Please tell us about yourself
Nisha is an architect with a Master’s degree in Humanities and Art Journalism from CEPT, Ahmedabad and Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) from Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture. She currently spearheads the design studio Design [Variable] and a research initiative, The People Place Project. Nisha uses writing as a tool for documentation and mapping along with other media like photography, sketching, oral narrations, etc. A cultural practitioner, her work involves curation and publishing, and she also conducts writing courses at various architecture colleges.
Nisha you have a creative mind as you are into desgining homes but when did you realise that literary bug had bitten you and you wanted to write/curate a book?
A lot of times I feel writing is like designing, there is concept or idea needed, both need to be structured and both need to be creatively approached. I began writing as a student, because often writing helped me engage with my topics intimately, than just thinking or making presentations. Later, after my bachelors in architecture, I decided to take up a post graduation in humanities and writing. As a student I worked part time with Times Of India, Ahmedabad where I covered the culture beat. By the end of it, I was writing about architecture and clearly knew that I had developed two loves – writing and designing. And I would have a practice where I could also generate meaningful writing/content in architecture.
This is a pretty interesting combination – writing and designing but why did you plan to write a book on the lives of people in Mumbai?
The idea began that often as practitioners of built environment, we are so disconnected with our contexts, that it implies on the kind of buildings we see around us. Being sensitised to your contexts is important. Probably the first step is to begin with studying our city. And what would have been a better way to know our city than through the lens or the stories of people who create through their lives and living, the city we all know and inhabit.
Hmm. Ok but these are real-life stories. Why did you choose to write it? Do you prefer non-fiction?
The amazing people we have met and their beautiful stories have greatly sensitized us to our city. It has moved us, inspired us and also made us believe in the individual strength of humanity often. Being an open ended text, we hope our readers will have their own observations to gather. These stories will appeal to both fiction and non-fiction readers alike. After all, not every story has a fairytale ending.
What does it take to write architecture?
While buildings cannot walk, the next best means to experience, appreciate or criticise it after imagery, is by writing/reading about it.
In a field as visual and tactile as design, how does writing play a role?
Architectural writing furthers the design practice by allowing for a space of discussion and critique. It can also operate as a tool of dissemination of architectural knowledge, concepts and debates pertaining to the built-environment.
How is architectural writing different from journalistic or story writing?
Architectural writing is a broad category. All that is written about design, architecture or built-environment can be under this umbrella- A book, research paper, web content, portfolios, curatorial text and so on can become architectural writing.
Overtime, I have become lesser interested in the distinctions and more excited about the scope and outreach of architecture writing. One such key space is architecture journalism, which encompasses reportage, features, reviews, critique etc. in peer review journals to mass media. It furthers the discourse around practice – with discussion around architecture projects, their progress, architectural events and so on. The other space is architectural research and its publications.
How did your design education help in this field?
Architectural education enabled me to look at and understand various architectural practices. My Masters’ education in humanities and journalism helped me articulate my writing practice.
However, I didn’t take up the program to pursue writing but to study humanities. The course was also about communications and I ended up writing a lot. Thereafter, I had a weekly column in the Sunday Editorial section of the Times of India (TOI) about architecture in Ahmedabad. There I discovered the potential of architectural writing for mass-media.
Is it important to pursue Master’s in any kind of architecture or media studies for architectural writing?
Probably, Master’s isn’t important. Expose yourself to various architectural thinking, to the inter-disciplinary. Architectural writing is not about structuring good sentences but about taking a stand, furthering a thought, reviewing and critiquing. Intellectual stimulation is important. Read books, observe and take part in debates; form a club in the peer community and discuss things.
It will enable you to create rich and layered writing; be it content for websites or a critique. A writer needs to question, philosophise, tap into current debates; and this happens only with exposure and education. In India, we have to do it ourselves.
How do you write about a building that doesn’t appeal to you or incline with your personal design belief?
From a journalistic space, the writing is from a space of personal detachment and is more investigative. The more I don’t understand something or something doesn’t connect with me, the more I enquire about it. I try and understand why it manifested the way it did. That opens me up because I discover an interesting design process, thought, etc. Maybe I like the fact I don’t like certain buildings more than jumping into liking buildings.
Architectural writing is not about structuring good sentences but about taking a stand, furthering a thought, reviewing and critiquing.
It is believed that practising design has more “scope” than writing about design – in terms of career, money, stability. In your experience, how true is that?
True. The fee for building is more than what I make through writing unless I am hired as a journalist in a well-paying company. Running The People Place Project, I feel there is scope for writing that is unexplored or untapped. The space is not formalised yet but eventually it will. The digital explosion will enable it.
What would your advice be to someone starting out in design writing?
Educate yourself first because there’s much jargon out there. It’s a responsible space as you’ll mediate architectural practices and convey it to another generation or a wider mass. Since formal education in the field of architectural writing is lacking in India, the onus of self-education falls on you. Constantly read, be updated with arguments and debates, meet people.