[AUDIO LOGO] BRINDA SOMAYA: Thank you. Thank you, Luben. Good evening to all of you. It's truly a pleasure and a privilege to be here this evening. I would like to begin by thanking a few people amongst I'm sure many others who made this possible.
I'd like to begin by thanking Professor Robert Weiss, the chair of the AD White Committee. Professor Meejin Yoon, Professor Porus Olpadwala, who's not here but a very dear friend of mine, and Professor Mary Wood who has held my hand through many years. A true privilege of knowing her, and I would like to particularly thank her.
I would like to thank Robert Balder and Marta for the exhibition that you very kindly organized and preserved the panel so carefully for many years ago. And Martha Walter for the library exhibition. That was very nicely done.
Cindy, she's the one who coordinated with all my people in Mumbai. Thank you so much. It means a lot when you come to a faraway country for everyone to be welcoming and to make arrangements so well, and made every part of this trip seamless. And of course, Luben, Professor Luben Dimcheff, for his very kind introduction and support today.
So architecture like civilization is dynamic and ever-evolving. While exciting architecture is being built all over the world and thus expanding the vocabulary of contemporary architecture, we architects working in India have to find our balance in design, enabling us to be part of the new and creative experiments ahead, as well as be part of what has gone before.
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. 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.
Robert Campbell said there are, of course, prominent pundits today who believe we live in a single global culture. I'm of the opposite persuasion. That's what he said. I tend to agree.
I think one of the most important things that architecture can do precisely is to create the differences before the whole planet mixes and matches into the same gray soup everywhere. The only way to do that is to be very sensitive and responsive to whatever's genuinely different in the site, the culture, the climate, and the protagonist of the space, man or woman. Is this what turns the next slide? I guess so.
BRINDA SOMAYA: Oh. [LAUGHS] That's what I've hidden here. OK. So this is a picture from an exhibition that my studio designed called India and the World. And I'm showing it today because I've also named Shared Desire for Dignity. That's the name of my presentation today.
So what makes a society civilized, and hence dignified? There is no single answer that defines and explains a civilized society. It is my belief that what one person might believe as wild and uncivilized may actually have great depth and meaning to another society. Coming from the East but having lived and studied in the West, my interpretation will naturally reflect my personal thoughts and experiences.
In my architectural practice, which is diverse in every way, be it contextual, geographical, or cultural, I have always believed that we have to have a deep engagement with society. Our studio was a designer of a landmark exhibition India and the World: A History in Nine Stories. The objects we worked with exhibited huge differences in our cultures, how interconnected our world is in every way, and the beauty and rich historical narratives derived from each object. There were over 200 objects for this exhibition.
The Discobulus or Discus Thrower from 100 to 200 AD, the Roman copy over here in marble after the original Greek statue, is one of the most famous sculptures from the ancient world and the British Museum. It shows an idealized athlete, naked, refined, and eternally youthful, seemingly captured in the moment before releasing the discus.
Hanuman, one of the central characters of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, and the Discobulus represent the citizens of their worlds, East and West. Although their forms differed, they collectively transcended time and space, defining a global citizen.
Kenneth Clark says the moment thus captured in the statue-- Discobulus-- is an example of rhythm, harmony, and balance. The Discobulus portrayed that a civilized society needs harmony with nature, balance, beliefs and thinking, rhythm through music and dance. And Hanuman with strength, a conviction of justice and truth, heroic initiative with innovative thinking, and assertive excellence, standing up for one's own and others' rights and beliefs, but in a calm and positive way.
And so in architecture as we need to have rhythm, harmony, and balance in our design, we also need to have strength, heroic initiative, and assertive excellence. The architect's role is that of a guardian. He or she is the conscience of the built and the unbuilt environment. We are connected with every aspect of life and living. These are some of the qualities which have been handed down to us over centuries in different ways and from different parts of the world that I believe makes a society civilized, and hence dignified.
So of course, Mahatma Gandhi, he believed that "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." And I think that's really important for us all to understand. We don't have to be all the time putting our points across. But how do we make the difference?
So naturally, I'm an Indian, and whatever I am comes from my heritage. It reflects, of course, in my work in many ways. So I'll show a few slides of 1947 when India actually became free. And this is the image of that particular-- the stroke of the midnight hour. I'm giving a little background to show you what-- I was born soon after independence, and migration, the partition of Pakistan and India was the biggest migration that ever took place in human history.
The photograph in the center is the library in Kolkata, which was the capital of Bengal at that time, who had to divide the books between Pakistan and India. And how do you do that? And of course, the pictures to the right and left showed the migration both west and east between the two countries.
So when Nehru-- Jawaharlal Nehru came in as our first prime minister, he did a three-pronged attack. He believed that India had to have law, we had to have economic stability, and we had to build institutions.
So the picture in the middle is how the women were working in 1947. This is a coal mine in Central India. I don't know how different things are today, so that's another story. And to the right is the birth of the first Indian Institute of Technology. Today, we have many of them. They send Indian engineers around the world, and especially to your Silicon Valley as well.
