Didi Contractor, raised in Europe and America, and trained in the arts, married and moved to India in 1951, where she became fascinated with the art, crafts and cultural traditions of her new home. After bringing up a family, and working as a decorator, she shifted to a village in the mountains, where, almost three decades ago at the age of 60, she began building according to beliefs that had emerged out of her experience.

A conversation with Joginder Singh

Q: You mentioned that you are not formally trained as an architect. When and how did the transition from artist to architect happen?

A: I think it went the other way around in a way. When I was a child my imaginative life was full of designing houses. I must have designed a hundred houses before I got to be twenty or so. My way of daydreaming was to dream up spaces. My parents were both artists so I was exposed to art and advanced architecture early. I enjoyed buildings and when I was eleven I heard Frank Lloyd Wright talk and I was terribly impressed. My father was involved in the beginnings of the Bauhaus movement so we knew all the architects. I was very aware of modern design and architecture and of spaces and of the fact that spaces had emotional content. I would design spaces with emotional content, like the studio I would live in or the home in the country that I would live in etc. If my parents had picked up on my proclivity towards architecture I would have been trained as an architect. But in those days there was this myth that women are bad at mathematics. And I was not interested in arithmetic. But I was fascinated with geometry. So it was assumed that I would be bad at the engineering part of it. When I got to college I discovered that I was very good at Algebra. I probably could have done it, but at that point I was more into being myself, rebelling, writing poetry and so on, so architecture sort of fell by the wayside. When I got married and got to India I thought I’d design a house to live in. I was painting actively at that time. I designed a house at Bombay. Later, I got a chance to work on the Lake Palace at Udaipur. I must mention the transporting joy of our house in Juhu on the first day I sat there in the morning and the light came in the way I’d planned it. It is such a great moment when you’ve transported something in your mind into a reality. I was always interested in building

In painting I really got bored with this bourgeois theme of an image. I would rather have something you can enter, interact with and move through. I designed umpteen houses that never got built. I would refine my building watching what people were doing. I wanted to design a house in adobe purely to have a wall where the earth would interact with light. I wanted to play with earth and shadows. When I was a child my parents had bought a house in New Mexico, which was made out of adobe and I spent two summers helping them renovate the house in adobe, so I knew the technique.

In India I fell in love with Indian village architecture, the village shrines and the entire earthiness. Victorian architecture was around one and the early Indian Modern. The Indian Modern does not suit the subcontinent like the village architecture does. I loved the aesthetic of it. I photographed and sketched the spaces. So it was a long interest. It wasn’t a switch over. It’s just that I got the opportunity to build when I got the money to build for myself. This led to a whole spate of building. I’ve built several projects now.

Q: What else would you say are possible influences that have shaped your architecture to be what it is today?

A: Studying Indian spaces, sacred spaces. I’ve always been interested in Dynamic Symmetry, how you relate to it. I used to do a lot of origami, lot of gardening. I love Indian Village architecture and I have always been annoyed that the elite felt that they couldn’t live in a mud house. In Taos, New Mexico the most elite houses are adobe. I’ve done pottery too…played with clay. Then there is the whole aesthetic of it. The human eye has always seen mud walls for a long time and something resonates. To me the Indian village is full of beauty and those are all things people have made for themselves. And then having a chance to play…unfortunately a building needs very expensive art supplies, therefore clients. I don’t believe in doing things purely because it looks nice. It should also serve a function. And the aesthetics should contribute to and not diminish the function and each function should be as aesthetically presented as possible, which does not mean ornamentation. I very much sort of subscribe to the pure Bauhaus ideal of Form follows Function. But that needn’t be sterile and cold. It can be a handmade function, a warm function. I envy the potter who puts his thing in the kiln and controls the whole process. I love the moment when I turn the process over to somebody else and then the process comes back. I dialogue with the process. When I built this house I was here all the time with a trowel in my hand and moving things a bit here or a bit there.

