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Indian architect is an example of working in many worlds

Architecture professor Mary Woods first met Indian architect Brinda Somaya on her first trip to Mumbai in 1998. Somaya, Woods says, was one of the few women architects anywhere who did not practice with a family firm.

"Her isolation from established offices was good for her -- it gave her the chance to develop her architectural portfolio, from neighborhood centers to large projects such as IT campuses, museums and schools," said Woods, the Michaela McCarthy Professor of Architectural Theory in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP). She presented "Designing With a Divided Mind Across Many Worlds: The Work of Mumbai Architect Brinda Somaya" Oct. 21 in Statler Hall's Beck Center, for attendees of Cornell's Trustee-Council Annual Meeting.

Woods began by discussing images of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, built in 1935-36, and commenting on clips from a 2008 Bollywood film, "Jodhaa Akbar," about a Hindu-Muslim marriage in 16th-century Hindustan.

Somaya's 60-person firm is one of the largest architectural practices in Mumbai, and their projects over the last decade include the design of information technology campuses across India for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a company owned by the Tata Group conglomerate chaired by Ratan Tata '59, B.Arch. '62.

In an industry with high turnover, the improvements to the TCS Banyan campus and other sites can be "seen as a way of retaining the workers," she said. Some of the locations are "cyber-citie," for up to 24,000 workers, with their own power and water supplies.

Somaya's work on these campuses has been marked by minimizing glass surfaces to reduce glare, and using pergolas, screens, landscaping and other features to make the buildings more energy efficient. Somaya and American architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (who designed the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan) collaborated on upgrading Banyan's existing complex of bungalows, and new construction for the campus incorporated "contemporary buildings in a dialogue with the past."

Mumbai is "a city of extremes," Woods said, with a large population compressed into a small area. Some live in luxury apartments, but 65 percent of the population is in informal housing, often right next door to some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.

"Somaya has said it is a city where one can be simultaneously a high-tech professional and a barefoot architect," Woods said.

When more than 90 percent of the village of Bhadli was destroyed in an earthquake in 2001, "Somaya provided lime, paint, clay and mirror shards" for villagers who had rebuilt to redecorate their homes both inside and out, "as part of the healing process," she said.

Woods said her presentation was part of a research project on the history of women architects in Mumbai and Delhi. She credited former AAP Dean Porus Olpadwala and Professor Michael Tomlan with initiating her first trip to Mumbai, and also illustrated some of AAP's global research and outreach projects in India, including Jeffrey Chusid's winter 2010-11 workshop creating a master plan for the village of Diggi; the college's "Unpacking the Nano" project and exhibition in 2010-11; Lily Chi's Mumbai architecture studio in 2010; and an upcoming spring 2012 architecture conference on settlements.

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Blaine Friedlander