But Nehru also encouraged other parts. He encouraged photographers. The upper left is Homai Vyarawalla, who was one of the first woman photographers of India. Her photographs of Nehru, Lady Mountbatten, Lord Mountbatten are still extremely famous, even today.
And we had the artist movement to the right where we had people like Raza and Husain, Ara. They changed the idea of colonial expression of art. I dare not talk too much because I know we have some well-known artists here today. But they brought in an Indian modernism in art. Today, their art sells for millions of dollars.
The picture to the bottom left is Dr. Homi Bhabha who brought in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Science, and of course atomic energy also to India. And to the right, Charles and Ray Eames who were brought into India, but through the Ford Foundation and Nehru to set up the first design institute called the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.
So many things were being done at that time. Of course, many of you know about Corbusier and Kahn, but there was much more. I'm sure many of that actually Nehru went to Jane Drew. She was very busy with Maxwell Fry in Africa. And it was she who suggested that Corbusier come in and work in India.
But there were women, Indian women working too at that time. And this woman is Eulie Chowdhury who worked a lot in Chandigarh behind the Pierre Jeanneret. But these were the hidden figures whom many people don't know about or don't talk about.
They talk about the masters. The men masters, of course. Correa, Kanvinde, Raje, Doshi, who just won the Pritzker, Rahman, and Rewal. But we had many women working at that time too. Perin Mistri was the first Indian woman architect. Pravina Mehta worked very closely with Charles Correa. Didn't get much credit, though, I have to say. And so on and so forth.
So Luben mentioned about the bridge generation. I was six years old when I went to Nalanda, which was the ancient monastery built of red brick in Central India. And I decided I wanted to become an archaeologist. I became an architect. Second best, maybe.
And the other day I was looking at a film in the National Geographic about this woman archaeologist called Pepi who's trying to find Alexander's grave in Alexandria in Egypt. And she looked like she was having a lot of fun, so I don't know if I missed out on something.
And these are pictures of my parents. Luben has already mentioned them. I grew up in the city of Mumbai. And we were young architects. I studied at the JJ. We visited, of course, the standard Taj Mahal and Corbusier's buildings.
And then the picture to the left is the work I did actually at Cornell under Alan Chimacoff. It was a stadium. And I got a master's from Smith College.
And then I went back to India. So in 1973, '74, I went back to India with poor communication and little or no patronage from the government. But I built. We struggled. This was the shed I began my work on, a young woman in a sari, quite isolated. We had a national emergency as well, but we built. And from 1978 to 2022, I think that's what we did.
So talking about the projects, there must be very few countries in the world where architects have such varied challenges as we have in South Asia today. Our involvement ranges from upgradation of slums to large corporate and public buildings, wonderful, exciting, and fulfilling tasks that span our careers and take us from being high-tech professionals to barefoot architects.
Our Indian traditions are a source of inspiration to us architects as we attempt to infuse meaning into our work. The contemporary architecture of India today is the built expression of an interaction between a global culture and a rich past. Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions were followed by the colonial influence.
And finally post-independence, the legacies of Corbusier, Kahn, and other Indian masters. In fact, some might shrink from the idea of an Indian architecture at all.
So what I have done today is I have chosen four projects. I have chosen one. We have a very-- sort of an inclusive and diverse practice, one project from what I call culture, one project from conservation, contemporary project, and one community project. And each one of them I've ended with a short-- a very short audio video as well.
So coming-- I began with this. We love to do different types of galleries. Money and coin, jewelry, textiles. We have a very rich tradition in India.
But I'm showing this because this is a living bridge. And this is regenerative architecture. This is what we've got to do today. These bridges are made in Northeastern India, and they are made from the roots, living roots of the ficus tree. They live for 500 years. They don't need-- they're not ever destroyed. And they function beautifully and organically.
And I think that's what we've got to think. How do we work, as I mentioned earlier, about the rhythm and working with nature? So to understand India, we must understand this relationship with the outside world as well.
So this was the exhibition, India and the World. We worked-- it was the first exhibition where the British Museum brought over 200 of their objects to India. We were the designers. And we worked with the Delhi museum and 20 other Indian private and public museums.
So it was a wonderful experience for our studio, working between London, Mumbai, and Delhi, deciding, what were the objects that we had to choose? Because it was to celebrate 70 years of India's independence, and the exhibition showcased over 200 objects and works of art, not only from the collection of the British Museum, but as I mentioned, around 20 other museums and private collections.
It highlighted the strong connections Indians shared historically with the rest of the world, promoting an exchange of ideas and influences that have helped create a global culture. The exhibition was divided into nine sections with different narratives.
So I'll run through this. We saw how carefully the objects were being looked after. And we worked with the British curators, and of course, the Indian curators as well. And then we had many workshops.
I'm showing this to you because I truly believe that architecture is not about individuals and not about stars. It is so much a collaborative profession. I can't think of any other profession which needs so many different people and so many diverse thoughts and ideas from various other verticals to truly come up with something that's worthwhile. So we had a lot of exciting discussions. We learned so much over a year.
And then we came to the actual physical exhibition. It was in a very, very important museum, the biggest museum in Mumbai. It was the Prince of Wales, but now it's the CSMVS. And we had to decide about the objects.
