Claiming Space/Designing Space: Women Architects in Modern India

Mary Norman Woods

A Recorded Lecture from FRAME Conclave 2019: Modern Heritage

In this lecture, Mary Norman Woods talks about women architects in post-independent India, and their role in Indian society. She also speaks at length about two prominent women architects from two different generations, and their illustrated body of work.

Edited Transcript

Exploring the different forms that architectural practice might take beyond the usual metrics of originality and innovation can complicate our understanding of modern heritage and its implications for contemporary practice. 

Peggy Deamer, US architect, educator, and activist has argued that how architects practice is as important as what they design and build. Writing in 2018, Deamer put forth the proposition that “architecture cannot produce spaces of freedom — public spaces, healthy spaces, accessible spaces, affordable spaces, sensually liberating spaces — for the society architects presume to serve if they are produced in unfree circumstances such as unpaid labour, gender inequality, generational hegemony, unsustainable work hours, non-existence work-life balance, lack of collegiality or discipline, [and] crippling competition.” Her words remind me of a question that Ellen Perry Berkeley, another American architectural critic, writer, and educator, posed exactly four decades ago. Then, Berkeley wrote: “the real problem for a thoughtful woman is not whether she is accepted into the profession, but whether she wants to be accepted into the profession as it is now.”  

Today Berkeley’s question is one for all architects, women and men, here and around the world. How do the ways they work affect what they design and accomplish? How can we imagine and support more humane, enriching, and inclusive practices so architects can thrive as individuals and confront challenges of gentrification, unaffordable housing, ‘starchitecture’ for the one percent, and a dearth of truly public space? 

[03:05]Architecture, like the other professions, has historically been a white gentleman’s occupation. Women, and those of colour have faced obstacles and still do in architecture schools and offices with large rates of attrition in India and elsewhere. Women who persist in the profession have often found other ways of being an architect out of choice or necessity. Their design work may be in different media, and at different scales than those associated with traditional architectural form-making. Ideas and skills they have honed as designers may be deployed for activism and advocacy beyond architecture. In 2014, Architectural Record, a leading American professional journal recognised that women architects have made different kinds of practices and established an awards programme for achievement in diverse areas. Apart from the usual recognition for life-time and emerging design leadership, there is an award for innovation in not just design but also materials and typologies; another for using design skills for social change, the public realm, or pro bono work; and finally one for educating and mentoring young women designers. However, long before these awards, the modern heritage of women architects in India, I will argue here, has much to teach us about expanded fields of practice that resonate within and beyond architecture.

During the Indian Independence struggle, ordinary and extraordinary Indian women claimed spaces for themselves within the places of the British Raj. Even today women in Mumbai are still claiming their right to be in the street at all hours of the night, as well as day.

Women like Sarojini Naidu were leaders of the Independence struggle. A gifted orator, she exhorted Indian women to cast off their veils and leave domestic seclusion for the streets, and other public spaces where the Independence movement took place. In the early 1900s, Naidu proclaimed “It is not you [men], but we [women] who are the true builders of the nation”.

Traditionally, women have literally been builders as head-loaders on construction sites. 

But just before and after independence, a handful of pioneering women architects like Urmila Eulie Chowdhury helped design the new nation. As Prime Minister Nehru acknowledged female emancipation was a hallmark of a modern and independent India. 

In this new nation, he contended, a second and more humane machine-age architecture, which had eluded the West, would take root in ambitious public projects. And since the 1990s, women architects like Shimul Javeri Kadri have grown in number and prominence.  

Indian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s reflected these ideas about women, modernism, and independent India too. 

[06:05] In films like Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420, the teacher Vidya is a traditional sari-clad woman. Unlike the westernised temptress, she possesses a moral compass allowing her to fend off the snares, cruelties, and temptations of modern-day Bombay. At the end of the film she and Raj, her male partner, are reunited and reconciled after his moral lapses. Together, they now behold Nehru’s vision of humane modernism in the modern housing shown in the film’s final frames. Here, Vidya bridges home and the world, tradition and modernity.  Unlike the single career woman finding a foothold in the city, known from Western Feminism, she is the ideal Indian woman embedded in family, community, and the modern nation.

