The book explores a cross-section of Somaya’s diverse typology of projects, including housing, institutions, conservation, urban design, social design, and industrial works that represent a unique non-stylistic grammar that has a sense of order and appropriateness. Situating her work in a broader context, the essays in this volume offer multiple perspectives on Somaya’s accomplishments, while the dialogues outline the concerns central to her work.
For this excerpt, we have selected four projects in the public domain that outline the central concerns of their work as architects and professionals in India, as they act as hinges for discussions on the human condition in the country.
Colaba Woods, Mumbai, India (1989)
Redevelopment of a refuse dump and transformation into a green public park for the citizens of Mumbai.
Nityanand Ashram, Ganeshpuri, India (1995)
Design intervention in the premises of a temple complex with the Nityanand Ashram Temple Trust.
VOICE, Vasai, India (2006)
Architecture of a rural residential school campus for girls with an NGO that works with street children to give them an opportunity for a better future.
Mumbai Esplanade Project, Mumbai, India (2011)
Urban design proposal for the core business and heritage district in the heart of Mumbai with Apostrophe A+uD.
In 2000, the late Prof. P.G. Raman wrote a piece for the Italian magazine Space and Society on a few of my projects that dealt with the public domain titled “On the Precious work of Brinda Somaya.” This chapter is a reflection of these “precious” projects that Prof. Raman rightly and sharply singled out from my body of work as an important discussion of the larger role of architecture in India. Designed at different times, there is a conceptual thread that connects these projects, and they continue to serve as models of the impact of architecture that I am deeply interested in: a pragmatic capacity to address critical problems.
Pro-bono public projects, often initiated by my office, have been the most significant learning experiences. There is generally no plan or a conscious effort to find public projects. Often, these projects are initiated through a personal interest in an issue or a situation that we think we can better through architectural or design thinking. Many public projects pose demands on one’s professional ability owing to the complex and often exhaustive process of public discourse and consultation that one must work with. Constant negotiations, deep dialogues with the stakeholders, and a water-tight budget are often important parts of the project process. After much effort, there is very little promise of execution. The projects of my office that fall in the domain of the public realm demand much patience and perseverance.
With the nature of projects, scale and impact, the challenges of working in urban situations often have no precedent. Working with administration, citizens’ groups, and NGOs requires a continuous pursuit, knowing that some of the projects may never really materialize. More importantly, when we engage with the city and groups of citizens for a positive impact, they too recognize us as people who are willing to work in these spheres and soon, you have aware and active citizens who approach you for public projects. It is important to recognize that not all public projects demand pro-bono work. Sometimes, as architects, we can judge the nature of a project, where architecture can make a substantial difference, but the budgets do not permit conventional architectural fees. Many public projects are thus subsidized by the practice, but I have always taken up work on which we can deliver professionally. In public works, once we decide to engage, fees do not dictate the time and effort invested.
Colaba Woods was perhaps my first realized public project. It was an incredible learning experience, and it was the beginning of my understanding of the complexities of working on a civic issue. I grew up in a house on Cuffe Parade that, at some point, faced the sea. In the 1980s, the seafront was reclaimed and the mangroves were replaced by a refuse dump, in turn replacing the crabs and the fish with red earth that was alien to the landscape. This dump was eventually built over with years of informal encroachment and a few quarters for Public Works Department employees. The small piece of land where Colaba Woods now stands was the only piece of open land left from the original reclamation. A few citizens and I were quite apprehensive that this last remaining open space would be encroached upon or grabbed by a developer, and we would lose a crucial opportunity. We wanted a green lung in the area, and my father, who was then in his 80s, requested the Tata Electric Companies to fund the conversion of this eight-acre piece of land into a public park.
We were able to relocate the PWD quarters and initiate a lengthy and considered process of converting this place into a people’s park. One of the most significant aspects of the project was that it was one of the first public–private partnerships where private citizens partnered with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to design a citizens’ public space. The government reduced the water and electrical charges and we were able to use the treated grey-water from the housing complexes around for irrigation. It was decided that we would not plant decorative plants but native trees instead. We had, in our time, been witness to the chopping-off of ancient trees of our city in a relentless pursuit for “development,” driven by irrational infrastructure. Presently, there are more than 200 species of plants and shrubs in the park, some of them are rare varieties of flora!
