Architects on Architecture: Dr Brinda Somaya

In the first episode of our ‘Architects on Architecture’ series, we discuss the fundamental ideas that helped shape one of the most versatile practices in India in conversation with Dr Brinda Somaya, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants, Mumbai.


Q: What prompted you to study architecture? It was not an obvious choice during your time and there were very few schools and exposure. How did you come to choose this as your profession?

I think there probably were many different reasons that enabled me, I would say, to become an architect. One is my family as we grew up, my parents – my father was an electrical engineer and my mother was a zoologist and I had one sister. And every vacation we got, we would go to a different part of India. My father and mother believed in driving through the country. And we would not just go to big cities, we would go to many small places, many towns. So they were very interested in history, archaeology, architecture, dance, music, various things like that. And one of my earliest recollections, we used to be in Kolkata those days when I was very young, was going to Nalanda, the ancient University in Bihar. And I must have been, maybe 6-7-8 years old, probably 6 or 7 and I remember very clearly the impact that had on me. I got photographed (I have a photograph) which I still keep very carefully, of me standing on the steps of Nalanda. And I think at that time, I sort of was entranced by it, by history and what went before. And I told my mother I wanted to be an archaeologist, at that time. For many years, I did want to be one. But I think as we moved on it time, when the practical side of me, heard and came forward, and eventually I became an architect. But the other thing was, that my sister, who is three years older than I am, was the first (we were just two sisters) who went into architecture school. And I used to watch her all the time, what she did, what she worked on. There was never any doubt in my mind from the age of thirteen that I wanted to be an architect. And the fact that we were just two sisters – looking back, not at that time but I came from a very liberal family – I think there was no question, of not having something to do for the rest of our lives. It was very important, my parents felt that,  we, I do not want to use the word ‘profession’ because for me it has become my life but that life has to be enriched by something special. So I also went to a school which was again broad-minded in its thinking. So actually, very young years of my life were surrounded by people and situations where I never thought there was anything that I could not do. So…

Q What was your education in architecture like? Who were your mentors? Who were the people who influenced you, especially in the time when you were a student of architecture?

I would say unfortunately it was not the greatest time to be studying architecture. It was the late 60s, early 70s, and I studied in Bombay, (first when it was then Bombay), at the Sir JJ College of Architecture, but it wasn’t an inspiring time as such – I do not think so. It was…architecture was taught in a very rigid manner and there was, as a friend and I were talking the other day, you know words like ‘space’ and ‘spirit’ and you know, ‘context’, so many things did not even come into our practice. In some ways, it was sad that that happened. In other ways, it also inspired us to do a lot of things on our own, we didn’t have computers; television was very poor those days so getting information was only through books. So I think reading was something very important for me and formed an important part of my life. So I think some compensation may have happened from that.

Q You established your practice when there were very few practices, and even less women architects starting individually during that time. How was that transition from the school to practice? What was the kind of a landscape of work during that time?

I think unlike today where we read about business plans and what people are planning in the future. Those days one, in a way, just took as they came. But I think I had all the background information to enable me to feel confident in myself. I think after studying in India, I went to America. I had also gone to America when I was sixteen years old on a school exchange programme. And this was after I did the first year of architecture. And I think that also changed the way I thought. Because at the age of sixteen, I went to the United States. Those days that was uncommon. And it opened a lot of new different ways to me. And it also enabled me to know that I did want to go back after I got my first degree. When I went back the second time, in 1971, although I did get admission to various schools for a conventional Masters’ degree, I chose a school and actually did an M.A.. Because there was not.., I just felt, instinctively that to be an architect, I had to know a lot about other things. I had to know about people and culture, and place-making and space-making and so many other things which I felt I had not gotten an opportunity to do. And those two-three years studying there, I think opened many doors and many thoughts. So when I, I had, well, to go back into history, I had then decided that I have this MA and I would now do a Master of Architecture or Master of Urban Design so I got into Columbia University and took one year to choose between those two. I accepted Columbia University and one day in March I, I don’t know what it was, I just decided to come home. And I took a decision that am not coming  and packed my bags and after travelling round US and Europe for two-three months, alone, backpacking, in five dollars a day…looking back I wonder how I was so bold, I came back to India. And I worked for two or three months somewhere and it was terrible,…terribly boring, I hated it and because I think I always had been a bit of a free spirit and I did not have anybody telling me what to do and then, I decided…I got engaged and my husband, at that time, was a doctor in the Army so I knew that we are probably going to be moving around while I was working in this very boring place, my father asked me to do (a) pro bono work and that was my very first project and it was a pro bono project. But that is what led me eventually to taking on smaller projects and believing, having the confidence to do my own. Although that project never took off. The other day searching through some archival material, I found my first sketches of that project but on that committee were people who then gave me my first paying job. And so, it wasn’t something planned. Perhaps, if I look back I thought a young woman in a sari in the 1970s could never think of starting an independent practice but it was a bit spontaneous, it was something that happened and I felt that I could do it. I have never looked back.

