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Namita Singh: A born builder

Samyukta Bhowmick | April 16, 2005

Namita Singh's living room is cool and spacious; it has sofa sets and tables scattered around with a pleasing uncare, and looks onto a leafy veranda which throws speckled sunlight onto the furniture.

It's the sort of room that makes you want to put your feet up, sip at a glass of chilled lemonade and doze in the summer sun. And when Namita Singh approaches, it is with the air of a friendly aunt who is about to invite you to do just that.

But she is not a friendly aunt, she is one of India's foremost architects, and, friendly as she is, she would probably not take kindly to you putting your feet up on the sofa.

In the capital for a few days, Singh has come from the inauguration of the first phase of the Naval Academy of India, a virtual township covering 30 lakh sq ft that she has built in Ezhimala, Kerala.

And as she talks, you realise it isn't coincidental that Singh's flat is airy and well-lit; this is a conscious decision for her every time she designs a building ("I would be upset if I had to switch the light on in a building I had designed during the day!"). Take the Naval Academy.

"I really wanted to conserve the natural beauty of the site," she says in her measured, pleasant voice. "We used the local vocabulary of architecture -- an emphasis on cross-ventilation, inclined roofs and so on."

The "we" in Singh's speech comprises her and her sister Preeti. Her husband used also to be part of this team: "I joined my husband's company right after I graduated, in 1970. And in 1973, we were married. He was good at bagging projects, and I was good at the design -- we were a great team!"

After her husband's death, Singh has continued working with her sister and been part of many impressive projects, such as the INHS Ashvini Hospital in Mumbai (which holds 825 beds), just recently completed, the special installation at Anandpur Sahib that marked the 300 years of Sikhism and the Congress Bhavan in Chandigarh, where she is from, to name a few.

Inevitably, the world has changed since she started, and not always for the better. "When I was starting out, I learnt to work with the climate, to factor it in to all of our designs. We had to think about verandas, cooling, or natural ways of heating. But today, thanks to central air-conditioning, you don't have to think about any of that."

And while this should have led to a greater freedom with form, somehow it hasn't. "We seem to be blindly following the West in everything they do -- our buildings and our malls" (repressing a shudder) "are very boxy, and sometimes quite ugly!

I didn't use air-conditioning for the Naval Academy, but even in the large eating hall, which seats 900 people, I've put in windows and skylights and made sure that there is a lot of cross-ventilation, so it remains quite cool even if it's warm outside."

This attention to the surrounding area, the insistence that the building blend with its backdrop may be fading away in architecture today: "The one thing I insist on is that my buildings be site-specific. You can't just design a building and put it anywhere. You have to think about the surroundings and so on. I don't really think this is being done nowadays."

Her own sensitivity to surroundings is illustrated in the navy hospital she has just completed. "There were eight to 10 heritage buildings on the site near the hospital," says Singh.

"I had to make sure to preserve the beauty of the heritage buildings, to enable them to be seen, and to make sure that the hospital didn't clash much."

Of course, she also had to make sure that the hospital would be functional -- "form always has to take second place in a building of this kind," Singh admits.

The result is charming. Singh has left an expanse of beach open where the hospital faces the sea (a patient begged her to leave this expanse intact) and lifted the entire building up three stories in one spot so that the heritage buildings could be seen through the hospital.

She has even replicated the arches that occur in the old heritage buildings, but sparingly, as she didn't want to overdo the effect.

Subtlety, sense and beauty -- all three qualities seem to meet in Singh's work. But she laughs self-deprecatingly: "I'm a perfectionist, so everything takes a while."

And then she sighs, "But it's changing now, everything is moving so fast, things are done much faster. I'd actually like to slow down. Maybe I'll teach, I've always wanted to do that."

It's hard to imagine her slowing down, though. Given the twinkle in her eye, she's clearly going to be recommending bigger windows and more ventilation for quite a while to come -- and thank goodness for that.

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: bigger windows?

bigger windows are definitely not viable for sites located in all climates..has the architect thought abt heat gain/heat loss through glazing?she might also be a ...

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