Wisdom of the Past

An in-depth conversation with renowned Indian architects, Miki Desai and Madhavi Desai about their work and the special exhibition organised by Bengal Institute


Bengal Institute organised the special exhibition From My House to Your House, based on photo documentation and measured drawings of India’s vernacular architecture across diverse geographical regions of the country including Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka, Northern and Western India. The exhibition was conceptualised and curated by Prof Miki Desai, a renowned architect and educator from India, and author of numerous books. The exhibition was a result of a four-year-long self-initiated research which was an effort to re-introduce the word ‘vernacular’ in contemporary architecture discourse. The objectives of the exhibition were to draw a connection between people and their own architectural legacies; to gain knowledge about the indigenous nature of architecture and to highlight that there are other sources of inspiration and knowledge besides modern architecture to build our urban and rural settlements.

The Inauguration Event and Exhibition of, From My House to Your House took place on 1st September, 2023 at Bengal Institute in Dhaka. Abul Khair, Chair of Bengal Institute and Bengal Foundation, Professor Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, Director General of Bengal Institute, Architect Jalal Ahmed, Architect Salauddin Ahmed and Bengal Institute’s team were present at the event. Miki Desai, author and creator of the exhibition gave a guided tour to the visitors. The exhibition was open to the public at Bengal Institute from 2nd September to 31st September, 2023.


Photograph by Ashis Debnath

PROF. MIKI DESAI was a Professor of Architecture at the CEPT University, India. After teaching at the Faculty of Architecture since 1981, Prof. Miki Desai retired as the Head of the Masters Program in Sustainable Architecture in 2014. Prof. Miki Desai was a visiting studio critic at ETH, Zurich, MIT and the University of California Berkeley, USA. He has had an ICSSR Fellowship, the EARTHWATCH grant, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Graham Grant and the Getty Collaborative Grant. He is the author/co-author of 5 seminal books on Indian architecture. He has held exhibitions of his research and documentation work in Ahmedabad, Colombo and New Delhi. He has been a keynote speaker at many international conferences.


Photograph by Ashis Debnath

MADHAVI DESAI is an architect, researcher, writer and teacher.  She is a founding member of the Women Architects Forum, author of Women Architects and Modernism in India and editor of Gender and the Built Environment in India. Madhavi Desai was an adjunct faculty member at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India from 1986 to 2018, and has had research fellowships from the Indian Council of Social Science Research; the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT; Sarai, New Delhi; and the Getty Foundation. She has been a member of the nominating committee of the Berkeley-Rupp Professorship/Prize at UC Berkeley since 2012 and was a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley in 2014.


What exactly is vernacular architecture?

Miki Desai: Vernacular architecture is basically structures that were not designed by actual architects. It refers to structures and buildings designed by people according to their needs. Vernacular refers to architecture which has come from time before, and is usually of two types. One is architecture that’s done by the people themselves for themselves. Second is, the rural architecture done by the craftsmen. Vernacular architecture is very crafts oriented; the local craftsmen generally use traditional techniques and materials they would be able to avail easily, and it would usually be the same group of craftsmen who built all the structures in a neighbourhood or village. As a result, the facades of most of these structures would be the same. Most of the time, the design would nearly be the same, because the same craftsmen were building them all. 

The socio-cultural milieu played a big role in dictating the architecture of the places. For example, in a given house or community, the residents of the house may not like to invite everybody into the second room or inner parts of the house. All the people who come casually or to give them services like washermen, the milkman, etc. are only given entry up to a certain distance. The plan of these residences evolved more out of social and cultural constraints. For the people of Kerala, orientation is very important. There is a prescriptive idea of where the kitchen should be. Or where the room of the pregnant woman should be. It might mean that you may have a room that remains empty sometimes, but that room must be occupied by a pregnant woman in the house. So, there are certain sociocultural aspects that shaped the plan. And then, over a period, those plans became the norm.

I firmly believe that tomorrow, the day after or even hundreds of years later, if we have taken care of our jungles, there will be only one material left from which we can make shelters and that is wood.

You’ve been trying to get the topic of vernacular architecture into the contemporary architecture discourse for a long time now. Why do you feel the need to do that? 

Miki Desai: Whether or not people will incorporate this subject in the discourse hasn’t really been my concern. However, we’re seeing modern buildings fail in the current climate, and slowly we are also seeing that the use of electricity or energy is increasing, and resources are depleting. So in my opinion, if you can take some lessons from the study of vernacular architecture and implement it in your work, in your house, then why not? If it was done before successfully then there are some lessons in there already that could be applied in the work of today. 

