next to you is far more knowledgeable than you. It is an important thing for architects to bring a level of engineering and education into their design process. Design cannot be isolated from engineering, but it should go hand-in-hand. The true wake-up call happened that there’s another way of thinking, about how can you make something more sustainable, more durable, how to design something without any engineering problems emerging five years down the line. Getting out of our comfort zone, getting into the larger project, we realized that there’s a far greater level of responsibility in architecture than we ever thought. That responsibility is something we should bring into the profession.”
Further, the acclaimed architect was eager to share his advice with aspiring architects and others in the fraternity. His words resonate with the urgency for creative expression and utmost professionalism.
“The A of a designer has to be to dream and achieve. It is okay to dream, but if you don’t convert that dream into an achievement, you’re none the wiser. It’s okay to achieve but if you achieve without a dream, then you are going without a direction. I think A should be a dream and achieve in parallel. Additionally, learning must be a life-long process. There can be no teacher in architecture. There can only be learners and practitioners. We need to teach others and learn from each other, but there cannot be a concept of somebody who knows it all. There may be professors and experts in certain areas. Somebody may teach you plumbing, somebody else may teach you interiors or somebody may teach you air conditioning. But the real teacher is life and the environment around. Traveling is a very important aspect for an architect. You need to travel the world, travel your country and understand why people do things differently. What is sustainable, what is relevant, what is contextual, what is optimal and so many aspects only come through exposure through traveling. It’s very easy to say that I’ll start my practice and I’ll work and achieve. But you have to remember that when you are starting your own practice, you are making a lifetime commitment towards struggle. It’s not a bed of roses. You need to be driven by a certain passion or maess which drives you through the dark days and nights, allowing you to go through the entire process. If you’re doing a job, you have to understand that while your monthly salary is fixed and is coming every month, imagine the boss for whom you’re working going through the problems of having to make that money. You have to have that entrepreneurial mindset that is required to make a difference even when you are doing a job. All of us need to understand that design is just one part of the process of the architect. There is also a business side of it. There are many talented architects who have been broke at the end of their journey, or who’ve not been able to sustain. The pandemic has exposed a lot of people who did not have healthy practices. We ourselves have been affected and we’ve taken great learning. I myself have done many management courses during this pandemic, to be able to understand that there’s a management side to sustain your practice of architecture. Many of us are guilty of being in the business and being consumed by the business. We should actually be working on the business. There are a whole lot of tips I have to share with people. I am committed to making a book one day that will have a lot of life-changing learnings that would like to share from the last 25 years.”
Then, Vistasp talked about how vendors and contractors play a vital role in the success of a project. His powerful wisdom covered the ethical aspect of architecture and how building relationships within the industry is integral to the success of a project. His humble, yet articulate views are a driving force in the field of modern architecture.
“First of all, to everybody who’s an architect, I would say don’t look at a vendor as a vendor but as a partner. If you’re making him wait two hours while you’re in your studio, that’s incorrect and not right. A vendor is as important as an architect because he is giving you information, he’s giving you the knowledge and technical know-how. In the same way, a pharmaceutical person is giving the doctors. The doctor-pharmacist relationship is very sacred in the same way the architect-vendor relationship needs to be very sacred. We should constantly be learning about newer materials, newer ways of doing things with better levels of finish, and lesser manpower. We need to learn about more sustainable materials, optimizing costs, and so many other aspects. I have two recommendations for vendors. One is to consider yourself equal to the architect. Do not take any nonsense from an architect. I think everybody is at par for reasons I’ve just explained. Secondly, don’t sell products. Sell solutions to problems that exist. That’s when architects will come running after you. Once you make that shift from selling products, to selling a solution to a problem or a need is the real game-changer.
Today there’s nobody who’s just doing contracting. You have contractors who also design, calling themselves design and build. There’s no architect who’s only doing design, they also call themselves design and build. I am having to make that transition after 25 years, determined to become a “design and build” company because that’s the only way you can sustain in the present economy. Change is something we must all embrace, but this is one of the sad changes. But it is also the reality of sustaining a practice. For anybody who’s doing design and build, to turnkey contractors, or anybody involved in project execution, I would say that there are many ways to make money. Try and take the good ways of earning money not the wrong ways of earning money. Over drilling, under-delivering, under specifying, underhand dealings, all need to be cleaned up. The more one can clean up in the system, the more value of money you can give back to the person who is trusting you to do a design and build job, the better it is. I think, somewhere down the line it’s all become only for money. The border ideals of doing a good job have become second or third. It’s first only about profit. Profit is very important, no doubt. But profit at the cost of quality or at the cost of delivery is not right.”
Clearly, Vistasp built a career of the highest regard with a work ethic and a strong set of values that inspire people to take a step in the right direction. From his experiences, the Best Creators were lucky to have indulged in a thoughtful, energetic, and informative experience, learning from the best creators of the modern-day. He further concluded the session with powerful words that can resonate with the will to persevere towards creating wonderful experiences. An articulate spokesperson and a brilliant visionary, his experiences are an example of character and virtue as the building blocks of an architect’s journey.
“The Indian army follows a wonderful slogan which says, service before self. That’s something every contractor, the design-and-build person should put on their main door. Service comes first, self comes second. You only earn from a profession if you respect the profession. Otherwise, there are numerous ways of making money and landing behind bars. I see a lot of people doing fly-by-night operations, but only the people with good principles will sustain. You should actually take up the practice to make up something that people can actually take notice of. I do hope people read and pick up a few things from this because the more you learn from the experiences of people who have been through the journey, the better served you are.” To be continued.>>