Q There was an incredible ‘modernist’ agenda when you started your practice. Many architects of the pre-liberalisation period were very influenced by the work of Corbusier and Kahn, Maxwell Fry and even Charles and Ray Eames. How did you locate your work at that time? Was it a struggle to find meaning in what you were doing in India or how did this develop into a vocabulary of its own?

It is a big question and it is a difficult question also to answer. I think of course we were aware of all these big movements that were going around us. In college, we used to go on all the NASA trips and I still remember we went to Chandigarh and Ahmedabad you know these places those days. Even meeting Charles Eames, I think I met Ray Eames actually and what all they were doing and there was…but we always…it always seemed that those were the greater and bigger things in the context and we never thought of ourselves as being part of any of that. We almost felt that that was for the rich and famous in the architectural field. And I think we were very modest in the way we thought and the way we worked. And for two or three years at that time, my sister also came back from the US where she had got a Masters’ at Pratt Institute, also from JJ. And we had two years of working together and unfortunately, in 1980, she moved back to Holland and never came back again but those two years atleast we had sounding boards and I think (she brought…she was a…) we had a good rapport, we discussed things, we thought about various issues. As I said, I do not think it was anything planned, but we were, I did personally believe in certain things and looking back and reading perhaps, some things of what the modernists believed in was really what we all believed in. We certainly, without necessarily saying ‘less is more’, but we certainly were not going to copy what had gone for. We were young, we had new ideas, we wanted to bring something fresh, innovative and relevant. I think we were steeped in our own background and in our own traditions. We need not need to use them literally in our work, but that does not mean they did not exist. I think the fact that we were Indians and every bit of who we were, were from those traditions. So I think without being obvious about it, was very much part of our work, and in different types of technology, and the Modern movement were also coming in. So I think we were also privileged apart from all this to have had some very good clients at that time. They may not have been patrons of big projects, but the smaller projects that we did at that time, whether it was the Garware House, whether it was the Erangal House which we did…We did a lot of houses which is what many people begin with. The Erangal House which was a series of pavilions we did. It was relevant because it was on the beach. It was next to a fishermens’ village. We used Malad stone because it was in Malad so the basic ideas were obvious but we took it up one step further in terms of the design, and the way we worked it – it was also a series of pavilions, looking back, we did that as one of our first projects and I feel that lot of our early projects have, I have never, talked about them enough and I think you perhaps are one of the first people who are really asking me about it. But they were very very important projects for us at that time. The Garware House, I remember, I don’t know if Doshi remembers, but I met him once at a conference. Here I was this young woman, and we had finished the Garware House, and he told me, ‘I saw your house that you have designed in Nasik, and I liked it.’ And it was so inspiring for me that somebody like him had noticed it and even liked it, you know. This is what gave us so much of inspiration. I always tell him this story. But it was, looking back, it was very special and a lot of our work as I look back now, was very, in some ways ahead of its time, in many ways, you know. And if you look at that house, the way we designed it, the linear form, the linear feeling, the relationship to the part of the Pandav-Leni caves above, the way we talked about the environment, how we have protected it from the hot Nasik sun and then we also built in the Lonavala lake, a guesthouse. I think there we, looking back at it now, you can almost see some of the inspiration we got from the Modernists, maybe like, even up to Richard Meier in terms of the way we have done the interiors of the house, and the way the house feels, like a ship floating on the lake. So at some presentations, people used to ask me that ‘How come all of your work is white?’. It was not anything planned but maybe, in some ways that was the right thing of the times, I felt. I didn’t want to go the way that, without mentioning names, that many people were going at that time. So we were, I think, without obviously doing so, I was searching for a certain type of work without, I didn’t want everyone to say ‘Oh that, this is a Brinda Somaya house’ but there had to be a thread which ran through and I think this was some of the beginnings of that thread which then moved on.

