Architecture, Diversity, Interview, RIBA, Sustainability | 13 July 2020
Sumita Singha on diversity, climate change and running for RIBA president.
We interview award winning architect, author and humanitarian Sumita Singha and ask about her career and suitability to lead the RIBA.
A few weeks ago whilst on the Kiss House Twitter account @thekisshouse I came across a video (link at bottom) telling the story of award winning architect, author and humanitarian Sumita Singha, explaining why she should become the new president of the RIBA.
I was immediately struck by her resilience and passion, and couldn’t help but be impressed by her many achievements in architecture and sustainability. The 2 minute video takes us from her humble beginnings in Delhi, India, through a life of service and dedication to driving positive change and inclusion.
At a time when the existential threat of climate change looms ever larger and enormous social challenges are being hastened by the fallout from the Covid19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, I felt buoyed by the potential for change personified by this inspirational woman who is clearly a force of nature.
Before we get into a discussion on the RIBA election, your ideas and suitability please can you set the scene by telling us what first attracted you to architecture?
As a child growing up in a poor household in Delhi, I loved painting and making things out of whatever I could find. I wanted to do something creative when I grew up. My father wanted me to be a doctor because he believed that doctors bring value to society. I wanted to be an artist. Then as a compromise, I said that by becoming an architect, I could bring value to society while retaining my creativity. But just to reassure my father that I was clever enough, I sat entrance exams for both medicine and architecture. I succeeded in both and chose to pursue architecture.
I didn’t have any role models, no one in my family had studied architecture and my mother was a housewife with no experience of work outside the home. It was hard as I had to work my way around and learn a new subject from scratch. I didn’t have money for drawing materials and trips, especially after my father retired during my studies, so I worked during the vacations to support my family which also enabled me to buy things. It was in my 4th year that a relative who went abroad, got me my first Pantone pens and a solar calculator (I still have them). Another person got me a “lucky” drawing board that had moved from one architecture student to another since the 1920’s; it was said that whoever used it, would do well!
I did well and received a Gold medal for my thesis. My 87 page, handwritten dissertation plus design for a low energy housing scheme for artisans, also received the UIA UNESCO International design award. This took me to Cambridge University to study a newly established course in environmental design, where I became the first woman to join the course.
How has your background and life experience influenced your design principles and philosophy?
As I came from a poor family, we had to make do with whatever we had. I learnt to use resources and money well.
I began practising Buddhism when in my 4th year at University and was inspired by its emphasis on the inseparability of person and the environment and the theory of dependent origination which is that everything comes from one source and each thing is dependent upon the other. Therefore, ethics is woven into the choices we make.
“My design philosophy is also influenced by such ideas for example conserving materials and energy and a deep respect for the natural environment.”
My practice, Ecologic, works on projects with strong environmental and social values. I’ve also set up a design charity, Charushila, which has worked in very poor parts of the world as well as the UK. We work with people on projects to do with food and environmental security. Charushila is a member of the UN Global Compact.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in architecture?
I am proud of three things: My four books on architecture have inspired people to take action themselves. My charity work also has had ripple effects in the regions where we have worked.
“It is one thing to do something by oneself and another to be able to inspire others to take action.”
I’m proud of receiving the UIA UNESCO International design award for my housing scheme based in West Bengal, India. This was also my design thesis. My family come from one of the poorest districts in India and to be able to highlight their issues to an international audience was a good moment for me. I continue to speak and write about these issues even now.
What has been your greatest career challenge to date?
My greatest career challenge has been to set up my practice, Ecologic, in the UK. Although my school of architecture in Delhi was a RIBA validated school, when I came to live in the UK, I had to revalidate my portfolio. Because my work was concerned about the poor in India and the careful use of resources which wasn’t fashionable then, I was asked at the ARB interview whether I had done any “normal work.” By normal, the Chair of the panel meant the use of brick and concrete used for statement making buildings. I complained about this and due to this, my validation was delayed for several months.
After this, I did my Part 3 in London in extremely challenging circumstances because it was the recession and it was difficult to find work. I was made redundant at work. I had a very sympathetic tutor, who allowed me to stitch together all my different work experiences in different countries — India, France and the UK to make up the 24 months. After finishing my Part 3, instead of looking for work as an employee, I decided to open my own practice.
What motivated you to stand as a candidate to become president of the RIBA?
Although it may feel that it is not the best time to stand for President, I am standing because I feel I can make a difference now. I have the right skills and experience to achieve this. People all over the world have suffered from the Covid19 pandemic. Now following the global economic shutdown, we expect to have the worst recession in 300 years while still trying to recover from the effects of Brexit. The climate crisis is also expected to worsen, and I believe architects have a key role to play in environmental issues.
What role do you see yourself and your profession playing in the climate emergency?
The Climate Emergency is each architect’s problem whether they are in a large, medium or small practice. It will also affect everyone, whether they are an architect or not. It is an existential crisis as I said in the hustings.
I believe collaboration is the key. I suggested in my manifesto that chartered members and practices should demonstrate ethical considerations in design, choice of materials, and in design competition entries. After all the Climate Emergency has arisen from not making ethical choices.
“Net zero carbon design principles should be made compulsory for CPD and education.”
Also, support and guidance for net zero carbon projects and innovation in building technology, should be tailored for small practices.
