A Visit with StudioPOD

India is blessed to have many architects doing wonderful work, but we hear less from the country in the field of urban design. I was able to have a very inspiring catch-up with Sarfaraz Momin and Mahesh Waghdhare of StudioPOD in their Mumbai studio. We talked about the firm’s history and trajectory and the fascinating dynamics at play in urban design in India.

StudioPOD’s three founders all studied at the Masters level in the US and had promising careers at leading American urban design firms before making the seemingly fairly irrational decision to move back to India to set up an urban design practice from scratch in the unforgiving environment of Mumbai. Ten years on they have succeeded in building a flourishing practice that is working to push the bounds of the profession forward.

The firm’s ethos and differentiator is in its name: “POD” stands for “people-oriented design”. That means that core to the concept of the firm is to design genuine places, i.e. to have a real impact on the people using a space, even if that means being selective about opportunities and pushing beyond the bounds of the client’s initial idea of the need.

At the outset, in an at the time relatively less mature market for urban planning and design services, StudioPOD was confronted with the question of the value proposition to the client. In other words, how to get beyond the idea that clients were buying a drawing – which they may or may not end up fundamentally transgressing during the course of the project.

Dal Lake Vision, Srinagar

They worked hard to show the value that good urban planning and design brings, both for the people and for the owners. The start was difficult, but gradually the firm grew and now has a strong, sizeable team and a growing roster of recurrent clients. While maintaining a strict focus on the urban, they have diversified their work between large scale planning, master planning, urban design, street design, mobility, placemaking, and, selectively, landscape design 

StudioPOD started on public projects, which continue to be a large part of their work. But over the last decade they found that private clients significantly gained in the understanding of the value a company with StudioPOD’s skillset can bring, and a large share of the firm’s work is now with the private sector.

Street design project in Mumbai

One example of this value creation is a project that began around a relatively small concern a building owner had regarding edge conditions of their site. When StudioPOD demonstrated the value to the private owner of activating adjacent public spaces, it became clear that there was the basis for a PPP on the government-owned land.

This became One Green Mile in Lower Parel, one of StudioPOD’s most successful complete street projects. A part of One Green Mile master plan was to redevelop the under flyover space called Parel Baug. With contributions from several collaborators like MVRDV, lighting concepts, and St+Art, the once derelict under flyover space has now been revitalised to become a bustling amenity for the entire neighbourhood.

One Green Mile, Mumbai

What makes this project remarkable is how it has led to very inclusive uses, particularly for children and young people who clearly lack places suited to them in the urban environment of central Mumbai. The outdoor study space has been particularly successful.

Another notable project was for a master plan for a private development in which StudioPOD was able to facilitate a different approach to two subjects that come up again and again in such developments. 

The first related to a putrid, highly polluted stream, as we see all too often, that ran along the edge of the site. The developer’s initial reaction was to conceive the project with its back to the stream, practically walling it off so as not to blight the development with its visual and olfactive presence. StudioPOD made the case for changing the paradigm, making the stream the “hero of the project”. The steam now goes through a biofilter mechanism upon entry on the site so that it can be used as a landscape feature, with cleaner water restituted downstream. As a result the whole plan is turned around and a key existing hydrological feature, instead of being ignored, structures the site.

Integrated township plan, Pune

The second subject related to public urban space. The level of security of a private enclave remains an expectation of occupants. But owners and occupants are also aware that spaces open to the general public, with retail, brings vitality and generates value for occupants and for the asset owners. This project therefore includes a subtle dosage of spaces with different access rights, with carefully managed access control and security, illustrating StudioPOD’s belief that it is possible – and increasingly inevitable – to mix spaces with different access rights with more sophistication. 

Other projects show StudioPOD’s incorporation of the themes that are also core to the work of the best North American and European firms today, such as the broader geographic structuring elements for urban development and landscape management, promotion of biodiversity, hydrological preservation, soil management and protection, community involvement, inclusive design processes, etc. Although some clients still like international names, they feel that from a content perspective there is not much to justify that. StudioPOD is itself exporting its know-how outside India and plans to continue to ramp up internationally.

Biodiversity study for Pune

Sarfaraz and Mahesh are not at all reluctant to say that their ambition is to contribute to elevating the quality of the urban design being produced in India as a whole. And it is indeed very fertile ground. There is no shortage of need for urban planning and design services to help India meet its societal challenges at this extraordinary phase of its history. The country has no lack of talented people trained in the top global institutions with impressive professional backgrounds. And the Indian environment is, in StudioPOD’s view, particularly good at fostering innovation – often out of simple necessity. As a result, they believe that Indian firms can and will emerge as globally recognized leaders in the field of urban planning and design.