Given the limits of time, I focus on just two women architects: Pravina Mehta and Brinda Somaya. While Mehta was among the first generation of women architects who worked in Nehruvian India, Somaya is from the second generation, entering the profession when Indira Gandhi was in power. They are contrasts in terms of the size, scale, and number of their projects as well as the different historical moments they occupy. However, they share the distinction, rare anywhere in the world, of having established their own practices rather than working with a spouse or other family member. Moreover, Mehta and Somaya have an intense pride in and understanding of Indian history and culture. Protecting and preserving without ossifying India’s built heritage has motivated each woman. Their lives and practices demonstrate other ways of being an architect that women can find.    

Mehta’s father was a prominent jurist and supporter of the Independence struggle. She, her mother, and sister, Malvika participated in mass demonstrations and boycotted British products. In 1942, Mehta was arrested and imprisoned for participating in a Quit India demonstration.

Trained in classical dance and music she performed with her first husband’s dance company. Throughout her life, Mehta wore khadi of high thread count, and exquisite design and craft. Although steeped in tradition, Mehta was far from a traditional woman. She married twice and had no children. Educated in architecture at Sir J J College of Architecture, the first school of architecture in South Asia, Mehta continued her studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology when Mies van der Rohe was Chair of Architecture. Thus she bridged the teaching methods and philosophies of the Bauhaus and those of modern India.

While Mehta’s practice was limited in the number of buildings completed, it was remarkably rich and varied in type for any architect, male or female: houses; schools; factories; warehouses; cultural centres; and educational institutions. Commissioned by family, friends, and her community, many of her buildings no longer survive. [09:05] Mehta, according to those I interviewed, was frustrated that she did not receive commissions for major public projects in the heady first decades after Independence. Her limited corpus of built work, some said, also resulted from an obsessive attention to detail and research. Thus each building she did complete, carried the heavy load of Mehta’s architectural ideas and ambitions.

The Uma Patel House in Kihim from 1962 intrigues because it brought together a woman architect with a strong and independent woman client. The house, long since destroyed, is one of Mehta’s best-documented commissions with photographs, publications, and oral histories I made with Ms Patel, and friends who were guests in her home. Uma Patel’s father, H M Patel was the first finance minister of modern India. She studied agriculture in Britain rather than economics her father sent her there to pursue. Living alone in the Kihim house, she experimented with poultry breeding there. Given her client’s love of white shorts, Mehta had to consider seclusion and privacy for a house sited in what was then a small village. In a socialist India intent to be self-sufficient, air conditioning imported from abroad was out of the question. Thus Mehta designed passively cooled spaces: a courtyard, thick walls, overhanging roofs and canopy, deep reveals for multiple windows, and preserving trees around the house.

While she drew on Corbusier’s and Correa’s Ahmedabad houses, she emphasised the incorporation of elaborately carved wooden doors and other traditional elements.

Mehta’s repurposing of tradition in a modern house spoke to the juxtapositions of past and present so characteristic of India’s modern heritage and still the reality of contemporary life. It also alluded to the handcrafted nature of an Indian modern heritage where concrete for the structural frame was mixed and poured on-site with infill walls of brick.

Mehta’s sense of juxtaposing past and present resonates today in engineer Shoshanna Saxe’s recent warnings about our enthusiasm for smart cities dependent on complex, expensive, fragile, high maintenance, and short-lived technologies. Saxe’s reservations apply equally well to smart architectures dependent on these same technologies. Mehta, I think, would understand Saxe’s calls for excellent “dumb cities” that temper the new with proven and sustainable design ideas and methods.  

Mehta’s contributions to modern heritage are more than just her limited corpus of executed buildings.

When she returned to India from the US in 1956, she travelled on her own to study, draw, and photograph villages and temples across India. She used these same methods to study and document Bombay’s streets, spaces, and buildings.

[12:06] The latter research informed the plans she, Charles Correa, and Shirish Patel designed for a new Bombay in 1964. Mehta was also involved with Correa’s 1986 Vistara exhibition and publication. Part of the Festival of India, this international exhibition rooted ancient and contemporary Indian architecture in traditional philosophies and imaginaries. Carmen Kagal, editor of the catalog said Mehta was deeply involved with Vistara and worked closely with Correa. And the latter trusted, Kagal continued, Mehta’s instincts and knowledge of Indian tradition. Carmel Berkson, American art historian and photographer, met Mehta in the 1970s and called her one of the few Indians who then cared about “retrieving the connection between past and present.” 