We designed paths for senior citizens with benches for them to sit and a playground where children could play football. We designed a lit gazebo for the slum children to study at night. An amphitheater enabled public meetings and events to happen. The park connected the upmarket housing on one side with one of the largest informal settlements on the other. Indian cities are different from the West where there is high degree of segregation. In our cities, the rich live in close quarters with the poor, as the joggers with their fancy sneakers and the fisherwomen with their nine-yard saris share the same urban space. We also stood against the decision of the municipal corporation to charge a meagre sum as an entry fee as we felt that any amount, no matter how small, will deter the poorest of our city from enjoying the beautiful canopies of the Colaba Woods. It was truly a democratic space and continues to be so in our increasingly exclusive city.
This project points the way to the sort of initiatives that are necessary in many large cities in India. Rather than wait for the bureaucratic inertia to be overcome, the citizens of Cuffe Parade, Colaba in collaboration with the Tata Electric Companies and the local Lions Club transformed 8 acres of Municipal land into a green forest amidst the concrete desert of the neighborhood.
—Professor P.G. Raman
Ganeshpuri is a small temple-town on the peripheries of Mumbai and the Nityanand Ashram is a religious hermitage with a temple as the center of the complex. The temple and its environs were in a constant state of deterioration, and there were encroachments by the flower sellers and small shops. The plaza of the temple was disorganized, and the board of temple trustees were keen on revamping this plaza. In the process, they relocated the shops at some distance from the temple in contemporary facilities. When the shops were complete, the shop owners declined to move. I was then involved in a project for Captain Nair, who was the Chairman of the board of trustees at the ashram. In one of our meetings, he shared with me the concern and asked me if I would be willing to look into it.
As I visited the temple complex in the following week with some of my colleagues from the studio, I asked the flower sellers about the reason for their resistance to move into new and well-built shops. We then realized their needs for the project. One of the sellers said, “Nobody asked us what we wanted. They have built the shops far away from the temple. We have to be located on the way to the temple so that devotees stop and buy our flowers. We don’t sell all our flowers every day, and we can’t afford to throw them away in the evening! We have to have a raised platform, below which we can keep our flowers overnight. We also need a place to display and hang our wares on posts outside. How do people know what we have and what we are selling: the types of flowers and lengths of malas (garlands)?” The enthusiasm and interest that the shopkeepers and their families showed in the discussion amazed me. This made me determined more than ever to give them a solution that I felt would be appropriate for them.
I asked Captain Nair to allow us to redesign the plaza in a way that would enable the flower sellers to relocate without losing their precious business. We worked with them to understand their special requirements and designed simple stalls on the way to the temple. Every one of them moved to their new premises, and we could then redesign the temple plaza, repave it, and reorganize it. This project enabled me to understand the significance of some fundamental questions that architects often don’t ask: What is our role? Whom are we building for? What are their needs? What are their dreams and aspirations? After all, we are not building for ourselves.
In this project, too, the Geddesian notion of conservation surgery is put into practice in a rigorous way. As population increases, pressures on religious buildings by devotees as well as by those who provide commercial support become intense.
Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that India is a living example of anarchy. He certainly meant this as a compliment. The vast crowds that pour into religious buildings and the complex rituals that take place inside may appeal as being chaos to the casual observer.
—Professor P.G. Raman
Voluntary Organisation in Community Enterprise (VOICE) is an NGO that works towards the education of children whose parents cannot afford to raise them. Gita Simoes, an acclaimed designer and a close friend, was a trustee on the board of VOICE, and they wanted me to design a residential school with classrooms and dormitories for eighty children, a cafeteria, a kitchen, a library, a small administrative facility, and ancillary services on a piece of land in Vasai, a satellite town in north Mumbai. The children for whom this facility was to be planned generally lived on the streets of the city, begging at the railway stations and under the flyovers. Being girls, they were particularly, and often, vulnerable. VOICE was instrumental in taking them off the streets and into a home by convincing their parents of their better future. In this campus, they would be educated and trained in certain skills that would enable them to regain their self-confidence to go back to the world to find a dignified life. This project was critical as it was not just for children, but the girl child.
We had to build on a very limited budget and in a design vocabulary that was appropriate for a rural campus in the context of a village. As I have stressed before, we place a great emphasis on understanding the user in our projects. We have to build for the emotional and physical relationship the users have with our buildings, and this means that we design with a humane ambition. I wanted the VOICE buildings to be a protective environment, with an enclosure and a sense of safety. The cafeteria and the dormitory blocks envelop the play areas with simple and familiar materials: brick and paint. While all architecture can be made by brick and stone, I believe in architecture that enables the users to transcend the boundaries that bind them and elevate their spirit to a higher plane through the spatial experience. This is perhaps the distinction between building and making architecture. While the merits of its architecture can be discussed, the purpose that this building fulfills is much higher and perhaps closer to the very idea of architecture that I practice.
Likewise, nuances in her community work too should be noted. Aldo van Eyck once wrote that it is devilishly hard to combine, let alone reconcile, the task of an architect with his involvement in the socio-political sphere, and what it means to be loyal to both at once; loyal in such a way that the one sustains the other, instead of thwarting or distorting it. Acute social awareness of this kind—direct engagement—very easily tends to dislocate—surreptitiously, in fact—a meaningful thought structure; certainly, when that thought structure concerns architecture and one fails to resist its subordination. I have known quite a few architects thus doubly dedicated, but only very few have managed to play the game intelligently and gracefully.
—Professor P.G. Raman
Mumbai Esplanade Project
The Mumbai Esplanade project is the only unrealized project that I have included in this book. This project is personally important to me as it deals with core issues of the city I love. This urban design proposal was drafted by Apostrophe A+uD with Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, in an attempt to design a continuous and uninterrupted pedestrian realm in the Fort precinct. Connecting Churchgate Station to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus—the two major suburban rail terminals—this stretch of Fort expands to assimilate about 7 million people traversing these points to get to work. There are major junctions of conflict between pedestrians and vehicular movement. Subterranean connections for pedestrians exist, but the abysmal standard of maintenance ensures that it is the least popular choice with the commuters. Impossible to use if one is old or differently-abled, the subways are out of bounds for many who feel vulnerable and exposed to unsafe situations at night.
The Mumbai Esplanade project plans to connect 102 acres of currently independent open spaces or maidans (playgrounds) by adding another 63 acres of new pedestrian open spaces. The Azad, Cross, and Oval maidans can be seamlessly connected by a short east-west vehicular underpass, a design that has successful global precedents. Working for months, we prepared many detailed drawings and visualizations to make presentations to stakeholders and get the citizens excited about the idea. Large panels that explained the project in detail were generated for an exhibition at the Horniman Circle, and the project was presented to the press and interested people through public meetings. The media coverage was very positive, and many understood the project to be feasible and desirable to improve the quality of urban space by prioritizing the right-of-way for the pedestrians in the Fort.
However, even after much effort and public discourse, we were not able to excite the city administration and generate the necessary political will for this project. It continues to be one of those projects that I truly believe has immense potential. Time has come for some radical yet implementable proposal to revitalize Mumbai’s core. The creation of an open, publicly accessible, and pedestrian-friendly urban space is one of the key ingredients of this proposal. The Esplanade project, once completed, will be a gateway for Mumbaikars commuting by train to South Mumbai and will serve as an integral link element for the area’s historic architecture. Our sense of place and belonging will be reinforced.
The Mumbai Esplanade Project is a key intervention in the saturated Fort precinct of Mumbai. If built as proposed, it will change the perception of the core Fort area in Mumbai. In an otherwise space-starved metropolis, this proposed intervention will add to the existing maidans and open spaces of Fort, in turn creating a continuous, uninterrupted pedestrian domain stretching from Colaba to CST.
Many public projects develop from our continuous interest and research in issues that we think are central to the society and culture of India. This pragmatic research is a very important part of our practice. This aspect of our work has grown considerably with Nandini’s enormous interest and abilities in systematic research and the analytical tools she has created in the studio that aid decision making in design. From affordable housing to global exhibitions that we design, everything begins with a thorough process of documentation, research and analysis. The knowledge this process generates enriches the design process and creates links between the various aspects of good design. A collaborative practice for some projects is invaluable, and this model becomes more pertinent if the projects in question are in the public realm. We are a practice grounded in reality. Understanding the multiple facets, human connections, and stakes in the project lie at the core of our endeavors. I do think that if as architects we are able to meaningfully contribute to society, the professional and personal fulfillment outweighs any award!
Editor: Nandini Somaya Sampat
Curator: Ruturaj Parikh
Art Director: Tina Nussirabadwalla
Research Coordinator: Anthea Fernandes
Research Assistant: Prerna Shetty
Photography: Ishita Parikh & Noshir Gobhai
Contributors: James Polshek, Jon Lang, Mary Norman Woods, Porus Olpadwala, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Arun Shourie, Saryu Doshi, Kamu Iyer
Copyediting: Ateendriya Gupta / Mapin Editorial
Editorial management: Neha Manke / Mapin Editorial
Production: Gopal Limbad / Mapin Design Studio
Printing: Parksons Graphics, Mumbai