This profession has a great responsibility to our planet and to humanity

Ar. Sheila Sri Prakash talks about her journey and the challenges ahead –

Q. What shaped your evolution process as an architect?
A. My evolution process as an architect began once I graduated from architecture school in 1977. Whilst the degree itself empowered meprofessionally, I was still quite disillusioned about my options to foray into the profession. There were a few practices that inspired me to join as ajunior, but I was unwilling to relocate due to familial priorities. So, after a short stint at a small office for less than a year, I was tempted to start my own practice. My parents and husband encouraged me, and with their moral support and guidance, I started Shilpa Architects in 1979.

As the practice commenced, I realised that I had to learn at my own expense, and therefore, had to work very hard, spending long hours at work. As a one-person office, I was alone forced to do all that needed to be done—from client discussions and design, to drafting and estimation, to site visits and more, while also being responsible for quality, quantity and budgets. It was an all-encompassing commitment and accountability to the project, right from the day a client walked into the office till the time they were comfortably settled in their new premises. Teething issues needed to be addressed till the final completion, and during the settlement of the defect’s liability period a year after occupation.

Every project demanded deep research with a lot of intuitive assumptions, right from understanding the psychological needs of the client, which they weren’t always able to verbalise, to the repercussions that could ensue on successful completion of the project—on the surrounding environment andthe community. I needed to discover optimum and unique solutions for each requirement. While the micro climate, location, soil and orientation were important factors for the evolution of the design, the social, cultural, historic, artistic and economic influences played an even more important role in the language and grammar of the design.

Resource abundance or lack of it too influenced the design in a very compulsive way. Use of materials, and cost-effective and energy-efficient building systems challenge the designer, as you try to balance design solutions with cost implications.

Q. What has been your approach to design development?
A. I realised early on that Shilpa Architects was commissioned to do very niche and special projects, while my male counterparts won the glitzy, high-budget projects. It is, perhaps, this bias that made me stronger in my desire to prove what it takes to be a responsive and responsible architect. I considered myself fortunate to be called by the World Bank to create prototypes for housing the economically weaker section of the society, in the ‘year of the shelter for the shelter-less’. There were no other architects invited, and I was in the company of several NGOs as part of the project. Later, I came to know that I was the only professional from the architecture and engineering field who had evinced interest in the cause, at the time. This left me wondering why architects would not respond to such a clarion call?

It was incredibly challenging to balance costs, while still providing all the needs of normal living, without any compromise. After researching deeply into design possibilities, the solution emerged and the top priority of “providing shelter” was achieved, right on day one. The modular form

allowed for features to be added incrementally, so that the house could be completed as time progressed, and as and when the family could afford to spend more on their home.

As my projects grew in scale, my philosophy of design became clearer. I needed to define a process that could guide me through, to ensure the commitment and accountability that my profession required. Over a weekend, I sat with my husband and devout critique to decode the complexities of design through a diagram that eventually became the logo of my company. “Architecture is that fine balance that responds to the clients’ needs, technologies and resources available on one hand, and to the environmental, cultural and social implications on the other.” My approach to design thus, became focused solely on being inclusive and equitable to the multiple stakeholders involved in a project. I realised that I needed to remainsensitive and perceptive to ourselves first, and only then could we reciprocate to situations that the design process mandated. Empathy is prime for reciprocation, and when we do so, we ensure sustainability by addressing the various issues.

My four decades in the profession have seen many changes. The complexities of designing have increased through the years. With more specialisations, the number of stakeholders in the design and implementation stages of a project has increased. The increase in the size and scale of projects has contributed to the complexities through often conflicting priorities. This frequently results in power struggles among stakeholders that are completely detrimental to the soul of the project.

Q. What are some of the challenges ahead?
A. Our planet is being severely challenged. In the Anthropocene, we have surpassed planetary boundaries with respect to water, biodiversity and quality of soil. Pollution levels are jeopardising our very existence. We are facing a severe crisis with respect to our most precious resource—water. There is an alarming rise in the occurrence of non-communicable diseases. Poor health can constrain humanity’s progress incredibly.

Architects create the built environment; they carve out micro spaces for specific requirements from the macro bounty that is our planet. Creating themicro environments is a tremendous responsibility that needs to be achieved without jeopardising what has been gifted to us. This huge responsibility needs to be adorned with humility and sincerity by our profession. Sustainability is not a choice; it is the single biggest challenge we are facing in all aspects of survival today.

Q. What, in your opinion, is future- responsive architecture?
A. We are headed towards the fourth industrial revolution—a combination of disruptive technology and planetary concerns. Designers should think of using these disruptive technologies to overcome the planetary challenges. Disruptive technology today helps unravel the complexities in planning and designing. Big data is available to facilitate analysis. I see all this as a boon to delineating a focussed and fool-proof process for design.

However, while technology and solutions based on machine learning can enable faster and easily replicable prototypes, they may also result in monotonous, cookie-cutter type replications, which can bring about a loss of uniqueness or a special identity, and therefore, promote a lack of belonging and pride for the people.

In a developing country like ours, there is a huge need for thinking led design. Factoring in our intrinsic strengths that we derive from our culture and legacy, will be the key differentiator for us from developed economies that are younger than us chronologically. Historical knowledge—with respect to design, building, health and economy—cannot be ignored in the analysis of the current data in design. We have always respected our culture, heritage and art as a civilisation. These are our intrinsic strengths and key differentiators from the rest of the world.

Orchestrating a collaborative and equitable ground for positive and energetic design, through empathy, respect and genuine concern, should be the DNA of our profession. Reciprocity ensures Sustainability. It is this thinking that led to the creation of the ‘Reciprocity Design Index’ at the World Economic Forum, which enables cities to ensure holistic sustainability by setting benchmarks from best practices across the globe, and to draft out a process that sets a progression to achieve enviable standards.

Q. What are the voids one should watch out for in architectural education?
A. The institutions that engage in the teaching of architectural design should focus on establishing the ground rules of the profession. That, we are the creators of the built environment and that, the profession is one with a great responsibility to our planet and to humanity. These points cannot be emphasised enough. To spread awareness among the people, that responsive and responsible design can make a difference and help set us apart in all that we do, is crucial. After all, we design and create environments for humanity and the welfare and positive progress of our people.

Research needs to be prioritised in Architecture and Urban Design. The use of cutting- edge technology could solve many major issues confronting us today. New materials of construction can replace the consumption of scarce and endangered resources. Finally, I cannot reiterate enough the importance of changing the perception of our people towards the profession. Architecture and Design is not merely cosmetic that can be retrofitted over clumsy and haphazard planning. It is fundamental and intrinsic to every living space, whatever the scale may be—from a single dwelling unit for a family to a city that caters to bourgeoning population increases.


SHEILA SRI PRAKASH is an award- winning architect and urban designer. Considered one of India’s leading architects and counted amongst the most influential women architects in the world today, Prakash was also the first woman in India to have started her own architectural practice, way back in 1979 with Shilpa Architects Planners Designers. Today, it is an international, award- winning architectural design firm, headquartered in India and with offices in Chennai and Hyderabad. Prakash is acclaimed for her pioneering work in environmentally and socio-economically sustainable design. SHILPA’s designs are internationally renowned for their concept of ‘reciprocity’. It relates to the idea of a balance of socio-economic inclusiveness with environmental sustainability, through urban design and sensitive architecture. The firm’s portfolio spans the entire range of the real estate industry, with numerous projects undertaken globally.