Last year, when the Tata Group decided to restore their global headquarters, Bombay House, they sought out the best in the business. Chairman N. Chandrasekaran approached architect and urban conservationist Brinda Somaya with a plan to restore the 94-year-old building. "He had a clear directive and vision, and a deadline (July 29). It meant that after getting all permissions in place, we had about seven months to work on the heritage building. It was tough," says 69-year-old Somaya.
Somaya and her team at SNK (Somaya & Kalappa Consultants) swung into action. The external façades -- AC vents, pipes and ducts -- were removed and taken into the chowk. The stone walls cleaned; the tiled roof recast; glazed windows added to bring down the decibel level by half; and the interiors fitted with state-of-the-art IT, security, data and fire systems. The newly opened building is accessible, sustainable and platinum rated. It has a digital museum, which gives insight into the company, and a kennel for strays.
In all, it is a shining example of how a building can balance its heritage and yet be futuristic. In Mumbai's historic Fort precinct, it's another showcase of Somaya's restoration expertise, together with the Rajabai Clock Tower, the Cathedral and John Connon Schools, TCS headquarters and St Thomas Cathedral, among others.
There are challenges: old buildings are not easy to maintain, there are rent and tenant issues, developers are ready to pounce on them, and political and bureaucratic entities are not always enthusiastic. "Part of this responsibility also belongs to architects," she says. "They are the guardians of the city. They should be conscious of the built and un-built environment. How do we design, what materials we use, the role of water, how to reduce materials, how to be sustainable, how to be sensitive to surrounding spaces," she says.
Despite the problems, Somaya is very 'protective' of her city, and works for its betterment as evidenced through her fight for betterment of public spaces (the Mumbai Esplanade Project). "We should be proud of its heritage conservation, listed buildings and that the historic Fort area has been preserved," she says.
Somaya has much to be proud of: she and her designs have won awards, they've been exhibited and recorded in books and journals. She has been feted for her work as an architect, activist and conservationist. It's been quite a long journey for someone who started out in 1975-76 in a garden shed with no business plan. To stand out in a male-dominated field, besides talent, she needed to make her voice heard. And she did, working with sensitivity, integrity and a fierce pride and respect for the country's regional architecture. She has covered private spaces, hotels, factories, bank quarters, schools and museums and offered her services to citizen groups, NGOs, panchayats, and activists in small towns. One of her better known projects is the Bhadli village reconstruction project in Kutch after the 2001 earthquake.
This year, on completion of four decades of service, she launched Brinda Somaya: Works and Continuities -- a monograph that showcases her contributions to society and the impact of her work. The biggest exhibition of her work, though, can be found outside the book, on a walk through SoBo.
Now that her daughter Nandini Somaya Sampat is looking after much of S&K's projects, it gives Somaya time to write, be a mentor, and focus on her roles such as professor at Cornell University, and chairperson at Vijayawada's School of Planning and Architecture. In 2000, she came out with a book about women in architecture. "I am not discounting the issues women face in architecture. But I believe that we can bring about change on the ground," she says.
Images reproduced from Brinda Somaya: Works and Continuities, published by Mapin Publishing in association with The HECAR Foundation.