The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is gearing up to elect its new president. London-based Sumita Singha, an award-winning architect and academic, also an alumna of the School of Architecture & Planning (SPA), Delhi is one of the candidates standing for the presidentship. From humble beginnings to becoming the first woman to wear a sari for the graduation ceremony at Cambridge to her multifaceted and illustrious journey in architecture, Sumita has validated the power of education and belief in oneself. In this short discussion with Ar. Apurva Bose Dutta, she speaks on a few issues integral to the role of architects and architecture to become agents of change.
Apurva Bose Dutta (ABD): Your association with the RIBA has spanned over three decades including being on their multiple committees for governance, ethics and professional practice and has also involved several initiatives including those for women in architecture. What has not remedied over these years that led you to stand for the RIBA Presidentship for this term?
Sumita Singha (SS): We are at a juncture where people worldwide are suffering from the Covid19 pandemic. Following the global economic shutdown, we expect to have the worst recession in 300 years. Additionally, the climate crisis is also expected to make everything worse. It may not have been the best time to stand for presidentship, but I felt I could make a difference now with the skills that I have attained and developed with the experience that I have gained over the years. My involvement in architecture has been multifarious—it has included experience as a design practitioner working on diverse projects, coupled with the academic experience of teaching for 30 years. I am also the trustee for three architecture charities.
All this has helped me in having international and regional perspectives on what is expected of architecture. It has been instrumental in making me gain extensive knowledge of organisational culture, understanding of people, politics and context for change, and handle crisis and risk management. I believe my candidacy for the presidentship has been driven by all the above.
ABD: Besides being an alumna of the SPA, you have extensively collaborated with universities worldwide. On hindsight, how did the SPA prepare you for all that you identify architecture with–social responsibility, activism, collaboration, diversity, innovation—all of which you want to highlight through your candidacy?
SS: At the SPA, I was lucky to be surrounded by supportive teachers and students who were interested in environmental issues and community work. Many of them continue to do such work even now. I also had Lauri Baker and Arundhati Roy to look up to! It was a good time to learn about such matters as these issues have become very critical now. My gold medal for my thesis and later the international recognition for design that I received (UIA: UNESCO award), led me to get a scholarship to Cambridge University where I studied environmental design. This was a little-known subject then, and I was the first woman to do this course. I would like to believe that it was my strong foundation years in the SPA that led me to this entire journey, one that I am proud of.
ABD: Having been extensively involved with architectural schools and education worldwide, how do you assess RIBA’s approach towards global architecture education and collaborations with architectural schools. Why doesn’t India have a single architectural school that is accredited with RIBA?
SS: When I was a student at the SPA, many Indian schools were accredited by the RIBA. Slowly these have disappeared. We need to find out what has happened and what can be done. In the global recession, more collaborations are needed, whether in education or practice. Not only will both RIBA and the collaborating institution benefit from such collaborations, but the international brand of RIBA will also make it easier for Indian students to get work or pursue further studies as I did. We are also pushing for changes in the RIBA curriculum to accommodate climate crisis and cultural diversity, which will make it easier and relevant for India to adapt its education to it.
ABD: Architects should be more than designers—they should be psychologists, philosophers, social scientists, and catalysts. You have also championed the need for them to be autotelic, empathetic, and communicative. How can their skills be recognised to work collaboratively and successfully with the community?
SS: Architects need to recognise that their work is of value to the community and that by engaging with the community in the design process, the work can become more satisfying and creative. Architectural education also needs to be geared towards this kind of community work. It becomes more critical during a crisis that we are in today where a collaborative process can yield much more creative results. In my practice, I work by engaging with communities using participatory design. I have also collaborated with diverse practices on urban regeneration projects. Keeping in mind this aspect of community building, I make mention in my manifesto of encouraging more ‘non-traditional’ work and recognising and supporting participatory design.
ABD: Several governments across the world are committing to zero carbon emissions as their goal. This requires the commitment of architects, planners and builders, as well as the public. How achievable are these goals?
SS: Achieving net-zero carbon emissions has become a necessity if we want to survive; there is no longer a question of whether we must or must not do it. Extreme weather conditions mean that all humanity, along with life on the planet is at risk—the recent cyclone in West Bengal is an example.
The pandemic has shown that clean air is essential to human life. Along with this, we need to ensure that globally people have good healthcare, enough food and clean water, without raising carbon emissions. The goals are achievable if we care enough. Architects can help in building zero-emissions healthy cities by working collaboratively and constructively with other stakeholders to achieve this. We also need support from the government and policymakers to do this.
ABD: Even after spending decades in the UK, you stay rooted in India. With your kaleidoscopic view on architecture, how do you evaluate the advancement of the profession in India with respect to its global counterparts?
SS: My family is in India, and so I do go back a lot. I also visit slums and my village where people live in great difficulty. I have never forgotten my roots, and it is essential that my children also see that their comfortable lives are not universally shared. Unfortunately, the architecture in India has stagnated. We have great cultural and architectural heritage, but unlike the Japanese, we have not built on these. Instead, we are imitating Western globalised buildings that do not work climatically or practically for us. We need to look at our great traditional cities such as Jaisalmer to understand how beautiful and environmentally sustainable architecture can be built.
My state of West Bengal also has beautiful bamboo and earth brick structures which are being abandoned for concrete buildings because people aspire to these. If we can show how environmentally friendly these buildings are (along with being cost-effective), people may be persuaded to build like these. We can learn from our past; we have such a rich heritage that we do not need to imitate others. Also, people in the West are now leaving extravagant lifestyles and embracing many Indian-like qualities, such as yoga, vegetarianism, meditation, which is a good thing. We need a new Indian architecture, rooted in Indian heritage.
Sumita Singha (B.Arch(Hons), M Phil, RIBA) is an award-winning architect, academic, artist, and author based in London. She heads Eco=logic, her design practice which has carried out a diverse portfolio of projects globally. Sumita set up Architects For Change, the equality forum at the RIBA, and has been past Chair of Women in Architecture. At present, she sits on the RIBA professional standards committee and its Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission. She is a non-executive Director of Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the founding director of Charushila, a design charity for community projects, and a trustee of Architects Benevolent Society and the Commonwealth Association of Architects. Sumita has taught architecture in the UK and abroad. She has authored highly acclaimed books published by Routledge and RIBA Publishing.