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A blueprint for socially sensitive architecture

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The architectural legacy of the Indian subcontinent is immeasurable. The subcontinent has inherited an incredibly rich architectural legacy and it has also inherited a large number of “ordinary” buildings, which form the bulk of our urban landscape. We cannot afford to build everything anew. However there can only be a future for buildings from the past if the conservation movement works in tandem with planning and development strategies. Only then can deterioration be prevented leading to the final steps of restoration and rehabilitation.

– Architect Brinda Somaya

As principal architect of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, Somaya believes that the architect’s role is that of a guardian who is the conscience of the built and the un-built environment. For her, development and progress must proceed in tandem without straining the cultural and historic environment. And, this belief forms the undercurrent of all her projects spanning corporate, industrial, institutional, hospitality and residential works, extending to the renovating of public spaces and restoring of heritage buildings.

Her design consultancy, now a full service architectural firm, had a modest beginning in 1979 from a gardener’s room near Somaya’s residence in Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. “After graduating from the Sir J. J. College of Architecture, Mumbai, I completed my Master of Arts degree from Smith College, USA. Though, I had been accepted to some excellent universities in the US for my second master’s degree, I felt peripheral to the society there and something prompted me to return to India”. Once back, I worked with architect Pheroz Kudianavala for a few months in Mumbai. In fact, today my office is just few buildings away from that office. I had to leave the job there as I got married to a doctor in the army and had to move around the country a lot. But all the new developments and changing situations, neither affected my passion for architecture nor my determination to practice as an architect one day. As circumstances would have it, I was asked to do a pro bono project for an army club which never got executed but led in many ways to my eventually establishing my own practice.” states Somaya smilingly.

Dressed in a crisp, cotton sari, Somaya comes across as a person who believes in her instincts, her abilities and the conviction that even the smallest of events are a prelude to better and bigger opportunities later. Indeed, her first work though remained un-built, her design talent was noticed by the committee members, one of whom offered her to design a new swimming pool and changing rooms of the Mumbai Presidency Club. The designer reminisces fondly, “This was a small project but was my first paying job. Today also when I happen to go there, it feels exciting and nostalgic. One of the members of the committee of the club at that time was from Chauhan family of Parle group. And, they are still my clients after almost 30 years. Inadvertently, the work started flowing in and I had some projects in Mumbai for which I used to travel from Pune and Secunderabad to Mumbai, where my husband was posted at least twice a week. It was a struggle to manage work and family but I loved my work.”

Somaya had the drive to achieve her dream of being an architect but was in no haste or hurry to establish a big firm or to make a name for herself. “My journey was not planned as I just went with the flow and enjoyed the work I was doing however small it was. The most important thing is that I worked hard, was committed to my work and did not compromise on my value system that formed a solid foundation for my practice. This is what I tell students as well during my lectures at architectural colleges & universities in India and abroad. Learn the basics, initial small projects offer a learning curve and the opportunities for larger projects later. I hope to inspire them from my own experiences, someone who started small, relished working on all kinds of projects – big, small or Pro bono and finally succeeded in practicing as an independent professional.”

After being in and out of Mumbai for four-five years for her projects, Somaya finally chose to settle down in the city when her husband super specialized and left the army. Her work was increasing and she rented out various office spaces to finally set-up her permanent office at the present address in Ballard Estate, the old European style business district of South Mumbai. She feels content that her office is in the historic area as she is also deeply involved with heritage conservation projects. “In Mumbai alone we have hundreds of buildings that need restoring and it’s not just a few conservation architects who are responsible for their restoration. All design professionals need to contribute towards maintaining our heritage. One needs to create a balance between the commercial work and social equity.”

Somaya has won numerous professional awards for her works. Some of her conservation awards are for the restoration and renovation of her alma mater, the Cathedral and John Connon schools in Mumbai, Colaba Woods, Ganeshpuri Temple and the restoration of the St. Thomas Church in Mumbai, for which she won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award (2004). “The conservation effort represents embracing of the future without erasing the past and exemplifies in microcosm, what other historic areas can do to renew themselves and by extension, the city, through focused environment-conscious (and history-sensitive) architecture.” In fact, she has emphasized time and again that her involvement in conservation is neither self indulgent nor reverential, but an intelligent meshing of the old and new to develop an architectural form that serves the present.

Somaya who loves travelling and reading, draws her design inspiration from everywhere. “I am not influenced by one single architect, building or monument. “My contemporary work is inspired by so many things, sights and sounds around us. As an architect, we need to be sensitive to the site, be creative and understand client requirements as well as of those who will be the end users of the spaces. No building can be built without a context which is its surroundings. While, designers cannot avoid technology and have to build contemporary buildings in tune with modern times, the connect with traditional elements and conventional design wisdom is necessary to give a unique identity to the work.” Undeniably, be it any work, Somaya designs are based on coherent relationship between the past and the present yet are built for the future. Her planning and architectural elements often weave traditional architectural features within the modern setting or reinterpret them in a contemporary context. Such as the use of courtyards, corridors, jaali (grill work), low window sills, high ceilings, pergolas and cavity walls for exteriors juxtaposed within a utilitarian modern framework. Her design philosophy is aptly highlighted in some of the award winning projects like the Tata Consultancy Services – Banyan Park, Mumbai, the Nalanda International School, Vadodara, the Zensar Technologies Campus, Pune, Goa Institute of Management and now she is working on the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani.

