In Conversation with the Legendary Architect Sheila Sri Prakash

TDC Interviews: Sheila Sri Prakash, Founder and Chief Architect, Shilpa Architects (Chennai)

In a career spanning more than three decades, architect Sheila Sri Prakash has made an impact on nearly every aspect of the architecture and design industry. Architect Sheila, who began her career in 1979, became the first Indian woman to operate her own architectural practice. Since then, through her firm Shilpa Architects , the legendary architect has completed more than 1200 projects, singlehandedly creating a roadmap for sustainable architecture and development in India. Credited with introducing culturally relevant and vernacular techniques in contemporary architectural design, architect Sheila has also been internationally acclaimed for her contributions by various renowned universities and organizations all over the world. She talks to our magazine about the evolution of her practice and the importance of sustainability.

Architect Sheila Sri Prakash

1. With an illustrious career spanning many decades, sprawling international influence and numerous awards to your name, your career is an inspiration to many and often regarded as one that has broken many stereotypes. What inspires you to keep going and what do you still set out to achieve?

When I started as an architect in 1979, in addition proving my capabilities as a professional, I had to counter the general bias of accepting a female professional as an architect. I therefore focused on defining my priorities as an individual and an architect. I set myself benchmarks and milestones to improve the parameters that were my priority for design by experimenting with materials, building systems and detailing. The encouraging results of my experiments inspired me to better the performances of my design. I discovered that my buildings inspired people to perform better. So I extrapolated my philosophy of design - Reciprocity - from a building level to a community level and then to a city level, at the World Economic Forums’, Design and Innovation Council. I would like to see the day when it can be further scaled to a national and global level. For me, it is a saga - the continuation of a theme that had evolved.


2. Your background in dance and music is well known, however architecture was something that came naturally to you. Has the musical influence resonated naturally in your architecture too?

My formal training in Bharathanatyam started when I was four and a half years old. I was fortunate to get a guru who took on the challenge to put me on stage for a solo performance of two and a half hours when I was six. It is this training in the classical arts that molded my single minded focus in my work. I learnt to express myself through my work. I believe that through designed and imaginatively articulated spaces one can create an ambience that can resonate with the innermost desires of people.


3. How do you think the architecture industry in India has developed over the years? Especially with its well-known skeptical nature towards women, do you think this perception has evolved?

To answer the first part of your question , the role of the architect has changed through the years. From being an intuitive design response of an individual architect it has become the collaborative effort of architects, engineers and construction professionals to come up with solutions to complex and varied issues facing humanity, the planet and the industry today. In this collaborative process the probability of the design intent of the architect getting diluted is high. As to the perception of women architects, there is a sea change. Women are being given credit for their expertise and that biases are diminishing. This could also have been facilitated by the fact that architectural practices have evolved to becoming architectural firms.


4. You have always been a sustainability activist. Do you think sustainability, the idea of net zero buildings and minimum impact has a very different context when it comes to the Indian subcontinent? Given the fact that the western sustainability scene is still far ahead, what factors do you think hamper its growth amidst the architecture and design industry in India?

Historically, Indian Building Systems have responded to nature, by being simple and conservative in consumption and never disruptive to the environment or natural resources. In fact it is the mad rush to emulate the developed countries and the compulsion to be contemporary and modern that decimated our designing DNA to adopt something that is alien, presumptuous and irresponsible. The sooner we realize this as a nation and re align our growth trajectory to care for the people and the planet as we historically did, we can set examples to achieve the goals set by international organizations with considerable ease ; for the rest of the world to follow. However, being a democracy this will be difficult without strict governance and mandates and focused and selfless professionals.


5. The role of architecture journalism, criticism and the journalist often goes unrecognized in our industry. What do you think of its importance and how can this change?

The media, is of course very powerful in creating public perceptions. They can and should play a very responsible role in creating awareness and empowering our people to make the right choices while creating spaces for their development that resonates and remains harmonious with nature and society.


6. The pandemic has changed our style of working. With minimum time to adapt, a sudden digital surge and unprecedented effects on every stakeholder in the chain of command, do you think of this to be a time for quick, pragmatic responses to the built environment or rather a time for us to stop and rethink everything?

The pandemic in my opinion is one forceful lesson for us to realize the foolhardy and irresponsible manner in which we transacted with the planet and humanity. We need to redefine our focus and priorities to be responsible and sensitive in order to live harmoniously with nature. Carving out micro spaces for our use from the Macrocosm that we are part of , is after all creating built environments.


7. The pandemic has resulted in a flood of webinar’s, online conferences and talks within the architecture and design community addressing a range of issues. What topics do you think should take precedence over the others given these times?

The magnitude of the remedy that we need to recourse for ourselves is humungous and diverse. This makes it complex. Having said that, the issues identified are all important and need to be addressed collaboratively. A multi pronged yet uni focused approach is what will help us re route to achieving Wholistic Sustainability.


Q: The Design Collective

A: Sheila Sri Prakash


About Sheila Sri Prakash:

Sheila Sri Prakash is an internationally acclaimed Architect, Urban Designer, and Sustainability Expert, who founded Shilpa Architects in 1979. Builders, Architects and Building Materials (BAM), in association with CII Real Estate & Building Technology Exhibition, has conferred upon her the Lifetime Achievement in the field of Architecture Award 2019 for her outstanding achievements and contribution to sustainable design thinking and the growth of Indian real estate sector.


In July 2016, Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, The World Economic Forum has invited her to be part of the 25-member Global Future Council on the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security. She formulated the Reciprocal Design Index, in 2013 when she was part of their Global Agenda Council for Design Innovation to establish, document and incentivize sustainable design of cities. She is widely consulted on matters of urban sustainability by several governments and is closely associated with the Chennai Smart City (board of the SPV), as an Independent Director and Urban Expert.


She has been recently awarded the “Bene Merenti” (2017) Medallion by The University of Architecture and Urbanism, Bucharest, Romania (est. in 1952) and the Ministry of National Education and Scientific Research. This award is part of the global acknowledgement she receives for championing the cause of Sustainability in international forums like the World Economic Forum, Global Environment Fund and The UN Habitat III.

Website: http://shilpaarchitects.com/

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