Mehta research and documentation of Indian architecture, past and present, enriched her teaching at Sir J J College of Architecture and the Academy of Architecture as well as the work of her office. She took her students, interns, and office assistants on research trips in Bombay and beyond, as they developed projects. Her adherence to honest and ethical practices deeply impressed many of these young men and women. Mehta eschewed the kickbacks and bribes that marked the practices of many architects. Thus Mehta’s work was notable for its range and scope as well as for the way she conducted her practice. 

Yet, Peggy Deamer would hardly consider Mehta’s practice collegial, collaborative, or family-friendly. Mehta was fiery and opinionated. She had no patience with clients who asked her to remedy practical problems created by her designs. Mehta was not so sympathetic to women with families, like her erstwhile partner Hema Sankalia, who needed a better work-life balance. Mehta undoubtedly modelled her professional persona on familiar male models, if not stereotypes, of the architect.  While acknowledging difficulties she faced because of her gender, she bristled at being called a woman architect. Instead, she was always an Indian architect intent on creating a modern heritage. 

Growing up in the post-Independence era, Brinda Somaya is part of the ‘bridge generation’, as she calls it, between the modern Masters of post-Independence, and the current generation of architects. Like Mehta, she continued her education abroad after receiving an architecture degree from Sir J J College of Architecture. Unlike Mehta, however, Somaya pursued a Master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Smith College rather than a post-graduate course in architecture. Smith, an all-women college, taught Somaya, her daughter and collaborator Nandini Somaya Sampat believes, to hold her own in the architectural profession, corporate boardroom, and governmental bodies. According to several of her clients, they choose Somaya because she listens and empathises with their needs and aspirations. [15:06] The family who owns Parle Biscuits and Confectionery gave Somaya one of her first large commissions, an office and wheat storage facility for their Mumbai manufacturing plant. Some four decades later they have commissioned her to repurpose her old and other buildings on the site as an IT campus with housing, green space, and recreational facilities. Somaya also listens and dialogues with workers on her construction sites, artists and artisans she commissions, and village councils and everyday users and occupants of her buildings. Unlike Mehta who worked closely with powerful male professionals, Somaya recalls her early decades of practice as “quite self-contained … and [ I ] introspected and it gave me the time to build my own portfolio.” Moreover, Somaya has a life outside her practice and architecture. She frequently credits her husband, sister (also an architect), and two children for their support of her, and her work.

Hers is an unusual practice, especially in the West, for its dedication to both contemporary design and heritage conservation. India’s heritage, Somaya says, is about the real pleasure we take in the rich and complex layering of buildings over time. Moreover, older buildings, she writes, are “real resources in terms of materials, energy, and labour expended [especially] because we cannot build everything anew in India.” The office has a staff of about 80 members with now more than 200 projects to its credit. As Ruturaj Parikh has astutely written, ‘Somaya’s office also has the aims and methods of an atelier and an alternative practice with its commitment to research, discourse, exhibition, publication, community projects, and pro bono work.’

In the early 2000s Somaya designed her first IT campus, a building type emblematic of 21st-century India, for Zensar Technologies in Pune. Somaya and her team drafted a master plan that emphasised place-making on an otherwise nondescript sloping site.

Trees, lawns, pathways, water bodies, terracing, and meandering walls of local stone have created spaces of privacy and community as respites from work and meetings. These features also provide shade and passive cooling. As the landscape has grown and matured over the years, the contemporary buildings now seem to exist within a much older site. The architecture here, Somaya notes, is not an isolated sculptural object.  Instead, it responds to and connects with the landscape. And she has had the advantage of working overtime here too. Like her Parle clients, Zensar has returned again and again with its complex, now entering its fourth phase of development.