For Somaya, it is sheer creativity that goes into a building. Her design style, as she puts it is the respect she tries to give to all her buildings. For her, architecture has always been about connecting and creating fluid spaces between the earth on which her structures rest and the structures that are man’s concrete dreams. “Living and working as an architect in India involves challenges much more varied in nature than conventional architectural projects in most parts of the world. Today we think of floor space index, building codes, budgets and so on but often leave out the protagonist of the space – Man. An architect’s designs should add value to the lives of the people using it. Any project, commercial, residential or institutional should offer spaces for the occupants to experience and enjoy them. “Commenting on the latest trend of collaboration between international & Indian architects, she says, “With globalization, this is inevitable. Good International designers can bring in new ideas and perspectives which are beneficial to Indian design community and vice versa. Also, in today’s global expanse the ability to work in different parts of the world with international architects is a challenge. As a matter of fact, combination of international design standards and technology with local design aesthetics and practices can create wonderful results. Our firm too has gained extensive international experience working with reputed global architecture firms.”

Somaya is one of the few women architects in India who does not practice with a male family member or partner. “I don’t see myself as being a woman and architect as separate. Initially, I consciously did not take up interior projects so as not to be slotted as an interior designer but to be taken seriously as an architect. The reason being, that at that time, many could not accept that a woman would actually want to ‘build’ buildings.” she recalls amusedly. Today, her more than 60 people firm is one of the largest architectural practices in Mumbai with projects ranging from architectural, interior, infrastructure and heritage. Now her architect daughter too has joined the firm and is working as part of the team. Talking about her personal and professional growth Somaya says, “We were two daughters of educated professional parents who grew up in urban Indian city and were taught right from the beginning that we were capable of achieving whatever we believed in. So, I never felt inadequate being a woman and that I could not be a successful architect. It was true that there were very few women architects in the earlier days and we were only ten percent of our class. But, I built my firm slowly with my work and by working with clients who had the same belief system and mindset as mine. I did not compromise on my value system to get work and instead built relationship with my clients based on common ideology. Many of our clients are repeat clients for the simple reason that we share mutual goals, trust and that I have proved my capability.”

Through my practice of almost thirty years I believe that an inclusive practice that spans our diverse population, be it economic or cultural, provides us with great satisfaction. Wonderful, exciting and fulfilling tasks that span our careers take us from being hi-tech professionals to barefoot architects.

Somaya during three decades of her professional journey also realized that women architects in India had no contact with each other or their counter-parts in South Asia. As architectural firms headed by women were practically non-existent then, she decided to document their impact. Thus was born the initiative comprising conference and exhibition on South Asian women architects in Mumbai in 2000 called ‘Women in Architecture’ (WIA) followed by a book that illustrated the beliefs of architects who participated. Somaya who is the Chairperson of WIA says, “During 70s and 80s, it was felt there had been no earthshaking changes in the gender composition of our profession. The 90s seemed the decade when women came into their own, in the field of architecture in our country. Also, that was the time I came across varied and invaluable work of women architects in India and South Asia. It seemed as though the time had finally come for a conference and an exhibition solely for women architects. Initially, we planned to invite only those women architects who had worked independently but there was hardly any response as many of them worked with their husbands or fathers who were the face of the firm while they worked in the background. After almost 10 years, we then decided to also include women design professionals who headed studios with men as principal partners and design professionals like architectural journalists, environmentalist, sociologists, professors and students. The conference covered women who have worked in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and in the last two decades have upgraded slums, conserved heritage buildings, improved urban spaces and built private and public buildings of every possible type. The conference was a great success as it offered a common platform for women professional to contact each other, network and discuss problems and aspirations.”

Somaya has delivered analytical and critical talks on innumerable subjects as well as presented papers in India and abroad on conservation, women in architecture and the changing role of Indian architects. She is also one of the founder trustees of The HECAR Foundation that celebrates Mumbai’s multi-faceted historic tradition and seeks to educate the public about architecture (including heritage and urban issues) through talks, publications, exhibitions, scholarships and seminars. Looking back, Somaya says some of her most satisfying works have been small projects that inadvertently led to bigger works later. She also believes that conservation is not restricted to only heritage buildings but cities are equally important and are actually much harder to conserve. Her work of transforming a garbage dump in the city into a public garden, reinvention of slew of pavements in South Mumbai, the Mumbai Esplanade project and reconstruction of Bhadli village in Gujarat in 2001 are all part of the same belief. “Shared spaces inspire a sense of belonging and ownership in cosmopolitan societies and from that stems the will to preserve and protect your city,” she says.

On a parting note she feels optimistic about the young generation of architects and advises them to keep their feet on the ground. “The scale of projects has grown, as bigger budgets, newer materials and technologies are readily available. However, Indian population needs are severe and an architect cannot build just for rich and famous but should also build for people who are less privileged. We need to pay our rent on earth”.

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