Brinda Somaya, founder of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, has been the conscience keeper of our built and unbuilt environments for four decades now.

Soft-spoken but with firm beliefs in the preservation of culture and tradition as well as strong opinions on sustainable design and construction, Brinda Somaya is a contemporary Indian architect who has built up a formidable reputation through her practice. Having watched her at the forefront of conservation and restoration of old structures and sparking change in urban planning, we are proud to present this exclusive tête-à-tête with the legendary woman architect of substance.

How and when did you start your practice? What were your aspirations at the beginning?
In many ways, working and living in India has been unique and truly a privilege because, when I look back on five decades of work and think of the experiences I have had, all the projects that I have been able to work with in different parts of this great country, the diverse and complex and contradictory country that is India, diverse in its geography, in its languages, in its people, in its food, it’s been like working in different countries. Often, when people ask me “have you worked abroad?”, I feel like saying, “you know, working in India is like working in a new country with every project.”

After graduating from the Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai, I completed my Master of Arts degree from Smith College, USA in 1973. Once back in India, I worked with a local architectural firm for a few months. It was in 1978 that my sister Ranjini Kalappa and I started our architectural firm Somaya and Kalappa (SNK). However, within two years, she moved out of India and I was on my own to run the studio. 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 ’70s 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.

We had set up a small studio, very close to the house where I lived in Cuffe Parade, in an old maali’s shed. We didn’t have enough work, but they were good times. It was the Chauhan family who own Parle Products who gave me my first project, which enabled me to set up my practice. I have built many factories for them over the years; in Bengaluru, Lonavala and Mumbai. The first project they gave me was a small-time office and extension to a wheat storage godown. It was followed by other factories and their homes. They have been my clients for 40 years. Industrial work and patronage from an industrial family like theirs was only possible in a city like Mumbai.

What kind of projects did you handle at the start? What were your key learnings from those projects?
I got a small house to do in Pune, which had started actually when we were there. By the time I completed it, the studio also got the restoration of the West End Hotel in Bengaluru…and that’s how, I guess, one by one, the practice built up over the years. I didn’t begin my practice thinking about difficulties. I don’t think we should start worrying about the negativities in one’s life – but rather, focus on how to move ahead in a positive manner. That has been my attitude, and it still is.
With projects like the Mumbai Esplanade Project and India and the World (an exhibition at CSMVS Mumbai), a collaborative practice is invaluable; and this model becomes more pertinent if the projects in question are in the public realm. We are a practice grounded in reality. Understanding the multiple facets, human connections and stakes in the project lie at the core of our endeavours. I do think that if, as architects, we are able to meaningfully contribute to society, the professional and personal fulfilment outweighs any award.

Every project is 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. In those days, you could not go to Tashkent directly. I had to go to Moscow and then fly to Tashkent. The food was always in short supply. It was very strange. The language was Russian. We had to do all our drawing with the Cyrillic script not the Roman script.

How did the practice evolve later in terms of types of projects, design philosophy, reach, etc?
I think one of the most important things (which is not intentional, but which just happened over a period of time with my practice) is the diversity of projects, and that’s because no job or project was too small or too big for us to do. It didn’t matter if it was a paid project or a pro bono project. I always believed that one will balance the other.

My philosophy: the architect’s role is that of guardian – he or she is the conscience of the built and unbuilt environment. Many public projects develop from our continuous interest and research into issues that we think are central to the culture of India. This pragmatic research is an important part of our practice. This aspect of our work has grown considerably with Nandini’s enormous interest and abilities in systematic research and the analytical tools she had created in the studio that aid decision making in design. From affordable housing to global exhibitions that we design, everything begins with a thorough process of documentation, research and analysis.

