By : WADe Bureau | 30 May 2018 | TRENDING WADe TOPICS
Didi Contractor, 88 year old self taught architect, famous for her sustainable, green buildings who still practices in the foothills of Himalayas in the Kangra Valley, a place she has fallen in love with, but now feels sad looking at the indiscriminate growth and real estate scattered where once beautiful trees grew up. “I have been fortunate to be able to live within the shadows of the Himalaya and look up to see the sunset and the sunrise on the slopes of the Himalaya so that one can lift ones spirits just as the spirits of India are lifted by tradition and by the continent that we all inherited,” says Didi.
It was an amazing experience to hear her speak at WADe Asia 2017. SURFACES REPORTER presents some excerpts from her presentation at the event.
Didi Contractor was born in America, traveled across the US, lived in Mexico and finally settled in India after her marriage to Narayan Ramji, an Indian in a traditional Gujarati joint family in Nasik. The surname ‘Contractor’ was added later since her father-in-law was a contractor for several influential buildings in Bombay. He would talk to her about the traditions of building in India and also taught her a lot about various Carpentry techniques.
Amongst those who played a crucial part in her intellectual heritage are her parents, especially her father and his works. He was an expressionist artist in those days when Didi was a child and she would often quietly sit in a corner and listen to her father talking to famous German artists, refugees in America, discussing on varied topics. At the same time, she would also learn about Art and immense arguments about the role of artists in the society from her parents. She remembers how her father, who was painting the remaining peasant civilisations of the world in Mexico at that time and was moved by the grace and simplicity in which people were integrated in their environment. She heard the arguments on how modernity was separating people from their roots but also exploring different ways of being mentally intrigued.
A moment which finally opened her to adobe and her love for spaces was when they went to live in Mexico when she was a teenager. “My father brought old wooden pieces from way up in the mountains, we bought a 200 year old house with thick Adobe walls and I helped my parents renovate it. At that point, I fell in love with Adobe and that love affair with Adobe has continued all my life as has all his influences,” fondly remembers Didi.
Nature rests on diversity
Didi draws her inspiration from Nature, how it works, the landscape and the traditions.
“We bought a 200 year old house with thick Adobe walls and I helped my parents renovate it. At that point, I fell in love with Adobe and that love affair with Adobe has continued all my life as has all his influences”
“I like to welcome nature and I take Architecture as a dialogue with nature, our nature and the nature of the world around.”
One of the materials that everybody has access to is ‘Earth.’ Having said that, she reminds us while the Earth will be there for us to work with it in most places, but there is a different solution everywhere. Nature rests on diversity. “May we take the Heritage and not distort it. May we go back to the roots of the heritage and give it a fresh expression in the world” she adds.
Understand the Past, express yourself but don’t imitate Elaborating further, she adds, “The only surviving great culture is India which still holds some sort of nourishment from its ancientness and if we lose that we lose our grounding. But looking to it, not to imitate the past but to understand the past. There is a wonderful statement ‘When you copy without meaning, it becomes superstition.” She urges us to look deeply at the meaning, to search deeply an understanding and translating things into the terms of our own times, but without losing that rootedness, then the tree can spread far. The tree increases its branching, the flower, the fruit of the tree draw nourishment.
Comparing an architect to a hostess inviting you to her building, she says, “as a hostess you don’t only suit your own palate, you take care of the palate of others. As a mother you want each child to grow up to their own talents and ambitions. As an architect and a woman architect, I want other women architects to try and carry forward the respect to traditions while expressing yourself.”
In our Indianess, there’s always ‘Jugaad’
Talking about finding innovative solutions for a bund they created on a hill top using gunny bags filled with stuffed earth and plantation on that, Didi explained, “In our Indianess, there’s always a Jugaad – less expensive, less invasive. The easy way out is using the contemporary materials, build it over it, tile it over. The one thing that has no carbon cost is ‘thought’. Thinking and Planning can free you up.”
The Earth is our Collective responsibility
“When I take something out of the cycle of nature, I think about how it effects that cycle and whether to replace or reuse. Earth from Adobe building can be reused in a vegetable garden. We have to think of ways to reuse where rest of the garbage is coming up. Are there mountains of garbage outside the city? The garbage shouldn’t be used to create mounds, they should be used to create gardens if it is organic, they should be used to create walls if it is rubble. We have to learn to basically deal with our own shit,” she says.
Expressing deep concerns about the current state of human affairs, Didi says, “The way in which we have commercialised our heritage, particularly the gifts of the earth, I am afraid we may not have any human affairs in the future. The things that have taken millennia to build up, from deep history are going or gone and I think this is due to ruthlessness that we have to heal and I propose a total revolution.” She proposes a place in which all of nature (the Buddhist point of view of all sentient being), everyone being responsible to earth and to each other. “That we may survive together. It’s a very tough proposal but this is something I would try to think that I am working towards,” she hopes.
Learn what you want others to do
Didi firmly believes that one must know how to build themselves to be able to direct someone else to do that. Hence, in their institute where young architects and designers come for internship, she ensures that they work with their own hands. “I think in the democratic ideal, people should know how to build with their hands. They shouldn’t be asking somebody else to do something, which you don’t know how to do themselves. So the kids learn how to built straight, they make mistakes, they tear it down, they mix mud, they do the physical work. If you don’t know physical work, you don’t know what you are asking other people to do. You ask women to carry earth on site and you don’t know how heavy that is, you don’t know what it feels like to do it. By participating in that process, I think that’s the most important thing a young architect should do.”
She herself is deeply involved in the whole process, mechanics of the building, rituals of the building, right from laying the foundation stone, training with artisans, spending many hours sitting on sites. “I am always a proud of the artisans as I am of the buildings because each of the artisans pick up something from me and we have an exchange in ideas.”
“Women often stop to have children, family which deserves a great deal of attention and then you nurture in yourselves something you bring to building that I don’t think a few caring men bring to a building.”
Women inherently bring a sense of comfort in sheltering
Didi encourages women to come forth and start wherever and whichever stage of life they are citing her own example of how, she built her second building at age 60 after building the first one when she was 30. “Women often stop to have children, family which deserves a great deal of attention and then you nurture in yourselves something you bring to building that I don’t think a few caring men bring to a building” she says. “Women inherently bring in a sense of comfort in sheltering, something that women bring not just to architecture but to the world,” she further adds.
Apart from this, Didi also talks about how she loves designing staircases and also the flow of light in her projects which captures the very spirit of her buildings.
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