Morphogenesis: Creating a Green Imprint

The Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur

Ibn Battuta in his writings of 14th century describes Kandahar as a large and prosperous town. The arid terrain has also found extensive mention in Mughal emperor Babur's discourses. It is the second-largest city in Afghanistan and also one of the most culturally significant cities of the Pashtuns. History speaks of it as being their traditional seat of power for more than 300 years. A major trading center for sheep,  wool, cotton, silk, food grains, fresh and dried fruits, and tobacco, the city has plants for canning, drying and packing fruits. Had…
Sadly, Kandahar today is reckoned not for its history, culture or commerce. Many empires have long fought over the city due to its strategic location along the trade routes. And unfortunately, it became the target of Muslim extremists as well. Ravaged by the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, the city sparked into spotlight during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Airbus A300 in 1999. Kandahar became famous overnight. Or rather, infamous.
Surat Diamond Bourse
But there is hope yet. Courtesy a quartet of samaritans, who want normalcy and peace to seep into the barren land bit by bit. The embers of the catastrophic Taliban fire will take time to die down but efforts are being made to balm the wounds. Plans of a hospital, a university and other educational institutions have been passed. Everyone deserves a chance. The roadblocks are a plenty but the former glory of Kandahar is slowly being restored.
Manit and Sonali Rastogi
As I listen to Manit Rastogi, one of the founding partners of Morphogenesis, describe his upcoming project of designing the building for a university in Kandahar, I vaguely reminisce about Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In the book, Kabul is almost a character. And the narrative maps its journey from being a lusciously beautiful valley to one that is ransacked by terrorism to a jilted but recuperating lover. I visualize Kandahar in the same light and I’m amazed when Manit says, “The University is just one of the efforts by some zealous men to normalize everything there. They have all been educated abroad and have come back with the soaring vision to change things there. Being an architecture firm that believes in sustainable design this is a challenge we look forward to. To answer some ethical questions that will lead to social change. Also, to create a building that will be for both men and women students in a country like Afghanistan is different ball game altogether. And the green aspect has to be retained. The temperatures are extreme. The several challenges were a big reason why we gave in to the temptation. There is a greater kick in solving the problem,” says Manit, his eyes literally gleaming at the excitement of a project where the process of his functioning will engage in neck-to-neck tussle with overcoming the problems. All through the conversation, Manit maintains a jocund air as if it’s going to be one entertaining match…
For Morphogenesis, proponents of green and sustainable design since 1996, the reason for selecting a project has always been determined by the processes it would entail to make it sustainable. The end result is the sum total of all those processes, which are brainstormed on by Manit, his wife, Sonali (another of the founding partners), and their talented team in their office in Delhi, an instance of a green space that the firm builds everywhere. Every process varies contextually and because the team is particular about the location, there is no emphasis on a signature look. “The process of coming forward with a green, sustainable design is our leitmotif. Not the visual style. However, there is a strong predilection for creating something cutting edge. When a design fits in with the topography it looks pretty,” says Manit, who specialized in sustainable environmental design from the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture in London.
The multiple award-winning Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur
After commencing his architecture studies at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, Manit graduated with distinction from AA, under Simos Yannas, and subsequently, the AA Diploma with Honours, under John Frazer. The influence of all three programs have formulated and influenced his thinking to date, to create a sustainable architecture through the framework of an evolutionary practice inspired by nature, with an emphasis on passive design. Known as an architect who consistently pushes the boundaries of sustainable design, Manit’s commitment to sustainable environments goes beyond the realm of architecture practice. As the founder member of The GRIHA Council, India’s own Green rating system, Manit works with urban policymakers to spearhead initiatives with an emphasis on environmental sensibility and social welfare.

The Namami Gange project
One such project is Namani Gange, an NDA driven conservation initiative to rehabilitate and beautify the several ghats in the Indo-Gangetic belt of India. Says Sonali, who has been directly associated with the project, “We called the project, ‘River in Need’. It is not just about de-polluting the river. We studied that the interaction between land and water in this belt formed the basis of existence of man and the Ganges, directly and indirectly influenced their lives. Over time, if the ghats are not significantly taken care of that link will break. We never did anything radically different. We just enhanced the modes and the means to use the river and the ghats through architectural resurrection and by developing a more sustainable method of doing so. Contextuality was maintained by blending history with the present. For the project, we collaborated with several regional NGOs who thankfully had already started work to minimalise the horrific practices on the ghats that affect the environment adversely.”

