Vinu Daniel feels at home with the brick
Talking to innovative architects is always an enlightening experience. There is no one way of creating buildings and every commission presents different sets of challenges and opportunities. Still, one would think there is a general sense of direction and a certain design methodology that architects rely on. That’s not how Vinu Daniel, the founder of Wallmakers in Trivandrum, the capital of the Indian west-coast state of Kerala, sees his mission; he strives for being uniquely specific to each site’s needs. In our conversation over Zoom that follows a brief introduction, he told me, “Your success is the worst thing that can happen to you as an architect because it takes your attention away from the new problem.”
Daniel was born in Dubai in 1982 and grew up in Abu Dhabi in a traditional Indian family with two older siblings. His father ran an office supplies business in the UAE, and his mother was a homemaker. At the age of 17, he moved to Kerala, his family’s ancestral homeland, to attend architecture school at the College of Engineering in Trivandrum, the state’s capital. As a student, he was doubtful about his professional choice until meeting Laurie Baker (1917-2007), a British-born local architect, and pioneer of sustainable architecture, who invited Daniel and his classmates to his home, sharing an incredible insight into his world. That half-a-day experience proved to be a life-turning event. It changed Daniel’s attitude towards architecture. He started noticing a lot of waste and thinking about its potential as a building material. Baker promoted the revival of regional building practices, relying on local materials, and he emphasised the responsible and prudent use of resources and energy. That resonated with Daniel who completed his B.Arch. program in 2005 and then spent two years at the Auroville Earth Institute in Pondicherry for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Post-Tsunami construction where he learned about the engineering processes behind building with soil and cement.
Vinu Daniel started his own practice, Wallmakers in 2007. We discussed how the Indian architect’s practice operates, being a vagabond architect, the use of the most unusual recycling materials such as plastic, discarded toys, relying on collecting construction materials within a five-mile radius, why it is good to stay thoughtless every time before choosing the right design strategy, and what drives everything he does – beauty, of course.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let’s talk about your practice. You compare yourself to a captain of a ship, meaning you don’t run a traditional office, but work right at the construction site or at a café nearby and move from site to site. You said, “Any place can be an office.”
Vinu Daniel (VD): That is because I wanted to change the traditional architectural practice. Most architects work in offices, designing projects behind their desks, never visiting the construction sites. Everything is managed remotely. And I can see now that architects are totally uninformed and unprepared to run projects on the site. We need to face the reality, which is getting more and more out of control, especially here in India. I think this kind of remote practice is very dangerous. Architectural practice should not be about transferring a bunch of papers from the office to the site. When you see the rocks on your site, and you hold them in your hands then you understand the kind of damage that new construction can cause. Our ancestors used to perform a special ceremony before cutting even one tree. Each one was sacred. But if you design your project from the office you clear the site without even thinking; it has become the norm. If we continue this practice and architects are the ones who make these decisions, then we will never understand the real conditions on the ground. The current remoteness removes us from what the site needs. That’s not how I want to operate my practice. That’s why I call myself the captain of a ship or a vagabond architect. I go from site to site and there is a social component to that. A captain is someone who should know how to even clean the floor. You should know first-hand all the jobs that are needed to operate the ship. So, it is not only about knowing how to lead or how to wear a good uniform but about knowing every screw in the ship.
VB: Are the people you work with – masons, carpenters, welders, painters, and so on – professional builders and craftsmen? Do you work with them on different projects or do you form a new team every time?
VD: At the time when I started my studio there were fewer people practicing mud architecture in Kerala. So, I had to go to the field and train people, including my brother who had just graduated then. I trained them in how to make mud blocks and so on. But to be honest, this knowledge transfer works both ways – sometimes I teach how to do something, and other times I learn about the craft these people know firsthand. All boundaries are being diffused – today you may be an artist and tomorrow you are a carpenter. The people who started working with me from the beginning are still with me. Interestingly, even though these people are good craftsmen they still had to learn many traditional techniques that were lost over time. And my techniques incorporate both modern and traditional practices. Today we have between 100 and 150 people working in various parts of the country. And we have 17 architects; all others are craftsmen.
VB: Since there is no office, are these 17 architects constantly on the go?
VD: Absolutely. Each is responsible for his or her own project. So, they all work at their sites. I am entirely against the idea of a traditional office. We don’t need it. Everyone works on their laptops. The dialogue between the architect and the team of labourers is very crucial. There is an internet connection everywhere and we can reach one another and communicate all ideas necessary. And there is no hierarchy. We constantly take turns in our roles and we are all working toward one goal – building our projects. Every architect is responsible for every decision. The architect understands the weight of a brick. I am contacted by each one and we discuss every situation very precisely. Some of my architects have left and started their own practices. So, I trained quite a few architects in the area. And now I get so many projects that sometimes I pass them to my former employees such as Mitti, Studio D’Nachi, Lidha, and Iki builds, and I serve as an adviser to them. We are all now a collaborative network.
