‘Go beyond the boundaries of buildings’: 60 minutes with Brinda Somaya

From rebuilding an earthquake-ravaged village to collaborating on complex Mumbai high-rises, this architect has done it all

Published - March 31, 2018 01:13 pm IST

‘I was conscious of the challenges of practising in a male-dominated profession’.

‘I was conscious of the challenges of practising in a male-dominated profession’.

Brinda Somaya’s dream as a young girl was to become an archaeologist. “I recall as a child, my parents taking us on a long journey to Nalanda. The brick ruins had a deep impression on me. I remember having discussions with my mother about the long hours archaeologists work.”

Her extensive travels with her parents — to heritage sites, temples in South India, small towns, along the Narmada River — eventually informed her work as an architect. Mapin Publishing and the Hecar Foundation recently launched a monograph chronicling the personal and professional journey of the architect. The volume provides an insight into the mind that has produced over 200 projects of architecture, urban design, conservation and rehabilitation.

“I began my practice in a garden shed behind my residence,” says Somaya. That was in the 70s in Mumbai. “In the early years, it was a relatively lonely pursuit. I was conscious of the challenges of practising in a male-dominated profession,” she says. But Somaya was clear about her goals: she wanted to do “meaningful projects for societal good” in the burgeoning metropolis. “It has been a very satisfying journey.”

Guardian’s role

After she graduated from the Sir JJ College of Architecture in 1971, Somaya joined a Master’s programme in the US that gave her “a deeper understanding of women’s empowerment,” Somaya recalls.

But it was also the liberal outlook of her parents that shaped her world view. “Travels across India gave me a broad exposure to the incredible diversity of cultures, vernacular architecture and crafts. I have often collaborated with indigenous crafts people and artisans, imbibing building practices that have evolved over centuries.” In the monograph, she is quoted as saying: “The architect’s role is that of a guardian, he or she is the conscience of the built and the un-built environment. I am an Indian and all what I am comes from my heritage. It is an intrinsic part of my being and will naturally reflect in my work in many ways.”

In his preface to the monograph, architect Ruturaj Parikh writes: “Somaya often refers to herself as belonging to the ‘Bridge Generation’. It was a generation that ‘bridged’ the era between the Great Masters of the sixties and the millennials of contemporary India.”

Indeed, it was this generation of architects born after Independence, who experienced the social transformation of India, from its early socialist moorings to the era of globalisation. In recent years her Mumbai-based firm, Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, which she now runs with her daughter, architect Nandini Sampath, has been part of several international collaborations to design complex, high-rise towers in the city. “These collaborations enrich our practice and bring in fresh ideas. The cities of India constantly throw up a range of possibilities,” says Somaya.

A key part of the firm’s work is restoration and rejuvenation of heritage structures, in keeping with contemporary needs. The iconic Rajabai Clock Tower in Mumbai, the Louis Kahn Plaza at IIM-Ahmedabad, and other heritage buildings have been given a new lease of life thanks to Somaya’s efforts.

The challenge at Rajabai Tower was to ensure that the clock did not stop during the restoration process. “We were concerned that the complex mechanism may not restart once stopped. A unique collaboration evolved with [antique clock-maker] Venkatesh Rao, whose father had been maintaining the clock for years.” The clock chimed during the entire restoration process and continues to do so. “It is important to me to see contemporary purpose and value in heritage buildings, and to see the significance of history in the contemporary buildings we design,” she says.

Somaya tells me about her involvement in the rehabilitation of a Gujarat village left devastated after the Bhuj earthquake of 2001. “I was at home in Mumbai with my 86-year-old father when the earthquake struck. We felt the tremors in Mumbai and I remember we ran down nine storeys. Several villages in the Kutch region were devastated.” Somaya was commissioned to rebuild Bhadli village. “There was debris all around and a veil of sadness. We helped residents rebuild their homes, and in the process empowered the community. I think these social projects enable me to be aware of and sympathetic to those we are building for and building with.

Rubble rousing

At Bhadli, recycling materials was essential. “We decided to use the debris from the collapsed structures. Most of the doors and windows were not damaged and could be retained. These provided a unique character to the houses. Certain principles were also laid out to ensure seismic safety.”

While designing, an architect must be conscious of the space, she says. “It is important to understand the site, to walk around it, observe the nature of the soil. Climate, vegetation and local resources are significant factors in design. One has to be sensitive to the historical and cultural context of the area as well.”

“We have been constantly engaged with community, conservation and the contemporary. Each require creativity in different ways and all three are equally important to my practice.” Among the many accolades that Somaya has won are an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Smith College, U.S., and the prestigious Baburao Mhatre Gold Medal awarded by the Indian Institute of Architects.

“I believe an architect needs to go beyond the boundaries of just buildings. There is so much to be done, whether in a village or tribal areas or the metropolis. Unless architects are able to meaningfully engage in civic projects, the discipline will be peripheral to society. I believe that if we nurture the seeds, they will grow.”

The writer is an architect and academician who is perpetually travelling to remote parts of the globe.

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