Sonali declares that architecture was a way of life for her from a very young age (growing up under the tutelage of her architect father, Ashok Srivastav). After her stint at the School of Planning and Architecture, at AA, she studied Housing and Urbanism under Jorge Fiori and holds a second graduate diploma in Graduate Design (DRL) under Jeff Kipnis. The literature of ‘History and Theory’ of architecture is of profound interest to Sonali. She has also co-authored Morphogenesis’ first monograph Morphogenesis: The Indian Perspective, The Global Context, Working across a diverse canvas ranging from architecture to urban design, landscape and interior design, Sonali is passionately interested in the materiality and craft in architecture, and is deeply invested in the detail of building.
The Delhi Art Gallery building in Mumbai
Manit, who studied in all kind of schools, city as well as village ones, while growing up in West Africa, where his father was an engineer, gravitated towards green and sustainable design after extensively reading up on the evolution of it and the lack of it in India. While history documents the Indus Valley Civilization, Harappa and Mohenjodaro and Mughal Architecture as one of the biggest practitioners of buildings homes and monuments as per climatic requirements, somewhere Indian architects forgot to follow the most obvious principles in the 90s when globalization happened. “In the 70s, a new design idiom was born, one that shunned the concept of creating shelters (the basic premise of a home) pertaining to the climate of a place and something that enhanced comfort. The west negated the evolution of architecture because they thought that they had devised ways to control the climate through abundance of cheap oil and energy. That was a flawed idea. Unless you use natural resources judiciously, the environment is bound to scupper up. In the apeing of the west that’s exactly what happened. Indians radically forgot 5,000 years of history to be in tandem with the west. The fact that we did have a headstart in green design was merrily forgotten.”
The British School in Delhi
The architect also figured that Indians had not created a brand for themselves in the field of architecture. The world recognized Mexican design, Chinese design and European design but Indians were lagging behind. When there was mention of Indian architecture that was ecologically relevant, one would visualize mud-thatched roofs and such ethnic designs. While the Indian vocabulary had extended itself to fashion and art, in architecture and design it was conspicuous by its absence. There was a need to uplift the game-plan with cutting-edge design. This lay the founding stone of Morphogenesis, an award-winning design firm based in Delhi but which is functional pan India, South Africa, middle-East, Asia among other places.
“We set up shop in mid 90s to study the vernacular not to imitate the graphic but understand the process, and the physics behind green design. The key turning point was the Pearl Academy of Fashion building in Jaipur, that till date remains close to our heart because it proved what we were trying to say all the while… the idea of a fascinating building that consumes least natural resources and looks spectacular without compromising on comfort. It stood for what we stand for… Architecture in a global context, through an Indian perspective,” says Sonali, adding, “Pearl set the path for the next decade of our work. While every project was different in look and feel, we followed the same problem solving method of green design.”
The Surat Diamond Bourse was the next big project that challenged the design acumen of the team. “In our country there is no dearth of natural light. Our work has always made use of that even while eradicating the heat and the glare. The Diamond Bourse was even more fun because here we had to think of the number of people who would work there in a day and keep in mind the security issues,” explains Manit.
The British School in Delhi
Besides the first Indian practice to win World Architecture Festival Award and the Singapore Institute of Architects Getz Award, Morphogenesis is also the recipient of 60 national and international awards. “Awards feel good and they are reassuring. But most importantly, they are a good critique of the work you do. If you don’t win, you can evaluate where you are going wrong. If you do, it’s an encouraging pat. Through our work we are trying to spread the awareness about the basic principles of green design. I wouldn’t say we discovered a solution to the problem. The solution already existed. We just researched and re-found it and incorporated it into our blueprints. These principles should have been our export to the world...” rues the duo, adding, “We diversify a lot, ensuring we deal with all climactic zones and scales. That is how our knowledge engine has developed. Where the climate is good, the project is a breeze. The excitement comes with the difficulties. Scale is irrelevant. We study the history of a place and build something that will fit in the place in the modern context without being jarring.”
The amicable architect de-stresses with thinking about design and reading non-fiction. On his bedside table now, you would find the William H Worger and Nancy Clark’s The Rise and Fall of Apartheid and Jo Roberts’ Contested Land, Contested Memory.
Sonali on the other hand finds intellectual stimulation in absorbing the history, art and architecture of places she visits. “I was floored by the City of Bath. The redevelopment strategy of Barcelona is commendable. In Berlin, while there are some old architectural masterpieces, the contemporary work has fitted in so beautifully amidst history. We are always observing and learning,” she rounds off before preparing to pore over a blueprint with Manit or brainstorm over a project that would perhaps bring in all the awards yet again without endangering the natural resources on the planet.
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