Where You From? Bridging the Cross-Cultural Identities of India and Aotearoa

Hero image Rishav Sarmah
Durgasarobar Confabulation

This thesis was born from an introspection of my own identity as a second-generation Indian immigrant living in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the cultural insecurity that comes with living between two worlds. It is within this space of ‘betweenness,’ however, where cultural identity is formed. The design research thus investigates architecture’s capability to connect individuals with their cultural heritage through the conception of a cross-cultural bridging of two interventions in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, and Assam, India.

The thesis frames memory as the realm in which our relationship to our cultural heritage crystalises; there is a symbiotic relationship between how we perceive memories as a result of our cultural heritage, and vice versa. This relationship is investigated by examining my own memories as an Indian-New Zealander, informed predominantly by the sense of smell. The olfactory, of the five senses, is most directly connected to memory, and this relationship is explored through a spatial examination of scent as a catalyst to the formation and experiencing of individual memories.

From these investigations, the thesis proposes two architectural interventions in the Bharatiya Mandir temple in Tāmaki Makaurau, and my grandparent’s village, Durgasarobar, in Assam India. The interventions emphasise the olfactory as the driver of design over the ocular sense- the latter being the prioritised sense of the Western world. Between the two sites, a cross-cultural bridge is formed by mirroring two identities.

The impetus for this project was an interrogation of cultural identity as it pertains to second-generation Indian immigrants, the struggle of reconciling with living between two cultures, and how this duality takes form within the conscious mind. This notion of the ‘between’ can be understood through theorist Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘Third Space’, a phenomenon in which multiple cultures, through constant negotiation, give birth to a new, hybridised identity.

Coupled with imbalanced cultural representations within a Western-dominated society, however, issues arise from an insecurity of being “Other” to their parents’ cultures, and the culture they have been raised in. These issues often develop into a resentment of their cultural heritage and internalised racism. This thesis responds to these issues by interrogating architecture’s capability to balance the uneven representation of cultures, and how such balance can aid in the identity formation of young Indian-New Zealanders.

Early in the research, the presence of memory became crucial as the condition in which one’s cultural identity is perceived. Specifically framed as confabulations—referring to a fictive yet interpretive memory—a series of collages depicting personal memories of my cultural heritage revealed the subconscious nature of scent in constructing memory. From this stage, the olfactory became a vehicle in the eventual design of the final interventions, as a trigger for experiencing one’s cultural memories.



By the mid-point of the thesis, the focus solely concerned second-generation Indians living in Aotearoa. However, given the crucial position of duality within the design research, it was essential to engage architecturally in Aotearoa and Assam, my parent’s home state in India. Through the conception of a dual site, the notion of a cross-cultural bridge between cultures took shape, two interventions in separate locations connected by the olfactory design mirrored between them.

Site research was conducted through the method of many dérives, bringing attention to the psychogeographic—namely, olfactory—qualities of an environment and layering each experience over one another to develop an embodied understanding of the effect of scent on the site. In Aotearoa, Sandringham was identified for its significant South Asian presence, and the neighbouring Bharatiya Mandir Hindu Temple was chosen as the site of interest.

In Assam, my grandparent’s neighbourhood of Durgasarobar was interrogated through memory-based dérives, which revealed Vidyapith School, a closed-down school used by the local community for various events. The Bharatiya Mandir in Sandringham, and the Vidyapith School in Durgasarobar, were subsequently chosen as the sites for the mirrored final interventions.


Finished Product

The design of The Chamber of Smells in Tāmaki Makaurau and The Vidyapith Commune in Durgasarobar are predicated primarily on ‘spaces of scent.’ It is not the overarching scheme but the interior experiences that are paramount to both proposals. These spaces are informed either by scents of the spiritual or material and governed by two characteristics; rooms which are contextual to the location of each intervention, and rooms which mirror one another across both designs.

Three “mirrors” are presented in the final design: The Fragrant Garden and The Room of Flowers, which draw on the significance of a flower’s fragrance; The Food Halls, which celebrate the presence of cuisine in Indian cultures; and finally, The Scented Stepwells.

Fundamentally, the final designs express a dual relationship between two pieces of architecture. Born from an investigation of the symbiotic relationship between memory and cultural identity, The Chamber of Smells and The Vidyapith Commune are, in essence, a stage designed around the olfactory, brought to life by the agency of the communities they house. The significance of the two interventions is layered. It is altogether a celebration of an ‘olfactory India,’ an exploration of how memories can be catalysed by an architecture of scent, and above all, the shared characteristics of the proposals express a cross-cultural bridging between the identities of India and Aotearoa.


Critic's Text

Rishav’s thesis traverses the relationships between memory, smell and culture through the lens of a second-generation inhabitant. His outcome is a narrative-driven research project with large amounts of passion into a potentially murky and difficult terrain which results in personal discovery. The story around cultural identity, scent, material, ritual and noise was well articulated and explored. The background research into identity, diaspora, hybrid communities and the third space and the between was well-researched using a range of appropriate references to mitigate the purely subjective potential. The design proposal aims to demonstrate the potential of architecture to propose spatial experiences that merge and celebrate culture.

Rishav suitably acknowledges the nuances within this field: for example, noting the troublesome monolithic term ‘Indian’ and the usual binary or polarity of migrancy and home.

His use of collage rather than computer renders as drawings with the Bharatiya Mandir Temple is rich in colour and adds to the feelings and body senses such as touch, warmth/chill and smell. The drawings produced have a unified cohesion across plan, section and perspective, and the layered approach invests intention clearly.

Using a poem, with lines that accumulate throughout the document, gave a good addition to the structure. His thesis was well-scoped towards the Indian community and ensured the research provided had enough depth to enable critical thinking and research exploration at a high level. It is an enjoyable, well-written thesis that demonstrates focus and immersion.

-Gina Hochstein, supervisor