DesignAware is a multifaceted young and energetic design firm with its headquarters in Hyderabad. Started by a talented architect Takbir Fatima has been lauded with various awards and praises like Emerging Architect of the year, Grohe NDTV Design and Architecture Awards 2016 and Telangana Young Architect Award 2016. Takbir is passionate about design research, digital prototyping and computation. Carving her own path, she aims to work on socially relevant projects alongside mainstream architecture. Takbir also teaches architecture and design in India and the Middle East opening more opportunities for young future architects and designers. Abeer Fatima is the lead interior designer at DesignAware and specializes in accessible design and wearables. Surfaces Reporter gets candid with Takbir and Abeer to understand their working, vision and also future plans.
A lot of architecture and design we see today is either imitating the west or focused on commercial aspects, what led you to venture into uncharted territories of experimental research-based work?
Architecture School is an all-encompassing experience that forms a foundation and avenue for people to venture into other disciplines and areas of research. As I gained a deeper understanding of architecture, I discovered that it’s a vast field that’s not limited to engineering or art, it’s closer to the humanities: human psychology and behavior, politics, ecology, history and much more. I began asking questions about what I observed, and the answers came in the form of design. While studying at the Architectural Association in London, I began experimenting with digital prototyping, materials and methods of fabrication. Software that was intended for the automobile industry was being used in architecture, and techniques used in age-old craft were applied to create buildings. This is where my interest in computation and generative design was born.
At DesignAware, we’re answering questions through our work. There may be multiple answers to a single question, and our search is openended in discovering alternative ways of making and doing, and of thinking about things. There’s no denying that we are also a business, but we’re conscious about devoting some of our time and efforts to open-ended exploration which may or may not serve a purpose or result in spatial design; it may culminate in the design of a puzzle, a poetry or in a social campaign, or give rise to deeper research. Nothing is off the table. Intellectual pluralism and questioning the status quo has always been embedded in the Indian value system, and we wish to contribute to the discourse using our design skills.
“There’s no denying that we are also a business, but we’re conscious about devoting some of our time and efforts to open-ended exploration which may or may not serve a purpose or result in spatial design; it may culminate in the design of a puzzle, a poetry or in a social campaign, or give rise to deeper research.”
SR - How did you and Abeer get into into designing.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration.
DesignAware -Takbir: I’ve always had a predilection toward architecture before I knew it was a profession. I’ve been drawing plans and designing spaces and objects since childhood. I especially liked solving puzzles, and later began designing them. I like the reverse engineering involved in designing a puzzle: the designer starts with the solved version and works backwards to ‘unsolve’ it. I think architecture and spatial design can be described exactly in this way. The architect knows all the ins and outs of a structure, and the user only discovers it, as the space reveals itself bit by bit like a story. I came to know of architecture as a career option when I visited a house designed by Ar. Anwar Aziz on a trip to Hyderabad. From then on, there was no other profession I wanted to pursue. Ar. Anwar Aziz is my mentor today who has played a very important role in guiding me in my career.
Abeer: I could never picture myself in a 9-5 desk job, living on a routine schedule. I tend to get bored of doing the same thing every day. I need excitement and colour in my life, and my profession gives me that excitement. We do something different and crazy every day. Very few people get the opportunity of having a fun professional life, very few people find joy in their work, and I am one of the very few lucky ones who do. My biggest inspiration would be bad design, because it inspires me to try to do good design!
SR - Which is your favorite project till date and why?