VB: Could you talk about the process of recycling materials for your projects? Do you continuously collect these materials and use them when opportunities come, or do you start every project empty-handed, considering the choices of materials already after the work begins?
VD: It is the latter. We absolutely start empty-handed. Because if you have materials already in your possession you will not be entirely open to what each site may offer. And that would lead to preconceived ideas. But we believe that each site speaks, just like Louis Kahn believed that each material could speak. When I was a student, I was skeptical of that. But now I believe that each site has a voice and we have to listen to it. We need to be very attentive to each site. That’s a very proper metaphor and it is important to understand that. I get a lot of inspiration from Laurie Baker who was told by [Mahatma] Gandhi that architecture needs to be locally sourced and that construction materials have to be collected within a five-mile radius. That’s the motto that I follow. And today, the most available material for construction is not just mud and brick but also urban waste, which is everywhere in India. So, the same concept for different generations means something else. We examine every site, what materials are available, what techniques make more sense, what local conditions need to be preserved, and so on.
VB: You use such materials as mud, bricks, tires, and beer bottles, among others. What are some of the most unusual materials that you are working with now?
VD: I recently discovered that some plastic toys are so strong that they can be used as building materials. Most importantly, so many toys are discarded. So, now we are doing a house, which is built of a mixture of mud blocks and toys. To source these toys, I started a campaign to collect them. We have the fastest growing population on Earth, and hence have lots of discarded toys. We went from house to house and posted ads on social media. Some toys are even being sent from other regions in India. These are all used toys. And they are load-bearing, not merely decorative.
VB: What would you say your work is about? What kind of architecture do you try to achieve?
VD: Here in India we have millions of people who are quite poor. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have art in our built environment. I use very basic materials in my buildings but in such ways that these materials have a certain dignity. We want to bring dignity, variety, originality, and beauty into our architecture. When COVID started many materials that were coming from other parts of the world were disrupted. So, we look for alternatives. I want to prove that there is something positive that can be created out of waste. We need to look for solutions on how to deal with it. I think incredibly original architecture can come out of waste.
VB: How do you typically initiate your design process?
VD: First, I always observe. The problem with so many architects is that they are too loud. Our schools train architects to be very vocal. But there is a lot to pay attention to. We need to be able to listen. So much architecture is about arguing for a particular statement. But I start with being silent. I may have succeeded in my previous projects but every time I start a new one, I try to be very humble. In a way, your success is the worst thing that can happen to you as an architect because it takes your attention away from the new problem. Your ideas must come from the site, not your previous work. So, I try not to be an architect. The last thing you should be is the architect, meaning someone who knows all the answers. I like meditating at the site because that is really about thoughtlessness, which is the most difficult thing to do. How do you get rid of all the thoughts that are going on in your mind? Only if you can stay thoughtless for a while, other things can float into your mind. That’s a start. The point is not to know where you will be going. You don’t have to know. You will find out soon enough.
VB: Could you give an example of that?
VD: Recently I was asked to design a farm school on a large piece of land. When I was selecting the site, I followed the client’s dogs there. I noticed a particular part of the site that made those dogs very active. They loved being there. They were much calmer everywhere else, but in that spot, they jumped all the time. Dogs are very innocent, and they pick up things that are hard for us to notice. In a way, they are like kids and since we were going to build a school, I decided to construct it right there, where there was this unusual burst of energy. That place became the school’s courtyard and that’s how the design started. You can call it intuition, but it makes all the difference in the world.
VB: I like your expression, “Making a building is a process of learning in itself.” And another one, “Construction process is about learning and unlearning.”
VD: Well, I think unlearning is as necessary as learning. We are taught so many things, such as keeping certain animals away from the house. But we have to be careful not to exterminate everything around us because these animals may be harmless to us and they take care of us and our ecology. There are many misconceptions about mud houses and many other materials that need to be reconsidered.
VB: You mentioned that your goal in architecture is to make great works of art. You said, “Everything in nature is a work of art. We are surrounded by art. So, why shouldn’t the buildings we stay in, be an extension of that?” And you said that only beautiful buildings can inspire people to build sustainably. Would it be fair to say that your work is driven by beauty?
VD: Absolutely! We are human beings and everything we do is driven by beauty. Would you eat the most wonderful food in the world if it was given to you in the worst possible conditions? Of course, not. If there is no beauty in your life, what kind of life is it? Of course, we don’t need beauty, we don’t really need art. But if these things are not there, what kind of life would that be?