We met Bijoy Jain on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in the afternoon on the 4th floor of the Fondation Cartier, Boulevard Raspail, in Paris, a building designed by Jean Nouvel. We meet in a large conference room with Cartier products and visuals around us. Bijoy is sitting at the head of the table. It’s the end of the afternoon. He’s relaxed and focused at the same time.


 All Photos Marc Domage 

You have said that when you visit a space, you look at what you see in the corner of your eyes. What did you see the first time you came to the Foundation ?  

I was here when the show for Sally Gabori. But I’ll go back much before that. I’d seen the building in the 1990’s, driving by from Montparnasse. The building was quite different from the way it is now. But I remember the sense of transparency. From the street you could see all the way through to the back. It’s always been how I experienced the building. There was a certain sense of luminosity, of transparency, the feeling everything was compacted one on top of one another, no sense of interior and exterior, it all seemed to merge into one thing. That’s something that has stayed with me. When I was invited to do a project here, it was also to give light to the evolution in terms of time from the moment I had captured a glimpse of something and to inhibit that glimpse, but of course through the evolution of time. Now the trees have grown and have been shaped by climatic conditions, by intervention. So it was more like tap into that. If you look at it, all the layers have been stripped down to recall the original aspect of the space. It was, in some way, to reconstruct that glimpse, reconstructing what I call that peripheral view, something I captured by the corner of my mind.  

You say that we see things that way we would not perceive otherwise…

Yes ! over the course of the twenty some years since I had first seen the building, it was sitting latently in the back of my mind. It was like putting water on a seed. The seed is already there. You need to water the seed for the plant to maybe emerge. It’s quite similar to that. When I received the invitation to come and do something in that space, that glimpse showed up again. Is it a mythical glimpse ? Is it something real ? Yes! How much is real ? I don’t know. How much is mythical ? I don’t know. The beauty is moving between what was real and what was mythical. But maybe real becomes mythical and mythical becomes real. It was in some way to reconnect to that. 

It seems to me this building is well suited to the way you see the world, the in and out, whether it’s the breath or your studio. You believe in the permanent movement between the in and out and this building allows that. 

For sure it allows that. The way I saw this is inhabiting a giant vitrine. It’s an oversized vitrine. But where does it begin and where does it end? It’s in these layers. The façade of the building is actually on the street. This is the secondary façade. What does it encapsulate in-between? The entry to the building is actually the garden. You’ve already entered the building. 

How did you approach what you wanted to do here ? 

What I did know instantly is that I wanted everything to be stripped bare. This I knew. That the dimension of things had to be low and more close to the ground because that’s the only way to give space to a dialogue with the enclosure and the space that is presenting itself. Just providing that amount of space that is something I knew from the beginning. What it would finally express itself as, that was a process of evolution. It took a little bit of time to understand how to organize things. What was clear was the proportions of things and to stay true to that because you’re tempted sometimes to move out of that. It’s more one of restraint.



It seems to me you’re always looking for the freedom of the in-between. 

Because in that, there’s no interior and exterior, no ? They collapse into one. There’s no exterior and interior. The in-between space, although it has limits, also presents limitless notions of space. Freedom comes from that limitlessness. It is liminal, it has boundaries, but the experience in that is one of freedom. It is to seek for that place where there is no limit.  

The exhibition is called Breath of an architect. According to you it is what connects us, but we’ve gone through a time when the breath of others is lethal. Is that something you had in mind? 

No, never ! I am not a fatalist ! What we went through is extreme. How much of that is real and how much of that is propaganda ? It is physical and it is real. It exists, but to experience that as claustrophobia or closing, it was never on my mind.  

So what do you mean when you say that the breath is connecting us ? 

I am referring to breath as an affirmation of life giving, of being rooted to being alive. If you’re not breathing, you’re not alive. It’s a very simple gesture. It’s not a gesture that is biomechanical. It comes from a very clear understanding that we have to be conscious or in consciousness to be breathing. A lack of consciousness is when we are not in breath or in breathing. It’s not just that. What is the breath of stones ? When you want to know a stone, you usually tap it and it releases some kind of sound. That’s breath. Every material has a breath embedded in them. There’s breath in the Earth because there’s the volcano. You can look at bamboo as a stick, but if you immerse yourself, you can imagine a bamboo in a bamboo forest, that’s the sound of the movement of the bamboo. Somehow it’s latently embodied into that, into the material. So, when we were making it, when we were stripping the bamboo, there was a moment the bamboo released a kind of rasp, it made a raspy sound, you know. It’s textural. That’s the release of the breath. For me, as abstract as it may sound, that’s what I call the phenomenology of material. That's a phenomenon embedded in these materials. That's its nature. It carries that DNA within itself. It’s also some aspect of that nature of that sound. It can be very translucent, it can be heavy, but you can modulate it. It’s responding to the gesture of materials. We never consider ourselves to be material, that the breath is a material, that water is a material. I am interested in that because these materials are malleable. I can be entered quite quickly. Water, air, light is a material and a fundamental ingredient, and it gives the space breath. To me, less than glass, brick, steel, stone, wood, mortar, this for me is the material that energizes a space. That’s just the envelope that holds this in the space. This is what this construction is doing. It’s just modulating the movement of this material. It’s also a sense of movement. It has an inhale and exhale.


