Women architects are shaping the spirit of unconventional architecture, one brick at a time.
Women architects are shaping the spirit of unconventional architecture, one brick at a time
You’ll be surprised to discover the myriad facets of inspiration driving women architects to break convention; the long list includes supportive mother-in-laws too!
The story of Indian women in the field of architecture dates back as early as the 1930s, with Perin Jamshedji Mistri. Mistri, who came from a prominent Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai), is widely believed to have been the country’s first qualified woman in the profession. In 1936, she graduated with a diploma in architecture from Mumbai’s Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art and went on to work in the family business, designing everything from churches to factories in a career that spanned almost half a century.
She served as a singular source of inspiration for many Indian women, who have taken to architecture. Though not as prominent as their male counterparts (the likes of Charles Correa or BV Doshi), their contribution to the field can barely be undermined.
However, Mary Woods, author of Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi and an architecture historian at Cornell University, has played a significant role in highlighting the ‘feminine’ role in architecture in India. Her research showed that many of these architects were like social entrepreneurs and activists, working to empower marginalised communities and sustaining the country’s rich heritage by using widely available materials like mud or steel to create stunning feats of design. In doing so, they demonstrated a different approach to the field, beyond just servicing a client or being a “starchitect” (star architect).
Nearly 44% of India’s 58,646 registered architects are women, according to the Council of Architecture. Compared to the US, where women make up just around 26% of the total number, it’s a commendable ratio. However, the challenges closer home are graver, especially because of the latent lack of hospitability in the field.
What drives them
Interestingly, for many of the women she interviewed, the key factor that determined if they could continue working was the mother-in-law. If the mother-in-law was supportive, it made a big difference, reports claim.
Post-independence, the focus was on building institutions required for a new nation state. Despite the drawbacks faced in convincing the government to grant commissions for large projects to women, architects such as Hema Sankalia and Urmila Eulie Chowdhury managed to build housing projects, state institutions, and other structures that established them as pioneers in the field. And today’s women are building on this rich legacy.
A great example is Delhi-based Revathi Kamath, one of the many taking on the tough task of preserving centuries of local traditions while still producing iconic modern structures. Often labelled as the “queen of mud architecture,” Kamath pioneered the use of a material normally relegated to India’s most impoverished communities to build luxurious structures, including a resort in Rajasthan and the Tower House in South Delhi’s tony Hauz Khas neighbourhood. This will to bring about a change in perception is what sets her work apart. Kamath has also worked with steel to create a massive and complex gateway for the O P Jindal power plant in Chhattisgarh. Reinterpreting tribal designs for ladders and swings, Kamath built a 33-metre high structure, the tallest stainless steel edifice in South Asia.
That spirit is echoed in both the designs and conservation work of other women in the field. Brinda Somaya and Neera Adarkar, for instance, are engaged in preserving heritage buildings and using traditional construction designs for modern buildings, including IT campuses and tourist sites. And that’s what makes the story of these architects so alluring.
By blurring the boundaries between the alternative and the mainstream, the womenfolk today are not just entrepreneurs; they represent a new brand of activism that will surely bring about all-encompassing change. We salute them!