Q You have worked in a multitude of domains and on various scales – from conservation to office spaces, from campuses to low-cost housing solutions. What is at the core of your practice according to you? What ties this very eclectic set of works together?

I think the answer to that question would really be that ‘Who is an architect’ and ‘What is an architect?’ ‘What are the joys of being an architect?’ ‘What is the responsibility of being an architect?’ ‘What is an architect’s role in society?’ ‘What is an architect’s role in the country?’ I don’t know, to me it is so broad and I think that is why I am so happy that I have had the privilege of doing so many types of work. I never saw it as being difficult. I never saw it as being unusual as I was building up the practice. I just it just feels the most logical thing to do. If it a project interested me, it did not matter how big or small it was. It did not matter whether I was paid for it or whether it was pro bono. It did not matter which part of India it was in, whether it was the Himalayas or right down south;  whether it was in Kolkata or Kutch, whether it was in Jharkhand, central India, I have been in all those places. It was continuously exciting way to live and be involved with. So it is only looking back that you understand what you said is that the diverse practice and how it covers, diverse not just geographically, diverse economically, diverse in scale and size, diverse in function, and it’s one of those things that happen and I think it is because I was always open to it, I did not have an agenda, I was not looking for a particular type of building which would be good in a book, or be published or that would bring me any type of fame. I just wanted to do, hopefully, good work.

Q Many of your projects are new typologies, for example, the remodelling of the mills in Mumbai is very endemic to Mumbai. And a lot of early projects you did in Kutch had very little precedents. Was it difficult at that time to address and summon the confidence to tackle those kind of issues?

Maybe I did a fair amount…I think a lot of support I must have got, obviously, looking back. Not just from my own work, my own studio but from clients. I mean when you say a patron, it sounds as though of a very big project. But a patron can be of a very small project. So the idea is somebody who comes to you, who believes you are the right person for the job, and who is there for you on the way as you move forward, so obviously a lot of these projects were, as architecture has to be, it has to be a collaborative process and we as architects are catalysts in this process. This is what I have always believed in. So in the case of the Gujarat village, the day of the earthquake, it was early  morning, I think it was 26th of January, by evening, a client of mine whom we had built for almost industrial type of projects but who also knew that I enjoyed doing small pro bono work for him, we had done a trauma centre, eye hospital. So I think he knew my philosophy. He had called me by the evening and said, ‘Brinda, we have to find a village in Kutch which we are going to rehabilitate and we are going to do it together. I said, ‘Done!’ That’s the way it came, you know. As far as restoration is concerned, it was again another client whom I knew called me and he said, ‘I have picked up an old, dilapidated group of buildings, but I feel you will be the right person who can tell me whether I should buy it, come. So I went, it was in Lower Parel and it was NRK House and it was just a series of dumpy fallen buildings. And as I walked through with him, we could see that what is the potential of this and the excitement and together, we walked and then he said, ‘I want to buy it’. And then we restored it, upgraded it and it won the first conservation award which I did not even know existed. I got a call one day saying, you know, the Indian Heritage Society has given it for progressive conservation. So that was my first, what we call ‘re-architecture’ where we took something that had a different function and then it became something else. And that one road actually shows, in a way, my practice. Because this was the first building which we took up. The second thing we did was part of the old Empire mills which we converted into a college which was an old dilapidated mill which they did not know what to do but they probably knew I had done this and the third was again the same NRK client who came back to me and said, ‘I got a small piece of land, I want a new building’ which led us to Brady Gladys and now we are doing a tower. So you know, it shows how the city changes, the context changes, and I think you also have to move forward with the times, you cannot get warped, be in a time-warp. I think that only becomes a problem. And I think that is when I admire, when I wrote that article on Charles Correa that he moved so effortlessly in time, every decade his work was different and I think I admire that so much in him. In a very small way, I would like us to do it, you know, also be moving in time, all the time.