So we talked about storytelling, conversations. What is a universal and 21st century museum? What is the story that a museum today has to tell? Does it have to be experiential? What is the communication? And to whom does it have to communicate, depending upon where it is located?
So the Western world believes time moves on a linear path. India believes time moves in a circle. At least, ancient India. So there are high points and low points, but time is alive. It doesn't just move on and on. It is continuously on a circle.
So based on that, we worked the concept out for this exhibition. And since India and Mumbai is so crowded, we had to bring the people in through a dark space to ensure a spatial experience, a vortex, and then brought them in to the actual exhibition itself.
So beginning with the rotunda, all this came from England, brought into India. So you can imagine how exciting it was. Here's the Discobulus coming in, and here it is after we actually put it in the museum itself, the entrance as we move through.
So there were nine parts, the Shared Beginnings right from the [? acts ?] to the First Cities of Mohenjo-daro, of Egypt, and of Mesopotamia. How did we do it? We use the Harappa plans and brought them onto the walls, onto the flooring.
And then we came to the great empires of Chandragupta Maurya and the beginning of the Buddhist religion, how it was spread, the grand, regal aspects of India through the 10th to the 12th centuries. And so we had a lot of very, very important objects which talked to each other. I don't have enough time to go into detail.
And then we came to Picturing the Divine. And why this was important to show-- you see two pictures here. You see a wooden Christ and you see a stone Ganesh, the elephant god. So you would assume where each one came from.
But the elephant god actually came from Indonesia, and the wooden Christ was made in Goa, which is a part of India. So this is what we're talking about, cross-culture, and how we all in many ways, not being a gray soup, but have a lot of connections with each other.
India is a peninsula. There was a lot of exchange through the oceans. Roman jewelry has been found in India. Indian textiles have been found in Egypt. And of course, then we went through the Mughal period, the Islamic period, and ended up with the Quest for Freedom, which is the last 200 years where we used the idea of a jail, a jali, a grill.
And then went through this very famous Amrita Sher-Gil painting, which you see. She was a famous part-Indian, part-European artist. And the contradiction between the white and the brown, the white man and the brown, or man or woman, or whatever. And how does that reflect in her work, and how does that reflect today? Who are we all actually?
And it ended with Time Bound. It was a very famous artist called [? Palur. ?] This is a typical Nataraj or Shiva, the dancing god. It usually has the dancing god in the center.
But this artist says that today what has become for us to worship is money, money and concrete. And that's what he filled the dancing god with.
And this is Rahu. We ended it with this. He eats time. He's the actual eater of time. So how do we manage so many things in our lives, and how does time work within our experiences?
The team who worked, I'm going to show you. This is the Nandi bull, which is the vehicle of the vahana of Shiva also. And it's a very venerable institution, so to say. And it was brought in at the beginning of the exhibition and it ends with what I explained to you of the dancing Shiva. So you can see India still brings in things in very, very different ways. This is one short audio at the end of this section.
- [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
BRINDA SOMAYA: So each one of the Indian ancient gods, whether it was Shiva, Vishnu, or Brahma, the creation, existence, destruction all had vehicles to move. And this was always kept at the entrance of a temple. So for this exhibition, it was kept right at the entrance of the exhibition with the Discobulus behind it.
- [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
BRINDA SOMAYA: So that's the final picture of the first section. Let me go into conservation. We've conserved over the years-- I showed this yesterday at the lecture of Professor Jennings, the Rajabai Clocktower and various others. But today, I'm showing you-- we won the competition for the restoration of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Louis Kahn's work, of course.
It's a sad story today, but I'll tell you a little bit about what we have done. So the competition that we won included the 18 dormitories and the Louis Kahn Plaza, the library building, the faculty building, and the classroom block. So those were the buildings that were what was part of our competition.
Over the years, they were built in the '60s. There was interventions. Maintenance was difficult. The quality of construction itself needed much to be desired. So there was a lot of deterioration. These are some images of the buildings as they were.
There were no drawings. We actually had to get measured drawings done. I went to the University of Philadelphia to the Louis Kahn archives for my research, and we found some wonderful old pictures that were done-- were taken many, many years ago.
And this I found when I started the restoration process. It was a world planner, which was up in the office room. And if you see on the 17th of March, they've said Professor Kahn died, and that's all they have written. So he actually passed away after a visit to India.
This was the experimental arch which he built because he was studying about the arch. He wasn't very happy with the type of construction. And we did condition mapping. The buildings were in a very difficult state. We had to do NDT tests. This is actually a lecture in itself.
But I'm just showing you the pointing existed. This is how the pointing was done at that time. It was not recessed. It was done in this manner. And there was a lot of deterioration in the structure, the concrete that was used, exposed power and steel. So we prepared the conservation plans and then began the work.
So this is the plaza which I talked about. So we had to restore the fabric. We had to upgrade the interiors of the library. I'm just going to talk about the library building today. And how do we make it more relevant for what is used by young people today, but without diminishing the value?
So a lot of drawings were prepared for this project. These were drawings my studio prepared. And then of course, there are a lot of earthquakes in that area, and the buildings had suffered from the 2000 earthquakes. But luckily, the library building plan was designed in such a way that it had a lot of stability within its form itself.
