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Mary Norman Woods on Brinda Somaya

31 March, 2021

Full disclosure I was involved in planning this monograph, contributed an essay, and moderated one of its dialogues between Somaya and others. Still I am immodest enough to include it because this publication is an important departure from the typical architect’s monograph. It is really an archive between two covers, documenting a multifaceted practice of design,  conservation, master planning, research, and media founded by a woman on her own nearly half a century ago. Even today it is rare for women to practice without a spouse or other male family member.

Despite the pioneering work of Milka Bliznakov, founder of the International Archive of Women in Architecture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 1985, women designers and their works still have a minimal presence within institutional archives. Today only eleven women are represented in Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia University, one of the world’s leading  repositories. Here they account for only 1.22% of the 900 collections that Avery holds. There are also only a few women to be found in the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. If such institutional amnesia continues, it means we will still struggle to write more inclusive histories of design and architecture.

Like Minnette de Silva before her, Somaya published her own archive. Her monograph gives time and space for the voices of Somaya’s collaborators, colleagues, and historians from within architecture. But we also hear from those outside the discipline like clients, writers, and activists. Somaya also decided to rephotograph some of her buildings showing how they aged and users changed them over time. Such evidence of buildings’ afterlives is rarely found in either an archive or monograph.

Biome Diaries, a forthcoming publication by Bengaluru architect Chitra Vishwanath and her colleagues at Biome Environmental Solutions, is about their transdisciplinary practice dedicated to ecology, design, water, and community. It challenges the idea of the conventional monograph too. Again, I know it well because I am also a contributor.

Vishwanath cast the publication as a diary because she wanted the intimacy, accessibility, and affordability associated with a personal journal. Published in English, Hindi, and other Indian languages, the diary entries take on forms not found in an architect’s monograph: poems; short stories; comic strips; caricatures; oral histories; and  personal reminiscences. Equally diverse are the contributors to the diaries: clients;  builders; office staff; family friends; archivists; historians; and Biome’s past and present architects and engineers. The Biome Diaries embody the practice’s commitment to  community, collaboration, and experimentation. De Silva, Somaya, and Vishwanath are not only women writing architecture, but they are also women challenging and reimagining the very nature of architectural writing.

Mary Norman Woods on Brinda Somaya

Full disclosure I was involved in planning this monograph, contributed an essay, and moderated one of its dialogues between Somaya and others. Still I am immodest enough to include it because this publication is an important departure from the typical architect’s monograph. It is really an archive between two covers, documenting a multifaceted practice of […]