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“We as architects just have to become catalysts in the development process.” – Brinda Somaya

The sustainable construction projects of Indian architect Brinda Somaya cover an enormous spectrum and were featured in her keynote address at the 4th International Holcim Forum on “Economy of Sustainable Construction” held in Mumbai in 2013. Certain common elements characterize all of her work: Her projects relate directly to their context, use traditional construction materials and methods – and are based on local needs and possibilities.

“There must be very few countries in the world where architects have such varied challenges as we have in India today,” says Brinda Somaya. She speaks from vast experience as not only one of the best known but also one of the most versatile Indian architects. The range of tasks confronting construction professionals in this giant country spans from the construction of large public buildings and ultra-modern corporate headquarters to the upgrading of slums, erection of the most basic housing, and restoration of majestic cathedrals.

The contexts into which projects are inserted are also enormously diverse in India: “Buildings in the large metropolitan cities often get the attention, but there’s also great need in the nation’s nearly 650,000 villages and 8,000 towns,” tells Brinda Somaya. So sustainable construction has a very special meaning in India: not treating everything alike, but finding individual solutions that are appropriate to the situation and that meet the needs of the local people. Sustainable solutions are not those that are dictated from some remote office but rather those that are developed for and with the users.

Local thinking

Brinda Somaya showed how this looks in practice with examples of her own projects. One is the reconstruction of Bhuj village, destroyed by an earthquake in 2001 along with many other settlements in Gujarat province. “Hindu villages had been taken by Hindu NGOs to rehabilitate, Muslim villages had been taken by Muslim NGOs,” explained the architect. “Nobody had taken Bhuj because it has an unusual blend of Hindus and Muslims.” The local authorities proposed simply razing the village, but for the people, who are rooted in their surroundings, this was not an option.

Brinda Somaya therefore sought some way to give the village back to the people. Her idea: Instead of rebuilding the village for the people, let them rebuild it themselves under the guidance of architects – largely using the rubble from the earthquake. The people were given a free hand in designing their own houses. “This is how a house becomes a home,” says the architect. “The most appropriate solutions are brought about by the least authoritarian approach. We as architects just have to become catalysts in the development process.”

Respecting traditional construction practice

For Brinda Somaya, responding to the local situation also means respecting traditional construction practice – because what people have developed for their context over centuries and even millennia is usually an adequate answer to the local requirements. For a school in Sevasi, Brinda Somaya thus used traditional construction methods to keep the building comfortable despite extremely high temperatures. The school requires almost no air conditioning; courtyards, double walls, cavity walls, and many other features provide ample shading and ventilation. “These are the ancient principles of Indian architecture applied today,” says the architect – and principles that couldn’t be more sustainable.

Brinda Somaya is convinced that local response is the correct approach not only for low-budget projects. The site for the exclusive Mahindra Resort in Rajasthan province contained some old buildings. These were not demolished, but rather integrated into the master plan. Local stone was used for the new buildings – as a result, the resort fits perfectly into its surroundings. The architect also chose the indigenous approach for the interior design: “We used local craftsmen. I was certainly not going to import anything from anywhere for the interior. This is happening too much today, so that sometimes you don’t know any more whether you are in Mumbai or Dubai.”

Local participation

Local response and participation are possible not only in rural areas or for closely managed projects like Mahindra Resort but even for Mumbai, a metropolis of 18 million, explained Brinda Somaya. With Colaba Woods, the architect created one of the rare open spaces in the city by transforming a former landfill into a park. A unique feature is that the site borders on a wealthy neighborhood on one side and on a poor neighborhood on the other. “We wanted to get everybody involved and create something for everybody,” tells the architect.

She made a fundamental statement by refusing to impose an entry fee to the park, as the government had foreseen, thus creating a meeting place that all classes may use without restriction. “It became the first project in Mumbai of a public-private partnership. It paved a way for other talks to go ahead.” Those who will conduct those talks might not have as much determination, persuasive power, and experience as Brinda Somaya – but they will have the benefit of her pioneering work. 

4th Holcim Forum 2013 – “Economy of Sustainable Construction”

The ongoing economic challenges in many parts of the industrialized world are drivers of a paradigm shift: governments, companies and individuals are all becoming aware that although sustainable development incurs costs, it also offers considerable economic potential. This topic: “Economy of Sustainable Construction” was the focus of the 4th International Holcim Forum for Sustainable Construction, held in Mumbai, India, from April 11 to April 13, 2013. 

Last Updated: January 05, 2014
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Mumbai, India
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