Mumbai-based architect and urban conservationist, Brinda Somaya started her practice, Somaya and Kalapa Consultants, in 1978. She shares her thoughts, insights, views and path-breaking journey.
Architect Brinda Somaya's body of work is as interesting as it is vast. She shares her insights, ideas and architecture vision.
Numerous trophies and certificates adorn the office of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate. The accolades by varied bodies, a doctoral degree by Smith College, US and the Baburao Mhatre Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement by Indian Institute of Architects bear testimony to the vast work that architect and professor Dr Brinda Somaya, 68 has done ever since she first began her practice in 1975 from her studio in a garden shed. In four decades, she has built sprawling corporate and educational campuses, homes, restored and conserved heritage structures and spearheaded movements for a better planned Mumbai. Her recently published book Brinda Somaya Works
and Continuities documents the 200 plus projects she has worked on, most of which, she proudly says “are still in use and have not been demolished.” She’s an architect of the ‘bridge generation’, a term she coined to define the generation that bridged the architectural space between the masters and the current generation and grew in the wake of a free India. Somaya chose architecture at a time when there were few women in the field and worked her way to becoming one of India’s leading architects. She speaks to us about her design vision and inspiration.
An architect in the early seventies
As a child, I travelled extensively with my parents and developed a keen interest in art, history, architecture, archaeology and tradition so all this was a part of my growing up. A visit to Nalanda inspired me and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be an architect. Coming from a family with many doctors, that was seen as the only worthy profession and my grandfather even enticed me with a scooter to study medicine. Instead, I chose architecture.
The role of an architect
It means different things to different people. The way architecture is seen changes all the time but an architect needs to go beyond buildings. Like I always say, an architect is the guardian of the built and the un-built environment. By un-built I mean open spaces, rivers, rocks and mountains. Architecture is a profession that builds for others so it’s a combination of creativity and what society needs. An architect needs to strike a balance to build something that is worthwhile, raises the spirits of people who use those buildings. Buildings are kept alive by people who use and love them.
The way forward for urban architecture
We must not destroy the embodied energy existing within the city fabric. We also need to have more political and bureaucratic will to push projects which are for the people of the city. When I conceptualised the Mumbai Esplanade Project with Professor Sidhu, we wanted to build a continuous pedestrian realm from Churchgate to CST station linking the three maidans and connecting 102 acres of open spaces. But it never took off because there was no will. Today many citizens are coming together and fighting for what they want. So, an architect also needs to be an activist.
You have been a champion of women workers. Do you believe women are playing a bigger role now?
It is a topic of personal interest to me so whenever I take on a project I attempt to ensure decent housing and sanitation for all workers but especially women workers. The construction industry must employ women in different areas as—masons, welders, painters and architects. Thirty years ago, women workers would come to the site in saris and today I see them dressed smartly in saris but with sneakers, jackets and helmets.
How do you make a project contextual?
I have built all over India in different topographies and cultures and I always build taking into account the local landscape. For a 100-acre campus in Indore for TCS, we created a metaphor of the flow of the Narmada river. The buildings commence densely as the source of the river does in Amarkantak, and then the architecture turns angular as do the jagged marble rocks of Jabalpur and the built form spread wide and integrated within the landscape as the river exits the delta at the Gulf of Khambat. I work with local craftsmen to bring in fabrics, jaalis, sculptures, art works or stone sculptures. While doing a hotel in Kumbhalgarh, I used local craftsmen to create the crafts for every room; In a Mumbai campus, I got intricate stone jaalis made. We must support craftsmen and we can always find a place for them in modern architecture. If we let them continue making only small objects, the next generation will move on to other more lucrative professions and the art will be lost forever. I always get them to reinterpret their art and make it appropriate for the space.
Photograph DANESH JASSAWALA
BODY OF WORK Somaya’s repotoire includes the Rajabai Clock Tower and Library (left); and this special exhibit at the India and The World Exhibition at CSMVS (below, left) both in Mumbai.