Behind A Call to Return: A Journey with Didi Contractor

SCALE talks to Lakshmi Swaminathan, a practising architect, compiler and editor of the book A Call to Return: A Journey with Didi Contractor, which records the life, values, and creations of an extraordinary self-taught woman architect: Didi Contractor. More than just a collection of transcripts, published interviews, and articles that are a source of information, this book is a delightful peek into Didi Contractor’s life, philosophy and approach to architecture, tradition, and the creative process behind her work. The book is also a tribute to a mentor by a student who came to spend a day with Didi and ended up living with her for the next four years, assisting her on multiple projects. By Sindhu Nair

A legend of the land: Didi Contractor, Photo Credit: Thomas Shor

A Call to Return: A Journey with Didi Contractor chronicles the life of Didi Contractor, a self-taught architect born in 1929, renowned for her eco-friendly adobe buildings in Himachal Pradesh. Celebrated globally, Didi’s legacy includes numerous articles, books, documentaries, and prestigious awards.

Didi was a recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar, India’s highest civilian award that recognises the achievements and contributions of women. She was involved in ‘sustainable architecture’ in its true sense for the last three decades of her life until she died on 5 July 2021.

Born in the United States to Expressionist painters, Didi met an Indian student at college, married, and moved with him to India in 1951. She remained in India for the next 70 years and became a legend in the built world. She was a painter, interior decorator (Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur), furniture and textile designer, and also an early advocate of solar energy. She moved to Kangra in Himachal Pradesh in the 1980s. In her 60s, she began building adobe homes and institutions with respect for local materials and traditions; by her 80s, she had students from India and across the world coming to study under her. She was celebrated for her visionary contributions to vernacular architecture as a fundamental outsider to the architectural establishment yet as comfortable in its intricacies as any professional.

The Story Behind the Book

The very beginning of the book’s journey was the moment when Lakshmi Swaminathan, a practising architect from Chennai seeking inspiration for her work, first met Didi Contractor. Lakshmi had come to Kangra with the intention of spending a day with Didi in 2017. She ended up living with her for the next four years and assisting her on multiple projects.

“The idea of the book was entirely Didi’s though I continued what she started after her passing,” clarifies Lakshmi.

With a close focus on Didi’s lived experience and the ethics that manifest in her relation to the natural and material world, this book offers insights into her philosophy for all who are committed to a more sustainable way of life. Also, as the chronicle of a vibrant exchange across different generations, A Call to Return reminds us to coexist with nature.

Lakshmi Swaminathan, the compiler of the book.

Recalling her meeting with Didi and the resulting bond between them, Lakshmi says, “It happened by chance.”

This was the time Didi was working on the book An Adobe Revival: Didi Contractor’s Architecture, and she was going through numerous transcripts for the book. “The day I met her, I asked a lot of questions. Since I was an architect, she handed me these transcripts and asked me to help her in the writing of the book along with other students,” says Lakshmi.

This was a turning moment for Lakshmi who remembers the moment vividly. “I felt like I was in a dream. Meeting the legendary Didi Contractor was a dream come true and when she asked me this, I accepted immediately and was asked to keep my belongings on the first floor of the house. Didi was also very generous in accepting me as part of the household,” she says.

Lakshmi tells us of the many reasons why she was drawn to Didi’s work and architecture. “Initially what drew me to Didi’s architecture was the grace and the elegance, and the simplicity to the spaces designed by Didi. Her buildings do not call attention to themselves. Instead, they merge with the surrounding environment. I was also drawn to the way Didi invited light into her spaces. She made the space as a part of a larger ecosystem. It was primarily the aesthetics and the entire idea of collaborative living that appealed to me,” remembers Lakshmi.

But it was only when Lakshmi started reading the transcripts and the papers that she realised the depth of Didi’s love, respect, and care for the surrounding. “All these [her love, respect, and care for the surrounding] created a foundation upon which her designs rested. This core philosophy remained steadfast and central not only to her architectural practice but also to how she lived,” she says.

For Lakshmi, to meet someone who was then 88 years old and lived and executed all her vision into practice was a revelation. “Her honesty and the integrity with which she lived by her convictions were truly an inspiration. What she believed, she did and lived,” says Lakshmi.