In all my greenfield projects, I have strived to design the essential so as to tread lightly on the ground and create an environment that is complete in itself. For example, the planning and design of the Zensar Technologies Campus in Pune differs from other campuses like Tata Consultancy Services in Indore that we designed. The Zensar Technologies campus is not an institute yet assumes an institutional scale, while Goa Institute of Management (GIM) is organic, incidental and less controlled. The Nalanda International Schools, on the other hand, are designed as enclosures that embrace the space in a protective way for the children. The human engagement with my work is very crucial to me and is one of the central purposes of my architecture.

While houses give an architect freedom, they can also be very demanding design projects. Many clients for whom we have designed and built houses are also clients for many other projects. Thus, the dialogue extends beyond their personal preferences, which I think enriches the process of designing something unique and special. It ultimately evolves into one of the most collaborative of all typologies of our practice.

One of the privileges of being an architect in India continues to be the opportunities to travel. My country is vast and beautiful with magnificent diversity in geography, culture and tradition. All these have been my source of inspiration for design and remain one of the most fulfilling aspects of the profession. Our hotel and resort projects are often spread across incredible locations in India and overseas, including a business hotel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, designed and built back in the ‘90s. For Club Mahindra, we have built resorts in Theog in Himachal Pradesh and Binsar in Uttarakhand, both at the foothills of the mighty Himalayas and Kumbhalgarh in Rajasthan.

We are currently restoring the wonderful and special buildings of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, designed and built by Louis I. Kahn, the great American architect. While studying his buildings, we learnt about the rule of light and shadow and shade and the served spaces and the servers, the connection between the dormitories and the academic blocks, and the wonderful spaces that have been created. The surprise elements that come out, the connectivity, the cohesiveness and the beauty and exhilaration is when one walks through the different areas of this complex. It truly makes one understand the importance and belief in architecture, that does stir the soul and raise the spirit.

When it comes to your design philosophy, which aspects have remained constant and which have evolved?
Our ancient scriptures have always told us to tread the land lightly, and I think that is a belief which I have had from the very first building I designed over 30 years ago. This was long before ‘green’ became such an important word in an architect’s practice. I believe there is a need for professional concern with the environment and an improved quality of human life for all Indians. We have to go beyond buildings and work with programmes that transform society.

An architect’s responsibility and role go much beyond buildings. We have to think about many things when we design and build. We have to protect the built environment as well as the unbuilt environment, whether it is open spaces or the natural landscape. I also believe that India not being a rich country and having a huge number of existing buildings, that we have to recycle, we have to retrofit, we have to restore, we have to rebuild. We cannot always build everything anew because of the embodied energy that exists in existing buildings, even in ordinary ones. So, that’s why I say that we as architects are guardians for the built and the unbuilt environment.

While a set of few fundamental ideas and elements form the foundation of our work at SNK, the design process enriches the architecture and ensures that no two responses are alike. For instance, the Nalanda School courtyards are very different in their scale, composition, proportion, materiality and surfaces articulation as compared to the courtyards at the Goa Institute of Management and at the Zensar Campus. In hindsight, I think these patterns are subtle, and readable in my work, but they are not obvious. I do really enjoy working with these elements, and I focus on them as they become a part of the design vocabulary that has evolved over the last few decades of my practice. While I don’t subscribe to ideas of style, this foundation has given my work a sense of identity and uniqueness. If one looks at our projects carefully, one can decipher a strong thread that exists and underlines my belief in these core elements and ideas.

Which past project has significantly impacted your practice?
Every project becomes a journey and a learning experience in itself. I believe that development and progress must proceed without straining the cultural and historic environment. While preserving the old brings great satisfaction, building the new brings its share of excitement. The relationship between architecture and the environment has historically been (and continues to be) a complex interaction of site, technology, climate and other natural forces, building materials and the human presence. One is the reverential conservation like the Rajabai Tower, which we have restored. Then there are types of progressive conservation or reuse or re-architecture or recycling or retrofitting where you are expanding existing buildings or changing the use of the building, like the TCS House in Fort, Mumbai. So, the challenges are also varied.