We have used the resources the way we felt right, for a very long time, and society has been inequitable in the use of resources. These two factors are very important and thirdly, whether or not the use of a certain material is good for the human being or not, one doesn’t question it as long as your end purpose is served. Lastly, we as human beings are happy with consumption. If we get what we want, we’re happy. If not then we say that society is not being fair. We have always claimed resources and used them as we wanted. Then we suddenly looked back and saw that those jungles were empty. What should we do now? 

People have recklessly grown certain trees just to cut them down and use them in a specific production – for example, in many parts of the world, eucalyptus and bamboo are grown simply for paper pulp. But now, how much paper pulp have you been making? The amount is increasing day by day, and even if a huge part is coming from the trees just planted for this purpose, there is a huge cost there because you are not accounting for the water and energy usage. Sustainability is when you factor in the usage of all five elements, air, water, earth, vegetation, and fire – when all five elements are used proportionately, it will not affect the quantum of one of the materials to go down.

Why did you choose Kerala as the subject of your recent work? 

Miki Desai: Kerala is where the wood is. Wood is the primary material of construction in most regions. It is the most regenerative material. We haven’t yet found any other material as regenerative as wood. Yes, there is mud, but mud is a more labour-intensive proposition. In many ways, wood is an answer for the future. We have now classified certain trees for timber, however, every tree’s wood is to be respected because every tree’s wood is going to be of some use to you. Wood is the final material. I believe in wood, and if there is an organised way in which, in India at least, a culture that has recognised its potential, it is Kerala. I found that true enough, wood was a very strong tradition in Kerala. They categorised wood; which kind should be used for what, what prime wood is, what construction prime wood is – their knowledge about wood was very good. In Japan, parts of Thailand, Laos and other countries, wood is fashioned and used in a certain way, but wood can also be used without fashioning it. It is also used in a raw manner, in the structural process for scaffolding and such. I firmly believe that tomorrow, the day after or even hundreds of years later, if we have taken care of our jungles, there will be only one material left from which we can make shelters and that is wood.

If you are an ambitious woman chasing your career, generally it is tough to also successfully raise a family. No matter how you try, women’s personal and professional lives are bound to be intertwined, and of course, there are problems in work-life balance.

The role of women, particularly in architecture, hasn’t been well represented in history. This inspired you to dedicate much of your time to writing a book on the subject – what can be said of women architects and their work in India and South Asia?

Madhavi Desai: This, of course, is not just a South Asian issue. It is something that happens all over the world, probably a little less in developed countries. My book, Women Architects and Modernism in India, Narratives and Contemporary Practices came out in 2017, but I think I worked on it for at least 10 years. When I started, this research was not supported, I did it on my own so it took a long time. The book examines the narratives of 7 women in Indian architecture history, and 28 women with contemporary practices.

Unfortunately, some of the women are not around anymore. There are no proper archives – in fact, there are no archives. They did not realise the value of their work; their heirs did not realise it. The women in history, what I call the first generation mostly belonged to higher income groups. They are the first examples of how women in India began participating in architecture, and I always say that the actual work is not as important as the fact that they were able to carve a narrow path for the rest of us to follow. I belong to the second generation. I began my career in architecture in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Most of the 28 women with contemporary practices in my book are my contemporaries. They all had modernist education, but they took different paths and struggled to come up with any kind of response to the Indian situation, society, building materials, etc. What I found was that, in a sense, the second generation is also very important because they were women who, despite having homemaker mothers, were the first ones who established practices, and they were also able to have a family life, which you do not find so much in the West where a lot of successful women are divorced. 

What is the current climate like for working women in India and South Asia, and what do you think should be done to improve it? 

Madhavi Desai: If you are an ambitious woman chasing your career, generally it is tough to also successfully raise a family. No matter how you try, women’s personal and professional lives are bound to be intertwined, and of course, there are problems in work-life balance. We want to be both super-mom and super-architect, but sometimes we are not able to go to sites or late client meetings when we have children. It is frustrating when we are not satisfied with our careers and we feel that we aren’t adequate. Of course here in South Asia, we have the benefit of the support of our mothers and extended families, but I still feel that we really need to have a space where we can talk about these issues. We should have a network of people where we support and help each other, even if it is just by talking about the issues.


We also need to work across all levels. You’re not given any proper leave for when you have a child. On the other hand, if you don’t join the profession quickly, you are left behind. Technology is changing very fast. There are issues of women being in public spaces; not just issues regarding safety. Most of the poorer areas of our cities don’t have enough garden infrastructure. Lower-income women cannot spend a lot of time or money on travelling or entertainment, so if there are ample parks and green areas, they could take their children there. The government and relevant bodies need to be made aware of these issues, so I feel that we need to work at separate levels, we need to work at policy levels. 

Photographs: Courtesy of Bengal Institute