A Commitment Beyond

When Lakshmi decided to stay back and help Didi, it was a commitment that she made to Didi and to herself. It was also a huge commitment on Didi’s part because she commits to teach the intern everything she has learnt. Lakshmi who was in her 20s, a young woman finding her way amongst all this, had her challenges as well.

“All of us were made to be conscious and mindful of our every action. Even though we faltered many times, she never gave up.What she gave us was much more than education, they were lessons in life,” says Lakshmi.

Didi while being a firm and dedicated mentor was also concerned about the well-being of her interns and constantly looked out for them, treating them as part of her household or family. “When I realise the amount of dedication that Didi, an elderly-women in her late 80s put in, the sacrifices we, as students put in where minimal. This care instilled a sense of a deep bond amongst all the interns. She taught us not only what we needed to know about architecture but also guided us with love and care about life itself,” reminisces Lakshmi.

All her actions reinstated her commitments in life, a way of life that integrated her beliefs in actions. As illustrated by this answer Didi gave on things to absolutely avoid in design*:

“Don’t ever do anything just for show. It has to be an integral part of the overall concept. It can’t be added on, or tweaked in. Always be honest with your materials. Always work within their vocabulary.

Do as little damage as possible. Be as truthful as possible to the future and to the past. Honour the past. Honour the tradition of the area.

Honour what’s been done there before.”

(*Excerpt from the book)

The Idea for the Book

“The purpose of a building constitutes the soul of the building,” says Didi in this bok, a page of which is pictured here.

Talking about the moment when the idea for this book originated, Lakshmi says Didi herself wanted to write three books: the first for the general public, a philosophical book on her ideologies and how she was able to translate it into reality; the second one for young architects on why she designed the way she designed; and the third, a memoir.

“She jotted down ideas and wrote for the first two books when her health allowed her to, because towards the end, her health was taking a toll. She was also a cancer survivor. Before she passed away, Didi was trying to write parts of the book for the architects; another intern and I were culling out the transcriptions and recording conversations. After she passed away, I continued doing this, and I felt that some of the material were good enough for a book and approached the family and asked their opinion. Didi’s children welcomed the idea and so this helped in continuing with the work and finally producing it,” says Lakshmi.

The Book in Memories

Pages from A Call to Return

Lakshmi was committed to bringing out the book but what she really enjoyed the most were the thoughts on architecture and Didi’s particular style that stood apart.

“The way she visualised spaces are very different. Spaces appeared in her dreams and that marked the beginning of the project. She would then wake up early to sketch these ideas. This was fascinating for me. I also enjoyed reading about her young days and her varied interests while growing up in Texas and Taos,” she says.

These brought alive the time spent with Didi, and Lakshmi particularly remembers the morning rituals when Didi and her students would be having their morning coffee and Didi would share her ideas, explain designs and occasionally also share stories from her life. “They were all visual images that were imprinted in my mind because of Didi’s vivid descriptions and editing these memories created a particular association that made these moments come alive even after Didi was no more,” says Lakshmi.

The creative stimulations of the morning coffee played an important part in their association, and for Lakshmi, it was this stimulation that cemented the bond between the mentor and the mentee.

The Plum Project

Lakshmi remembers an incident with Didi that gives an insight into the personality behind the legend.

“It was summer, and that meant we cooked in the solar cooker made by Didi. Didi had made a solar cooker with mud, stones, and bamboo, with the top made of glass and the base with recycled oil cans. During the summer, there was always an abundance of plums. I remember one day she made the gardener collect all the plums from her garden and requested me to help her on this projectto use every bit of plum available to make sauces, jams, pickles, squashes, and preserves,” recalls Lakshmi.

Didi was going about this activity in such detail that not an ounce of plum would go waste. Lakshmi was also pulled into the vigorous activity and like any young adult, she soon got impatient with this activity when she had numerous other “important” drawings to finish.

“I expressed my impatience and Didi made clear and quite sternly the time that we make for nature. Didi said, ‘Your time is not the most important thing here when we are all enjoying the gifts of nature. Nature’s time is very precious.’ Cooking in the solar cooker meant that we were not using any other resource that pollutes the atmosphere. She said these things matter and only when give these gifts of nature its due respect will we learn to live a responsible life. This shut me up, but the lesson remained ingrained.”

All Images Courtesy Lakshmi Swaminathan