Although Somaya now designs master plans and large-scale structures, she said the God of smaller projects watched over her early years of practice. [18:03] But this deity still continues to do so today. She is committed to taking on small-scale projects like the design of stalls for flower sellers at a temple outside of Mumbai. The temple trustees commissioned her to reorganise and renovate the space in front of the temple and remove the flower vendors to a more distant site. When the vendors refused to relocate, Somaya listened to their grievances and came up with stalls closer to the temple, incorporating the raised platforms (for overnight storage of their wares), and poles for display of garlands that the vendors wanted. This experience taught her, Somaya says, that “architects need to always ask themselves what is our role, whom are we building for, and what are their needs and aspirations?” She is clear-eyed about such projects, often done pro bono, writing they demand “patience and perseverance, water-tight budgets, and constant negotiation and deep dialogue.” She has also undertaken the cause of construction workers on her sites, stipulating they have proper safety gear, sanitation, and other facilities as well as crèches and schools for their children.

All this is a marked contrast to Bourke-White’s photograph of women on a modern Indian construction site taken 70 years ago.

Somaya has created dialogues beyond design and construction site as one of the founders of HECAR, a trust dedicated to heritage, education, conservation, architecture and restoration. Under its auspices, she has organised events like the 2000 conference on women architects in South Asia, the first such gathering of its kind. Twenty years later she is now planning an international conference on women in design that includes conservation, planning, film, education, journalism, and architecture. HECAR has also pursued an ambitious programme of publications like the 2000 Women in Architecture and the recent study of Sindhi culture, the latter an exquisite object of design in itself. 

Exhibition design as with the recent “India and the World” is another scale of design for Somaya and her team. Her knowledge of designing spaces for objects and visitors challenged and inspired my Cornell students for the small-scale exhibit they curated, designed, and installed about pleasures of the night at our Johnson Museum.

Taking charge of her own archive and legacy, Somaya published a monograph of her practice in 2018. It breaks with the traditional architectural monographs in that contributions of users, clients, consultants, historians, and colleagues from her office and around the world are part of its text and imagery. Thus the monograph, like her practice, depends on dialogues and collaborations. Re-photographing projects for the publication, Somaya was not hesitant to depict alterations to her original designs as at the Jubilee Church.

Without her involvement, the congregation erected a blue roofing sheet over the church terrace to accommodate additional services in different languages. [21:06] Admittedly not happy with their solution, she eventually came to understand the urgency and financial constraints that motivated it. Such alterations, she writes in the monograph, demonstrate that “the building is used well beyond its capacity and [this] confirms my belief in the architecture.” In her monograph, Somaya also wrote: “I believe that all architecture practices that are inclusive and span our diverse population, be it economic or cultural, provide us with great satisfaction. Therefore the motivation for inclusion and diversity should not come only from the desire to create a just society, but also because it leads to better and more powerful creative processes and solutions.” On the other side of the world, Peggy Deamer and other architectural activists would surely agree with Somaya. As students, educators, historians, critics, and curators we need to valorise and make visible different kinds of architects like Mehta and Somaya who expand the field of practice. Reclaiming and repurposing the modern Indian heritage in the practices that Mehta, Somaya, and other architects (female and male) have created are crucial as we face architectural and existential challenges of the 21st century.♦


Professor Mary N Woods teaches urban and architectural history at Cornell University, where she was the first to hold the Michael A McCarthy Endowed Chair in Architectural Theory. Woods has received fellowships from: Fulbright in India, Graham Foundation; Canadian Centre for Architecture; American Council of Learned Society; and American Institute of Indian Studies. In 2018, she was awarded the Tau Sigma Delta Silver Medal for Distinguished Scholarship in Architecture. Her books include: From Craft to Profession: Architectural Practice in 19th-Century America (1999); Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs of the American Built Environment (2009); and Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi (2016). She is presently working on a documentary film about ‘Indian Migration and Cinema Halls’ with filmmaker Vani Subramanian.


FRAME is an independent, biennial professional conclave on contemporary architecture in India curated by Matter and organised in partnership with H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society. The intent of the conclave is to provoke thought on issues that are pertinent to pedagogy and practice of architecture in India. The first edition was organised on 16th, 17th and 18th August 2019.

Organisation and Curation: MATTER
Supported by:
H & R Johnson (India) and Takshila Educational Society


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