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Pay it Forward


It’s high time successful architects and designers give back to society by engaging in pro bono work, say some. Deepali Nandwani discovers a few who are already doing so.

“With around 70,000 architects and designers in our country, one per cent of our time would translate into 14,00,000 hours per year – which represents the equivalent of a 700-person firm working full-time for the public good.”

Architect Conrad Gonsalves made this statement while addressing a group of architects and interior designers at the Green Turf event held by Architect & Interiors India in association with Carrier and Toshiba Air-conditioning.

He was making a case for architects taking up pro-bono work to help NGOs and other nonprofit organisations. “Everybody benefits from good design – but often, non-profit organisations, NGOs, public institutions or communities in need cannot afford professional design services,” he said.

Gonsalves often works with churches and Jesuit schools on a pro-bono basis. “I am on a committee of the Archdiocese of Bombay and I’ve done a lot of work for churches and Jesuit schools, most of which is free – but some are at reduced rates.”

Among the projects he mentions are the restoration of part of the St. Stanislaus School and the St Andrew’s Church in Bandra, Mumbai, and a church in Airoli.

“For years, the legal and medical professions have been offering their skills to social and welfare projects. There’s no reason why architects, who have skills that can be used for the public good, shouldn’t.”

So is it time for other privileged professionals, like Gonsalves, to step up and help get India on the road to reform? Internationally, especially in the USA and some European countries, several architects are involved in construction of low-cost housing and/or in heritage restoration.

In San Francisco, Public Architecture, a nonprofit organisation, launched “The 1 per cent solution” – a programme that encourages architecture firms to pledge one per cent of their billable hours to the public through pro-bono work.

This works out to about 20 hours a year per employee, and could collectively add up to more than 5 million hours annually, the group says.

Pro-bono help could include design of churches, schools, parks, and even graphic design support or general consulting. Gonsalves also mentions initiatives like Design without Borders (founded on the belief that design can make a significant contribution towards building a more sustainable society) and India’s very own Barefoot College (built entirely by Barefoot Architects, a community of 12 unlettered ‘architects’ led by Neehar Raina, a qualified architect who prepared the designs and then handed them over to locals).

Among other pro-bono architecture organisations is Architecture for Humanity, headed by Cameron Sinclair. AFH, which has architects from across the world working on what he calls social projects, seeks architecture solutions to humanitarian crises. Some of the members are from India.

“We first stepped into India after the tsunami in 2004,” says Sinclair. “A large number of homes in Tamil Nadu and the Andamans were destroyed, and we worked to rebuild them.” Among the Indian architects who work with AFH is Chennaibased Jose Mathew, who joined a couple of years ago to help out in villages that were completely destroyed by the tsunami.

“We adopted over 20 villages. Each one had a proper community set-up with schools, a college or two, temples, mosques, markets. They are being rebuilt according to the system they had in place since they came into existence.”

Mathew gives about six to seven days of the month to his pro-bono work, often travelling within the interiors of Tamil Nadu to consult villagers on local design and the community set-up in their villages.

Groups like AFH, with practising architects as members, contribute a significant amount of time to working with the community. Sinclair often criticises architects for their obsession with jewel-like architecture.

“Architecture is a political act. There are one billion people living in abject poverty. Another four billion are gradually improving their living standards in slums and low-cost neighbourhoods.” He raises the question: what is the design profession’s role, given the crying need for low-cost housing?

That’s a question even Mumbai-based architect P K Das raises. He’s engaged in some of the world’s largest slum rehabilitation projects – housing projects for over 20,000 families of the Borivali National Park slums and over 80,000 families living in slums around the Mumbai airport.

He does not just plan and design these projects on a pro-bono basis, but also mobilises the affected people and often contributes to the struggles for housing rights.

“I think my fascination for social architecture started when I was still studying at the Sir JJ College of Architecture,”

discloses Das. “I began to understand how a country’s social, cultural and political conditions are influenced by architecture.

That time was an interesting period in Indian architecture and architectural practice. It had influences by Le Corbusier, Louis Khan, Charles Correa and B V Doshi.

Correa, in fact, was one of the first architects in India to address broader issues and the impact of Indian social and cultural history on architecture.”

Architects like Rahul Mehrotra often take up restoration work on a pro-bono basis.

Mehrotra has served time on Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s advisory committee on the conservation of heritage buildings as well as the board of governors of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority’s Heritage Society, which administers grants, supports and facilitates conservation projects in the region.

From 1994, he has been the executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai, which promotes research on the city with the aim of influencing urban planning policy.

Most of these jobs, he says, are on a probono or low-money basis. “To me, design and architecture is a way to preserve our heritage, study how cities developed and come up with design solutions that help a large part of the community.”

While internationally, architectural firms are often involved in pro-bono work, in India it is mainly individual architects who give their time to it. Regrettably, many of them (except for someone like Mehrotra) do not have the financial backing of a large architectural studio to fund such projects.

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June 2020
10 Jun 2020