Q: Earthen architecture has traditionally been built by the inhabitants and therefore had a high degree of personalization. There used to be a degree of craft always included in Indian architecture that led to its varied richness. This has waned out after the Western Design approach made its way into our country. Your buildings are ‘designed’ keeping in mind the requirements of the client. Do the artisans / masons who work on these have some leeway in terms of personal expression?

A: Actually so far very little, but I am so proud when I can turn the senior artisan loose to work on the hill side and ask him to make it look natural. But then he doesn’t make perfect judgments yet. And he does not have my background of design or my eye. So I am a controlling artist but I like to include the artisan and I inter-relate with the artisan when I am working. I’m most thrilled with the influence I’ve had on some of the artisans. They have made changes to their houses based on their work with me. When I’m working I’m also thinking structure and I find a lot of artisans can’t visualize what the roof is going to do while putting in the foundation, can’t comprehend the complexity of it. Which is why often the local vernacular is rather simplistic structurally. Sometimes while building I tend to leave a niche here or an alcove there. One of my masons has got the aesthetic. I would like to transmit it a bit more but with a little more sophistication. I do try to teach them to see. There is a very interesting philosophical direction one could explore at length between what is intuitive and what is mathematically calculated, what is envisioned and what is response in the moment. And there is, I think, an ideal balance between the more abstract intellectual and the spontaneous. It is a complex thing and I’m trying to bring this language to the artisans in their own language.

Q: Is the mud you work with straight from the site? Or do you have to source it from surrounding areas? Is it stabilized or treated in any way prior to the construction?

A: Since my primary concern is ecological I use the earth from the site. One of the things in my work that I’m very interested in is what happens to the material next. And the best thing about a mud house made with pure adobe that is not stabilized is that it grows an excellent vegetable garden. Once you’ve added cement to stabilize the mud brick the soil has lost some of its productivity, it’s lost some of its ability to re-establish a good colony of microorganisms because cement is a biocide. So I try and limit the number of biocides in the building and if you have really good earth I’d rather bring in clay or sand to get the right mix. Once you’ve added cement to earth, it’s like baking a brick it can no longer enter into the agricultural cycle or is no longer beneficial to it. So it mutilates the cycle. I’m very concerned with the idea of not just recycling junk now but things that we use should also be part of the cycle of time. So when you build you should also think of the ruin that it is going to make. I actually prefer the natural cut slate that you get instead of the cut slate because the former are shaped by nature. It all depends on the amount you take from nature. The solar cooker thrills me because you can meet a human need without changing anything. I think there is a whole new direction that design will go one that incorporates natural properties.

Q: Kindly describe the tenets on which the Didi Contractor architecture is based?

A: Respect for nature, respect for tradition, respect for materials, particularly cultural respect. I believe in taking the tradition, hearing it and dialoguing with it, not becoming subservient to it. I believe in proportion, believe that the eye has the ability to measure. There have been studies that the human beings can detect golden means. The discovery of dynamic symmetry to me as a teenager was a very important thing.

Q: Your buildings indicate a very conscious attempt at using Light in Space. Could you comment on that please?

A: Light is like a divine gift. It’s like a deity…light and air, I try to bring them in. This goes on to sound. Mud walls have superb acoustics. The elements combine to create an atmosphere. I don’t see architecture as separate from religious practice.

Q: With almost two decades of an architectural practice in mud, have you seen clones of your work?

A: Yes, but only parts that are out of context. I’ve had an influence, but only by way of imitation. I’ve often visited museums and marveled at the little objects there and you can almost feel the artist’s delight at having created it…delight at having discovered that form. In India, Laurie Baker’s work is like that. I would love it if people to do that with my work rather than imitating it.

Q: Himachal lies on an active seismic zone. The traditional buildings fare quite well in the event of an earthquake. Have you incorporated details in your buildings to make them resistant to earthquakes?

