Like many other professions, architecture has been considered a gentleman’s occupation throughout history. Women continue to face obstacles, whether studying Architecture or working in an office. But they have found ways to continue their love of design. They deploy their skills as designers in ways beyond the conventional definitions of an architect. Women have shaped Indian architecture since the early 1930s. Notable women such as Pravina Mehta, Perin Jamshedji Mistri, and Eulie Chowdhury have been on cusps of history from the pre-independent era to the modern times.
“Women of today are redefining the role of architects by contributing to more verticals rather than design. These women blur boundaries between alternative and mainstream architecture, between the modern and the contemporary – being an entrepreneur but also being an activist,”
-Mary N Woods, author of Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi.
Pravina Mehta and Brinda Somaya are some of the notable Indian women architects. They dominated their profession in their respective periods. Mehta was among the first generation of women architects in India who worked during the Nehruvian Period. In contrast, Somaya was among the second generation entering when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Although they have worked differently in terms of scale, size, and number of projects, they share the distinction of establishing their practices as opposed to working with a spouse or family member. In addition, both architects take immense pride in understanding Indian culture and heritage.
Although she did not have many projects to her name, Pravina Mehta’s projects varied greatly in typology and nature. Her projects ranged from houses and schools to factories and warehouses, from educational institutions to cultural centres. She was frustrated from not receiving commissions from major public projects in the first few decades before independence. Her strong attention to detail and research left her with a limited corpus of built work. But every building she completed speaks of her ideas and ambitions as an architect.
Uma Patel House
This project in Kihim brought together a woman architect and a strong and independent woman client. Although it has long since been destroyed, it has been well documented through photographs and publications. The client, Uma Patel, lived alone in Kihim and experimented with poultry farming. Privacy and seclusion had to be considered for this house in a small village at the time, given the client’s love of wearing white shorts. Since air conditioning was not an option, Mehta designed passive cooling spaces; a courtyard, thick walls, overhanging roofs, and a canopy with deep reveals for multiple windows and plenty of accommodation for trees.
Like Charles Correa and Le Corbusier‘s design of Ahmedabad Houses, she incorporated elaborately carved wooden doors along with other traditional elements.
Mehta’s design ideology of juxtaposing the past and present was not limited to her time. This mindset resonates with Shoshanna Saxe, an engineer, in her warnings about Smart Cities. She claims that our enthusiasm for smart cities and architecture that depends on expensive, fragile, and short-lived technologies is alarming. So instead, she would rather cities be ‘dumb’ and effectively designed by proven sustainable design ideologies and methods.
Having grown up in the post-Indian post-independent era, Brinda Somaya is part of the bridge generation between post-independence architects and current architects. A unique practice, especially for the West, is dedicated to contemporary design and heritage conservation. Somaya says it is a pleasure to take in the richness and complexities in the layerings of the buildings over the years. Older buildings are real resources, material energy in terms and labor because it is impossible to build everything anew in India.
Somaya designed her 1st IT campus in the early 2000s, a building emblematic of 21st-century India for Zensar technologies in Pune. She and her team drafted a master plan emphasizing placemaking on an otherwise nondescript 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 is not an isolated entity; it responds to the landscape in the vicinity.
Ideologies in design
Whether on a big scale or a smaller scale, her unique stance on architecture is seen in both. The temple trustees had commissioned her to redesign the space in front of their temple, mainly to move the flower vendors elsewhere. Without relocating the vendors, she designed stalls closer to the temple and incorporated raised platforms for overnight storage and poles for displaying the garlands. She calls into question the role architects play as members of society, asking essential questions like ‘what is our role, and whom are we designing for.’
Ideologies of architects like Mehta and Somaya are an exciting blend of modern and vernacular. Understanding that preserving our cultural heritage is crucial to our identity as a nation while using modern technologies to expand our growth is a thought process seen in both their work. This is vital as we tackle our architectural and existential challenges today.
Matter (2021) Claiming space/designing space: Women architects in Modern India, MATTER. Available at: https://thinkmatter.in/2021/03/08/claiming-space-designing-space-women-architects-in-modern-india/
Motiwalla, A. (2022) Meet India’s most influential female architects, De51gn. Available at: https://de51gn.com/meet-indias-most-influential-female-architects/