League of Extraordinary Women

WID 2020+ fostered an open dialogue on current and future design practices between women designers of global repute - By Mitalee Kurdekar

We are taught the importance of ‘sharing’ as young children, but the older we grow, the more the concept is lost on us. And soon there comes a point, where we become quite averse to the idea, content instead in keeping our ideas, successes – and even failures – to ourselves. Little do we realise that giving vent to our thoughts amidst a receptive audience is a means to initiate a conversation that ultimately enlightens and enriches us, making us better versions of ourselves – whether as professionals or on the personal front. Proving this theory true was the Women in Design 2020+ International Conference, held from January 8-10 at the Nehru Centre, Mumbai.

Although the event saw in excess of 500 delegates, it felt more like a close-knit family discussion was underway, such was the camaraderie and warmth experienced in the room. The outcome was a vibrant, profound and occasionally emotional series of sessions by accomplished women entrepreneurs from varied design-related backgrounds. Organised by The HECAR Foundation, the event witnessed 37 speakers and panellists from India and the world assemble to share their history, journey and success stories, both with each other and a captivated audience that comprised of architects, interior designers, and architectural and interior design students, among other design enthusiasts. Curated by a panel that was helmed by architect Brinda Somaya, founder trustee, The HECAR Foundation, and principal architect, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants (SNK); along with the organising committee consisting of Nandini Somaya Sampat, trustee, The HECAR Foundation, and architect, SNK; as well as Ruturaj Parikh, architect & director, Matter; and Prof. Mary Norman Woods, professor, architectural history, Cornell University; the forum also included the launch of a digital platform, the Design Manifesto 2020+, which will serve as a means to connect women architects, artists and designers across India and the world. 

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Spirit of Sharing
And it is that connection that was abundantly apparent throughout the three-day symposium. Taking off from where things ended at the inaugural conference and exhibition – Women in Architecture 2000 Plus, this edition went well beyond architecture, also including the practice of art, design and construction. And the women who came to represent these diverse, yet symbiotic disciplines did as women always do – they spoke freely, fiercely and with passion and purpose, sharing stories of struggles and triumphs, motivating one another to not just continue on the path they have set out on, but also to do more and better work, and inspire many others in the process.
“With this conference and exhibition, we hope to achieve the public exposure that all women richly deserve. We will now become more aware of our own achievements and even more importantly, the work of each other. Professional contacts and friendships and a creative exchange of ideas, we hope will be a natural corollary. We have to go beyond buildings and work with programmes that transform society. Design has to be part of a people’s process,” said Brinda Somaya exactly 20 years ago, when she convened the Women in Architecture 2000 Plus Conference & Exhibition. What is poignant is that all she said then holds true even today, and that is what made the second edition of the conference – Women in Design 2020+ – an equally seminal one.

For starters, the keynote address by renowned architect Billie Tsien, founding partner of the award-winning firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, left the audience mesmerised. It covered a wide range of subjects, from the work-life balance that women in architecture typically face to the values that have guided her practice, while also examining one of her current projects, the much touted Obama Presidential Centre.

In a similar vein, Annabelle Selldorf, founding principal of Selldorf Architects, gave those present an insight into her personal and professional journey from Cologne, Germany, where she was born and raised, to New York City, where she studied architecture and went on to set up her practice. Additionally, she presented her recent projects, which represent her firm’s commitment to human-centric design, and also reflected on issues that she believes will move the profession forward. At a later point during her panel discussion, Selldorf was heard saying, “If you can make a tranquil space, you can make all the noise you want.”

The conference certainly made all the right noises. It wasn’t just about celebrating the achievements of these talented women, but it also highlighted past wrongdoings against other equally deserving ones. Prof. Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, reminded everyone about the controversy surrounding the omission of Denise Scott Brown’s name from and contribution to Robert Venturi’s 1991 Pritzker Prize and the petition that followed in her support, thus making a case for championing the cause of women architects at such awards and other platforms.