DesignAware - Certainly, the Hilltop School project is most significant in terms of challenges and learning, and we continue to be involved in it. Another project that was unconventional was a micro-mosque, Sacred Space, which we carved out from within two parking spaces of a very old apartment building in Hyderabad. This was another pro bono project, and we had three constraints: time, budget and space. The mosque was designed and constructed over a period of 15 days from start to finish. The design is minimalistic, as we wanted to turn away from the overarching tendency towards excessive ornamentation and use of color (especially the traditional green) and search for an answer to the question, ‘What is a contemporary mosque?’ The design focuses on the mihrab, or directional wall of the mosque, and this is the only ornamented feature, and very subtly at that. Because we like to experiment with interdisciplinary design, we explored the use of tailoring techniques and fabric in the design of the mihrab. It is an undualting complex geometric surface, which was designed using digital tools. Fabric installed within a complex geometry of a calculated framework still has plenty of freedom to dip, stretch, twist, crumple, bend, distort, creating unintended, imprecise valleys and ridges. The fabric used is lycra, that is stretched and mounted over a metal frame. Tailoring techniques such as tucking, gathering, pleating add more levels of detail and accuracy. Different levels of topography showcase the capabilities of this mathematical surface.
SR - Is DesignAware a completely women-led, women-operated firm?
DesignAware - Unintentionally, yes. I started DesignAware with an aim to create awareness through livable, wearable, usable, accessible and responsible design. DesignAware was conceived when I was a student at the Design Research Lab at the AA London, in 2011. After moving to India, I set up the studio in Hyderabad. Since I had a network of architect friends around the world who are kindred spirits, they have joined DesignAware by setting up virtual studios in their respective locations. My sister Abeer joined me after completing her BDes in 2015. That we all happen to be women is just a happy coincidence! DesignAware is an equal-opportunity employer, and we wish to have multifaceted, inclusive studio culture, with professionals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, regardless of gender or background.
I like the reverse engineering involved in designing a puzzle: the designer starts with the solved version and works backwards to ‘unsolve’ it.
SR - Takbir - What are you currently working on design research /digital prototyping.
DesignAware - At the moment, I’m carrying forward the experiment in geometry that began with wearables into the design of a Business Center at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport. I hope this will serve as a statement installation in this very busy public space, welcoming visitors to Hyderabad.
SR - Any interesting upcoming projects that you are working on?
DesignAware - Another project we’re excited to be working on is that of a smart office. The design will be data-driven, and the building will function not only as a container but as an organism that learns from the users and provides feedback to them. It’s an ambitious venture, and we hope to do it justice.
“In the first year, we ran a social media campaign, #MakeProgressPossible, to raise awareness about the importance of reading in inner city schools in general and to collect used books, stationery and educational toys for this school in particular. We received quite a few donations in the form of books as well as monetary contributions. We realized social media is a powerful tool to create awareness and positive impact on a large scale. Thereafter, #MakeProgressPossible has been run every year
SR - Your message to fellow architects and designers & students who may be interested in your style of research based design.
DesignAware - The world is changing very quickly, and so is every profession. Architecture also needs to adapt to these changes. My advice to students as well as peers would be to shed preconceived notions about design or about what’s possible in India, and pursue your own passions other than through commissioned projects. These open-ended, self-initiated projects that are user-less and contextfree often help provide deeper insight into design and help inform live projects as well.
SR - DesignAware successfully raised funds and contributions to build the context-sensitive school on a tight budget through the social media campaign, #MakeProgressPossible. Tell us the story behind this project.
DesignAware - We are fortunate that one of our early projects was a charity school run by a zakat-funded, not-for-profit educational trust. For four years, the school had been functioning out of a large makeshift shed, and the trust finally decided to construct a campus. The site is located on a hilltop, in the unplanned settlement within the walls of the majestic Golconda fort in
A bright red central staircase winds its around a large atrium, all the way from the ground to the top floor, where the roofs on the school become a playground. The top level is left bare, enclosed only with permeable hollow block walls and trussed glass roof, and surrounded by different play areas. Older students can enter directly from this level, which has a more spacious scale. This bifurcation of entrances also allows division of the traffic entering the school, as well as segregation of students by age-group. A series of bridges lead from the wider section of the school to the narrowfar end overlooking the road, where staff rooms and labs are located. The entire project was conceived, designed and constructed over two years. The new school building went live by July 2016.
