The bamboo, rope and wooden pegs of Mumbai architect Bijoy Jain’s MPavilion are in keeping with a global trend in handmade building, even if not everyone can afford it. By Andrew Mackenzie.

Bijoy Jain’s Mumbai-inspired MPavilion

With a population almost equal to Australia’s, Mumbai has a supercharged urban metabolism, constantly scrambling to convert energy into buildings, infrastructure and services. This desperate imperative to feed its own growth comes at a heavy price to the city, in the form of cheap sweatbox buildings, polluted air and sanitation that is forever teetering on the brink of collapse. Yet Mumbai is also a city rich in craft and human resourcefulness, where sprawling slums such as Dharavi are places of intense ingenuity and resilience.

This Mumbai – part cheap and dirty instant city, part handmade and celebrating of the human spirit – forms the ethos of this year’s MPavilion architect, Bijoy Jain. Over the past 20 years Jain’s practice, Studio Mumbai, has been built on the rejection of the former and an embrace of the latter. In an age of disposable pop-ups and urban churn, Jain’s approach to architecture is to do it once and do it well.

Jain’s pavilion marks the third in a four-year program of architectural commissions, with the first designed by Melbourne architect Sean Godsell and the second by London-based architect Amanda Levete. While all three share certain qualities, this year’s pavilion stands apart from its predecessors. For a start, it undoubtedly effects the greatest civic presence of all three, on its manicured Queen Victoria Gardens site, a stone’s throw from the Southbank arts precinct. While Godsell’s pavilion was of deliberate lightweight construction, channelling the outback vernacular of the Australian shed, and Levete’s coppice of thin black poles and translucent “petals” all but disappeared when viewed from St Kilda Road, Jain’s large bamboo and woven karvi carapace projects a sense of weight and mass.

These traditional materials provide a clue to another quality that distinguishes this year’s pavilion from the past two, reflecting as it does a radically different attitude to technology and materiality. The previous two required precision engineering, including climate-responsive hydraulics in one and high-performance carbon-fibre construction in the other. These two structures followed one particular trajectory of the curious architectural object that is “the pavilion”, where “innovative” tensile materials or “smart” computer-enabled fabrication beats the drum of a brilliant future… if only one day we could do such technical wizardry on a “real” building. Jain’s pavilion, by contrast, is resolutely lo-fi in its construction, comprising bamboo, timber, rope and karvi stems. Its structural integrity, using both wooden pegs and lashed rope, is rooted in traditional construction and age-old building forms. It is a pavilion that unambiguously defers to an elemental aesthetic, consistent with its timeless invitation to come and sit in the shade.

Though elemental and lo-fi, it is far from simple, composed as it is of seven kilometres of bamboo, 50 tonnes of stone, 26 kilometres of rope and 5000 wooden pins. Its 16-metre-square roof rests on a series of bamboo posts, with a low pitch that stretches to meet the ground at each corner, as if pegged by invisible flysheet ropes. There is a second square cut into the roof, off centre, that opens up a vista to the sky above: a kind of bamboo version of a James Turrell work. Directly under this cut in the roof sits a golden well, filled with water. Together these elements are designed to evoke a liminal connection between the sky and the earth. To one side, stands a large black tazia – a Hindu-Muslim symbolic structure – further alluding to the connection between heaven and earth.

Taken together, the pavilion’s materials, forms and symbolic register cohere in an architectural language that is thoroughly Indian. The integrity of this vision is curiously interrupted, however, by the pavilion’s floor, whose locally sourced bluestone paving is a jarring presence. No more than a few hundred metres away, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, a landscape of thoroughly Victorian features, possesses almost identical bluestone paving. Leaving this detail aside, however, the pavilion resonates a mood not so much of permanence but antecedence. Its appeal to the primordial spirit, its palpable sense of embodied labour, and its hunkered-down form, quite literally ground the space under its roof.

Promoted by the organisers as part of “an international movement in handmade architecture”, it is true that this year’s MPavilion is aligned to a wider trend. There’s the Chinese architect Wang Shu, whose practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, positions itself against the sharp suits and professional ambition of his architectural peers. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012. Meanwhile, the Chilean curator of the 2016 Venice Biennale, Alejandro Aravena, used that global platform to foster a vision of grassroots architecture, driven by community need and handmade material modesty. Architects from around the world – though notably few from Europe and North America – were marshalled to illustrate the argument, including Jain, whose Venice exhibition, Immediate Landscapes, was arguably a dry run for his MPavilion. It, too, used woven karvi panels, a bamboo structure and a tazia.

As with any declaration of an “international movement”, the story is only half true, and disguises other important differences and caveats. Jain does indeed represent a different picture of the globetrotting architect, working out of a rural studio-cum-workshop in the rural setting of Alibag, south of Mumbai. Here, a small community of skilled artisans works closely with architects to design and build each project pretty much by hand. A short film made of the architect by Daniele Marucci portrays an almost pre-Modern picture of design through the use of large-scale mock-ups, models, material studies, sketches and drawings. A carpenter chisels a mortice from some locally sourced hardwood while a stonemason taps basalt into shape with Zen-like concentration. There’s sanding and whittling, weaving and carving, and only rarely the sound of 240 volts. 

This, however, is not the sound of modest means. Jain designs exquisite homes, often second homes, for those wealthy enough to live away from the manic pace of Mumbai. Tara House is built atop an abandoned mine, with an excavated stone cave that has been transformed into a massive underground pool, filled with aquifer water. Illuminated by dozens of airholes cut through its concrete roof, its cool dark interiors, echoing with the sound of the nearby sea, would have made a Mogul emperor proud. Palmyra House is another rural retreat, this time overlooking the Arabian Sea and featuring a lap pool that glistens a shade of deep jade. With a structural frame built of local hardwood, the rest, including many hundreds of louvres, are hand carved from palmyra trees. Locally harvested it may be, but only as sustainable as a business model reliant on an almost limitless supply of artisanal labour.

Here in Melbourne, the argument for a sustainable MPavilion rests as much on its social sustainability as any message associated with bamboo and rope. Each year the pavilion hosts well over 400 talks, panel discussions, debates and launches. To do so, it engages with hundreds of collaborators and dozens of educational and cultural organisations. MPavilion’s founder, Naomi Milgrom, cites the Serpentine Pavilion in London as a key inspiration. Yet unlike its big sister – which quietly uses the pavilion as a massive fundraising machine for the Serpentine Gallery, groaning under the burden of nonstop private bookings, sponsor events and corporate private views – MPavilion’s program is driven by a breathtaking number of events, every one of which is open and free to the public.

Returning, then, to the MPavilion’s role as host to a season of cultural gatherings, this year’s pavilion acquits its brief with both generosity and a sense of collective endeavour. It may never be possible to build a temporary pavilion in Melbourne that fully adapts to its unpredictable weather, from dust storm to downpour, from sun-bleached to wind-chilled. But as an argument for the universal virtue of gathering and sharing, for taking time out in the Domain Parklands at the edge of the central business district, Bijoy Jain’s MPavilion makes a good case. Perhaps that should not be surprising, from an architect celebrated for his meditative rural retreats, far from Mumbai’s fevered urban pace.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2016 as "Bamboo ceiling".

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