Ramu Katakam

Architect Ramu Katakam tells us how the illustrious Louis Kahn influenced his career, why he likes Mexico, and much more…

What inspired you to pursue architecture, and give yourself over to it so passionately?
I was lucky to meet a few influential architects who gave me the direction to pursue this profession, but a chance meeting with Louis Kahn when I was a student changed my studies into a life long occupation. This tiny man was a bundle of energy and his genius for space and light made us believe that we could also design marvelous buildings. His ideas of creating presence in buildings was one of the factors I tried to understand. Kahn died a pauper, but architect Joseph Allen Stein tole me of a day he spent with the iconic architect in Rome in the 60s, when Kahn bought a book for $10,000 (admittedly, the cover was bound with a Dali painting). His desire to live for the day has also been an important factor in pursueing this field.

In a career spanning more than 4 decades, which is that one project closest to your heart? And why?
I was asked to design a school that would allow an open teaching ideology. The concept was to build a set of homes that could act as classrooms, libraries, labs, etc, and were set along a ‘street’. The street had places for theatre and workspaces for exhibitions, and doubled as a ‘mela’ area on celebration days. The roof-tops became spaces for lunch and rest. The whole school was to be covered by a large hangar-like construction. This project was to be built, but the client died suddenly and the idea was shelved. The design had a chance of breaking the system of having classrooms for teaching and the whole building become a space for learning.

People think that aesthetics and sustainability don’t go hand-in-hand… but your projects prove otherwise. They are enchanting, almost ethereal. How do you achieve this? What kind of dynamics do you maintain with clients through the planning and building periods?
The term sustainability could mean use of alternate energy where the equipment is usually ugly and needs to be hidden, or the use of sustainable materials like mud which is always good to look at when shaped well. However, I do try to keep the lines clean and achieve a style that does not age with time. Much of the work depends on light and shade and perhaps this is what prompts the sense of the unreal. Most of my clients have given me up, but those few who do remain are for life…

What is keeping you engaged these days?
I still do a bit of design and building, but I’m writing a book on Indian architecture a millennium ago and working with sculptors.

What do you feel ought to be imparted to the next generation of architects?
I am looking back at the way our ancestors worked and built, and hope they will also do so.

On a lighter note

The book you keep going back to and why?
The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, because life is just that.

A memorable compliment?
Recently, some friends went to see my latest design which I called Eternal Kaveri, and got lost looking for it. They described it to a villager and he said: you mean holemane?… which in Kannada  means house by the river. The locals love the house and we have changed the name to their term.

If you had a choice, which country/city would you live in and why?
Possibly Mexico, because the architecture and women are so beautiful… but this applies to India too!

The “must do” on a Sunday?
This is a trick question, but I would settle for a double espresso at Villa Blanche near my house in Goa.

The title of your autobiography would read…
Many Moons of Wandering….


Some more images…