A charity school that had been run by a zakah-funded, not-for-profit educational trust for four years finally required a building. The site is located on a hill top, in the unplanned settlement within the walls of the majestic Golconda fort in Hyderabad. This school had been functioning out of a large shed with partitions to create classrooms. The project was riddled with multiple challenges. Since the school is run solely based on individual donations, the budget was extremely tight. Material choices had to be economical as well as durable. The ensemble team working on the project was mostly devoting time on a pro bono or non-profit basis. The site is highly contoured and covered with sheet rock and boulders (a topographic trait of the Deccan Plateau) buried under a blanket of garbage piled on over decades. Articulating the peculiar and difficult topography of the site and its surrounds posed a major challenge: due to proximity to heritage structures and dense urban context, most of which is residential, blasting the rock was not an option, and other methods were not affordable. There is also a height restriction in the Heritage Zone.
The site, apart from being a challenge, is also the beauty of the project. From its topmost level, the entire city is visible: the Golconda, the QutbShahi Tombs, the skyscrapers of Lanco Hills and the unchecked low-rise, high-density houses beneath. The school is situated in such a way that it engulfs the rocks within it.
Opportunities for ventilation were created in the form of light wells that run through the height of the structure. A series of skylights and voids bring in light and air, and expand the space vertically. The school respects the scale of the adjoining courtyard houses by creating a small entrance into the kindergarten. The building is left unfinished in its exterior, with exposed concrete walls, that deliberately negate color.
The Fractals Workshop is a generative design workshop that combines logic, geometry, natural systems and structure. This workshop is an adaptation of the methods learned at the Design Research Lab at the AA School of Architecture in London. It is a hands-on workshop, building upon the design research carried out in previous iterations. Past participants of the workshop have been school students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from private and international schools, undergraduate and post-graduate students of Interior Design and Architecture, and professionals from all backgrounds, with an interest in geometry, craft, art and design. Since 2011, the Fractals Workshop has been to Hyderabad, Chennai, Vellore, Roorkee, Surat, Sharjah, Dubai and Bahrain.
Participants work in teams to aggregate ubiquitous, recyclable material based on algorithms they develop themselves. The focus is on connections and rules of growth at the single-unit level and the greater system or aggregation is resultant of applying these rules. The result is a variety of prototypical iterations from one single unit. Participants understand the concept of evolution in that one small change or rule at the basic unitary level impacts the resultant system on a global level. The rules become a manual to be followed to create larger aggregations, and can be used to replicate the system again. The method is inspired from the organic growth of natural systems, parametric architecture, structural systems, mathematics and geometry, and algorithms. The workshop encourages teamwork, design thinking, 3D thinking and logic.
Wearables Furniture & Lighting
“When we work on any kind of accessory, wearables, lighting or even furniture, we design it as a series. Each piece of our wearables has an inspiration and a detailed case study behind the scenes. According to me, the design process and material plays a major role in making our wearables so different from ongoing trends. One of the series of our wearables is made in fiberglass. Fiberglass is a material we love to use when we design accessories, because of its extraordinary light-transfer quality. We inlay our designs with LED lights and the edges or any engravings of the product light up: it’s breathtaking!” Says Abeer Fatima
A startup incubator at the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, was changing its model from an open-plan workspace to a space with cubicles, as the participating startups graduated from solopreneurs and initial-stage startups to small and medium businesses.
The existing floor plate had to be divided into offices without creating a repetitive cookie-cutter cubicle farm. The space was sectioned using color and height. The common spaces were kept neutral and the offices were color-coded. Color is used sparingly, and limited to signage and on horizontal surfaces like the floors and worktops. The existing false ceiling was stripped away to reveal a network of air ducts. The central air duct remains white, with colored ducts branching out from it, much like white light splitting into a spectrum of colors. Each band of color is assigned to one office space.
The ample clear height allowed some offices to be lifted, creating more room for storage, privacy between adjacent offices, as well as visual variation from the common corridor. The offices alternate between higher and lower levels.
As the companies grow, some offices may be merged in the future, with level variation to demarcate different functions and activities within the office. Break-out zones, amenities, conference rooms and server rooms are shared among all the startups in the incubator.