So there are some images of pre and post-restoration. You can see the photographs. We had to actually chamfer each brick. For the flat arches we had to rebuild-- all reconstructed, all the flat arches.
And then we had to create-- the terraces were leaking. Some of the slabs had broken and given away. We had to do what we call the mosaic, China mosaic. We actually break up little tiles and then use it for the waterproofing.
And then how do we make the library relevant today in terms of light, in terms of the way the students use it without destroying the magnificent triple height and the relationship that Kahn had done in his designs of the volumes and the spaces and the connections of this building with all the other buildings?
So this is post-restoration, just some images I'm showing you. It won the UNESCO Award of Distinction. And these are the students now who are working in that. New signage was brought in.
So what was the process? This was a picture of the library before we took it over, and these were the condition of the slabs. So here we are talking to people and actually trying to educate and teach the workmen who were working how restoration of something like this would take place, because it certainly wasn't a standard restoration process. And in the middle of all this, the institute wanted to have their convocation, so we had to temporarily stop the work and then continue it after that.
So these were the spaces, the lighting. We also took of all the artwork that existed. It's very precious. It's a type of applique work, and it's been sent to Delhi now. We hope it'll be repaired and put back where it originally was.
But what's happened unfortunately is that after this happened and it won the award, a decision was taken by the institute about the demolition of the dormitory buildings. We had restored one. We chose the worst one to restore. And I personally feel that they could have been restored.
We don't know what is going to happen. It's still in limbo. But I took the decision that I would withdraw from the project because I certainly did not want to be party to the demolition of any part of this basic, important core of Kahn's work.
At this point in time, we had begun some work on the faculty building, but it is status quo. We are waiting to see what exactly is going to happen. This is a small clip of what I said soon after the library building was opened.
- I don't want you to miss the most important factor of what the IIMA has done today and what a legacy they're going to leave behind. And what is the message that they're sending? We know what happened recently to Hall of Nations and some other things which are brought down, unfortunately. So we have to learn and understand that the conservation of our heritage includes 20th century work as well.
So this is what happened to the Hall of Nations, and this is what's happening to many buildings in our country. These icons are in distress. And the question really is now in a country which is ancient [? as us ?] where we have 10,000 listed monuments of the Archaeological Society of India, how do we convince them that 20th century architecture also has value? So it's a fight. It's a battle. I don't know if we'll win or lose. But you can see what is happening in certain parts of India.
The third is contemporary architecture. What I want to tell students is that a practice can be diverse. It can be inclusive. It can span community, culture, conservation, but you can also do contemporary work.
And each one of these can be done well. It's not that you just-- that if you do more than one discipline that you are less worthy than somebody who concentrates only in that one discipline. I tell young people in India where we have so much to look after, where we have to think of a circular economy, where we have to save embodied energy, that each one of us architects, when we build new we have to conserve. We have to look after a country which has 400 million poor people. And how do we do all that together?
But we can build new. That's a different type of creativity and a different type of experience. So we do a lot of institutional buildings, management buildings. We've done contemporary churches. Some of our work is, of course, in the book in the library as well.
So this project was the hundred-acre piece of land, and we had to build a million square feet. And it was very flat. There were really no geographical points of interest like mountains, but there was a river which was quite close by called the Narmada River. It was the only river in India which flows from east to west and not west to east. It was a campus for Tata Consultancy Services, which is one of the biggest IT companies in the world, actually.
So tread the land lightly, always. Listen to the land. Put your ear to the land and hear it whisper. That's all very important. And we use the idea of the metaphor of a river, the Narmada River, which is very close. So we understood the client, and we believed that this river-- our civilizations in India grew up on riverbeds because of agriculture, and the city is like-- all ancient civilizations grew up along most of them, along the riverbed, along the river.
So we divided the campus into three courses, the upper, middle, and the lower course. And we made sure that the central plaza which flowed from the upper, middle, and lower course that no cars could enter there. The cars were parked outside and it was purely pedestrian.
So the upper course was a tank, a [NON-ENGLISH], or water body. And then the middle course was the rocks, which were very jagged. And finally, it goes into the Arabian Sea or the Gulf of Khambhat. So that was the concept because we had to think of, how do we make a campus of a million square feet not glass boxes? Which is happening in so many parts of India.
So we began work. To the left is the site plan. And you can see that the whole center is actually a plaza. It was complex. We had to blow up architecturally each portion. You can see the plans. The landscaping was important. But it was lots of fun.
And the landscape that we used, the greenery that we used was very relative to that area. We didn't bring in any occidental or Western-type trees, which had come into India, which need a lot of water, which don't grow so well. So it was quite a wild sort of plantation that existed and where the students can walk and go through.
And the artwork and the interiors also reflected the river and the colors of the river. We used a lot of local craftspeople. These are some drawings we did first of the project, and this is after completion. This is the entrance. These are the water bodies that we have created, recycling. It is a very sustainable campus in every way.