To celebrate 70 years of Indian independence, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), 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 show, which opened in November, 2017. With five galleries, nine sections and 196 objects, the process for SNK…began in January 2017. The design was based on metonymy museum design, which primarily focuses on the visitor’s experience of aesthetic enjoyment with a robust academic underpinning.

Being a vast exhibition space, with teams based in several different countries and the site being in a heritage building, there were several challenges that arose. Once a final object list was determined, the layout of each object based on the narrative began. As designers, we had to come up with innovative ways to ensure the narrative was not lost while still ensuring all such conditions were adhered to. This project for the SNK team was a labour of love. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the museum world and to collaborate together to create {the exhibition}.

How would you describe your own work so far?
Architecture, for me, has always been about connecting and creating spaces between earth and man. Architecture is about places, it is a collective memory. India is a large and complex country with people of different cultural and economic backgrounds, and we must always remember that. I enjoy the challenges of greenfield projects as much as conserving old heritage buildings. Since we cannot build everything new, we must create a future for the buildings from the past.
When I started my practice, it was the late ‘70s and modernity was becoming more apparent. But my childhood was very different. I was influenced by what India offered culturally and historically at that time. I was being taken by my parents to Nalanda; to the temples of Konark and Khajuraho, to the wonderful temples of the South, to the Taj and to Hampi. We were taken to different parts of our own country, and we didn’t separate architecture from art or music from history.

I don’t think I can separate India and ‘Indianness’ from myself. My buildings speak for themselves about my beliefs and ideas of a sustainable practice. I am an Indian, and all that I am comes from my heritage. It is an intrinsic part of my being and will naturally reflect in my work in many ways. I have built from the Himalayas to the south of India, from Bengal to Kutch and through the central plains and heart of our country, from Jharkhand to Indore and from Uttaranchal to Kodagu. The building types have included reconstruction of villages to hi-tech campuses, from orphanages and animal hospitals to state-of-the-art corporate headquarters, from the village school to the most elite schools in Mumbai and from conserving iconic heritage buildings to turning garbage dumps into parks.

How do you see your practice contributing to a better design environment in the country?
I think the scale of projects in India is changing with more ambitious projects, bigger projects. Lifestyles are changing; people have higher and unique aspirations. Educational campuses are coming up, IT campuses, institutional buildings, recreational buildings, shopping malls, hospitals and a huge need of low-cost housing. Therefore, I see huge opportunity for young architects. Sensitivity to the environment, availability of materials, effective land use, urban issues and architectural vocabulary are all important determinants of architecture.

I am an urban Indian architect serving less than 1% of our population. I am also aware that the future of our profession is inseparably bound with urban design and town planning. In the larger scheme of things, a single beautiful house or a single fine shopping mall accomplishes very little.

I see myself and, hence, my work straddling the old and the new, the large and the small. While conservation work has its rich rewards, the joy of creating a new building cannot be underestimated and both have to have a sense of place.

Where do you see yourself and your firm in the next decade?
The need is for professional concern with the environment and an improved quality of life for all people. Hence, the need is to train a new kind of professional who can intervene and be effective both in our poorer villages and our wealthier urban areas. We need designers who can plan, design and implement new developments, working interactively with the community at large. If we follow the role of the traditional architects, we cannot meet this need. I believe this can be done without compromising on creativity, innovation or quality of design.

While exciting architecture is being built all over the world and thus expanding the vocabulary of contemporary architecture, we architects in India have to find our balance in design – enabling us to be part of the new and creative experiments ahead as well as part of what has gone before. We work on computer aided design with its digital technology. We need to include all new creative ideas in our practice. ‘Creativity’ flourishes when new ways of looking at the same problem are brought together, when people with different backgrounds, training and experiences bring together their perspectives…

Based on your experience, what kind of ‘mistakes’ would you urge fellow architects and designers to avoid?
I have always been very optimistic. 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 the needs of half of our population are very severe and being an architect cannot be just for the rich and famous. Our responsibility should also be to build in the rural areas and 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. So, 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.


Author : Interviewed by Maria Louis

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