A: When I first came here I visited villages I studied buildings that had withstood earthquakes. I understood the principles and have incorporated them with modification. All the old buildings had continuous bands in timber. Now timber is not so easily available so we’ve replaced the bands with reinforced concrete in the walls. The roofs are propped and designed in a manner that they would fall outward and collapse in discrete chunks.

Q: Who are the clients that you cater to? Is your work done for people who are already convinced about the benefits of earthen architecture or do you have to engage in convincing the client to your way of building? How uphill has the task been?

A: Very uphill. But basically people who come to me are people who are interested. But each client has to be involved in the process; you have to take them into your thinking. I have only one local client, which in itself says a lot. So my clients are academics, writers, NGO workers, essentially people who are thinking in this direction. Some think ecologically and sociologically.

Q: In terms of cost how does it work compared to conventional architecture?

A: It is usually one third, because you source the mud on site. You could go further down but I haven’t been pursuing monetary cost. One of the main philosophical ideas that I have been concerned with in social critique is that by commodifying everything we lose everything. There are so many other values that should stand ahead of the commoditization. I am much more concerned with the ecological cost of the building, the cultural cost of buildings that don’t take into cognizance the idea of Indian Aesthetics. Some of the modern buildings in India are very good but they involve commercial imperialism, which is much worse than political imperialism was. Some are cutely Indian, but insult a tradition that had much more depth. During building, I am very conscious of where the money is going. If I’m buying cement, God knows where the money is going; it usually is going up in a way. But if I’m making mud bricks the money is usually going to someone who can’t find any other sort of work here. It is a luxury to be able to do that but it helps overcome, to some extent, the inequity within the society. Social costs are very high on my agenda.

Q: Your architecture is quite regional and rooted in the context in complete contrast to what one sees in the cities these days, which is an architectural anarchy of sorts. Do you think modern Indian Architecture has an identity?

A: I think it is looking for one. Modern Indian culture doesn’t have one either. It is being mostly destructive towards traditional identity. I think Indian identity is something very deep and human identity is something most of us have lost. We are becoming creatures of consumerism. Consumers are dehumanized in some way. I feel that with the current technological advances we can live in harmony with nature and don’t really have to live in cities. Technology has opened up possibilities of decentralization. Indian cities, to me, are a passing moment. But maybe that is because I’m 80 and have seen a lot of change. The shopping malls and the slum next to it is not a reality and will change as the resources get depleted. I don’t really have solutions for the current contemporary commercialized world. It will have to undergo a certain mutation to survive.

Q: You have been taking on apprentices? Have any of them exhibited a sustained interest in continuing to practice architecture in mud or have they succumbed to the urban demands of the profession? Do you think an apprentice manages to translate the ideology in its entirety or is there a dilution of sorts in translation?

A: It depends on the apprentice. I have been taking on who has come to me. I’m more concerned about the team of artisans that have been working with me with their own hands. I do talk to these city kids who come to me with their educated backgrounds and I think it makes a real change in them. My alternatives may not be the right ones but it gives them the idea that there are alternatives. It certainly makes them think more. A few apprentices have gone ahead and pursued higher studies and then amalgamated things. I do not want to spark a clone. I want to spark an interest. The thinking is more important than the work. The work is merely a product of the thinking.

Q: ‘Sustainable architecture’ ‘Appropriate Architecture’ ‘Environment Friendly’, are buzz words that one is continually bombarded with these days. How do these translate in your ideology?

A: Well they are absolute imperatives. They translate as imperatives. That is why I look at ecological cost above monetary cost. Which does not mean my building is going to cost more. It just means that I am more concerned with the ecological cost.

Q: Finally, what is the Didi Contractor legacy?

A: (Laughs) Wait till I die, you’ll see! I don’t know. Might be nothing at all. Actually, I don’t really believe in the individual as much as the ideas that are floating around. If I’ve left some pointers behind for people to see they may or may not get inspired. Who knows? I’m concerned with learning from the past and I would like not to harm the future but otherwise, one is concerned with the present, which isn’t a legacy anyway.