Khushnu Panthaki Hoof and Sönke Hoof of Studio Sangath

Architecture as a Craft

Vladimir Belogolovsky
2. maio 2024
Khushnu Panthaki Hoof (left) and Sönke Hoof (All photographs courtesy of Sangath Studio)

Architects Khushnu Panthaki Hoof and Sönke Hoof met in 2003 in Ahmedabad, when both participated in the International Habitat Design Studio at Sangath, a design studio headed by one of India’s most charismatic and prominent architects, Balkrishna Doshi (1927-2023). At the time, both were students — Khushnu at CEPT University in Ahmedabad and Sönke at the University of Stuttgart. The training lasted for just a couple of weeks, but the two became romantically involved, and already one year later, following their respective graduations in 2004, they started working at Sangath, eventually becoming partners along with Doshi, who was Khushnu’s grandfather, as well as her uncle and aunt.

After Doshi’s retirement in 2015, his practice branched into three entities that continue to operate out of the original base: Khushnu’s uncle’s office; Studio Sangath, led by Khushnu and Sönke; and Vastushilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, also headed by Khushnu. The latter is focused on preserving Doshi’s archives, restoring his works, and producing publications. Although Khushnu and Sönke formally started their design studio in 2015, they have been working on their independent projects from the get-go, beginning in 2004 with their own house, which they built in stages and still treat as a laboratory of sorts.

Khushnu Panthaki Hoof (b. 1980) grew up in Ahmedabad in an atmosphere of culture, art, music, design, and architecture. Her mother is a textile designer, one aunt is an artist, and another one is an architect. Khushnu was very close to her grandfather, spending most weekends and summer holidays with her grandparents, often traveling together throughout India. “My grandfather,” she shared with me, “would always insist that people touch things, feel the light, and pay attention to the sounds of stone or metal.” She recalls him sharing conversations he had with Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, and Bucky Fuller. In 2014, Khushnu curated and designed a retrospective of Doshi's work at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi; it was then shown at the Vitra Design Museum and traveled to Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Genk, and Chicago. She also co-authored Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture for the People.

Sönke Hoof (b. in 1974) grew up outside Stuttgart. From a young age, he liked doing things with his hands, especially woodworking. In high school, he focused on art and math and was introduced to architecture, most memorably for him to the work of Mies van der Rohe. Before studying architecture at Stuttgart University, he did a three-year professional carpentry apprenticeship with a focus on fabricating furniture. Returning from India for his final university year, he devoted his thesis to researching the use of recycled material in slums; he called his project Masala Housing.

55+56 Sumeru, Ahmedabad, 2011
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): When you talk about your work, you use such words and phrases as dialogue, theatrical, permeability, meandering, questioning, extension, never finished, sense of belonging, layering of spaces, continuous flow, subtle gestures, unfolding spaces, and moments of surprise. How else would you describe your work, and what kind of architecture do you try to achieve?

Khushnu Panthaki Hoof (KPH): There is no one way of designing architecture for us. We look at architecture as a craft, and the more we do, the more we learn. All of the things you mentioned are valid. From my grandfather I learned that what’s important is how a person moves through space, where breezes come from, what we can see from various places, how much we want to see from a particular spot, and how much we don’t want to see. It is all about very basic things such as resolving a threshold between inside and outside, playing with light and shadow, and not losing mischief in the work. When we place a window, it is as much about how the light bounces off the floor as it is about the view. I love to play with how the light moves through spaces, seasons, and time.

We work a lot with extensions to existing houses, and we treat them as explorations, negotiating with existing homes, their neighbors, and their surroundings. When we work on extensions and renovations, people always want to hold onto something from their existing place. For us, it is important to identify precisely what it is that they want to hold on to. That challenge has always been exhilarating for us, and it started with our own house, where we played with creating tension between partial and visual connections, spaces, and volumes. We always look for dynamic connections to provoke attractive body and eye movements.

Sönke Hoof (SH): Architecture is about experience; it unfolds slowly as one discovers it, and we try to do it in unexpected ways. It is never about opening the door and seeing it all at once. We are after layering and inserting elements of surprise. Doshi used to say, “Surprise is one of the essential elements of creativity.” We try to provoke curiosity. Spaces need to be discovered. We also avoid specifying how spaces should be used. We leave that up to the users. We like being vague, and we like the idea that a building can never be finished.

Bharti Annexe, Ahmedabad, 2013
VB: Where do you find your inspiration?

KPH: Everywhere, including right here in Sangath, which stands for moving together in Gujarati. It is like a school for us, like a moral compass. It is an experiment. The building is very cost-effective, and it teaches you that you don’t need expensive materials to build something beautiful. When I move around here or even when I sit in silence, I constantly discover something new, and somehow, things that you look for find you. I also like to take photographs everywhere I go. I am the kind of person who will stop the car to take a picture. I also love crafts, textures, and design. My grandfather would say, “You should surround yourself with things that inspire you.” I love juxtaposing things you find. Sometimes, playing with these objects points to exciting ideas.

SH: Because I come from carpentry, I prefer making models to drawing. I start seeing possibilities when I play with objects and volumes in my hands.

VB: How do you typically start your designs?

KPH: I can’t think of design without drawing all the time; it is all about drawing to find.

SH: I jump to building models to find something interesting. And we constantly critique each other’s work. Often, we realize that we are not moving in the right direction and start from scratch.

Saar Pool & Spa, Ahmedabad, 2018
VB: In 1989, Doshi wrote a letter to three of his daughters, including your mother. It said, “Break away from all the rules — forget history books. Go back to your inner perceptions. See things as if you are noticing them for the first time. Only then you will be able to do something of your own.” Is it still something that guides your work?

KPH: Totally. He would say, “Don’t be too serious.” [Laughs] His advice was to give your best to something but have fun while doing it. Enjoying the process is essential. We tell our employees all the time, “The minute you feel you are not growing as a person and professional, it is time for you to go.” It is always challenging to be open to such change, but we all need to look for a chance to do something better. And we try not to stress about things that may go wrong. Even when something unexpected happens on-site, we look at it as an opportunity to do something different.

VB: What are some of your primary concerns about your practice?

KPH: One of our primary concerns is that we are moving faster and faster. But for us, architecture is a craft. We like to take time and experiment with possibilities. Architecture needs reflection. Research takes time.

SH: We never simply select elements from catalogues. We design everything inside our buildings. All our doors and windows are designed by us and none are the same. We enjoy developing unique details for every project.

Black Perch, Ahmedabad, 2019
VB: Your grandfather tried to question what might be Indian architecture. What do you think about the need for such an identity?

KPH: Not consciously. We focus on how to work with the sun, the wind, and local craftsmanship. If you pay attention to that, you can’t avoid being regional but not necessarily Indian per se. Regionalism is more about a feeling than an image. As long as architecture is not image-driven but accommodating a lifestyle, it is moving in the right direction.

SH: I am not consciously looking for an Indian identity in architecture. For me, it is important to address the climate and create spaces that can best accommodate the local lifestyle. If you do it right, it will be an Indian house. For us, the process of designing a house is like therapy sessions with our clients. We want to understand what is desired, and then we use our imagination and negotiate the skills of the crafters we work with to achieve that.

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