Amrita Mahindroo the Co-Founder and Director of the international practice, DROO, shares her inspired amount of drive, intelligence and passion for responsible design with Editor, Jess Bacon
Amrita Mahindroo has a breadth of experience in both the private and public sector including high-end Residential, luxury retail, hospitality, contemporary art museums and urban regeneration plans, all of which are scattered across the globe.
Following extensive collaboration with reputable firms in Australia, Europe and North America, including Atelier Seraji, Shigeru Ban Architects in Paris and the MIT Media Lab, she co-founded DROO with Michel Da Costa Goncalves.
Her interest in urban architecture has been fuelled by her passion for building responsibly, and shattering the concept of an icon, the outdated need to build to excess. Amrita’s practical, intelligent attitude is refreshing, it reflects the drive and ambition of an asset to modern architecture.
What is your earliest memory of design and architecture?
I think my earliest memory of architecture, or a place, was my Grandmother’s house in India. It was a modern villa with neutral walls which contrasted with a bright yellow and red terrazzo floor. with a beautiful deep veranda and a roof terrace with a breath-taking view across the city. I spent a lot of summers there.
Where did you study?
My parents and I moved to Australia when I was five and I did my first degree, my BA in Architecture, at the University of Melbourne. The course was designed to shape us into professional architects; it was very industry focused. The second half was more creative and we were pushed to our limits. After that, I studied my Masters at MIT. It was a research based course that was almost an academic exercise to prepare us for the industry, by exploring from an intellectual position where we stand as architects, how we view ourselves and our function in the larger urban environment which I wrote my thesis on. I very much enjoyed my masters, as it’s challenging, you push yourself to develop your research, and MIT was very tangible; it connected the research to the real world problems and the discipline as a whole.
How do you feel the architectural education system has changed in recent years?
My business partner Michel and I have both been educated and educated others throughout the world, and I think recently the courses have expanded as it’s difficult to cover everything in five years, which brings in a need for masters programs as students want to invest time and go beyond the professional degree. If you are going to specialise and challenge yourself it requires more time, and you can add more time through a masters, which in the past has seemed like a luxury but it is increasingly becoming necessary. Even when students become professional architects, you have to continue to educate yourself about technology, construction, materials, environment, social agency, every aspect of the industry evolves and we have to as well. We can never stop and accept our practice as architects we have to consistently refresh and re-educate ourselves.
What kind of architect did you aspire to be?
In the formative years of my degree it was the Spanish and Dutch moment, a cultural wave of contemporary architecture and the object, which I suppose would have been an early source of inspiration. It was a point of departure as I matured as a designer, through my research driven by cities, I made a full turn around and took interest in introspection, for a city or building to fully integrate into itself and not stick out as an object. To co-exist in the environment rather than taking over it completely, we’re (architects) layering projects in the history of places that we’re intervening with and building on other conditions in the city. This moment of intervention is just a moment in the longer history of the city., it’s a dialogue with the past and future. We need to evaluate how we look at buildings of the past and our excess, and what is the value of the icon? What does it mean to be iconic?
What does DROO represent as an architecture firm?
I’ve collaborated with Michel for 13 years, and while there’s some variation, in a lot of areas we are a unified front.The Tabula Rasa philiosophy that erases and replaces are ideas of an urban architectural past that we simply don’t agree share, and have always sat uncomfortably with us. Our position is to keep existing structures and build on our collective history, to bring new life to something. In that sense our work is never completed, not in the post modern sense, but there are layers of intervention, and it’s liberating to feel that you are a moment in a buildings history, that will continue to evolve.
Michel and I are an interesting pair, we’ve lived across numerous parts of the world and have a variety of cultural influences, and such different education that it’s difficult for us to be able to reduce or summarise who or what we are as so many of our cultural influences are embedded into us and how we design. We like to think that from having no direct grounding, that we can think of every context, we see everything new and fresh, as we’ve always been migrants in one way or another allowing ourselves to see from the outside, which we feel brings a unique dialogue to each project.
How do you continue to carve your own path in the industry as a studio and an individual?
We’ve been solicited for and continue to work in conservation, not as historic architects but as contemporary architects trying to create new chapters in the life of existing buildings and developing them like strata in dialogue with their past. History informs our new projects, as architecture is never completely isolated it has a cultural past and future. We look at giving a city a density, through creating anti-growth. When there is a need for financial, cultural, social and political growth we need to learn to grow in new ways not the 90s sense of outward growth. To move forward but not exponentially, growing in a more cyclical way, by building and reinventing what we have, addressing topography, spatial organisation, modes of construction, the environment to continue evolving intelligently.
Where is the majority of your work based?
The majority of our work is based in the UK in the residential sector, but we’re also working on a number of hotel conversions. We’re definitely a London practice, we split our weeks between London and Paris, so they’ve become homes for us, and Melbourne for me too, somehow we thought it was a handicap to not belong anywhere, but now we view it as an asset as it makes us malleable and adaptable. We’re based in London as that’s where this began and that’s where a lot of our current work is, but we are also increasingly working in Paris, Asia, and Australia. We are currently working in Vietnam on an eco-shopping mall, which is a completely different scale, as South-East Asia has different conditions, and have some residential projects in Australia.
What has been your biggest design commission to date?
Our biggest commission in terms of physical size was the East Ville Mall in Bangkok, that we completed in 2017 in collaboration with Name, when the company was under their previous practice Rare. The semi external mall was a big departure from the traditional shopping complex, and a big risk for the client, but it’s been extremely successful.
What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years time?
I hope, we all hope, that education is moving on and there’s a sense of agency and responsibility for the excess left behind, and more sensitivity to how we develop and design for future generations, and how we move forward responsibly. I believe us and a number of other practices globally are seeking a more mature language and moving the discipline towards a maturity in which architecture is not just a reflection of technique, without being noisy or iconic, there’s still a place for it, but a new definition of iconic is also needed. Progression in digital technology has enabled us to produce concepts beyond our imagination, to push design to wild and crazy new heights, but now we’ve stretched our limbs and it’s time to reflect, to think I can do this, but what beyond technique is most relevant to our collective future, and how is this demonstration really representative of the priorities of our and future generations?
We’re heading the right by taking social responsibility, considering the environment, changing how we build, the materials and approaches we use, but feedback to developing parts of the world can appear to be read as forms of neo-colonisation. We have to allow maturity to happen by itself, rather than push our approach onto other countries. Asia is transitioning through this as we speak. Architects in China, Vietnam, India are designing with a heightened sensitivity and consideration, renouncing the idea of imposed icons to create buildings of value to the environment and society.
If you hadn’t become an architect what would you be doing?
I’ve been an architect so long that I am really struggling with this question! But I would have definitely done something creative, perhaps an engineer. I’m 100 percent entrepreneurial so I’d always have my own company, perhaps a creative start up of some sort.