I Believe An Inclusive Practice That Spans Our Diverse Population Ar Brinda Somaya
I Believe An Inclusive Practice That Spans Our Diverse Population Ar Brinda Somaya, Principal Architect of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants . An Exclusive Interaction with Fortunstreets.com
Brinda Somaya the world renowned, illustrious architect, founder of Somaya & Kalappa Consultants has rich experience of over four decades. The practice has silently built a body of work that speaks volumes of her iconic work spanning across the various segments such as residential, commercial, conservation, restoration, rejuvation and more. SNK has over the years built a strong and respectful relationship with world-renowned architects such as Jim Polshek, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Pebb Cobb Freed & Partners. The architect has constantly explored new haven that has given her work a sense of identity that has set an example for the rest to follow. Through four decades of design, the common thread connecting all SNK projects has been basic design elements that represents the Indian architectural vocabulary. An exclusive interview with Fortunestreets.com she narrates her inspiring journey scaled so far.
Who was your inspiration for choosing architecture as a profession or What inspired you to become an architect?
One of my sharpest childhood memories is standing in the brick ruins of Nalanda, the ancient university in Bihar at the age of six. The memory was etched in my mind for years-years during which I dreamed I wanted to be an archaeologist. That did not happen, but I studied architecture. My sister and I were taken to different parts of India and our childhood was spent on being exposed to the different facets of our culture. Hence, architecture was always there in my mind and there was never any debate or a second choice that I considered for my profession. I completed my Master of Arts degree from Smith College, USA after graduating from the Sir J. J. College of Architecture, Mumbai. In May 2012 I received an Honorary Doctorate from my alma mater, Smith College.
How it was then when you started your practice in the 70’s with your experience of working on the first project Parle Product factory?
It was the Chauhan family who own the Parle Products Pvt Ltd. They gave me my first real job, which enabled me to set up my practice. I have built many factories for them over the years: Bengaluru, Lonavala and Mumbai. The first job they gave me was a small-time office and extension to a wheat storage godown. It was followed by many other factories and their homes. They have been my clients now for 40 years! So, for me, industrial work and patronage from an industrial family like theirs was only possible in a city like Mumbai. In those days, who would give a young woman an industrial project?
When you started, in the early years, it was a relatively lonely pursuit how was it like pursuing, practicing in a male-dominated profession?
It was an uphill task to make it in a man’s world, I must admit. People seemed unable to associate women with more than interior design and found it hard to believe that a women could be a serious and competent professional and perform as effectively as their male counterpart. Problems exist for men and women and one has to move ahead. It was true that there were very few women architects in the previous decades. We were only 10 percent of our class and now it is 50 per cent or more. I did not start a big organization overnight. I built it up slowly with my work, built a relationship with clients, then had a lot of repeat clients and proved my capability. Maybe if I had followed the more conventional route I would have convinced myself that it would be impossible for a sari clad young woman working in the world of the 70’s to set up her own practice. The confidence to follow my own path came from my parents who just assumed that gender discrimination did not exist or certainly was not an excuse, my school who taught me that no dream was impossible and finally my husband and children who valued me and my profession in their lives.
From the vast scope of work that you have been doing for over four decades, which has been your most favourite works and why?
Every project that I work on is special for me. Our involvement has ranged from the upgradation of slums to large corporate and public buildings, from low income housing to the restoration of magnificent vernacular and colonial buildings. I enjoy the diversity of the work. Every project becomes a journey and a learning experience in itself
The toughest project you have undertaken so far, challenges encountered, experience of working on it
Every project comes with its own challenges. They vary from project to project and can be very different depending upon the location, the size and the complexity of the project. Of course, some are more challenging than others. For instance, when I built a hotel in Tashkent in Uzbekistan after winning a competition in the late 80s and early 90s, it was a very difficult project because it required a lot of physical effort. Those days you could not go to Tashkent directly. I had to go to Moscow and then fly to Tashkent. The food was always short in supply. It was very strange. The language was Russian. We had to do all our drawing with the Cyrillic script not the Roman script. Those were very different challenges. So that’s one type of challenge. Other types of challenges are like currently we are restoring and upgrading the Headquarters for the Tata Group. Which us a severely time bound project. Every project has its own complexities.
Tell us something about your project India and the World-A history of nine stories
To celebrate 70 years of Indian independence, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, The British Museum, London and the National Museum, New Delhi collaborated for the exhibition ‘India and the World: A history in nine stories.’ Somaya and Kalappa Consultants were the exhibition designers of this landmark exhibition. With five galleries and 196 objects, the process of designing ‘India & the World’ began. The curators of the exhibition and the CSMVS museum teams shared with us the story of each object referencing to its significance in the history of time. The collective narrative began emerging and with it our conceptual design to create an environment to provide both context and proximity for similar objects on display to converse with each other.
The theme of the exhibition is based on the visual narrative of a timeless journey. The exhibition design is based on metonymy museum design which primarily focuses on the visitor’s experience of aesthetic enjoyment with a robust academic underpinning. The exhibition is divided into 9 sections. Each section has a unique narrative where the objects beauty and individuality enhanced by the design. Since a metonymy museum design demands theme-based interior, each section was given a theme colour derived from its time and the objects themselves. As the designers we had to come up with innovative ways to ensure the narrative was not lost while still ensuring all such conditions such as pair objects together depending on their scale, lighting, temperature and general condition requirements were adhered to.
Your observations of architecture today, what do you have to say about the kind of work being done today. Whose work you like/ admire
The next decade, if I had to speculate, will involve many changes in India. These will include buildings that need to be built for the new patterns of behaviour of the people of the cities. These include new housing, life styles, new shopping and recreational patterns and the shift from manufacturing to service industries within cities. Second homes for the rich Indians and NRI’s create gated complexes within cities like in Bangalore and also country homes near Mumbai and around Gurgaon and Noida. However, the residents within the older parts of town and cities are becoming more active and vocal to fight for their rights of public spaces, protection of heritage buildings, salt pans and mangroves thus show the slowing but steady power struggle between the state and the people.
Words of encouragement for the new generation of architects and interior designers. Your advice.
Young architects are doing good work and I have full faith that they will protect our environment and our heritage and yet contemporize design and take it forward into our new tech-savvy world. As an architect you need to understand people’s needs and anticipate changes. One needs to focus on the aspirations of young people and the changes happening in technology and their lives. I have always been very optimistic and there are great young architects in our country today and I am sure they will take India on to the world map of architecture; I have no doubt about it. I just hope that everybody keeps their feet on the ground. We should also remember that half of our population needs are very severe and being an architect cannot be just for the rich and famous and our responsibility should also be to build in the rural areas and in smaller towns and for people who are less privileged.
I believe that an inclusive practice that spans our diverse population, be it economic or cultural, provides us with great satisfaction. Therefore, the motivation for inclusion and diversity should come not only from the desire to create a just society, but also because it leads to better and more powerful creative processes and solutions. I hope that when history books look back at the first few decades of the twenty-first century, they will find an architecture that responded to the wonderful traditions of India combined with the needs of its people.
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