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Spotlight 11: Shalini Rautela

Spotlight aims to promote student and graduate work and design. We recently caught up with Shalini Rautela, recent M.Arch graduate at the Melbourne School of Design to discuss her thesis project, Material Matters: Beyond the surface. As the recipient of the Bates Smart Graduate award for her project, Shalini views this body of work as a process, continued via @studio_dirt, which explores ‘a tactile and spatially oriented response to architecture, object, research and material flows in Naarm.’

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Mia Clarke (MC): Your path into architecture hasn’t followed the conventional route. Could you tell us about how your studies in psychology and pre-apprenticeship in carpentry may have influenced the way you think about design?


Shalini Rautela (SR): In some ways it’s direct and in some ways it’s indirect. Psychology has potentially had a more subtle influence on my approach to design. It inherently has underpinned an ongoing interrogation of myself which is useful to reflect on when operating within a people-centric discipline such as architecture. I’m quite a pragmatic and optimistic person and like anyone this enables me to navigate the intensities of the discipline in a particular way. Whereas carpentry has a more direct relationship between architectural construction and making and for me that’s something that I’ll never disassociate with the design process. I don’t claim to be a carpenter by any means but going through those six months at TAFE has really given me the confidence and skills to take on making projects throughout my thesis and outside of university as well. This is such a massive part of how I think about and interact with the built environment and I am interested to see how this engagement continues to play out in the future.



MC: Your thesis highlights the value of “material matters” beyond the surface. What developed your interest in this idea?


SR: I think what comes with an interest in making is wanting to know what things are made from. An interest in process led me to interrogate ‘surfaces’ within architecture and the extensive number of factors that contribute to our material realities. Prior to doing my thesis, a big influence was a masters elective called Design, Philosophy Architecture. Everyone picks a specific material and across the weeks follows the material against the context of a suite of philosophical texts. For example, in reading about New Materialism, we began thinking about materials such as timber, being influenced as much by the plane shaping it, as the building code dictating its use. This way of thinking really inspired me to consider architecture in a multifaceted way. Thinking about materials in architecture as just the surface finish is such a fallacy. It’s so important to think beyond that.


MC: How did this concept realise visually on site in your thesis? Do you feel as though it actively embodied all of your ideas?


SR: The actual physical representation came quite late for me, and I think of this thesis as only a point in a broader interest in exploring these ideas. The project looked at two sites, one of which was an existing house that had been partially disassembled. Its architecture became constituted from the strategic removal of the building’s layers which defined new ways to inhabit and interface with its material assemblages. Essentially it was a non-stereotypical way of occupying an existing building. The second housed an existing site which looked at the processing of salvaged building materials. Four main interventions constituted the site. With each program associated with a specific reused masonry material that has either been salvaged or deconstructed from existing buildings on the site. I never thought of my thesis project as static, more so a point in my thinking, and so I don’t intend to revisit it. However, I do intend to revisit its ideas, which I have already begun via the humble beginnings of an umbrella project titled Studio Dirt.





MC: Your Instagram @studio_dirt is an extension of many of the ideas embodied in your thesis. You mention the political nature of the site, ‘the dirt’, and the removal of existing conditions which occurs at the beginning of most projects. Could you expand on this?


SR: It touches on the thinking that architecture often assumes a tabula rasa condition. Maybe it’s a concrete slab and we think about the place as having no pre-existing life or history. Sites have complex histories of occupation; Indigenous occupation, political occupation and ecological occupation, whether that be animals, ecology, or plants. I often feel that as an industry, we feel that a site without a building gives us the permission to ignore all of these latent elements, almost like a clean slate. That’s a problematic way of looking at it.


MC: You described the current role of architects as often being ‘gatekeepers of form and aesthetic’. Can you elaborate on this view?


SR: It ties into my interrogation of the material as beyond what it seems on the surface. I also think that society and culture often perceive architecture in that way, which is both reductive and troublesome. There are so many things that go on within an architecture office that I feel the perceived value of the architectural profession is relegated to a few things. That genuinely affects our perceived value as a discipline. I believe there is merit in stepping into other things that are adjacent to the built environment, for example, things like material consultancy. It’s already happening in practices that operate intentionally in a non-stereotypical way. But in architecture as a whole, there are certainly ways that we can diversify to stay relevant within an increasingly tentative industry.





MC: You also talk about the value of process, and a hands-on approach with drawing, making, demolishing. Considering the current topic of AI and how it can be used in the industry, what are your opinions on how this will influence the design process?


SR: I think the shift is inevitable, and whilst acknowledging this change I intend to continue exploring my ideas through research, through physical objects and other projects that present themselves. Despite the ongoing change around us, there’s no better time than now to just start doing and thinking about the things that you want to bring into the world. It is part of the reason for formulating ‘studio dirt,’ I enjoy having a platform where I can formally document this process of thinking.





MC: What else is next for you?


SR: It’s hard to answer that, and hey, that’s the beauty of life not knowing what the future holds. I’ve already begun a big process of change in graduating my Masters, and beginning to formalize my knowledge now in the Industry. But in the meanwhile you can expect more objects and furniture and dirt related stuff. Then long term, who knows?


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Interview Credits:

Interviewed by Mia Clarke


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Project credits:

University: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

Year: 2023

Project images provided by Shalini Rautela

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