Architecture BRIO
Rotterdam, NL; Mumbai, IN

Architecture BRIO, founded by Robert Verrijt and Shefali Balwani in 2006, has offices located in Rotterdam and Mumbai; two major harbour cities, which are on opposite sides of the cultural, climatic, and economic spectrum. In this extremely disparate condition, the studio is immersed in creating contextually appropriate sustainable design solutions. They aim to achieve a fine balance between architecture as an act of disappearance and the creation of distinctive, responsive, and experiential environments through our work.

Coming together in Mumbai

The seed of Architecture BRIO was planted in Sri Lanka, where Shefali and I worked together in the early years of our lives as architects, under the legacy of the late architect Geoffrey Bawa. His projects often nestled themselves into the most breathtaking, but sensitive, natural settings. Our work experience there enabled us to explore the duality between architecture and its environment within the context of a drastically changing world. Winning the Europan competition in 2006 gave us the confidence to start our own practice. We then relocated to Mumbai, an inspiring and extremely “in your face” kind of metropolis. Perhaps also a somewhat unlikely birthplace that prefers architecture to serve more as a background to life, rather than taking centre stage.

Innovating in domestic space

The initial years of our studio actually collided with the 2008 crisis. Starting out in a crisis makes you unaware of the impact it has on an office. You are still nimble and don’t have to downscale, but you’re also not gaining immediate traction, so we took it as a blessing in disguise. The slow start allowed us to take our time to patiently build up the practice with a valued clientele and formulate a critical engagement with the profession. It helped us understand our own preferences, thereby enabling us to collate a variety of projects in our portfolio. Our work area now encompasses a wide range of cultures, climates, and landscapes throughout the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia, and now in Europe as well. Our portfolio consists primarily of residential design for private houses and weekend homes, where the architectural challenge and opportunity for innovation are plentiful.

Tackling contested public space

The Indian landscape of patronage consists primarily of private commissions as the institutional framework for public projects is weak to say the least. This has led us to explore other modes of practice collaborating with other organisations, architects, and experts. Applying our expertise in the private sector in designing for the human experience, we developed a variety of unsolicited projects such as BillionBricks Homes and public space design. The former with a Singapore based NGO and the latter collaboration with a group of amazingly talented architects from our neighbourhood called, in Mumbai, the Bandra Collective. We have also established a dedicated studio called Bb-Studio in collaboration with BillionBricks, an NGO dedicated to eradicating homelessness. In addition, the studio consults with communities, non-governmental organisations, and governments to provide scalable, high-quality building and infrastructure solutions. Our firm is also involved in the research and design of public space in Mumbai as a part of the Bandra Collective. The group of architects, who all live or work in Bandra, share design resources and ideas that could improve life in their community.

Working towards scaling up

Scale and grey hair matters in attracting large commissions. In the Netherlands for instance, a culture existed where it was relatively easy for a talented young architect with his/her own point of view to make headway. The European tendering process has changed this. In India, a long-established network and experience is valued higher than great ideas. When we started in Mumbai we decided to play to our strengths in our geographic context while actively pursuing a diverse portfolio. As we are very excited about being able to jump scales in our projects, we have ranged from the extremely small such as an architectural dollhouse, to thinking about complex issues such as homelessness. By expanding our residential work in size and quantity we now have a team of over 30 architects, and this has also allowed us access to much larger scale commissions in the last few years.

Staying grounded

There is an illusionary power that comes from getting things off the ground, building for the future, the rising adrenaline in your blood that managing large construction sites gives you. What’s more, hovering with your drone over vast landscapes and cities, absolutely tricks you into believing you’re Superman/woman! But eventually it is the everyday routine of doing groceries, dropping off and picking up your daughter from school, while simultaneously getting lost in endless zoom meetings with your teams 7000 kilometres away, pulls you back to safe ground.

Learning from each other

Due to the lack of space, in Mumbai our office has always been way too small to accommodate our team. The advantage is that it has kept our architects quite involved with each other and the projects across the firm. Now that we have started operating in Rotterdam, where the space is plenty and most of our internal meetings are digital, our office has started compartmentalising. It doesn’t help that we have barely been able to open up our office in Mumbai given that every few months a new lockdown is imposed. This is something we want to start figuring out how to improve. While focus and productivity has increased within the last two years, we want to start re-engaging across projects. There is so much to learn from each other, ideating on new commissions and reflecting on finished ones. It is important that the teams feel they are part of the legacy of Architecture BRIO, as opposed to only their individual projects.

Photography Sebastian Zachariah (5, 7), Edmund Sumner (4), Ariel Huber (3)
Architecture BRIO's profile is part of New Generations' new section 'Beyond Europe'


LANZA Atelier Davidson Rafailidis Studio GROSS sauermartins Oficina Bravo Emerging European Practices (2022) The New Raw NOTAN OFFICE

a project powered by Itinerant Office

subscribe to our newsletter

follow us