Internationally recognized Indian architect Brinda Somaya — who turned down admission at Cornell’s graduate architecture program because she thought she go make a bigger impact at home in India — shared her personal narrative and encouraged sustainable architecture practices in a lecture on Tuesday.
Aside from her work in advancing Indian architecture, Somaya is also an integral advocate for women’s and worker’s rights. In the early 2000s, she organized the first conference and exhibition on female architects across South Asia.
She later co-founded the HECAR Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting heritage and urban issues in architecture such as helping women in architecture gain public exposure. In 2017, Somaya was named an A.D. White Professor-at-Large, which means she will visit Cornell’s campus twice during her six-year term, according to the University.
“I have full faith that [upcoming architects] will protect our environment and our heritage and yet contemporize design and take it forward into our new tech-savvy world,” she told attendees on Tuesday.
Somaya received her bachelor in architecture at Mumbai University before coming to the U.S. on a scholarship for her master of arts at Smith College. After spending a summer at Cornell studying architecture, she was offered admission into the graduate architecture program, but declined to return back to India.
“I decided that what I really wanted to do was go home and make a difference,” she said.
According to Somaya, few women at the time owned their own studios. The architects who dominated the field were called “masters.”
Born in post-independence India, Somaya believed that her generation would become the “bridge generation,” working to connect the “masters” and the younger generation in the architectural world.
Somaya highlighted six of her projects from her monograph “Brinda Somaya: Works & Continuities”,that worked to bridge this gap while also incorporating the theme of “continuity and change.”
Throughout all her projects, Somaya advocated for laborers at the construction site, ensuring that the they had adequate shelter, sanitation and education. She also said she strived to work with local residents instead of imposing her ideas and presenting herself as an expert architect.
In her first project rebuilding Bhadli, a village that was 90 percent destroyed by an earthquake in 2001, she worked closely with the villagers to make the project interactive in hopes of bringing the villagers out of depression. She told the villagers, “you have to rebuild the village, but we will pay you for the work that you do.”
Providing them with the necessary resources, Somaya helped the villagers themselves rebuild their space and bring them out of depression. The new layout was “designed it in such a way that people could add on to their own houses … to make [the houses] into homes,” she said.
Somaya’s second project expanded the Jubilee Church to accommodate the growing Mumbai population, and her third project rebuilt the Indian Institute of Management to improve the deterioration of the original construction and materials used.
Somaya’s next two projects, the Bombay House and the Tata Consultancy Services Campus, worked to refurbish these buildings into more open and collaborative spaces.
The last project she discussed in her presentation, India and the World, was a collaboration between a British museum and two Indian museums. Using five galleries, Somaya incorporated the Hindu concept of circular time as the base of her design to establish a “shared beginnings” of the galleries.
Somaya concluded her talk by quoting American poet Charles Bukowski: “If something burns your soul with purpose and desire, it’s your duty to be reduced to ashes by it. Any other form of existence will be yet another dull book in the library of life.”