Clever and Creative - Swanzal Kak Kapoor talks with You & I

A design principal and co-founder of Saka Studio, Gurgaon, Swanzal Kak Kapoor believes in the architecture of resonance and the importance of social responsibility. For her, her work is a celebration of culture, craft, emotion, ecological consciousness, and collaborative synergy. With vast experience working in diverse contexts and a keen interest in civic action, she has also co-founded Iamgurgaon, a platform which enables change through community participation. She talks with us about her work and how some of her favourite projects centre on the very concept of responsible living.

What led your passion for design?
I believe that each of us is born with an innate nature, and that the environment we grow up in at home helps us bring forth this potential. I grew up surrounded by poetry, art, music, and literature, in a family where imagination was greatly valued. My twin sister, Himaal and I spent hours making things with our hands. I think this creative childhood planted the seeds for my fascination with design.

What inspires you?
I have always had an almost mystic relationship with the natural world, and it will always be my primary source of inspiration. The beauty of wild untouched landscapes, colours, forms and the incredible solutions found in nature are an immense learning ground. Also, the larger idea of a natural consciousness as a giving, sharing, and collaborative way of being has always guided my endeavours.

Is there anything that you feel makes you stand out among other designers?
I think each of us brings a unique energy and sensibility to our work. My strength lies in my empathy, curiosity, eye for detail and ability to very finely tailor spaces to people’s needs and aspirations – sometimes beyond what they are willing to articulate. I have always believed that work is an offering to the divine, and I think the care and love I invest in my work creates spaces that resonate with a warmth that’s palpable.

What do you find most frustrating about your work as a designer? And most rewarding?
I am fortunate that I have a lot of patience and resilience in dealing with challenges. A constant issue is setting standards of professionalism in a rather disorganised industry. Also, the nature of small practices is that we become a training ground for professionals. Each of these requires a tremendous amount of energy, which can occasionally wear you down. The most rewarding aspect of architecture and interior design is the joy one sees on clients’ faces upon completing of a project. And the fact that no two days (or projects!) are the same; there’s constant change and learning.

Is design an art or a science?
I think one of the central problems in design is trying to fit it into categories or boxes. It’s simply making the ordinary extraordinary. It involves both an intuitive, sensitive artist’s eye and a deductive, logical mind. So it’s about choosing which approach to value more, based on the nature of the project and context.

How would you describe your working style?
It’s highly energised, collaborative, and intuitive. As a practice, we believe in a culture of innovation, passion and playfulness to create spaces imbued with meaning and a unique spirit of the place or ‘genus locii’. I learn constantly and would like to believe that I am nimble and continuously evolving personally and as a design practitioner.I also believe that my architectural practice goes beyond a commercial transaction; it involves a deep connection and collaborative space based on trust and mutual sensitivity. This approach disarms clients and allows them to express themselves freely, which results in spaces that are beautifully-aligned with their true nature.

What have been some of your favourite projects?
It’s very difficult to select a few, because each project is like a child that is nurtured and brought to life.

If I had to choose, the Aravali Biodiversity Park, a project as part of my voluntary work with Iamgurgaon (which I co-founded 10 years ago) is very special. This is not only because it represents a citizen-led initiative that has revived a forest on 385 acres of land, but the incredible journey it has been, watching nature restore itself with native planting. A second project that is very close to my heart is the Tree House, because of the complete creative freedom we were given and the stunning patterned roof that creates a dialogue between the internal spaces and the sun, sky, and earth.

If you had to pick one project that you wish you had made, which would it be?
I am deeply inspired by Hassan Fathy’s and Rick Joy’s work in rammed earth. So I would love to have experienced and built this with them.

If you had no limits on money and resources, what would you create?
I would love to design a ‘positive-recharge’ community that is ecological in every way. A way of life where separations between work, life, and play are dissolved, and we move to a culture of working with our hands and all our senses. Most significantly, a community that’s off the grid and fully sustainable.

What’s your favourite vacation spot?
Bali, for its incredible energy.

How do you relax after a hectic day?
I wear many hats and also sing; music is an integral part of my life. I also practice Nichiren Buddhism, so chanting and reading are the nightly rituals that balance and heal.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       – as told to Sumana