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'Architecture is more than just constructing buildings'

June 16, 2008
Meet Cornell alumnus and budding young architect Rooshad Shroff. At the age of 26, he has already completed a stint with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (now Ramus Ella Architects) in New York and is currently working with star architect Zaha Hadid in the United Kingdom. He discusses his career, personal achievements, the need for creative talent in this line and why exposure abroad is of paramount importance with Sanaya Dalal.

Tell us a little bit about your background...when did you decide to pursue a career in architecture?

I come from a family of architects, starting with my great-grandfather down to my father -- and my mother's an interior designer, so exposure to the design field was pretty much inevitable. My childhood was a continuous initiation into the design world, be it on family holidays or going to my father's office, there wasn't much of an escape!

In fact, when it was time for my brother and me to zero in on a career, my father was hoping that at least one of his sons would not take up architecture, but in vain -- we're both architects now. I remember when we were abroad and Dad would drag us to see interesting museums and buildings -- at the time we called it 'Daddy's Day Out', but I guess it was that initial exposure that got me fascinated with the profession.

Why did you zero in on the US to pursue further studies? In what way was the architectural course you completed superior to those available in India and would you advise Indian youngsters to study architecture abroad?

As a matter of fact, I did start my architectural education in India. I did three years at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture in Mumbai, after which I transferred to Cornell University, New York. Cornell was always my top choice, as it is the number one university in the United States for its bachelor's programme.

The education I received in Mumbai was more technical and dry, without a lot of focus on the importance of design per say, as against the courses offered at Cornell -- they not only put a strong emphasis on design, but also encouraged students to take creative courses beyond the architectural field.

Architecture is more than just constructing buildings, after all -- it's an art, a passion for creativity. The beauty of enrolling in a big university is that it allows for students to choose interesting courses beyond their major. For example, if you're interested in economics or music or dance, you have the opportunity to take classes in those departments as well.

Can you provide a broad outline of the fee structure for architectural courses abroad?

Most of the universities in the US start from approximately $12,000 a year and all of them offer 5-year courses. This may seem like a lot, but the fact is that although they're a lot more expensive than Indian institutions, most of them offer scholarships, loans and the opportunity to take up on-campus jobs that allow you to work for a maximum of 20 hours per week while studying.

Throughout my stay at Cornell, I did a number of on-campus jobs which took care of my living expenses. My first attempt was as waiter at an alumni reunion dinner, but after having spilt lobster gravy over a guest on Day One itself, that job didn't last too long! I then became night watchman for a community building where I had to work from midnight to 3 am three nights a week. Later, I took on a graphic design job making posters for events at Cornell and was also a teaching assistant for the laser cutter -- all of these odd jobs helped pay for my education through the years.

What kind of internships did you take up? Do you feel that every student should do a placement before they graduate? How is it helpful?

The way American universities are structured, they have a rather long summer break which is a little over three months. This gives students an opportunity to either take up extra classes or then internships at various architecture offices.

The first two summers, I took extra classes that allowed me to graduate a year early, finishing a five year course in four years. My third summer, I decided to do an internship at Issey Miyake, the famous Japan-based fashion house. I had no prior experience or knowledge of fashion or graphic design, but I was interested in both these design fields as well -- the internship provided me the opportunity to see what it would be like working in another design field.

The work I did at Issey was primarily graphic-oriented, but the exposure taught me a lot. This internship actually got me more interested in fashion as well and completely changed the way I approached my graduating thesis, which was a complete success as a result -- I was invited to exhibit it at the Architecture Biennial Beijing in 2006, under the 'Emerging Talents/ Technologies' category.

Not many students in India use their summer holidays to work. While I was in my second year at KRVI in Mumbai, I did an internship with architect Cho Padamsee in Goa and I was the only one from my class who actually bothered to get professional experience. Personally, I feel that internships not only enrich the way you approach projects at school but also allow you to test out different working environments. The downside is that at most architecture offices, you work ridiculously long hours for no pay and the stipend that a few firms do hand out will barely cover your rent for a month.

Image: Rooshad Shroff, inset, and a sample from his design portfolio; the photograph seen above is a martini glass he designed for the Bombay Sapphire Martini Glass Design Competition 2008. Photographs courtesy: Rooshad Shroff

Also see: 'My work instills self-confidence in people'

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