One of the foremost objectives of WADe Asia is to bring forward awareness of works of architects and designers who are making a huge difference, and yet remain largely unsung and undocumented. One such find was Didi Contractor, a self-taught architect working quietly in the foothills of the majestic Himalayas. Very little documentation of her work was available.
Didi mostly builds with Adobe (sun dried bricks) and also incorporates other naturally locally available materials and techniques in her architecture, making them unique and special. Light plays significant role in her buildings. Although inspired by abstract concepts of nature and heritage, the style of each of her projects reflect the personality and needs of the individual client.
Didi encourages other women to come forth and start wherever at whichever stage of life they are, citing her own example: she resumed building at age 60 after building the first few around the age of 30 and has never looked back. Even at the age of 88 years, she projects the same energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail to all her projects as would a woman in her 20’s. Naturally, WADe Asia couldn’t think of a person more deserving to be receiving the First Ever ‘WADe Asia Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 2017.
In this issue of #SurfacesReporterDotCom, we take you through a quick glance of the life and works of Didi Contractor and her evergreen spirit.
For our first interaction, just finding and connecting with Didi, who has been in poor health and has limited access to phone and internet connection in the Kangra valley, was no mean task. Once connected, her clarity of thought, focus and attention to detail struck us instantly.
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 one’s spirits just as the spirits of India are lifted by tradition and by the continent that we all inherited.
- Didi expressed during her presentation at the WADe Asia 2017
Early Life and Influences
Didi was Born in the US and raised in the US & Europe, Didi spent her teenage summers in Taos, New Mexico, where she was first introduced to building with Adobe, beginning a love story with this humble material, which has only grown over the years.
Didi considers her artist parents, who were both professional modern painters, to have been of great influence. As a child, she would often quietly sit in a corner and listen to them talking with the famous artists and other intellectuals who made up their avantgarde circle, first in Europe, then as refugees in America, as they discussed varied topics and conducted intense arguments about the role of the artists in the society.
Before moving into a traditional Gujarati joint family in India after her marriage in 1951, Didi studied art. Her husband Narayan’s father, a ‘Contractor’ by profession would often demonstrate carpentry techniques and regale her with stories about Indian building traditions but, as was still usual in India in the fifties, she was discouraged from working herself.
After a decade of living in Nasik, Didi and her husband and children moved to Bombay where they built a home in Juhu which was then, still a serene beachside suburb filled with coconut groves. This home led to opportunities to design and build a few other homes such as the ‘Kutir’ for Prithviraj Kapoor. At the same time, Didi got the opportunity to renovate the ‘Lake Palace’ Udaipur which the Maharana of Mewar was converting into a heritage hotel. This project led to her brief successful career as a decorator.
Years later, when the children had all grown up and left home to study abroad, her quest for wanting to experience rural life and her spiritual practices led her to finally settle in Andreta in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh. She renovated an old home with a vegetable garden and bare essentials and started living there. Didi says, “At that time, Kangra was still pristine with beautifully terraced fields amid clusters of slate-roofed adobe villages that harmonized with a majestic landscape dominated by the grandeur of the snow-clad Dhauladhar range. Clear rushing waters gleamed in streams and ancient waterways.”
A lot of that beautiful landscape has today been replaced with concrete structures in varied sizes and colours with plastic debris and mindless construction which pains her.
Materiality & Nature
“I like to welcome nature and I take Architecture as a dialogue with nature, our nature and the nature of the world around.”
She feels, “In our India, there’s always ‘Jugaad’ - often less expensive and lesser invasive. The one thing that has no carbon cost is ‘thought’. Thinking and Planning can free you up.”
“My father brought old wooden pieces from way up in the New Mexico mountains, for the 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,” she gleefully admitted to the audience at the WADe Asia event for women architects, artists & designers.
In Kangra, she came across extended families that still lived in “Clusters of imposing double-storey adobe homes scattered between their intensely cultivated fields.” She took careful note of the construction details of these “Old well-built sections, sketched motifs from the inventive woodwork and the lovely detailing that earthen plaster allows.”