And the landscape, as I explained to you, is not green grass. The idea of lawn is very, very foreign to India. We never had the idea of lawns because they take a lot of water. It was very much brought in by the British. So a lot of areas, we're going back to removing the idea of green lawns. We can't afford it. We don't have the water for it. We don't have the soil for it. And I do believe that water's going to be a very, very major issue in the next, I don't know, maybe 50 years or so.
And these are the interiors. They're straightforward and simple. And you'll be happy to see, today Mary took me to your ornithology-- beautiful park, which I thoroughly enjoyed seeing. But I'm happy to tell you that first we just did a sculpture of birds, but now the lower two pictures are the birds that are actually coming back to the campus because of the water and the greenery. And the next is-- this is a small clip of a young girl who works in the campus and what she has to say.
- Vibrant campus of TCS situated in the most livable city of India. That is Indore. So let's have a look at the TCS Indore campus.
Sprawling across 100 acres of land, the world class facility is inspired by the flow of Narmada, and it is divided into three parts. The upper block represents the origin of Narmada. That is the Amarkantak Hills. And as Narmada flows across the Rift Valley, we have a similar structure of slanted metal blocks which depict the [INAUDIBLE], the Maikal Mountains.
And the lower block represents the calm of Narmada when it reaches to the Gulf of Khambhat. The facility has a fully functional, state-of-the-art multipurpose hall, information resource center, gymnasium, two cafeterias, and an amphitheater.
BRINDA SOMAYA: So these are images of during the construction. You can see the scale, the people working. And I'm showing you this slide because it leads on to something. This is the workers' quarters. And we were finally able to ensure that the workers, men and women, had a proper place to stay.
This was a battle that I have been fighting for many years. And construction labor is one of the largest informal groups and highly neglected labor in India. They don't have any proper protection and they're really not looked after well.
So I'm showing you this picture to show the women over here that finally, after 40 years of working, I was able to ensure that they had their helmets, they had jackets, they had shoes. They're carrying their lunch and they're going to work.
And the women-- the shared desire for dignity for women in construction, women in design, and women in crafts is really something that we have to fight very hard for in our country. In 1985, I won a competition with some others for a hotel in the erstwhile Soviet Union. I was in my 30s and there were very few Indian women working in India.
And whatever Ukraine and Russia might be doing today, when I went there for the first time I found that there were women structural engineers, women in MEP, mechanical, electrical, in all the different disciplines. And it was an eye opener for me that I saw so many Russian women who were in the field of construction. So it did in some way-- this is the hotel. It's still standing.
And in 2000 when I was building a factory, I had to fight even to get a playground for the children of the workers because there's no organized worker. It's truly exploitation in many ways.
So we began to introduce into our bills of quantities and our specifications and our tender documents that the contractors who make a lot of money, this is the minimum that they have to do. Women always get the worst work to do. They carry the cement concrete on their heads. They carry the bricks on their heads.
This was another project where I talked to these women. We managed to get them helmets at least. It was 2000. And there was a group of seven women, and I asked them what they did with their children because they didn't have anyone to help. So they said they formed a group of seven. Six of them came to work and the one who stayed behind looked after their children. And when they went back in the evening, they would share their daily wages with all seven.
So it's always a struggle. And I think it's the responsibility of each one of us to ensure that construction labor, whether it's men, women, or children, have to be looked after. And I'm very sorry to say that there's a lot of exploitation of construction labor in Gulf countries also. And we have architects from the Western world who have actually said that it really is not their responsibility, but it is. It is their responsibility.
We started a small school. The contractor said he cannot have a school. It's too expensive. So we said, at least have a classroom. Keep the children. They might be of different ages, but at least they will be protected and safe during the day.
So what we've tried to do is we don't want them to be doing what the left picture says. There is a self-employed women's organization in Ahmedabad which is teaching women to become masons and carpenters.
And I was so impressed once coming to an American site and seeing women who are working, who were welding. You never see that in India. They're never carpenters. They're never masons. They're always carrying loads on their head. And now I have worked-- many people have worked-- it's not me-- to teach them to become painters and get some other work in the construction industry, because the construction industry is the single biggest industry in our country.
I also started the Hecar Foundation. We had two conferences. One is Women in Architecture in 2000 and one was Women in Design. There's a short clip of mine of Women in Architecture, which is self-explanatory.
- 20 years ago, over 200 architects from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Australia got together to celebrate.
- We all have had common traditions, problems, and aspirations. We all come from countries that have a multiplicity of civilizations and enjoy a cultural heritage of genius and beauty. These traditions are a source of inspiration to us architects as we attempt to infuse meaning into our work.
- 25 women exhibited their work at the National Gallery of Modern Art to express the collective power of women in architecture. We celebrated the work of South Asia's first three women architects, Yasman Lahiri from Pakistan.
- Morning, ladies and gentlemen. I bring greetings from women of Pakistan.
- Minnette de Silva from Sri Lanka.
- Minnette would have loved to be here. She is the type of person who would have [? hardly ?] enjoyed this type of meeting.
- And Perin Mistri, the first woman to qualify as an architect in India. 20 years later, we welcome back many more old and new friends who join us this year to a conference that spans three days with 35 speakers and over 600 delegates and an exhibition of the past, present, and future of design seen through the eyes of a diverse set of design professionals, captured forever in a digital archive. Welcome to Women in Design 2020+.