Q If I were to identify one very key influence that has been consistent during all these years, whether it is an individual or a piece of work or a book, who or what would that be?

As I told you, you know unfortunately, I did not have any academic mentors, so a lot of the mentoring that I have, has been through books, now of course, through various other means, of hearing them talk. I travel a lot and I make an effort to see a lot of buildings. So in some people whose work I have always admired a lot, people like Alvar Aalto for instance, I think why I loved his work was it is romantic to me in some ways, because of the situation, and where his buildings were and how he was able to bring a humaneness through his materials and yet be so progressive in his thinking and his forms. So like that, there are many many people, all over the world, whose work I admire, India, of course, we all have our great masters, we know that. But sometimes, it is just very ordinary people who have inspired me. I think, to me, to be frank that unless support does not come from the family…. My husband’s a cardiac surgeon, for me to have built up this and been able to sustain, you need support from the family whether it is your parents, husband or children, you need support from all that.  And I think it is very important, as a woman I am very proud to say that I have got all this support. You know, often …I do not think you very often hear this admission, but it is supreme. And I think very often you will find that famous men architects have had a lot of support. Often you, of course you have extreme cases like Denise Scott Brown who did not even win the Pritzker with her husband but you take any architect…How do you do this? You often find a silent partner who is doing a huge amount of support system from somewhere. So that is a different type of support.  Then I have got support from, I would say almost 50% of my projects now are repeat clients. How have these clients who have supported us over the years…come back to us again and again. And my city…I think, living and working in Bombay or Mumbai, I do not think any other city could have nurtured a 24 year old woman and given, one of my first jobs was an industrial factory given by people whom I did not even know but who are still my clients today. So it is not one thing, you know, it is a series, it is like my work, it is downwards, it spreads over many many different disciplines, that comes together.

Q About Mumbai, since you mentioned it, it has been your city for over four decades. For Mumbai, you have been one of the first citizens. If you see the last forty years of your work, not in the city, but from the city, how do you see its influence and change over this time? Do you think it would be different if you were anywhere else?

Well certainly, I do not think I would have had the personal freedom and I would have had so many progressive clients to have enabled me to build up my practice in almost any other city of the 70s. This is my personal opinion. It gave me, I always had that freedom here and for that I am very grateful. It was also a very progressive city. I think, it was full of very interesting people. And there was always opportunity to go beyond architecture, to go beyond buildings. You could go and listen to poets. I remember growing up in college , not only sitting in the architecture school, we would go to Kala Ghoda, we would see painters work, we would listen to musicians, we would…you know, that has what perhaps moulded in many ways, my practice. Then although I felt in many, that as actual training I received or opportunities within the college were not the best but there were so many other opportunities that the city gave us, sculptors, painters, artists, poets, historians, and we were so lucky that we could hear them and be exposed to them. Of course, that has changed with time. Because that used to be a one-to-one relationship because there was no other way, with progress there has been a certain…it is not so personal and intimate as it used to be but then there is much more available, technology has come in so how to think. Also, the difference between my age and the age of people who work with me keeps changing so when I would once be the youngest and I had two or three people, then maybe when they grew older, I was the same age as them and then they are older and older and I am the oldest person in my organisation. So how does your role change not just to the city but within the way you design, the way you think, what is your role within the organisation itself? How much freedom do you give the younger people to work and to design and to create something worthwhile? So I think, the changes are on many many fronts. And of course, the city has changed, we all know, I don’t have to talk about that. But I am a born optimist, and I really do believe that even if things take time, we can never give up, we have to still…I always talked about two things, one is – I believed that you can build the most elitist buildings in the city but you have to be a barefoot architect as well. You know, so you have to have both those roles as well. And to me, that is very important.

