Pioneering architect Sheila Sriprakash speaks to K. Pradeep about the need for socially responsible architecture and the frustrating haphazardness of urban design

Sheila Sriprakash, a pioneering woman architect, has the distinction of having started and operated her own architectural firm, ‘Shilpa Architects’ in 1979. In a career spanning more than three decades, Sheila has designed over 1,000 completed architectural projects. She is one of a 16-member team of international experts on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation and was named among the Top 100 most influential architects in the world by Il Giornale dell’ Architectura, the prestigious Italian Journal of Architecture. Sheila is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dance and vainika. She was in the city to deliver the inaugural Credai Real Talk Series. Sheila spoke to The Hindu MetroPlus on architecture, Bharatanatyam and more. Excerpts from the interview.

Most of our cities are still symbolised by their its heritage buildings. Why is it that none of our modern public buildings has have become iconic structures?

The basic problem is that we don’t have buildings for the public. Today nothing is being built for them. Actually at the Rio Summit one of the subjects that came up for discussion was how to use public space to empower people. In India we love the streets, the narrow ones. Everyone seems to be on the street, it is so full of life. We now want people to get off the street and do not provide them with another option. All that we build now are personal statements. We need to understand the Indian psyche, lifestyle and then design.

Do you feel frustrated when you see this haphazard method of urban designs?

It can be frustrating at times. In the last thirty years there has been growth of and exodus into the cities. How do we tackle this? We need to plan earlier; we need a constant planning procedure. That is not happening. A city has so many stakeholders we need to invoke all of them, their aspirations, and constraints and put them together. We must evolve something which will be inclusive and equitable to all. We usually tend to exclude certain societies, issues, certain parameters. There is no coordination.

Can you cite an example of a city that has adopted a continuous planned procedure?

We need not go far. Mohenjo-Daro was there. It is an excellent example of a planned city. We have lost it. Perhaps we can start off with this model. The new towns and townships that are coming up are planned. Today we are at a critical juncture. We, architects, must map the blueprint of our growth. There is a need to be more responsible.

Do you mean that architects need to be socially responsible?

Exactly. The architect must be responsible because they are creators of spaces, ambience where people are going to live, work, develop and eventually die. The natural ambience, the macro-space, is God-given. We are carving out micro-spaces and very often messing them up. No one cribs about the macro-space but everyone has an opinion about the micro-space. So the responsibility is huge.

Are new generation architects aware of the socio-cultural responsibilities?

They need to be aware of the culture, history, tradition, heritage, value systems of the country. Ironically, today the government mandates how many car parks should be there in a building. They don’t mandate how many bedrooms must be there in an apartment. The elders in a family get hit. In a city we usually go for the 2BHK or the 3 BHK apartments. So the elders either remain in the villages or are sent to old-age homes while highly-paid, unreliable nannies take care of the children while the elders yearn to be with the children and grand-children.

Which was the first building you designed and built?

It was my first office. I had worked for a while and saved Rs. 20,000. We were staying in a bungalow, typical of those you see in Adayar, Chennai. Our compound had a lot of trees. Cement cost Rs. 11 or 12 a bag then. I put up a 400 square foot building. It was a defining moment for I realised the importance of vernacular building and cost-effective techniques.

Bharatanatyam and architecture…

As a dancer what you try to do is to create an ambience, a space or a scene. You then put the characters there. This stimulates your visualisation. As an architect I walk through my spaces like in the storyline of dance. Both emanate from the temples, both have lines, rhythm, horizontality, verticality and symmetry. My sensitivity to space comes from dance. In dance a notional space and characters are created. In architecture, one creates the ambience and elements that give expression to the residents' dreams.

Dance has influenced my thinking as an architect. I don’t know if it is apparent to the perceiver.

Something about your dance and music.

I began quite early and by 15 or 16 was already performing. These performances tapered by the time I was 30 or so. I was fortunate to have been trained by masters like Dhandayuthapani Pillai (Bharatanatyam) and Vempatti Chinna Sathyam (Kuchipudi). I have performed with eminent dancers like Kamala Laxman. It was my passion for dance that forced my father to take voluntary retirement from the armed forces and settle down in Chennai. For sometime I learnt to play the veena from Chitti Babu and played with him in two of his famous compositions Radha Madhavam and Sivaleela Vilasam.