BRINDA SOMAYA: And this was in 2020, and we've got Meejin here. She came as with many other of my good friends, Billie, whom we have worked on a project together, Annabelle and Cathleen.
So what I want to say here before I go on to the last section, that tides are rising. Highways are unfurling. Tunnels are being bored. Bridges are being erected. Yet quietly, even insidiously, they seem devoid of women.
On two of my recent sites, there wasn't a single woman. The construction industry is the single largest unorganized sector in India. If they don't have women working there, what do you think is going to happen?
In India, female participation in the labor force across the board has fallen from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2018. The pandemic probably made things even worse. The statistics for those working in architecture must be even more alarming.
Being a woman on a construction site in any capacity is challenging. Architecture and construction is technically and physically challenging. It's a challenging profession and a challenging industry. As more women are found working successfully in these spaces, we are still in the minority, whether it is ensuring the safety and working conditions for women labor to women supervisors being able to manage male labor, female site supervisors, architects, or design consultants that have to lead projects, the challenges in these spaces are many.
This is where mentorship is critical. And women can be inspired by the stories of challenges being innovatively and bravely taken on by women professionals. Women must raise the spirit of each other, and it is important for men to understand this and be an integral part of this movement forward.
So we also had an exhibition of textiles done by rural women. You can see the sophistication of the design that these two women did from a very small village in India. This is what they said.
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BRINDA SOMAYA: I also worked with Tod and Billie, who are doing the Obama library for many years where we actually wove very large fabrics, created looms. And we also have done different types of artwork in many corporate buildings.
Recently during the pandemic, we had to redo an entire building in Mumbai, and the client gave us money. I think in countries like Germany almost-- I don't know the exact percentage, but a certain percentage of a project has to be given to artwork. We fight for that.
And what we did during the pandemic, we hired 200 not-so-well-known artists and we got them to use repurposed wood, e-waste, magazines to do the entire artwork for this full building recently at one-- actually, an honorable mention from the Chicago Athenaeum. So many, many ways one can work and help the crafts, which is dominated actually by women all over the world.
So where women are concerned, before I go into the last section, "And what of all those nameless hands that chiseled and carved, hauled and lifted, placed and set each block of someone else's dream and made it real, then walked away into the invisible footnotes of history."
So my last section is a community project. We do a fair amount of pro-bono work. I think it's important in a relatively mixed rich and poor country like India is today that this can be done, whether it's converting garbage dumps into parks, whether it's looking after the girl child orphans.
So I visited the Roosevelt Museum a couple of years ago, and I just loved this saying, that "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." And I thought he's really said something very, very important.
So this was a village which was completely devastated-- some of you may have seen this before-- by the earthquake. This is a photograph of the school. And it was Republic Day. It was cold. It was a very severe earthquake. It was the same earthquake that hit some of the buildings-- Kahn's buildings in Ahmedabad.
90% of this village was devastated, and this is what the government was doing. It was finding pieces of land that were empty, ta, ta, ta, ta on a grid building houses, identical houses. They didn't really care who was next to whom, what they had.
So when I went to this village, a client of mine decided to fund it for whom I did other corporate work. So it was-- we had a good understanding. I would do his corporate work and I would do his free work as well.
So we actually mapped out the village. We found out who lived next to who. And the woman to the right with the pink shirt, she was the tough boss of the entire village. And but for her, I don't think we could have done what we did. So the essence of dignity is, who are we in the world, and what is it that each one of us deserves?
So we went around the village. We spoke to people. We spent a lot of time there. And to cut a long story short, what we really did was we provided the materials because they were very depressed, the villagers. I mean, they had destroyed-- everything was destroyed.
We provided the materials for them free of cost and we told them they had to rebuild the village themselves, and we would pay them labor. It took a long while, but finally they got into it. They rebuilt the village. We saved all the doors and windows. We reused that to give a sense of identity and also the embodied energy of the wood. We used all the rubble of the earthquake for the foundations.
And here are some images. They're a very artistic village. They did a lot of batik. They painted their homes. It was an unusual village because the villages that were predominantly Hindu were taken over by Hindu NGOs and looked after. The ones that were predominantly Muslim were taken over by Muslim NGOs.
So we looked for a village that nobody wanted because it was a 50/50. And it gave us the greatest satisfaction because the dargah was rebuilt, the temples were rebuilt. As you know, whenever there's an earthquake, the water goes saline. So we had to create new water bodies to make sure. These are the two structural engineers who were on site.
And the school was devastated. And they came to me and they said, if you don't do something fast, the children will be taken away to the fields and we will never get them back in school. So the picture to the left shows just a temporary open air school that we got for them because this picture to the right was what had happened to their school.
And a farmer near the school gave us more land. So I told my client that I want to build a center for women, a center-- a creche as well as the school. And he funded it and it got chosen by the fine-- as one of the best buildings, actually. It's a tiny building of the 21st century. So the people who built it were very happy.