Structural stone elements covered with lime / Various panels of woven bamboo mats coated with cow dung, lime and pigments.

 Silence is also a material for you. Your studio is silent by design. Help me understand the importance of silence. 

I am searching for a way to describe how space can influence that gesture of quietness. It’s not so much to be quiet or to be silent, but it is more seen as a vehicle or a spatial construct that naturally you lean into, you immerse into that. There’s no notion that you have to be quiet. You just become quiet. That’s what spaces can do. Now, why be quiet? Because that’s a moment you can hear, otherwise it’s inaudible because the sound externally is louder than the sound internally. To somehow tune in to an audible sound that’s moving inside us. It’s like fine tuning. You know something is spoken to or said to you without saying it, but we sense it. For me, that’s a sound. Something is speaking. It’s already in communication or dialogue with you. Maybe it’s to tune into that, to allow space naturally. As we immerse ourselves in a lake or a pond, or a river, or the sea. It resonates with our cellular structure. It resonates because we are water. Water is meeting water. The cellular structure is in resonance with its surroundings. That’s when you can blur the line between interior and exterior. It’s in frequency. 

In what way your connection to water have shaped the architect you have become. Has it shaped your work, because a swimmer to be efficient has to be… 

Water ! You have to be water. If you’re as close as you can be to water, then you are in its movement. We are more water than anything. A large part of our body is water. Our frequency is in water. When Louis Kahn did the Dacca Parliament, to be so tuned to an expansion joint, to a door handle, to the handrail, to every micron in that building, yes, as humans we can develop the ability to be attentive to all of that. But we have limitations in terms of speed because we have gravity which is impeding us. My understanding was it’s shamanic. Louis Kahn was water. The Dacca project is about water - it’s in a plain which floods every year, it’s part of the Bramaputra which is larger when it passes through Bangladesh. He was struck by that. Now, if you’re water, by that very nature, you will touch everything. You don’t need to think about it anymore because every surface by default is touched. You intuitively know it, but you have to be that. 

I had the students here earlier. We were talking about aborigines in Australia or our ancestors. We are only looking at it from our position which is the time now. Have you postulated that it was before the advent of electricity, as nomads. Can you imagine the comfort of being able to go to bed every night under the night sky and in your mind’s eye you gesture the sky being drawn over you and the stars as your blanket ? What kind of space would that construct within you ? You can be completely exposed, but you don’t feel that. There’s an intimacy with the landscape and that’s my understanding of how they were able to navigate through these impossible landscapes, like through the Amazon. Imagine yourself stark naked, imagine if you had no mark on your body as some kind of expression, some line, some drawing and walking in that landscape of this environment. It could be very difficult to navigate that environment. So, these marks are like thresholds, like an interface between an interior and an exterior, but without these tattoos they carry on them, it would be very difficult to navigate this landscape. It enables them to be present in that landscape because, like a blanket, something contains that landscape.. It is felt, not constructed.


On Studio Mumbai’s brick tables, Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye’s ceramics made for the exhibition / On the wall, Tazia study, frame structure built from bamboo strips cut by hand, tied with silk strings and partially covered with gold leaf. 

 You describe the work and process like a relationship with a wife or a friend. Is that the way you approach a project, just like you need to understand the other ? 

More than to understand, we have to include. How do I make a space that’s inclusive ? The larger its span, like the wings of a bird, the diaphragm. Hence the idea that there’s no boundary. Then, a lot can be included. I am not just interested in the boundary of physicality. The sunrise is millions of miles away, but I want to include the sun into the work. Then there’s the full moon, and the sunrise and everything that’s captured in between that is included. And is part of an exchange, a relationship when there’s the movement of receiving and giving. It’s a two way flow. It’s easy to give, it’s harder to receive. You have to be able to do that with that same equanimity. The person who made the embroidery was doing that not knowing the outcome, was doing it in a manner of no consequence. It was the action alone. In that, it remains open to giving and receiving. That’s when it’s best. 

What made you want to be an architect ? Was it an accident ? 

