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LISAA Paris Interior Architecture & Design

International students at LISAA Archi & Design Paris look back on their trip to India

In April, LISAA Archi's international students (in Paris) had the chance to travel to India, to the Kochi site in Kerala. We went to meet Hélène Thébault, Head of Teaching.

Can you tell us a little about your role as head of the international curriculum at LISAA Interior Architecture & Design?

I joined the teaching team at LISAA Paris - Architecture d'Intérieur & Design a year ago, and I'm in charge of the international curriculum. The school offers a 5-year curriculum leading to the title of interior architect - designer, and this curriculum is available in both French and English, in its entirety. This enables us to welcome English-speaking students of various nationalities from the 1st year, which is quite rare in France, a fortiori in the applied arts.

Where does your passion for India come from?

I don't know if I have a passion for India, but I'm certainly intimately attached to it! I lived there for 8 years; I did part of my design studies there, then worked as a freelancer on architecture, interior architecture and graphic design projects in a context of artistic creation around self-publishing and photography. I also taught in various Indian design schools, and was in charge of teaching for several years as part of an academic cooperation between India and France.

I've lived in several of India's major cities, including New Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad and Bangalore, but I've also spent a lot of time in the Ladakh region, a high-altitude desert in the far north of the country, in the Indian part of the Himalayan range.

What was the main objective of this trip for students in the international curriculum?

The main pedagogical objective was to invite students to embrace a deliberately "ignorant" posture when faced with an unfamiliar environment, to better appreciate the value of first impressions and observations, and the importance of formulating the right questions, especially the simplest ones, to avoid presupposing anything and thus enable an empathetic, critical study of environments, situations, objects, etc. Indeed, deconstructing presuppositions and biases is a key skill for the designer.

Kochi (Kerala, India) was identified as the site for this study tour for its long and rich history as a place of economic and cultural exchange. Kochi was an important trading port on the spice route, and trade relations with its port date back to Ancient Egypt.

Kochi's famous "Chinese fishing nets", still used daily for fishing, bear witness to the long-standing relationship between India and China. It's interesting to note that the Hindi word for sugar is cheenee, meaning "Chinese". The same applies to rice cultivation in this part of India, whose staple diet was previously based on root vegetables.

©Credits photos : Erik Lundgren

And, of course, it was spices, and in particular Kerala pepper, nicknamed "black gold" when it was worth its weight in gold, which then helped to motivate the great maritime expeditions from Europe to India, first by the Portuguese, then by the Compagnies des Indes Françaises and the Dutch, leading to the colonization of India by the British Empire.

The central theme of the trip was the study of food: eating habits, recipes, ingredients, agriculture, rituals and so on. The in-depth study of a meal thus provided macro-level insights into history, geopolitics, climate studies, social and economic studies, belief systems, culture, art, health, and so on.

Why do you think an intercultural approach is essential for future design and architecture professionals?

We live in a largely globalized world, and by visiting and studying Kochi, we understand just how long the process of globalization has been going on, based on multiple cultural, economic and political exchanges that continue to shape the way the world is inhabited. For example, when we think of Indian cuisine, we think in particular of chillies, which have their place not only in kitchens but also in certain religious rituals. Yet chillis are not native to India but to Central America, and arrived in Southeast Asia with the European settlers in the 15th century.

In this sense, I'm more interested in transculturality - one of the arts of the Contact Zone (Mary Louise Pratt, 1991) - than in interculturality. Exchanges are multiple, interdependent, multidirectional and dynamic.

For the designer, the transcultural approach is thus a posture of openness, curiosity and exchange, nurturing creativity and empathy, both essential to the design of desirable futures. It's also a question of responsibility: we can't ignore the relationships of domination that continue to shape this globalized world, and transcultural design is thus attentive to the specificities of a given context (practices, resources, issues, etc.), deconstructing the presupposition that the dominant model is necessarily the model to follow. This approach not only concerns international contexts, but also sheds light on center-periphery, national-regional, tradition-modernity, built-nature, etc. relationships.

Can you tell us about the collaboration between the students and the local communities during the trip? What lessons did they learn?

We were lucky enough to be guided by The Kochi Heritage Project on our visit to Kochi, with an initial guided tour of its history, from the ancient, sea-sunken port of Muziris to the Kochi of today, world capital of contemporary art with its biennale, aptly named the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The collective drew our attention to the various markers of Chinese, Arab, Greco-Roman and then Euro-Popean influences that tint the buildings, cuisine and language of Kochi and, by extension, Kerala.

A second visit with the collective to the backwaters of Kadamakudy enabled us to learn more about Kerala's food systems and practices, economy and climate, through encounters with various actors and inhabitants of these multiple backwater islands.

We also met an Orthodox Christian priest and his community during our visit to St George's Church, built by Kerala architect Vinu Daniel (Wallmakers), whom we also had the pleasure of meeting one afternoon for a fascinating group discussion on how he and his team work with natural materials, illustrated by parallels between the creative process in architecture and in music.

Varied and inspiring encounters for us all!

Do you have any anecdotes or memorable experiences from the students?

The students also interacted with a variety of people on their own during the course of their study. The group working on fishing and seafood had the chance to meet some particularly patient fishermen, who were keen to give an experiential demonstration of how traditional Chinese fishing nets work. The students gave their all to help the fishermen haul in the net, and were rewarded an hour later with a tasting of their hard work! Probably the freshest, tastiest fish they'd ever eaten!

How did the trip contribute to the students' personal and professional development?

My feeling is that this trip was experienced as a parenthesis, a time of suspended contemplation, and the students, even if they knew each other because they were in the same class, found themselves bonded for good.Everyone was always willing, enthusiastic and curious, and the humid heat encouraged us to slow our pace, observe for a long time, and discuss and debate in the evening. 

That's the experience I wanted to share with them: the importance of taking time, of considering one's first impressions, of observing, of studying, to contradict or reinforce them, as well as the importance of knowing and defining one's posture, one's positionality, as a designer in a given context, and finally the relationship between design and culture.

In your opinion, what are the strengths of LISAA Interior Architecture & Design's international curriculum?

It's the diversity of cultures, nationalities and backgrounds of the students and teachers on the international curriculum that makes it so rich. This transcultural approach is facilitated by the fact that it is experienced on a daily basis, and reinforces the skills and motivations of future interior architects and designers, who learn to design in a context where there is never just one way of doing things, thinking and perceiving.

What advice would you give to students wishing to get involved in international or intercultural projects in the field of design and architecture?

Just do it! :)

Of course, I can only encourage them to do so, but you have to think carefully about your motivations and your positionality, and understand that it's not just a matter of personal posture, but is part of a more global context.

So, you have to accept that you're going to lose yourself, and I don't think you should expect results: it's an exploratory approach, an open question.

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