It's a very simple school, very simple materials. These are the children who enjoy it now. And this is Mehazabeen. Mehazabeen was a little girl in 2002 when I first went. And she and her parents slept out in the open because they said they did not want to go into the criss-cross grid that the government was doing.
I said, you're willing to spend your time in the cold open? They said yes, as long as we are put back into our same house in the same piece of land. And we continued to visit the village. This is Mehazabeen in 2006 and now in 2016. Now she's grown up. She's gone to a college nearby. So there's a short little film on the village.
BRINDA SOMAYA: This is Mehazabeen today. She was looking at a little document that we had prepared about the story of the village.
It's won awards for the maximum number of trees. Today, there are-- they're exporting the [INAUDIBLE], which is the [INAUDIBLE] around the world because everyone in-- there are one billion cell phones in India today.
So looking back, one wonders, would all this would have happened but for the earthquake? So in times of trial and tribulation, maybe the best comes out in us.
So I'm ending with a small story. It's a tribal story. It's a story of a bird because young people often ask me, what is we can do to make a difference?
There was a huge fire in a forest. Was a very, very big fire, and all the animals ran away. And only this little bird stayed. And it used to fly to little small body of water. And in its beak it would pick up a little water and come and try to put out the fire. So all the animals laughed at it and said, you think this is going to help? So the little bird said, at least I'm doing my bit.
And I stood where I was giving a talk once. I said this story, and I said everybody should go and do their bit and not worry about the implications or the effect of that. The next day in my email box, I had a huge number of emails from young people who told me that I didn't tell them the rest of the story.
So apparently, the rest of the story was that the gods above were watching this little bird doing its bit, and the gods felt so sad that they began to cry. And when gods cry, it comes down as rain, and the rain put off the fire. So each one of us must go out and do our bit. Thank you.
I think because of the diversity of my work, it's very difficult for me to talk about a single project which spans so many different aspects of being an architect. I think I showed that to you.
Certainly in my community projects, one very special one was a temple project that I did outside Mumbai. I got a phone call from a client who said that they wanted to pave the land in front of the temple, but the shopkeepers who sell flowers there would not move.
So they decided to build small little shops for them, which they did, and they still refused to move. So he said, can you come and find out what the problem is? Because I cannot pave the plaza in front of the temple.
So I went to this place, and I asked the shopkeepers, what happened? And they said, nobody asked us what we wanted. I think that taught me the biggest lesson of my life, that we have to not just hear, but we have to listen.
And I asked them, what is it they wanted? They said, we wanted just three things. We wanted our shops to be on the way to the temple because people buy flowers on the way to the temple. They located us in some corner. No one's going to come that way.
The second thing is in India's hot, humid climate, the flowers don't last, and we don't have refrigerators. We can't afford to throw away the flowers every day. So we have to raise our shops so that we have a cool place below the shops where we can store the flowers overnight.
And the third thing is that we need to show the different malas-- malas are the garlands. Sometimes they're marigolds, orange, sometimes they're orange and yellow, sometimes they're the jasmine white flowers. So we need to show them, and they didn't provide us a place to display the different malas. That's all we wanted, but nobody heard us. Nobody listened.
So I redesigned. It was such a simple solution. We rebuilt. They moved. The plaza was finished and the temple was painted. I think that taught me the biggest lesson of my profession, that we don't build for ourselves. We build for people for whom we are building. And we have to hear them. We have to listen to them. That does not diminish the creative ability of us as architects.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
CREW: One more over here.
AUDIENCE: OK. Hello. Thank you for your lecture. It was incredible work. I was particularly interested in the exhibition that you were talking about. You mentioned that in ancient Eastern philosophy the view of time is circular, and I'm sure that affected the way that you ordered the exhibition. I was wondering if it also affected the way that you viewed history and preservation and if you could talk a little bit about that.
BRINDA SOMAYA: Yes, in India we do believe that there's no beginning and there's no end to time. I think that there's two things for us. We need to live in the present, but we also respect the past and have to understand-- I think which will help us understand the future.
I don't know precisely how it affects us for me to articulate it. But the fact that we do not believe that there's an end to us when we die, [LAUGHS] that there's a continuity, that we're just part of something bigger. So we can all contribute when we are here on this Earth, and it will go with us wherever we go. So I think it gives a sense of balance, a sense of gratitude. We don't have to always be in a hurry.
In this particular exhibition, what was interesting, [INAUDIBLE] time was circular, if you noticed, I began with the Nandi bull, which was the vehicle of Shiva. And we ended with that sculpture of the Nataraj, who is the dancing god, who is also Shiva.
But man from being reverent to nature now has the greed of money and concrete. But it's still in a circular motion. Your question is not easy to answer. It's a very philosophical question. It's a spiritual question. So maybe you'll have to read more.
AUDIENCE: No, thank you.
BRINDA SOMAYA: Yes?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] hear more about [INAUDIBLE] taking responsibility of our labor has a lot to [INAUDIBLE]. But I think it would be helpful for me [INAUDIBLE] compromise [INAUDIBLE] responsibility. [INAUDIBLE] I don't see them as compromises [INAUDIBLE] but some architects might see that compromise is essential [INAUDIBLE] materials, wages, control over the design.