What are the first three things you’d like to do if you’re appointed as RIBA president?
Firstly, I would like to see the RIBA develop stronger links regionally and internationally (after all the RIBA is an international brand).
Secondly, I would like the RIBA to start working collaboratively with other organisations in order to resolve some of the wicked problems left behind by Brexit, the pandemic and further on, the Climate Crisis. These could be other built environment bodies such as RICS, ICE, RIBA and IStructE; public sector organisations and the Government. This multi-faceted approach will be key to tackling local and global issues.
Thirdly, for members, providing relevant, clear and timely communication from RIBA on practice matters as well as recovery and risk management strategies tailored for different sizes and types of practices will be urgent tasks.
A digital strategy to boost participation and inclusion will help with all three things.
What makes a good leader and how are you suited to take the lead at RIBA?
“Past experience, the attitude of collaboration, humility, empathy and the spirit to learn from everyone makes for a good leader.”
I have been involved with the RIBA for the last 30 years, including as part of the Validation panel, elected Council member and Regional, Practice and Professions; and International committees. I was a member of the Ethics group, the RIBA Governance and Ethics Task groups; Working Group for the Compensation for the RIBA President and more recently, the Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission. I am presently a member of the RIBA professional conduct committee.
In addition I’ve had 30 years experience in working on sustainable design and campaigning for equality, and have written about and taught these subjects. My work as a non–executive in the NHS has also given me solid crisis management experience. This two–year presidency will be about hitting the ground running and possibly will be a full time job!
Can you tell us about the role you played in setting up the RIBA’s equality forum "Architects for Change" and why it was important to you?
I set up the RIBA’s Equality Forum, Architects For Change, twenty years ago. It has produced many changes within architecture such as publishing a research report into why women leave architecture. It has provided mentoring and women “returner” courses and hosted a travelling exhibition showing works by architects from diverse backgrounds. Since then it has had illustrious Chairs and continues to do great work in this area.
I was surprised to come from India and find that women architects did not have equal presence as men in the UK. I joined Women in Architecture in 1996 and become its Chair in 1999. Soon afterwards, it was announced that the group was to be disbanded. Instead of being despondent, I decided that we would form a larger group that would be an umbrella forum for different marginalised groups such as Women in Architecture, Society of Black Architects, Disabled Architects Group, Architecture students, etc. I secured funding from the RIBA and Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), and invited people to represent these different groups; the forum was inaugurated on 26th July 2000.
How do you hope to improve diversity, inclusion and excellence within the profession and why is this important?
In my manifesto, I have recommended that practices commit to an equal opportunity policy. The existing gender and ethnicity pay gaps should be reduced progressively, not just announced each year.
“Career progression will enable greater visibility of marginalised groups. It will decrease pay gaps.”
Different ways of working, including home working which has worked so successfully during the pandemic will also enable people with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities to contribute effectively while maintaining a good work / life balance. RIBA Job offers should be based on skills match to offer greater prospects to women, Black and minority ethnic architects and students. Each practice should take on at least one Black student for their year out experience because they usually drop out at this stage.
Can you share an example of when you’ve united groups with polarised opinions so that all voices could be heard?
I face this kind of situation all the time because my work is done using participatory design. One particular situation came about in a design project in Venezuela. We were working there during a general strike about pay conditions. Some members in the team felt that others were not pulling their weight fairly on the project. But these other people protested that since they were not getting paid, they had to find other things to do to get money. All these people were very poor and I understood their desperation. We got everyone together and we talked for a couple of hours. It was finally decided that we could work in shifts so that each person got some time off to do other things.
You've long been active in the charity sector (setting up one design charity and practice based on sustainability; and as an NHS non-exec director member of the Sustainable Development Unit) — what does sustainability mean to you?
For me, sustainability is a big term that includes not just environmental sustainability but also pollution, diversity, spatial justice, supply chains, ethics, equity, healthcare and many other things that are normally not thought of as part of the responsibility of architects.
My practice, Ecologic is a collaborative practice that works with others in big and large projects that have social and environmental values. We also undertake practice–based research on sustainability and one of my books has been about that. We are an equal opportunities employer.
As a non–executive in the NHS, I’ve worked hard to embed real issues in what we do. For example, now the water usage is included in our annual report. I’m also a member of Public Health England’s Sustainable Development Unit.
How would you sum up your vision for the future of architecture and can it be achieved in two years?
I see that architecture will be something with social and environmental values, and not just about iconic shiny new buildings.
“I see architecture ushering a Golden era of spatial justice and working to solve the real problems of society by asking and working with people. I want to see a resilient and relevant RIBA.”
Two years is an incredibly short time, but I come with experience of having worked with change and crisis. I have knowledge of governance and organisational culture, so I hope things can be done quickly. If you see how quickly the pandemic shifted our work culture, you can understand that crisis has a way of ushering the new.
What are your core personal values and how do they shape how you lead?
“My core personal values relate to ethics and integrity.”
In any situation, I will always look to the overall good for the organisation and stick with that, rather than loyalty to specific people. This attitude has made me unpopular at times, but I’d rather do the right thing than support the wrong person. For my work in the NHS, we also undertake to abide with the Nolan principles of Public life.
“I feel that any person in the public eye should be able to show they put the organisation ahead of personal gains.”