Q You interact with students, very frequently – when you go out to give lectures, be a part of juries, or with young architects who are interns at your studio. How have your interactions changed or evolved over the past years and what are your thoughts about their competences and interests. What have been the changes you have observed, especially over the last 20-25 years, when the patterns of architectural education have also changed drastically? How do you create a comfort level with this change that you see?  

Well, as you said, I do go as an examiner and jury member and also, I like to give a…I like to share my work, particularly, when I am invited by educational institutions. I always accept them, both in India or anywhere in the world, because I love interacting with young people. I do not think one can generalise there. I think there are all types of young people. There are young people who want to straightaway go in and start practicing and doing whatever they need to do, start earning this. Then there are a lot of idealists who come up and talk to me about what is it, … what can they give back? How can they get work in other parts, in smaller parts of the country? You have some people who straightaway start building iconic buildings. So I think it is very very difficult to generalise and there all types of young people today and they are going to be all types of architects. So it is the responsibility of these different schools. Architecture is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things to teach. So I do not think one can teach it. I think what the schools can do is to ‘educate’ the ‘students’ to go out with a strong philosophy of what they have learnt and what they feel is a purpose – to make them feel purposeful in their lives, contribute something substantial and not a narrow perspective. And that is really something that I cannot give with one lecture but I have to say that after I show my work, whether it is India or abroad, even I am surprised. Sometimes, in the United States and wherever, Australia, young people there come up to me in such affluent countries and say you know, ‘How did you do it?’ ‘How do we get this opportunity?’ ‘It must be very fulfilling.’ So I think that sense is always there. But it is a path that….each one has to find their own path.

Q You have a prolific practice and many other interests that you pursue. What is that part of your everyday work that you enjoy the most? Which is the part that you look forward most to?  

I think that has changed over four decades hugely. In the beginning, I had to do everything myself, from the drawings, to going even to get permissions, to meeting the clients, everything I had to do myself and then as the years passed and I built up more and more good people working with me, I would be more involved with the conceptual work and initial designs and stay with it and then, some of the detailing, and then that would go through. Now, of course my daughter Nandini has also been working with me the last eight years. I think having her around has been a great relief in terms of running the studio, you know so many other things. The same time I know she does not want to just be doing that sort of work so we have got competent people, you know, who manage a lot of these things. I think what I love doing now is…first, I love getting up every morning and coming to work. I just enjoy that so much, even today. I think I love the challenge of a new project because a new project to me is…I love to do a lot of research on it. I love to understand what it is about. Like now, we are doing, say a hospital, a specialised one…then I like to know about it. I enjoy, of course, working on the concepts after the research with the team. But I think I brainstorm, I do have ideas of my own but I enjoy listening to other people so we have specific brainstorming sessions now for specific projects. I still want to go to the land and listen to the land – that is very important for me before I start any project. I need to get the feel of the land – walk the lands. It is more difficult for me, the other day, I had to go to Shimla on a land that was going like this and I found that it cannot be done. So it is not easy to just walk the land. We are doing another project, here near Pune, and I was not able to go the highest point but I got halfway there, three quarters way there, but I still need to do that. I like to do things, I know I think, I hope I am still young at heart, young in spirit.  I learnt to listen a lot now because of the ability of the computer, to other peoples’ talks and presentations and masters and in some ways catching up on something, perhaps, which I did not have when I was 16 years old, and now it is so accessible and there is so much of it available. So I love technology, I enjoy that as well. I am a little behind in it but I try my best. So then every day is different…so much to do, so many more to do as long as I get.