Didi also uses & experiments with other local materials and traditional techniques like stones. Her buildings, not all are of Adobe. For example, flat river stones used in pavements and walls.
Sensitive, Sustainable Architecture
Didi is extremely conscious of the carbon footprints that buildings can leave.
In her lecture she pointed out that “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. 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, and walls if it is rubble.” And in her text for Joginder Singh’s book, she mentions:
“I attempt to make practical ecologically sensitive decisions, to comply with the restrictions imposed by the materials and skills available locally, to respect the individual artisans, and to conform to a culturally appropriate style.”
Respecting Tradition & Heritage
Expressing deep concerns about the current state of human affairs, during her speech in WADe Asia, Didi said “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 dying due to ruthlessness, and I propose a total revolution.”
“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 admonished. “Understand the past, express yourself but don’t imitate.”
Elaborating further, she added, “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.” She urges humanity to look deeply at the meaning, to search thoroughly an understanding and translating things into the terms of our own times, but without losing that rootedness, then the tree can spread far, the branches & flowers will grow, and the fruits will be able to draw nourishment.
Light plays an important role in all her projects
The flow of light in her projects capture the very essence of the spirit of building. It is interesting to note that all her projects have skylights. “Space is drama, light is the play.”
“I am awed by the simplicity with which slanting winter sunlight can be lured into a structure, used as light, converted into heat, trapped and stored.”
Encouraging Artisans to contribute to the vision
Didi Contactor shares a close bond with the artisans and craftsman she works with, some of whom have been associated with her for years together. She encourages artisans to contribute to her vision and believes in the importance of direct hands on experience so that you are aware of what you are asking someone else to do for you.
“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. Participating in that process is the most important thing a young architect should do.” Didi 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.
Some of her important projects
Didi considers herself fortunate that most of her “projects were either commissioned by friends or by like-minded individuals who later became friends.” As she says in the text for Joginder’s book, “The closer the friendship, the more I respect and am sympathetic to the ideas and ideals of the client. Also it is easier to design: to identify deeply with each unique individual future occupant, to try to imagine what will meet their needs, give them pleasure and facilitate their lifestyle.”
The quotes have been picked from Didi Contractor’s Keynote speech during WADe Asia 2017 and the book by Joginder Singh, “An Adobe Revival - Didi Contractor’s Architecture.”
Nishtha Clinic: A Holistic Clinic for Dr. Barbara Nath-Wiser
This was one of the first projects; Didi took up, when she was close to 60 year old. Barbara shared the philosophy behind her holistic practice and Didi applied her similar approach to building.This was one of the first projects; Didi took up, when she was close to 60 year old. Barbara shared the philosophy behind her holistic practice and Didi applied her similar approach to building.
While planning the space for the clinic, Didi would imagine herself as the patient or as any relative accompanying a suffering loved one. The opportunity to design the clinic gave her the chance to demonstrate her knowledge of the traditional building practices, Didi used to spend hours watching Dr. Barbara at work to be able to devise the spaces most appropriate to her practices.
Sambhaavnaa was her second public project after Nishtha Clinic. Eminent public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan invited Didi to participate in the creation of the campus for his envisioned institute for public policy. Deeply impressed by his ideals she was eager to help.
While she was building the Sambhaavnaa campus, Mark Moore came up to her with the idea of building an Institute that would help nourish the mind. The transcendent beauty of this site, dictated her design. The building came up totally in relationship to the landscape and in relation to what you will see, what you will feel.
“So one of the main programs of the Dharmalaya Institute is not just working with minds, there are silent meditation programs and also programs where young architects come to work with their own hands in mud and bamboo and learn the other vernacular techniques, and hopefully to research those techniques in other parts of India, where there are usually at least one or two old masons or carpenters, one or two standing buildings, that will give you the clue of what people have learnt during the 2000 years of R&D that stand behind what I do,” she concluded. she concluded.