Did I know I would be doing the work that I have been doing? Absolutely not. I had no idea that would be what I would be doing. The best way is that you follow something that in some way sits right, or somehow has a resting space - and you say “Yes, this is it!” All my family were doctors and I thought “no way I am going to be a doctor!” And thankfully I am happy about it. My reason was I saw the hours they were putting in and I was thinking “There’s no way I am going to work that hard!” Little did I know! So, it just unfolded in a very natural way. Like this below (the exhibition) unfolded in a stride. What the next stride might look like? Unknown! So becoming an architect was not so precise. 

You’re very different from most architects we know: you do things in a very unforced way. Things happen because they are meant to happen, not because you’re forcing them to happen…

You have to position yourself in that space, you have to bring yourself to that for something to happen. Because you’re also part of that trajectory of movement. Sometimes you have to place yourself in positions that are seemingly uncomfortable. Why am I giving this lecture? Why am I doing this? And then I remember I volunteered to be here, so I have to go back to what prompted me to volunteer myself and to say yes to something. And sometimes, it’s awfully uncomfortable. I might be tired, or asking myself why am I doing this, I have nothing to say. So you have to refract back to yourself, not reflect back, but refract. It comes more from this idea of choreography. You have to position yourself into a spatial condition so these things can occur. So you are a part of that, sometimes you are even leading it. I like this idea of dancing the circle. We’ve all done that. Somebody goes into the middle of the circle and they’re for a few minutes and everybody is participating in the movement and then that person goes back to the periphery and somebody else comes into the circle. So, that hierarchy of the center is in flux and in a movement where the center influences the periphery and the periphery influences the center. It’s not necessarily a fixed position.


Hu Liu’s graphite drawings

Idea of stillness is important to you… 

It allows observation, a viewing point. We can observe. We have the ability to observe. 

Michael Heizer, Serra and Smithson: these three artists had a major influence on you. What was it about them in particular ? 

Or Brancusi. He’s a very important person. I know his work. Giacometti is another one. 

For Brancusi, the base is as important as what’s on the base. There’s an equanimity of one supporting the other. For me, it’s that preoccupation, this duality - what is in view, what’s not in view. In Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, it’s an erosion, but it’s an acceleration of time, but also a deceleration, it’s in its angle of repose. The earth has been moved just enough to make some space where there was no space. What he did basically was  make a platform so that he had this panoramic view of this landscape. This whole construction is to construct a platform, a plateau and to use the earth to form it. You’re just using gravity as a way to displace and reposition in a way that’s like it’s slowing time. It impedes that movement. That’s why Double Negative is particularly important. What is it that resonated with me and took me 30 years to articulate it? 

I feel your exhibition is an echo of Double Negative: it creates something to open something in us, because when you see it, you wonder “What’s going on here” ? They talk to each other, at least for me. 

 The phenomenon lives within you and it’s tuning into that phenomenon and it has a frequency. My interest in Brancusi or Giacometti is to move closer to that frequency. “What is it that makes them vibrate at that frequency ? It’s only the frequency that has made the work the way it is. It’s their self at the frequency that enabled them to create. The resonance you’re talking about, although it has nothing to do with Double Negative per se, maybe there’s something that’s captured in that. A lady came to me and said “It reminds me of Brancusi.” I thought “How uncanny is that?” because I don’t talk about these things. My interest lies in the frequency more than in the achievement. It’s a frequency that enabled them to have an insight. 

 Your work is more about the vibration more than the breath. 

The frequency ! It’s like tuning a radio. You just need to tune the dial to capture the frequency. It’s really about that. More and more becoming aware of that notion of movement, the velocity.  

In the beautiful  catalog of the exhibition, you have included many definitions in the opening pages: angle of repose, Air, Water, Light, Poiesis, etc. 

I like this notion of language. Language expresses a certain spatial map. These are like spatial maps. It’s like the unfolding of a spatial movement.

Like ancient Polynesians sailors.  

Exactly ! They’re more like navigation of some kind of special construct that exists in all of us. It’s more to evoke that, to provoke that, to find a common ground.  

You said somewhere you were a romantic ?

Did I say that? I am not nostalgic or sentimental. I am an optimist for sure. I’d much rather exercise my energy in possibilities than in lack of one. In that sense, yes! To work in possibility. That to me is important. We are survivors. We will do whatever it is to make sure there’s a continuity of life, no matter what the conditions are. That’s our nature, that’s nature itself. It finds a way to keep living. I am an optimist in the sense that we’re about life and life giving. That’s our nature. We’re life giving. I am rooted in that.

Jean-Sébastien Stehli


Bijoy Jain / Studio Mumbai. Breath of an architect. Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain. Until April 21, 2024. fondationcartier.com/en/

April 10, 2024 — Jean Sebastien Stehli