CHITRA VISHWANATH is one of the pioneers in experimenting with alternative materials and coming up with living and working spaces which are eco-friendly
Tucked on the main road of Vidyanaryanpura is a small haven of nature, nurtured by the unassuming architect Chitra Vishwanath. She moves from one workstation to another, explaining concepts, appreciating designs and juggling layouts. She is doing what she loves most, designing spaces- homes, offices, commercial establishments, spaces to be owned, appreciated and adored by the people. Chitra happens to be one of the first on the architecture circuit who ushered construction into the era of green living and working spaces. When she began in 1990, environmentally friendly living and working spaces were not the fad that they are today. She has come a long way since then. A stunning portfolio of houses and other buildings she and her team have designed and the varied awards that adorn the walls of her board room stand a testimony to it.
Chitra grew up on the banks of Ganges. Her father was a sculptor by profession and the Dean of Visual Arts at Benares Hindu University (BHU). He was also a major influence in Chitra’s professional life. “My father was one of the first few people who did a Masters in Visual Arts from U.S. He saw the new field of architecture blooming there and came back full of ideas of me becoming an architect.”
It began as her father’s enthusiasm as the serene architect says, “I have never regretted it ever.” After Chitra completed her schooling, her father got a commission in Nigeria. She remembers it as one of the best periods in life. “Those three years from 77 to 80 were the best years in life. It was beautiful,” she says with a wistful expression on her face. She got enrolled for a course in Civil Engineering at Nigeria and took her first steps in becoming an architect. “We had a lot of time on our hands. Friday was half day, can you believe it? We used to travel a lot and that’s when this travel bug caught us.” Needless to say that the bug has remained with her and Chitra can be seen hopping to different parts of India and the world for work and simply to see the fascinating places. The family while in Nigeria, still had very Indian tastes. “My Mom being a smart home maker managed a lot of things, including our love for vegetarian foods,” laughs Chitra. Nigeria was also the place which awakened her to the problems of water scarcity and shortage of electricity. “Water used to be scarce in Nigeria. It used to come in tanks and we had to store it.” Before this water was never a problem. “Even though we were encouraged to save electricity at home, being in Benaras, water was never a problem. My time in Nigeria helped me understand that one can be forced to survive in the absence of both water and electricity.” It also propelled the young Civil Engineer to think on the lines of building homes where these two important facilitators of life could be conserved.
On her return from Nigeria, she continued her studies which took her to Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad. “My father guided me in everything, right from the places I should study.” She also met her husband at CEPT. He was pursuing a Masters in Planning. “Five years later we got married. My father in law is a civil engineer, my brother in law is a civil engineer. So, I basically got married into a family of civil engineers.”
When Chitra started working, she began with an office called Chandrawarkar and Thakur for a year but the yearning to strike out on her own was too strong. “In big offices you are very much shielded from client interactions or what happens with costs or what happens with contractors.” She wanted to be a part of all of it. The only way to do it was to get her hands dirty and she was ready to do it. Being in a family of civil engineer with a husband who was into planning, brought in a lot of support for Chitra. And, once she commenced her journey, she was into it hook, line and sinker. “I learnt on the job and it helped me to think about a different way of doing things.”
Before 1989 Chitra had always lived in north. Her move to South introduced her to a new set of culture which was very interesting. At the time that she started with Chitra K. Vishwanath Architects which would later become Biome Environmental Solutions, the circumstances were very different from what they are now. “The cost of land was less and that of construction was more. Reducing the cost of construction was paramount to people.” Chitra started to work on alternative methods of construction which could help in cost cutting and soon discovered a way to develop a style that was not only cheaper but also eco-friendly.
