Building dreams, scaling heights

Building dreams,  scaling heights

As a leading architect, Samira Rathod is extremely demanding of quality and perfection - her success formula, discovers Bindu Gopal Rao

I first met Samira Rathod during a recent visit to Italy. And in spite of the fact that she had missed her connecting flight, she was raring to go attend the third edition of the ‘arcVision Prize’, the prestigious female architect award instituted by Italcementi to commemorate Women’s Day. From among 21 contenders from 16 countries, Samira won a special mention for her projects, and it is not hard to see why. 

Early days

She was inclined towards performing arts and set design even in her school days. “I wanted to work in the advertisement industry or pursue film-making, but my father advised me to try architecture. I even quit architecture school in my third year to join the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in order to become a social worker. But again, my father persuaded me to do an architectural internship,” she says.

Something else was in store for her. “After completing my degree, I went abroad to work, where I was exposed to some beautiful buildings and design. I felt like I needed to re-learn architecture and decided to pursue a Master’s. It was then that I found my passion for architecture. I always perceived difficulties more as challenges rather than problems. One of the challenges I faced early on was that on the one hand, I lacked people skills and on the other, I was extremely demanding of quality and perfection. Therefore, I faced difficulties with labour while delivering each project,” she explains.

Armed with a Master’s from the University of Illinois, she is not an old-school feminist and likes to be identified not by gender, but by her work, which she believes speaks for itself. She vehemently advises women to acknowledge themselves as equals. She started her company, Samira Rathod Design Associates (SRDA) in 2000, after having begun with a small farm house and an avant-garde portfolio of furniture. The firm has till date, designed over 300 pieces of furniture and completed 95 projects in architecture and interior design. Recipient of every award that an architect in the country can get, usually on any select list of Indian architects that matter internationally, she lives in Mumbai and credits her success to her supportive family.

Designing dreams

“When I started this firm, we hardly had any work to begin with. I had done a foray into furniture with Ratan Batliboi earlier, so I decided to borrow some money to make some furniture. We did that and put up a little show that did very well. And from that I got my first project - a house in Karjat. From there on, it was one thing after the other and we have done a lot of small scale projects that have grown substantially in terms of size and scale over the years. We have done a school outside of Vadodara, a factory and housing projects outside Chennai,” she reminisces.

And this is not all. “We also have started a magazine called Spade as a forum for interior designers to speak about design. Spade also has a research arm, Sircle, through which the office also does a lot of research projects and encourages students whom we support. We are also making a short film on the state of affairs of the profession in the country. I hope that as an office, we are able to continuously look at the idea of design from the point of view of innovation,” she adds. 

Managing home and work was simple as she never thought of it as two different things. “It was like a flow. And I think if there is no stigma attached to work, it becomes easier and there is a different kind of respect you get.” She advises young women, who want a career in architecture, to get into it only if they are passionate about it. “You make a choice of doing what you love and never get bogged down by conventions,” she quips.

Looking ahead

So what are her future projects? “We are working on an extension school for an NGO for village children and it’s special because of the materials being used. I am looking at using materials, such as bamboo, that are low on energy consumption, and also a technology with arches made with mud-fired bricks and recycled material. The other one is a factory and this is different as until now we have only focused on aesthetics and now we have to focus on time taken for movement of materials from one place to another.

Also, the idea is to ensure that people feel good inside a factory environment. So we have an adjoining office as well as a garden space. We also have two houses in the pipeline – one in Chennai that has challenged us to see how to work in stone, without RCC. Also, a small office building is in the pipeline as well as a resort that should work out soon,” she says.

Quiz her on the USP of her work and she says,“I hate to think that there is a USP. But a few things that we look at seriously is that we are honest, serious, open and look at user sensibility, comfort and beauty in a very big way. As an organisation, it is important to create beautiful things that sustain and adapt to change. We are also looking at sustainability in different ways, not necessarily through engineering, but also through ideation. We are always striving to find a palette of different materials and the idea of being small is important as we want to consume less and keep the carbon footprint of what we build small.”

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