Sheila blazes a trail in architecture

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BLAZING a trail is never easy but Sheila Sriprakash has been able to overcome the obstacles in her way and do just that with verve and determination.

She was in town last month as a keynote speaker at the Kuala Lumpur Design Forum 2013.

Born in Bhopal, India, the architect recalls a wonderful childhood when she became proficient in dance and music. For the only child of an army officer and a homemaker, the house she lived in became her stage.

"My house used to change. We would combine rooms to get a hall for my rehearsals, for my public performances," Sheila tells City & Country. "Later, the same area would become four rooms and a courtyard.

"And as a dancer, you create space visually using your imagination — such as where a tree, river, house or swing is, and dance accordingly. Space has always fascinated me. That is what made me go into architecture. I like the art-and-science combination it offers."

While studying at the School of Architecture and Planning in Chennai, India, one of her architectural idols was Frank Lloyd Wright. "The way he handled space and nature inspired me and how he built into nature without sticking out," she explains.

In 1979, Sheila took the bold step of starting her own company — Shilpa Architects. "In 1979, there were not many architects. The first job I had wasn't very pleasant, so I decided to start a firm of my own." She was just 24.

Back then, women architects were unheard-of. "There were no women architects [at the time]. It was a male-dominated profession and people wondered if I could deliver. I had to prove myself, which meant I had to work harder," she says, smiling warmly. "The situation has changed. There are a lot more women architects now and I don't think there is discrimination, but at the same time, I would say we have our niches to work in."

A key aspect of her work is sustainable developments. "Right from the beginning, I tried to add value to my work. I started by trying to get more for less, which was an intrinsic philosophy of mine. So I built on that.

"Then it became how I could reduce energy consumption. After that, it was about space optimisation and flexibility. I started building green well before the green movement came. It was very natural that I was into sustainability in a big way."

In 2011, Sheila was invited by the World Economic Forum to be a part of the Network of Global Agenda Council on Design Innovation. It was there that she devised the Reciprocal Design Index.

"I researched and [found] there was no framework on sustainability, so the Reciprocal Design Index was formed. It reinforced the need for this index and my personal convictions that I was on the right track," Sheila says.

The index is a collaborative design process that embraces social, economic, cultural, ecological and environmental issues. Architecture and urban design become user-centric by adopting this stakeholder-inclusive approach.

Besides designing buildings, Sheila is also an inventor. She has patented a monolithic polyethylene chamber for safe water transport and has a collaborative patent for a diversion chamber to help with sanitation issues in rural India.

She also has done research on various topics like spaciology, cultural value systems and ductless air conditioning in small offices, among others.

Her work includes designing to fit the local culture as well. In Chennai, Sheila designed Casa XS — a 96-apartment complex with space that has been described as "bungalow apartments".

"When people moved from bungalows to apartments, there was a lot of resistance and I tried to give them what they missed in a bungalow, in an apartment space," she says. "So I had these transition spaces between the lobby and their apartment, where they could sit and read a newspaper and say 'Hi' to someone walking by."

Another interesting concept is the "internal street". "The internal street concept is to vitalise the ground level and bring an urbanscape into a suburban development," Sheila explains. "Urban spaces have so much activity and are dense. So the streetscape we develop tries to incorporate this dense connectivity with the people and that is what builds a community. An example is a linear park."

The Mahindra Integrated Township Ltd's (MITL) Iris Court in Chennai is one development with such a park.

At the moment, Sheila's firm has offices in New York, Seoul, Chicago, Chennai, Bangolore, as well as Hydrabad. She is working on hospitality projects in Pondicherry and residential developments in other parts of India and Ghana.

Her advice to students considering architecture as a career, is to take it seriously and understand that it is a huge responsibility.

"It is not just designing something you like and then leaving it because people live there. So, it is a big responsibility and they should be aware of that. They are creating spaces for human beings to develop."

Sheila also encourages women to take up the profession. "It is a wonderful profession. I think women are naturally more sensitive to certain issues, but it is a hard profession. It isn't something you can do by the way … you have to be committed to it."

Sheila is fortunate that she has a supportive family. "And I am very happy that my daughter is also an architect of urban design," she says proudly.

"She told someone that when she was in the fifth grade, she came to the office and started doodling. Today, we talk about spaces and architecture. I'm very fortunate."

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of July 22-28, 2013.