A jugalbandi of patience

Updated: Nov 25, 2019, 16:18 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

One of India's foremost architect teams, Brinda Somaya and Nandini Somaya Sampat say without patience, heritage conservation is impossible. The pair preps for a global conference of women in design that Mumbai will host

Brinda Somaya at her Peddar Road residence with Nandini Somaya Sampat. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar
Brinda Somaya at her Peddar Road residence with Nandini Somaya Sampat. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar

In their sparse but tasteful Ballard Estate office, Brinda Somaya and Nandini Somaya Sampat are discussing patience. The mother and daughter team at the helm of Somaya & Kalappa Consultants (SNK) would be more prone, we imagine inaccurately, to deliberate on competition. But they speak of waiting for the right time, attention to detail, and continued hope in the face of urban despair.

They are basking in the mirth of a prestigious win at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards in Penang this October. But the Award of Distinction for the restoration of The Vikram Sarabhai Library, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has come after "failure" at convincing the top bosses at earlier competitions that were marked by a belief against saving old structures. "Mum and I are constantly arguing in favour of saving sites. In two-three competitions we participated in, all we wanted was an opportunity to turn things around," says Nandini, director at SNK. And so, this win is significant because it is an affirmation that some clients get it right. "And this is IIM-Ahmedabad! The alumni hold positions of great importance. We are excited that the conservation approach may spread," says Brinda, principal architect and founder. The restoration was undertaken in July 2016 and completed in December 2018.

A bust of Dr Vikram SarabhaiA A bust of Dr Vikram Sarabhai

Built in 1974 by one of the 20th century's most influential architects, American Louis Kahn, the IIM-A campus is disorienting in its labrynthine majesticity. The library with a built up area of 4,580 sqm, fronts the Louis Kahn Plaza Court, and like the rest of the structures, was beaten by rain and sun exposure, and the use of porous local bricks.

Homeyar Goiporia, vice-president, SNK, and senior architect Ritika Jharia, speak of the intensive study the project demanded of their team. "Kahn used local material, and the bricks were hand-modelled with blunt edges. This was a challenge, and they had high salt content," says Jharia. "Even the chemical components of the bricks along with their physical properties had to be matched and achieved," adds Goiporia. "We had to be as honest as we could to the original structure and space."

If the new library today respects Kahn's attention to barrier-free spaces, but with renewed opportunity for interactive and collaborative segments, it's thanks to this team.

A jugalbandi of patienceIn the restored library inside the IIM-A campus, it was important to create smaller meeting spaces that could be used for more than just reading

The proposal dossier for the restoration bid took two months to finalise. "Often, we'd receive a query from the jury that required a 1,000-word reply. It felt like working on a mini PhD!" Brinda laughs about a competition that was announced in 2014 by IIM-A. That UNESCO for the first time is recognising work in India done for a 20th century modern architectural site, makes this special.

Interestingly, the duo is equally excited about Mumbai having taken home three awards this year, for Flora Fountain, Gloria Church and the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. Brinda reminds us that India's heritage conservation movement found force in this city, thanks to the likes of Shyam Chainani and Cyrus Guzder. "They weren't even architects. When the old Yacht Club was going to get knocked down during former prime minister Morarji Desai's rule, people felt it was important to do something about it. It's then that the first set of heritage regulations came into effect in the country," Brinda recalls, putting it down to political, bureaucratic and people's will.

It's bureaucrats, an oft-badgered lobby, that in fact, played a key role in supporting the movement that resulted in the formation of the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, and the documentation and listing of the city's important sites and structures. "Chennai and Bangalore haven't done this. You need infinite patience for this. It's with time and resilience that the efforts have snowballed into a movement and we see funds coming in; even the government is realising the value [of preservation]."

Pre- and post- restoration of the exposed bricks on the East Facade (2016-18). Reconstruction of the cracked 85 brick flat arches due to corrosion of the embedded mild steel reinforcement was done by upgrading to stainless steel for longevity
Pre-restoration of the exposed bricks on the East Facade (2016-18).

It's the right time for preservation or all kinds, Nandini thinks, noticing a butterfly effect in the age of Greta Thunberg, "where even the young are saying, if we don't do anything now, we will pay the price."

When Brinda began her practice in 1978 from what she calls "a shed", women architects were unheard of. "It was lonely, but I looked at it as less of a negative and more of an opportunity," she reasons. In 1980 when the firm bought its first computer, people told her it was a royal waste of money. "It cost R1 lakh! But it paid off. You need to move with the times. In future, people will wonder how our era functioned without AI support."

Pre- and post- restoration of the exposed bricks on the East Facade (2016-18). Reconstruction of the cracked 85 brick flat arches due to corrosion of the embedded mild steel reinforcement was done by upgrading to stainless steel for longevity
Post-restoration of the exposed bricks on the East Facade (2016-2018). Reconstruction of the cracked 85 brick flat arches due to corrosion of the embedded mild steel reinforcement was done by upgrading to stainless steel for longevity

She continues this gender march, now more as a sisterhood, through initiatives like the Women In Design 2020 conference that she is prepping for. It's Brinda's baby, but she draws in Nandini to share the details. "In 1990, mum wanted to bring together women architects and designers on a common platform, but the idea didn't take off. She was resilient, and resurrected it in 2000 when she received a healthy response from women across Asian countries. And now, we are bringing it back," she shares about the summit that's expected to see the most brilliant minds from across America, Europe and Asia, converge in Mumbai in January 2020. Supported by The HECAR Foundation, the summit's roster includes Billie Tsien credited with designing the Obama Presidential Center, US, and Laila Iskandar, former Minister of Urban Renewal Informal Settlements in the Egyptian national government. "I remember, how back then, some of the participants didn't know how to make a PowerPoint presentation. Women have everything, but we must believe. We must be confident," Brinda reminds us.

29
Number of months the restoration took

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