What does it mean to be an architect that engages responsibly with issues of labor and labor rights? What's got to give? I guess that's the question.
BRINDA SOMAYA: I think in my case, it was something I believed in right from the beginning of my profession when I had no business plan. It's not like I decided that I was going to build up a career and build up the studio that I did.
But right from the beginning, anybody who worked with me knew that this was going to be part of what I wanted. And as we went into bigger projects, the big contractors, they did not believe that I would actually check the sites and the houses.
And I remember a project I was doing in Northern India, and I landed. That day I drove from Delhi and I reached there maybe at 7:00 at night. It was dark. And I said, I want to see the labor quarters. And they didn't want to take me. I said, I told you I was coming to see it.
They said, we didn't believe you. And I made them take me, and they had done nothing. It was a mess because they didn't think I was coming. But the message went out. When she says it's her project, she is going to see the labor quarters.
And then slowly, I began to see the labor quotas of the men as well. So it was not just exploitation of women. It is the contractors who make a lot of money, but just don't think it's worthwhile giving them a decent accommodation. And these projects go on for years.
As far as women are concerned, I'm sorry to say that most contractors now think that they're a nuisance because of the children. We try to make them have creches on the side or nearby. There are always excuses. So they'd almost rather not have women on their sites. They just don't want to bother with it anymore.
So I'm beginning to wonder whether we should have affirmative action for construction labor where women are concerned. They'll probably throw me out of every job if I bring that in, but it's not a bad idea because the women work so hard. They have all the talent.
But this paint company where I was connected with, we have set up centers in Central India in a state called Bihar and Madhya Pradesh where the women were really backward. And then they were very worried, saying, you want them to go and paint? And where's their security? And somebody will rape them or something will happen.
I said, you provide the security. So they taught these women. They took classes. They taught them how to paint. They organized buses. And now these women are going to centers to at least paint.
So it is for the corporate world. It is for the government. It is for skill development. All these agencies have to believe in this. It can't just be done by individuals. But we can make that little difference like the bird, and let's hope that that idea is spreading. There are groups and NGOs, what we call Non-Governmental Organizations that do it. But it's a very hard life.
And the pandemic affected the construction labor the most. They were really hard hit by the pandemic because all construction stopped, and they all had to actually walk back to their villages because the government also stopped all vehicular traffic overnight. So it's a very hard life for them even today. They earn less and they work very hard.
So I'm sorry there's not much optimism, but I think there are groups of people. India's full of committed young people. It's full of NGOs. It's full of people who want to make the difference. There are a lot of very good people who write the articles. In fact, I'll share with Mary some wonderful articles I have, which may answer your question. And she can give it to you, on women in construction.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for your presentation. The last project that you showed is part of this process of bottom-up solutions that is super, super important and often generates much more meaningful, sustainable change and results.
And it can be this very complex process because you're actually listening to the community, allowing them to lead in the development of these projects. And I'm wondering if you could, one, go into a bit more detail about what it's actually like to perform this type of bottom-up work with meaningful participation, and also to discuss if you think it is possible, and if so how, to scale this bottom-up work without homogenizing.
BRINDA SOMAYA: Well, I think all of us know that we have to love what we do, and we have to love it with a passion. We have to get up every Monday morning and be raring to go to work. And it shouldn't feel like work. It should just feel like something really special.
And I think that's what happened with this village. It was really far out. It was almost on the Pakistan border. The whole area had been devastated by the earthquake.
And I used to fly to a town which was miles away from the village, and we had to drive literally through a semi-arid desert with camels. But it was such an experience, and it was such a challenge for me.
And when I went there, the woman I showed you with the pink blouse, she was the boss of the village. And she would-- I used to have sit-down sessions with her to show her our plans to get her involved, which was so important.
And she would make me sit on a [INAUDIBLE], which is like a woven, uncomfortable sort of seat. And she would bring out a purple drink. I don't know what it was. And you know in India, you have to be very careful with the water you drink.
And then she would bring a plate with raw mango and peanuts, which would grow there. And I had to eat all that. I had to drink that drink to show her that I understood them. So that part wasn't easy.
But the response you get, the most important thing is you have to just be a catalyst. You have to be a facilitator. If you think that you are the big architect coming from the big city to look after and help the poor villagers or the poor townspeople, you may as well go back home.
So your role has to be a catalyst and help them. That's all. Quietly. You don't even have to make it obvious. The thanks comes automatically. When we finished the village, they embroidered a beautiful sari for me which must have taken months for them to do. And I wore it for my daughter's engagement. And that's the sort of thanks that you get, which is worth more than lots of money.
SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE] I think that's a great sentiment on which to end the talk, again, with the idea that we're offering a reception outside. But this notion of loving our work and extending kind of the empathy of really dignity with the people for whom we work and the people with whom we work, I think that kind of really captures the spirit of your work in the talk tonight.
So thank you again so much. And again, this is to be continued outside. And please take any other questions with Brinda outside. OK. Thank you.
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Brinda SomayaAn A.D. White Professors-at-Large public lecture
Wednesday, October 26, 2022 at 5:15pm
Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall