Guardian of the built and unbuilt __ Brinda Somaya __ SNK

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Guardian of the built and unbuilt __ Brinda Somaya __ SNK
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Guardian of the built and unbuilt __ Brinda Somaya __ SNK

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Guardian of the built and unbuilt __ Brinda Somaya __ SNK
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Navigating conservation and social equity, Brinda Somaya reveals how these considerations blend into a position on sustainability in India. She offers a blueprint for design that is low-impact, contextual, and compassionate.

Since modest beginnings in a garden shed, Brinda has become the force behind more than 200 projects at her firm SNK. Her work bridges the gap between tradition and modernity. It shows how mindful design can impact community well-being and environmental integrity.

Embracing India’s complexity is second nature to Brinda. In this episode, she discusses the delicate balance between heritage and innovation, top-down and bottom-up design strategies, and the nuances of urban and rural development.

Episode outline

00:00:56 “I was a woman starting 40 years ago in India in the 1970s, which was very isolated, which was deprived in many ways. There were no computers, of course. There was no technology.”
00:05:22 Conserving the built
00:05:45 “One of the meanings of sustainability would be to recycle, retrofit, restore, and reuse what exists. […] So the most important way to conserve is not to demolish and not to build new, but to restore and repair.”
00:06:36 “I believe every architect in this country has to be a conservationist. […] I believe it’s inherent in our nature and we have to put some part of our practice towards conservation.”
00:14:23 “Now heritage is included in that CSR. So we are seeing a great spurt in the number of buildings that are being restored.”
00:27:23 India’s intractable complexity
00:14:48 “It’s very complex and complicated in a country like India. We have buildings that are 2,000 years old and we have new buildings as well. So the span is enormous.”
00:16:28 “It’s fine to talk about mud and bamboo. […] How can you make this scalable? […] We have to understand some of these basic issues and not just glamorise materials.”
00:25:55 “You know, Nirmal, how complex India is, how complicated India is. There’s never a single answer to a single question.”
00:31:37 Brinda the architect
00:34:20 Architects, they have to be activists. They can’t just stay with their work. They have to really get into politics.
00:44:31 “I would say within urban areas, and because of the growth of the country and the different types of buildings that are coming up […] there’s a huge amount of building that is happening. […] So they have to come to us. Thank goodness for that.”

 

Summary

In India, looking ahead means reconciling what many view as contradictory: historical preservation, innovation, and inclusive growth. Brinda Somaya sees a unified path through the complexity.

Brinda Somaya founded Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) in Mumbai in 1978. Today, she is its Principal Architect alongside her daughter.
© SNK

Brinda sees conservation as more than preserving heritage. Rather, it is a sustainable practice that protects our past and future. She insists every architect should adopt a conservationist mindset, intertwining it with their architectural ethos.

Heritage can coexist with today’s needs. Brinda’s firm, SNK, proved this in Ahmedabad with their modernising work on the Vikram Sarabhai Library at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). This project earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

In 2019, SNK restored and modernised Louis Kahn’s Vikram Sarabhai Library at the IIM (1974) while preserving its architectural integrity.
© SNK

Brinda notes a surge in restoration projects, though prominent buildings often receive priority. She also reminds us of India’s rich architectural tapestry, with structures dating back more than 2,000 years. This underscores the vast scope for conservation efforts.

She emphasises the benefits of a design process that prioritises the end user, adopting a bottom-up approach. This user-centric perspective ensures solutions are both sustainable and deeply resonant with the community’s actual needs.

Illustrating this, Brinda highlights her refurbishment work on the Ganeshpuri Temple Plaza. A breakthrough came when she engaged directly with the flower sellers who occupied the space. Understanding their specific needs was pivotal to the project’s success.

An initial refurbishment plan for the Ganeshpuri Temple Plaza (1995) overlooked the needs of flower vendors. Resistance ensued until Brinda stepped in.
© SNK

Another testament to this approach is the post-earthquake rehabilitation of Bhadli Village in Bhuj. Brinda and her team spoke with villagers to gauge their priorities. This empathetic groundwork laid the foundation for preserving the social and spatial fabric of the village.

In pre-planning conversations with Brinda, residents expressed the importance of preserving home sizes and positions when reconstructing Bhadli Village (2002).
© SNK

Involving end-users in the design process supports the creation of practical spaces and the preservation of the community’s fabric. More than that, it fosters a profound connection to place that’s both meaningful and enduring.

Shifting from the rural to the urban, Brinda discusses the Mumbai Esplanade Park concept of 2011. This project aimed to transform 63 acres of urban density into pedestrian plazas, prioritising people over cars.

The unbuilt Mumbai Esplanade project (designed with Shivjit Sidhu) proposed the linking of 102 acres of existing parks with 63 acres of new public open spaces.
© SNK / Apostrophe A+uD

Still, it lacked the political support needed to progress beyond the concept stage. Acknowledging this setback, Brinda advocates for architects to embrace activism, urging a bold political stance.

Brinda’s vast portfolio points to her professional versatility, also encompassing new corporate and institutional designs that balance context, function, and delight.

The Tata Consultancy Services Campus in Indore showcases this, demonstrating how innovative design can meet practical needs while creating spaces people love.

The architecture of the Tata Consultancy Services Campus (2018) was inspired by the Narmada River, mimicking its journey from source to mouth.
© SNK

Nalanda International School (junior and senior campuses) exemplifies the use of passive design strategies including jalis, courtyards, and extensive tree cover. Beyond comfort, the design fosters a deep respect for the environment among students.

Classrooms at the Nalanda International Junior School in Vadodara (2004) are connected by vaulted corridors that open onto a large inner courtyard.
© Noshir Gobai

Brinda emphasises the need to embrace rather than avoid India’s complexity. She believes in seeking diverse solutions for diverse challenges. Her legacy teaches us that architecture’s true value lies in its ability to enhance both human and environmental well-being.

Gallery

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with a recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with a recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:01:59 “…award-winning heritage conservation projects…”
Why is historical and architectural preservation important?”  |  Rethinking the Future
00:05:27 “…conservation and adaptive reuse, and you…”
What Is Adaptive Reuse Architecture and Why It’s Important”  |  Masterclass
00:12:30 “…as the floor space index for a…”
A Comprehensive Guide on Understanding Floor Space Index (FSI)  |  CREDAI-MCHI
00:14:09 “…is the corporate social responsibility of all…”
What Is CSR? Corporate Social Responsibility Explained  |  Investopedia
00:16:46 “…is to have a pucca house and…”
Kutcha house, pucca house: Meaning, differences”  |  Housing.com
00:21:45 “…tulips and occidental flowers…”
occidental”  |  Merriam-Webster
00:23:23 “…to design through hydrology in this…”
Hydrology  |  Designing Buildings
00:27:56 “…nominated for an Aga Khan Award…”
Aga Khan Award for Architecture  |  Aga Khan Development Network
00:29:16 “…in Maharashtra called Latur, and what…”
Maharashtra’s deadliest earthquake: Some facts you must know about the Latur earthquake  |  India Today
00:31:18 “…say the Phaidon book said…”
The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture (Original edition, 2008)  |  Phaidon
00:40:46 “…We have a race course in the heart…”
The Mahalaxmi Race Course  |  Royal Western India Turf Club
00:00:00 “…we had Corbusier and Kahn…”
Fondation Le Corbusier  |  Fondation Le Corbusier
00:00:00 “…we had Corbusier and Kahn…”
Kahn, Louis Isador (1901-1974)”  |  Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
00:00:00 “…masters like Correa and Kanvinde and all…”
CCA Charles Correa Associates”  |  Charles Correa Foundation
00:04:38 “…masters like Correa and Kanvinde and all…”
Achyut Kanvinde | A Splash of Brutalism | The Functionalist”  |  Archgyan
00:06:28 “…monuments listed by the Archaeological Survey of India…”
Archaeological Survey of India
00:07:19 “…won a UNESCO award…”
UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation 2019”  |  United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
00:08:14 “…from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras where we…”
About IIT Madras”  |  Indian Institute of Technology Madras
00:15:06 “…giants like Corbusier and Doshi who…”
Balkrishna Doshi (1927-2023)”  |  Vastushilpa Foundation / Balkrishna Doshi Archives
00:32:42 “…urban planner called Sidhu…”
Shivjit Sidhu”  |  LinkedIn
00:01:56 “…design practice in Mumbai is best…”
Mumbai (Maharashtra, India)  |  Britannica
00:02:21 “…connected and digitised India…”
India”  |  Britannica
00:06:58 “…involved with the Indian Institute of Management buildings…”
Indian Institute of Management” (Ahmedabad, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:07:06 “…by Louis Khan in Ahmedabad, and there…”
Ahmadabad” (Gujarat, India)  |  Britannica
00:10:14 “…beautiful church, the St Thomas Cathedral, which…”
St. Thomas Cathedral” (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:11:11 “…not the Parthenon or the…”
Parthenon” (Athens, Greece)  |  Britannica
00:11:12 “…or the Acropolis or the Taj Mahal where…”
The Acropolis of Athens” (Athens, Greece)  |  Britannica
00:11:12 “…or the Acropolis or the Taj Mahal where…”
Taj Mahal” (Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India)  |  Britannica
00:13:10 “…happening in Singapore…”
Singapore”  |  Britannica
00:20:25 “…the Tata Consultancy Services Campus in…”
Tata Consultancy Services Campus” (Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:20:25 “…the Tata Consultancy Services Campus in Indore…”
Indore” (Madhya Pradesh, India)  |  Britannica
00:20:49 “…in Madhya Pradesh and quite…”
Madhya Pradesh” (India)  |  Britannica
00:20:54 “…called the Narmada River…”
Narmada River” (Madhya Pradesh, India)  |  Britannica
00:24:20 “…called the Nalanda School, which…”
Nalanda International Senior School” (Vadodara, Gujarat, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:24:20 “…called the Nalanda School, which…”
Nalanda International Junior School” (Vadodara, Gujarat, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:27:52 “…the Bhadli Village in Bhuj in 2007…”
Bhadli Village” (Bhuj, Gujarat, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:27:52 “…the Bhadli Village in Bhuj in 2007…”
Bhuj” (Gujarat, India)  |  Britannica
00:28:37 “…wanted because Gujarat, the villages…”
Gujarat” (India)  |  Britannica
00:29:00 “…border of Pakistan…”
Pakistan”  |  Britannica
00:29:15 “…earlier in Maharashtra called…”
Maharashtra” (India)  |  Britannica
00:31:47 “…the Mumbai Esplanade Park…”
Mumbai Esplanade Project” (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India)  |  Somaya & Kalappa Consultants
00:38:12 “…been to Chandigarh and…”
Chandigarh” (India)  |  Britannica
00:38:45 “…live in Mylapore in Madras is…”
Mylapore” (Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India)  |  Wikipedia
00:38:45 “…live in Mylapore in Madras is…”
Chennai” (Tamil Nadu, India)  |  Britannica
00:39:03 “…with say Buenos Aires or some…”
Buenos Aires” (Buenos Aires Province, Argentina)  |  Britannica
00:39:13 “…Europe without Russia…”
Russia”  |  Britannica
00:39:37 “…maybe even Bangalore, which…”
Bengaluru” (Karnataka, India)  |  Britannica
00:39:44 “…Chennai is a little different…”
Chennai” (Tamil Nadu, India)  |  Britannica
00:39:46 “…Hyderabad is also a little…”
Hyderabad” (Telangana, India)  |  Britannica
00:45:25 “…all lived in Kolkata and then…”
Kolkata” (West Bengal, India)  |  Britannica
00:45:37 “…us to was Nalanda, and that…”
Nalanda” (Bihar, India)  |  Britannica
00:16:23 “…If it’s an RCC roof…”
RCC Slabs: A Comprehensive Guide”  |  Kairali TMT
00:24:57 “…created jalis so the air…”
Jaali a tool of sustainable architectural practice: Understanding the feasibility and usage”  |  Science Direct

There are no products and technologies mentioned in this episode.

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Editor-at-large
Narelle Yabuka

Managing editor
Kruti Choksi Kothari

Senior communications executive
Sana Gupta

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Tyler Yeo

Art director (video)
Alexander Melck  |  Phlogiston

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown  |  Phlogiston

Video editors
Guellor Muguruka  |  Phlogiston
Madelein Myburgh  |  Phlogiston

Graphic designer
Stian van Wyk  |  Phlogiston

 

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