Diverse, not Divided
Brinda Somaya confessed that, with this conclave, she wished to “celebrate the diversity and richness of women-driven practices”. As a consequence and extending beyond architecture, the conference chose to chronicle the broader cultural preoccupations that encompass authoring, pedagogy, conservation and restoration, politics, design, urbanism and activism. “I believe that an isolated practice is no longer possible in the world that is built on collaborative endeavours,” Somaya said. In keeping with this sentiment, the event saw women of varied design backgrounds grace the stage to share their work and views.
One such trailblazer was Chhavi Rajawat, the first sarpanch (elected village council head) of Village Soda in Rajasthan. She spoke with a single-minded determination, which was met with much applause, stressing on the importance of ‘participatory development’ or the inclusion of the community in the development process.
“As a filmmaker, I too dare to change the world,” professed Vibha Bakshi, director & producer, Responsible Films, before she showcased snippets from her National Film Award-winning documentary, titled ‘Son Rise’, leaving audiences moved to tears by her candid portrayal of the patriarchal mind-set and state of affairs in Haryana and the positive social changes her films have prompted.
On the other hand, art historian Rashmi Poddar, director at Jnanapravaha Mumbai (JPM), spoke about the ‘divine feminine’ and demonstrated the evolution of the female figure in Indian mythology. She spoke of how we are blessed to have these very feminine principles, something that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world, and that it is ironical that women’s place in society today is far different from the past when they were revered. 
Speaking of learning from the past, Prof. Woods highlighted the importance of archiving, offering the example of Sri Lanka’s first woman architect, Minnette de Silva, who self-documented her work in her book, ‘The Life & Work of an Asian Woman Architect’.
As regards the broadening of the conference theme to include design, Mohit Hajela, group head, business development, Jaquar Group (who were title donors), stated, “Design is all pervasive. One largely tends to limit design to its build form, but it extends beyond that. Therefore, the construct of design needs to be broadened and that is essentially what Brinda’s outlook has been, and it is quite similar to what we subscribe to as a group, making us absolutely proud of our association and the way this global event has been organised.”

Inspired & Inspiring
Despite having attended multiple seminars across the world, Sri Lankan architect Nela De Zoysa, principal architect, Nela De Zoysa Design Corporation, had this to say, “None of the conferences have reached this peak. It has been an amazing collection of women architects and designers of the world, who gave their presentations.” She added that, personally, the conference has been inspirational, and has helped establish connections between many people.
In addition to the conference, The HECAR Foundation and SNK curated the Women in Design Exhibition, which opened on January 7, 2020, at the Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai. The exhibition contains the digital Design Manifesto 2020+; the charming works of Indian street photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri; Indian weave installations in collaboration with textile designer Vinay Narkar; and glimpses of exhibits featuring women architects from Germany, courtesy of the Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai. Moreover, The HECAR Foundation already intends to bring out a document – just as they did after the conference in 2000 in the form of the book `An Emancipated Place’. The upcoming book will record everything that took place over the course of those three days as well as the exhibition, making it a great reference point for future generations.
Of course, the notion that a single conference – or two – will prove to be emancipatory for an entire section of society is probably a fantasy, yet the only way to reach that goal is to take small, albeit purposeful, strides in that direction. And, in doing just so, Brinda Somaya and the HECAR Foundation have not only laid out a roadmap for the future, but also made the rest of us – as a collective – responsible towards an extremely critical mission.
As Somaya so eloquently summed up, “This conference has to move in a much solid direction. We have to see what is it that we can all do, to really create connections and connecting lines between all of us and our practices. I know that every speaker from every part of the world would be very happy to put down what comes out of this conference, which will take us women to a greater equality without being a threat to anyone, without necessarily being aggressive in any way, but through just being able to get what we richly deserve.”

The Women in Design Exhibition is open for viewing until February 20, 2020, at the Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai.

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