Q What composes your library and who are your favourite authors? Reading, we find, is gradually declining as an interest in the students today and most of them are merely browsing. What are you reading these days?

Well, I read all types of books. I think I read a lot of Indian authors like Amitav Ghosh. I read some…I enjoy Gabriel Márquez. I enjoy his books very much. The problem with me is I tend to read two or three books at a time. Sometimes, they might be very different, some might be connected with architecture. Currently, I am in the middle of Christopher’s book ‘Letters to a Young Architect’, I am almost at the end of it. I am in the middle of  With Memory Paul Sheck. I have been reading a lot of Correa because of his passing away recently. So that’s architectural. I enjoy books on history, and archaeology, historical books as well. So I would not say that….I love to travel. So books can be about, especially, the West Asia, I love that part of the world very much and I have travelled a lot through Jordan and Syria and Iran, Lebanon, Israel, I went through all these countries sometimes more than once and I really enjoyed…I have driven through them, so I love historical books. So different things have come my way.

Q If you were to choose one building – which always is on your frame of reference, something that you really would like to revisit. Whether it is modern or historical, there must be a building that is very personal or close to you, if there is one.

I cannot even think of a singular one – there are many that, I know it is a question that one should have an answer for, but I think because of the variety of work I have, the emotional connect that I have is so different. And go back to the village in Kutch which we did in 2001, 2003, 2006, 2009, I would go back to the school I built in Vadodara, when I go to Bengaluru, I go to Westend Hotel, or to Golkuldas Images, I go to many of the houses which I designed because they are still my friends, lot of the people are, campuses, I mean, I am not answering your question because I have got just so many, I think sometimes the little projects like last month three of our projects, in the last couple of months. I think that is indicative of a way of my practice. One was the complete restoration of the Rajabhai Tower, so two weeks ago I climbed to the top. It is restored, the clock was chiming when I was there, it was so loud but I climbed right to the top of the Tower and I saw the entire Oval Maidan and it was so exciting to see everything look so beautiful. The next day the Textile Gallery at the Museum opened which again my studio had designed and they couldn’t have been more different because it was a small textile gallery, the first textile gallery in Mumbai and we spent an enormous amount of time to work with the curators, to work out, really we hoped, an international standard gallery and that gave me a whole different, even the artwork we designed ourselves, using the spindle, and you know, using a completely different scale, and that same week I went to Goa, I had to go to see Goa Institute of Management which in its third phase but that evening, I stayed at a new small resort that we have designed in Baga so I enjoyed being in that resort, having dinner along the, you know, where we had designed the whole open area so just that one week, you know, was my new work, was the Gallery, an interior work, was a restoration project so how do we say that one is in fact special.

Q Tell us about The HECAR Foundation. Why was it incepted, what was the concern behind it? What does it aim to do?

The HECAR Foundation when we started, it is an acronym, for Heritage, Education, Conservation, Architecture and Restoration and I am the Founder Trustee. I started it with a group of friends because I wanted to bring out a book on the Cathedral schools which we had just finished restoring. And unfortunately, that did not work out at that time, but soon after that I decided that I wanted to have an exhibition and a conference on the work of women architects of South Asia which had never been done before. That’s a long story, I wouldn’t get into it now, but HECAR was, has just been formed and then it became the vehicle for me to organise this conference and exhibition. So that’s how it first got known. Subsequently to that, we brought out a document so that was the first document that the HECAR published on Women in Architecture 2000. We call it an Emancipated Place and it was a celebration of women’s work not mourning and groaning but celebrating what women had done. After that, HECAR has brought out a series of books over the years. We have also done other things such as helping, say giving small grants to women in certain colleges, we are trying to grow with, on our next book, we recently got out Nagarajan’s book which as you know gotten released. So we hope that HECAR will move forward and do many many things. So it has been very rewarding. It’s just something that needed to be done to fill a small gap that existed.

The discussion was curated by Ruturaj Parikh on 30th June 2015 at Somaya & Kalappa Consultants studio in Mumbai.

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