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Q & A with Bob Peniel Inapanuri

Bob Peniel Inapanuri, MArch ‘23, holds an Architecture license in India. Over the past six years, Bob has closely worked with community and cultural infrastructure in south India.

He believes that it is important to refocus the lens of scholarship on the dynamics of caste and its intersection with the built environment, city improvement and town planning and photography has an important role in the knowledge production of city planning and sociology. His research project “Spatialization of caste hierarchy in Indian Cities” compares photographic evidence of impact of caste hierarchy and caste Identities on built environment. With his research Bob intends to engage with the twin myths that urban Indians insist that caste is either dead or dying and forces of modernization and globalization are fostering a climate of meritocracy and investigate the aspects of present-day housing and related built environment in the Dalit neighborhoods.

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Bob Peniel Inapanuri in his studio. (Photo: Caitlin Custer)
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Bob Peniel Inapanuri in his studio. (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

What drew you to architecture?
My first exposure to architecture was when I was in fourth grade. My parents’ friends are architects, and I would see these little models every time we visited their home.

The initial attraction for me was making models, making these small objects with very good care, and making it a product in itself. Then later on, when I was taking college entrance exams in India, I ranked well for architecture. So it was partly chance and partly this attraction to physical models.

What do you like about making models?
I like working with my hands, though I sometimes use digital tools. For me, model-making is the most important tool for architecture for creating spaces and buildings because there is a tactileness to it. You understand things that you touch and feel.

And then, of course, a physical model is a different scale. With a digital model, you’re zooming in and zooming out all the time, so at some point you lose a sense of scale. Physical models, with their fixed scale, let you constantly relate to it. I also think that hand-brain coordination is much stronger than computer-brain coordination.

What was your path like to the Sam Fox School?
I studied architecture in India, then started working at a firm called Studio Mumbai. The founder of the firm, Bijoy Jain, studied here at WashU. When I worked at that firm, it was a very new and different experience for me. There were artisans, carpenters, masons … it’s not just the architect sitting in front of the computer drawing. It’s literally a place where buildings are made — they’re dismantling and then they’re reassembling back at the site. I fell in love with that way of working.

When I was looking for a graduate program, I was looking at schools that would allow me to do that. And then I remembered that Bijoy studied here at WashU — I watched an interview where he’s talking about WashU, the connections he made, and how that defined his way of working. And I thought, “okay, I’ll try the Sam Fox School.”

What’s a favorite project you’ve worked on here?
My favorite course was the first semester housing studio. It was a very different way of doing housing, because usually, as far as I know, housing is done from outside to inside. You have a mass and then you start dividing the mass and you get your units. The way the course was organized, we built from the inside out. You come up with the unit, then you aggregate and turn it into a building. Things might not work at the building level, so you have go back and make changes to your unit.

This was a very important process for me and I learned a lot from that way of working. It makes sense — you spend less than five or ten minutes admiring a building from the outside, and you spend most of your time interacting with the building from the inside. That emphasis on the interior experience really made an impact on me.

Any hopes for what’s next?
I have decided that I want to get a terminal degree in architecture. My plan is to get a PhD architecture, history, and theory, because I want to teach. My parents are teachers, my grandparents are teachers. All my family members, in some way or another, are connected to education.

I notice that a lot of architectural research and architecture theory has been largely Western and European. There is a lot of thought and theoretical application and thought process that happens in the east, in India, where it’s not documented. It’s not put forward in an elegant sense. I feel that there is a value in that and that we could also contribute to this larger growth and betterment of built environment. I want to pursue that and see what I can contribute to the theory of architecture.

What do you find important about the history and theory of architecture?
I feel like everything that we do today in terms of architecture, in terms of conceptual ideas … we are always borrowing things from history, and then transforming and presenting the idea to suit the context. You’re always looking at our history to see that common link of ideas which have been going on for hundreds of years now.

I think a lot of sustainability measures around the world right now … are not really effective, not really truly sustainable. We have to work on the core level, change the way we lead change. We create spaces and end up building much more than we need. So when you look at the history, when you have a conversation about the history and theory of architecture, there is a chance for you to fundamentally change the way we live and perceive spaces that might lead to making buildings which are truly sustainable.

Bob Peniel Inapanuri in his studio. (Photo: Caitlin Custer)

You did some fellowships while at WashU. What were those like?
During my fellowship with the Divided City Initiative — which is loosely based around segregation — I was looking at Dalit households in Mumbai and how government policies have related back to the system of discrimination. India has this very strong system of caste: there are four top castes, and then there are the Dalits who are outside the system. Basically, there they are the untouchables. I am from such a family. And I haven’t experienced it. I don’t think my parents have experienced it as much as my grandparents have.

My interest in these households started I think about four or five years ago, when I was working on a residential project in a rural part of India and I was looking at how these people live. The way they live is very beautiful, super efficient. They usually have one large single room that is the living space. Then they cook outside or have a little makeshift kitchen, and they sleep in the same room. It’s a space which is constantly transforming. There is no concept of living room, bedroom, etc. That efficiency can really transform and change the way we live, which I’m very interested in.

I also did a CityStudioSTL fellowship, where I worked with Christner Architects. That was a great opportunity because I got to work on the renovation of Powell Hall, the home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I had an assignment where I organized several different tools and checklists into one place so that they could make healthy choices in materials — not only for the end-user, but also for the producers and workers. If you look at interior finishes — paints, carpets, all of that — those are majorly manufactured by the global south. If architects and clients make healthy choices in terms of materials, we can change the way they’re produced and make it healthier, more sustainable, and more socially just at the production level. And it helps illustrate how their prices might rise a little bit, while showing all of the positive things that a change could mean.

Anything else you’d like to share?
The Sam Fox School is awesome. It gave me so many opportunities that I didn’t even know existed. And I really value the lifelong connections and friendships here. I know that in the future, if I have my own practice, I know a few people who I can reach out to and talk about starting a practice together. I think it’s great — if you look at most of the really successful, path-breaking architecture firms, the partners are people who met in grad school. The school creates that environment for students to discover friends who one day may become professional partners.

Bob Peniel Inapanuri reflected on the scope of his practice, thesis project, and time at WashU. This is an edited transcript of Inapanuri’s words as told to Caitlin Custer.