The writer talks to one of India’s pioneering women architects the socio-cultural relevance of architecture

At the end of a nondescript road off the SRP Tools Junction on OMR, Chennai stands a striking structure with enormous glass panels that bare a modern multi-level studio. A massive four-metre tall, finely-crafted door inspired by Dravidian-style temples, leads you inside. The arch-roofed akhand, a transition space , is pared down to let the slim kandi bricks whisper ethnic charm. As you stand below the warm glow of a drop-light, overwhelmed by the beauty of the past, the eyes move to a glass door that leads you to the present, where the word ‘smart’ resonates in, well, everything.

The essence of architect Sheila Sri Prakash’s experiments with Indo-centric design and her inventive approach to sustainability for 35 years distil in The Muse, the global design studio of her firm Shilpa Architects Planners Designers. “Space can make or mar the quality of life. Indo-centric design evolves from an empirical understanding of our culture, family values and lifestyle,” she says. “Sensitivity to local ethos is crucial in designing spaces that people respond to. Vernacular building techniques, local materials and the work of traditional skilled artisans need to be inventively integrated with modern design and construction technology without making a building look like a pastiche of the past.”

Add to this a deep commitment to reduce carbon footprint, and you get a potent architectural idiom as reflected by the 12, 000 sq. ft. The Muse, which was recently awarded the LEED Platinum rating. “It’s designed as an open and collaborative work space that’s energy efficient, has plenty of natural light and an effective geothermal air-conditioning system. The building and operating costs are lower than you’d expect,” explains Sheila.

Dance and space

Interestingly, for Sheila, design takes its cue from dance. A trained Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer who has performed with Padma Subrahmanyam, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Ratnapapa Kumar, Shobha Naidu, Hema Malini and Manju Bhargavi before becoming an architect, she says both disciplines are based on lines, rhythm and harmony within a space. “As a dancer, I was trained to imagine spaces in my mind. The rhythm and repetition of movements helps me conjure up proportions within a space. Dance helps me visualise a space before it takes tangible form.”

A student of the School of Architecture and Planning, Chennai, Sheila went on to do her executive education programme in Harvard. “The works of Laurie Baker, B.V. Doshi and Geoffrey Bawa continue to inspire me,” she says. Today, Sheila seems unstoppable. She already has well over a 1000 completed projects and many coveted upcoming ones in a portfolio that includes residential, commercial, hospitality and institutions. “I take my role as an architect seriously because my thoughts and actions are bound to have a lasting impact on people, society and the planet. What I’m striving to achieve is holistic sustainability through design.”

Talking about urban design and its impact on urban culture, the architect says, “We are not doing enough. Design must be an integral part of our lifestyle and culture. For instance, a city with well-maintained parks, pathways and open spaces will ensure that it’s people remain physically active. A community farm in designated areas of a city can make sure people look at natural food. A well-connected mass rapid transit system can ensure a cheap alternative transport for professionals. Good urban design can induce greater intermingling across various socio-economic segments of the population and ultimately impact a society’s ability to learn and co-exist. Sadly, we are trying to adopt Western models and elements without comprehending long-term consequences of such choices. In our country, there is a lack of coordination between various agencies of the Government. If we are able to set this right, a more cohesive urban design strategy for our cities might become a reality. The future is bound to pose enormous challenges, given the fact that urbanisation is driving millions to our cities. Architects and designers will have to push the limits to accommodate such density while ensuring the holistic sustainability of our planet,” says Sheila. While Shilpa Architects has built landmarks across the country, its overseas arm, SGBL Studio, is an architect and urban design firm with offices in Chicago, New York and Seoul. Sheila is recognised as one of India’s contemporary faces internationally. As a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Design Innovation, she has taken the concept of marrying tradition with modernity to a global platform. She was invited to be a part of the panel to provide expertise on enhancing the long-term sustainability of the London Olympics infrastructure. In 2011, Italian magazine II Giornale dell’Architettura named her in its list of Top 100 most influential architects in the world. Her concept of Reciprocal Design Index (RDI), which reflects the sensitivity of an urban landscape to its social, cultural and ecological milieu, has been widely appreciated.

As a spin-off to RDI, she launched the Reciprocity Wave at public places in Chennai (Nageswara Rao Park) and Banglaore (Cubbon Park). “It’s our effort to encourage young people to embrace a sustainable behaviour through the medium of art, design and sculpture. They created art works and sculptures from trash cans, bottles and dry leaves. The exercise was such an eye-opener to the visitors at the park. More such events are being planned.”