While searching for literature about women in architecture, planning and design in South Asia, we came across a name: Perin Mistri. A pioneering modernist and the first woman to practice as an architect in pre-independent India. To commemorate her contributions to the design field, we thought what better way than to imagine a conversation with her. We hope to do justice to her story and give you a glimpse into her life as an architect. We took some writer’s privilege to build a persona for this amazing woman, weaving our research into a life journey.
DS: Describe the world you grew up in.
PM: I hail from a Parsi household based in Bombay. Fortunately, my family was progressive for its time and encouraged me to study and build a career. I was born in 1913 and studied in a Gujarati school until Grade 5. My first move for my education was to England, where I attended Croydon High School. This shift from a comfortable home environment to an international high school where I was a minority, helped shape my global perspective.
DS: How did you become interested in architecture?
PM: That’s a rather fascinating story, I was leaning towards a field in legal practices when I graduated from high school. But I grew up in a family where architecture was tradition and extended to four generations of practice. My ancestors were builders in Gujarat before they moved to Mumbai. My father Jamsetjee Mistri was a civil engineer but he favoured architecture and was an influential man in the building industry. He encouraged me to pursue architecture and to join the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay.
When I joined college, I started from scratch as the first and only female student. Sometimes I felt alienated, but my family's can-do attitude helped me succeed in this male-dominated profession. I graduated as the first professionally qualified female architect of India in 1936. When I became an architect the Council of Architecture (COA) did not exist, so I was registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Becoming a part of the privileged white male club of London as a woman of colour was a unique experience.
DS: It seems you had quite a range of experiences to draw from, how did your education shape your design outlook?
PM: When I entered the JJ School Program in the early 1930s, the courses and methods followed the Beaux-Arts style. The curriculum included materials, geometry, construction, specifications, applied mechanics, surveying and levelling during the early years. The design studio was a part of the final year. We also studied monumental architecture from Roman and Mughal Empires.
My professor, Claude Batley insisted on teaching India's art and architecture at the college. We created measured drawings of plans, sections, elevations and details of historic structures from ancient Indian sites. He introduced vernacular styles to the curriculum - traditional elements to deal with heat, dust, humidity, glare monsoons and ventilation i.e. stone plinths, thick walls, overhanging eaves, lattice screens, internal courtyard and terraces. He advocated understanding the climate variations across cities and designing according to that. I believe this expansive course structure and attention to detail helped shape my design ideas. My design concepts are governed by the location and climate of the project. You will see the use of shading, verandahs, courtyards and many other solar passive techniques in my buildings.
I graduated as the first professionally qualified female architect of India in 1936.
DS: How did this translate into your professional practice?
PM: My education gave me a holistic approach to architecture and trained me well to start my professional journey with my father’s firm M/s. Ditchburn, Mistri and Bhedwar. The firm followed the Art deco Style prevalent in Bombay that time consisting of concrete framed buildings finished with cement plaster. I learnt a lot from my father and used these learnings while designing. The projects types that I worked on vary from religious places such as churches, chapels, private residences to commercial offices and industrial buildings.
My first commission was the Shangrilla Villa, a bungalow for a notable Parsi family in Bombay. I included features such as verandahs and balconies that defined the exterior of the building and ventilated the interiors. One of my treasured projects is the St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church that we built in the 1960s. It included a concave tower and crucifix in the depression and stood tall at a triple cross-section of roads. I hear now the colour of the cross and depression have been reversed, I still haven’t gotten a chance to see the new look. Ironically, we faced some permission issues while construction due to the height of the project, now it is a low rise building surrounded by the skyscrapers in Mumbai.
Becoming a Principal with my brother at the firm after my father’s passing had its challenges too. Being one of the few women in a leadership role, I had to be assertive in my professional life and was sometimes perceived as a tough architect to contractors. Later on, I worked on renovation and conservation projects like the St. Elizabeth’s Nursing Home in Malabar Hills. My experience in industrial structures - include the Khatau Mills, the Ganges Printing Inks Factory and office building for Cable Corporation of India. I wish to practice architecture for as long as I can.
DS: We applaud your dedication! As the first woman to become an architect, how did you support other women entering the field?
PM: My experiences as a minority in England and JJ School of Art sensitized me towards marginal groups and inspired me to support other women in the professional world. I have been an advocate of women in the architecture profession since my time in college. One time I participated in the debate opposing the topic ‘Women should not become architects’. Honestly, I felt a bit overwhelmed when my professor reached out to me with the debate topic. But then I realized, this was my chance to overcome this challenge and take responsibility for paving a way for women in the field of architecture. To continue my fight for gender equality in the building industry, I set up a Soroptimist International Club in India to discuss issues and exchange ideas on the situation of women in India. I also served as a secretary for the Indian Institute of Architects.
DS: How did your family help you in your career?
PM: My family plays a pivotal role in my career. When I got married, my husband Ardeshir Bhiwandiwala supported my career and working women. My father, brother and husband have been a positive force in my life in progressing professionally. And as I mentioned earlier, my father is the reason I joined the building industry.
DS: Finally, what is the best part of your day? Any other interests or hobbies?
PM: I love music and also play a few instruments: organ and the piano. I enjoy sharing my musical talents in informal concerts at my house. Sometimes, I like to play hockey in my free time. I’ve developed an interest in gardening recently, and my long term retirement plan is to practice farming.
Desai, M. (2019). Women architects and modernism in India narratives and contemporary practices. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Woods, M. N. (2018). Women architects in India histories of practice in Mumbai and Delhi. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
T. (n.d.). Perin Mistri. Retrieved from http://www.thehecarfoundation.org/perinmistri.html
Gehi, R. (2019, November 03). Building upon a legacy. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/others/sunday-read/building-upon-a-legacy/articleshow/71872536.cms
From Shilpa Sagar, Sir J.J. College of Architecture Literary & Debating Society journal, 1932. Source: Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, from the archives of the Sir J.J. College of Architecture (Mumbai, India)
Images of works courtesy of Dosu Bhiwandiwala