Amita Kulkarni: ‘Being a good architect doesn’t necessarily mean seeing buildings all the time or working 9 to 5’

Split between London and India, Amita Kulkarni and her partner Vikrant’s architecture practice SAV offers the pair a wealth of opportunity to travel. So when one of their most recent projects, in the Indian tropical paradise of Goa, offered the opportunity for more, it was a chance too good to refuse. They packed up their home in east London and headed for a simpler way of life that would reveal new ideas, improve their practice, and bring about a fresh perspective on design for the future.

This interview was originally featured in our publication City Quitters, which portrays creative pioneers pursuing alternative ways of living and working away from big cities. Get a copy here.

Parra, Goa, India – What first attracted you to Goa?

We had been working on a project here for a year while we were still based in London when we thought, ‘why not use this opportunity to move there until the project is finished?’ We were interested to see what it would be like to live somewhere rural and have a different kind of lifestyle. In London you need to be constantly on your toes. You need to make money to survive, and having a small child made it quite hard to keep up with the pace. We thought moving to a place like Goa would give us more time to reflect and improve our method of working.

How have you settled in?

It took some time to get used to living here. It was a massive decision not to go back to Mumbai – where we’re both originally from – and move to a rural place like Goa instead. In the beginning we really struggled with the fact that there are so few people around. We used to live in Shoreditch in east London and would always hear people until late at night. Here you don’t hear anything after seven o’clock, which was quite spooky for us initially. Also the Indian countryside is not that developed. Sometimes there is no water or electricity, or no gas for cooking.

Another issue was getting our team, who were based at our Mumbai office, to move to Goa with us. In India people don’t move to the countryside. We tried to explain how experiencing life outside the city would give them a fresher perspective, and that being a good architect doesn’t necessarily mean seeing buildings all the time or working nine to five. Three people moved with us, which was amazing, but we also had to find new people to work with us – and make sure they understood why we chose Goa.

How did your team react?

Like us, they went through ups and downs. They are much younger than us, and often young graduates just want to party all the time. But I think after the first three months they started to realise that going for a walk in the fields on a foggy morning does something to you as a creative individual. It brings out things that would never happen in Mumbai because you are always distracted. I think when they realised this, they loved it.

Has it changed your way of working?

We used to be inspired by nature in terms of efficiency and design. Now we’re thinking in terms of natural systems and eco-environments where everything balances each other out. Balance is something that is really needed in larger cities today.

I still believe that cities are a necessity in our world, but I do think we need to start thinking about them in a very different way

Because we’re outside of the urban environment we constantly think about what we can take to cities that will bring the calm, peace, and satisfaction we have here. Architecture should be able to change and adapt, just like nature. Can we introduce systems that grow and adapt? It doesn’t have to be a quick transformation; it could be two months, two years, or 20 years.

So has living here made you think about cities in a new way?

I still believe that cities are a necessity in our world, but I do think we need to start thinking about them in a very different way. They are hectic, congested and polluted places, but there are ways to counter these problems. The first step would be to allow for greater flexibility. For example, giving people the flexibility to work from home so they don’t have to be on the underground every day.

Having more time for reflection seems to be a key issue for you.

Our cities have become economic powerhouses, but they’re robbing people of time. When you go to the countryside you really start to understand that. Both our planet and people would benefit if we can shift the emphasis from money to time. Staying late is very normal in architecture offices. But now we are forcing ourselves to be efficient and leave the office on time, which has been quite a turnaround for us.

Going for a walk in the fields on a foggy morning does something to you as a creative individual

How does Goa compare to London?

India is quite chaotic, but Goa is a unique pocket that has been a Portuguese colony for a long time. Goans love the idea of ‘sossegado’, which is a Portuguese concept to take life slowly. Being Londoners we came with this mindset of wanting things immediately. In Goa – no way. You have to give things time. A plumber is going to come when he comes. You just have to accept it. There is no point being enraged.

Our environment couldn’t be more different. Goa is close to the beach, and has beautiful coconut palms everywhere. It also has amazing produce, with lots of vegetables and fruits grown locally.

Our office is an amazing space. It’s a very small setup, in an old open-plan Portuguese house. We go to work after we drop our son at nursery, but time can be flexible – a lot of the time we work from home as well. Sometimes we have a very long lunch break, or we go to the beach for lunch.

Do you think the move has affected your health at all?

Yes, I’m a much healthier person now than I used to be in London. I had a young child and was trying to run a business and teach. By the time I left I was so tired; now I feel totally regenerated as a person, mentally and physically.

Both our planet and people would benefit if we can shift the emphasis from money to time

Vikrant and I decided that if we do come back to London we want to dedicate a month every year to set ourselves up in a different part of the world and work from there. That will give us a fresh perspective again. Architecture projects usually take ages to finish, and it’s easy to lose the passion you initially had. You just want to finish it. But I think having this kind of distance, or being in a different environment, would enable us to get back into a project and be excited about it again.

Has your consumption changed at all?

I was never that consumption driven. We had a very minimal lifestyle in that sense. The only things we had to move from London were books and Vikrant’s music equipment (Vikrant is a music producer and DJ in his spare time). I don’t see the point in consuming too much. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get good things, but you should see real value in them and how they make a difference to your everyday life. Things don’t give you time. I want to let that go, all the objects that fill my time.

You still come back to London regularly. How do you experience the city?

London has amazing pockets of landscape – Greenwich, for example, or the Serpentine Pavilion. It’s so beautiful to see that in the centre of such a big city. Before we moved to Goa I would always rush, but now I really try to see the city and observe it carefully. Why is this here and what happens when I see this landscape, how does it make me feel? Now I understand the importance of nature in everyday life.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to do more self-initiated projects, which is what was missing for us in London. Vikrant and I are tired of creating a vision for somebody else. Living here in Goa helped us shape our vision of how cities need to be designed to adapt, change and grow. So why not develop a project for ourselves and find investors for that? That’s our next step.

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