One of the very first houses that Chitra built was her own along with her husband Vishwanath. While looking out for the plot, she came across her neighbours who were building their home. “We saw the soil which was beautiful and felt that this was buildable soil. We experimented with the earth and other materials. Luckily, we had the support of Prof. Yogananda from IISc. He tested the soil and found that it was just the right thing to form the building blocks of a house.” But, the team at IISc. was doing it only for the rural population with an aim to provide cost effective housing and not for the urban population. Not many people working with the material were using it to build their own house except for Prof. Yogananda and hardly any of the architects were supporting alternative construction materials. “Me and my husband were one of the first few architects in Bangalore after Prof. Yogananda.” She remembers fondly the little details of building her own house which pointed her and her husband towards newer concepts and urged them more and more towards environmentally friendly spaces. “When we were building our home, it rained. My husband just connected the downslide to the tank and discovered that the roof was collecting a very good amount of water. That’s how we started working on rain water harvesting.”Building her own house helped Chitra’s practice to pick up. People used to walk in and see the architect build her own house, experimenting with materials and it was like witnessing someone walking the talk. It earned Chitra her first few commissions. The fact that she was also ready to provide a team that would build the house she was going to design added further weight to her services. It meant that were people were not just hiring anyone but somebody who was building her own home. With the sun shining on her endeavours, a beautiful climate that supported building houses with the new materials and concepts Chitra was experimenting. Language was the only constraint she felt. “When we had started my only issue had been language, till I learnt Kannada. Otherwise Bangalore had no problems. There were times when my husband used to take me and talk to the clients and tell them- ‘I’m not the architect, she’s the architect.’ But that probably was the first month and then I picked up on the language.” As Chitra progressed with her ideas, destiny smiled on this hard working architect. The market opened up in 1990s and banks started giving loans to build homes. It attracted a chunk of middle class population to finally construct their own house. “The middle class in Bangalore, they are well-educated and they know what they want and, have a little more taste. They want something more in the house than just four rooms. So we started researching what we could design, reduce costs, and if we could work with a team which will build for you. Till about 1996, Chitra K. Vishwanath Architects remained an almost one woman show. “When I started working, I never realized that one day I would have my own office and a team working along with me.” In 2008, Chitra K. Vishwanath was converted into Biome Solutions Ltd. “It was not about one person. So many people came together. It is team work and hence we moved from a person centric name.” Biome was chosen because the team works on ecological architecture, water issues and sanitation designs.
Did being a woman and an architect bother her? Chitra frowns in answer but it does not convey any dismay as she recounts, “Being a woman was never an issue. I guess it rather made things easier because women who wanted homes could relate to me in a better way.” However, she does feel that more women need to come to the field. Chitra can be called a daughter of the soil. She does not do interiors. “It’s the rawness of construction which I have always felt great about because you are so much a part of creating something from the scratch.” Another part of the job she really loves, is the interaction with the families. She is fascinated by the act of interpreting a family’s idea of what their homes should be and converting it into reality. “With architecture, if you are truly enjoying, it’s not just a job but a way of life. I remember I used to ride a luna to go to sites in 90s. Sometimes, I would not even remember how I got there because my mind would be engaged in thinking about the designs,” says the charming architect.The lady’s social bent of mind is apparent in her architecture where she attempts to minimise the harm to the environment and build in a way that supports sustainable living. She is proud of her buildings. “At the risk of sounding immodest I would say that our buildings with earth do rise above the other sustainable green buildings. And, I think we are also cutting edge.” A self-confessed workaholic, Chitra, keeps long hours. But it has not deterred her from being a team player and one can see her working with them in tandem. Biome Solutions also offers internships and this has attracted several students of architecture who want to practice the profession with a different spin to it.
Her belief in sustainable architecture being the need of the time keeps propelling her to experiment and find innovative solutions. Though she is involved in architecture, which is unconventional, Chitra’s urge for challenging herself further remains unchanged. “Bangalore’s climate is moderate. Ideal for the kind of work we do but, I want to build similar buildings in other parts of India which have different climates.” And with a young and eager team with her, it seems that she is well on her way.