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Monday, August 02, 2021

Didi Contractor, champion of low-waste buildings, is no more

The self-taught architect, who worked for more than three decades in Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh, gave a contemporary edge to traditional materials such as mud, bamboo and slate

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: July 6, 2021 6:00:52 am
Delia Contractor, Didi Contractor, Didi Contractor death, Didi Contractor ageRaised in Germany and the US, Didi made India her home in 1951, when she married the late Narayan Ramji Contractor. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Delia ‘Didi’ Contractor was an artist, designer and a self-taught architect. For over three decades, she worked in Kangra valley, Himachal Pradesh, promoting the need to live and build sustainably. She died on July 5 due to age-related ailments at her home in Sidhbari. She was 91.

With over 15 homes and numerous public projects, Didi’s name has been synonymous with designing low-waste buildings.

The only child of a German father and American mother, who were engaged in the influential Bauhaus movement, Didi made India her home in 1951, when she married the late Narayan Ramji Contractor. Through her husband’s friend, Maharana Bhagwant Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur, she had the opportunity to decorate the Lake Palace Hotel in 1961.

Her interactions with social reformer and cultural aesthete Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay gave her impetus to pursue new learnings in traditional Indian crafts, which led to design textiles, furnishings and furniture. She was deeply influenced by philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy’s ideas on art and swadeshi, and Gandhian ideas of appropriate technology. It gave her a vision of “what India could be and what was fast disappearing”.

Didi’s predilection for rural life brought her to Andretta in Kangra in the ’70s, where she observed and learnt the nuances of local construction with sun-dried mud bricks, bamboo and slate, and began designing solar cookers in mud and glass.

In an interview to The Indian Express, Didi had said, “One of the many things that’s wrong today is that people are not ready to accommodate their lives to the rhythm of the universe. We don’t see the wisdom of nature. Technology should also be consistent with a humanistic agenda of making people comfortable with themselves, with one another and nature.”

Through her own life, Didi showed what it meant to live sustainably – in the way she recycled materials in her own home, the clothes she wore, the food she ate. In her first project in 1995, a community clinic for a friend in Kangra, she used local materials, adding her own ingredients to tradition techniques. She was already in her 60s by then. There was always room for experiments, from using rice husk and pine in the mud plaster for insulation to using waste car tyres to fill up berms. While concrete was a default choice for many in the hills, Contractor showed how mud could stand the test of time, be it absorbing radiation, as a good insulator, or even be earthquake resistant.

Architect and urban designer KT Ravindran, who has known her for over 35 years, said, “Didi’s designs don’t come from a romantic notion of nature or vernacular buildings, but from a value base that knew what was good for the world. She explored the quintessential behaviour of mud, bamboo and slate and converted it into a new idiom in her buildings.”

Didi was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2019 for her work in promoting local skills and innovating new techniques using traditional materials. Bengaluru-based architect Chitra Vishwanath, recalls, “Didi championed the hands-on kind of architecture, where she privileged the handmade. She revolutionised the use of mud, taking care of every contemporary need, with more light and air.”

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