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Perin Mistri: The Protégé, the Partner and the Parent

An exclusive with Dosu Bhiwandiwalla


After publishing an imaginary interview with Perin Mistri, we were lucky enough to get in contact with none other than her own son - Dosu Bhiwandiwalla. A flying enthusiast who builds and flies model planes, he talks about how his mother’s independent personality and sense of precision inspired him to work with his hands. Mr. Bhiwandiwalla as a child accompanied his mother on various site visits and shared a very friendly relationship with her. From being honored by the Queen at The Buckingham Place to winning international awards, Perin Mistri's innovative architecture and out of the world achievements are unveiled in this exclusive with Mr. Bhiwandiwalla.


DS: Can you start by describing her personality a little?

DB: Very obviously she had a strong and very determined personality. Whatever she did she did well, or not at all. For example, if I were to be very honest, she was a lousy cook. But she was an accomplished musician and played the piano and the organ quite well. To this end, she could read sheet music. She would drive herself both long-distance as well as within the city if she chose to do so. Generally, even though we had a driver, she would drive herself because that’s the kind of person she was. Independent to the core.


DS: How was your relationship with her? Did she ever ask you to pursue architecture?

DB: Being an only child I had a fairly good relationship with both my mother and my father. I guess being her son was not particularly easy and there was much that I would keep to myself and not discussed with either parent. I guess that came from the sense of independence that I saw in both my mother and my father. However, I know that no subject was taboo and could not be discussed. Even as a young kid I was pretty good at Bridge and other card games. My mother would have no hesitation in including me again with her adult friends and family.

I would often accompany her on her various visits to sites and I learned a lot from the expert labor that she would employ. This was because I love working with my hands. I would often spend many hours with her in her office watching her instruct engineers and draftsmen producing drawings to her satisfaction. From this, I learned how to extract a sense of precision. She would not compromise.


I would often spend many hours with her in her office watching her instruct engineers and draftsmen producing drawings to her satisfaction. From this, I learned how to extract a sense of precision. She would not compromise.

DS: How did she balance motherhood and work-life and what did you like to do as a family?

DB: If I were, to be honest, there was very little balance between work and home. I would go off to school in the morning and come home after school with neither parent being home. I was then left to my own devices for homework and other such matters until they came home. Don’t get me wrong there was absolutely nothing wrong with the system, I didn’t feel in any way deprived. This built my confidence and made me more independent.


As a family, weekends were very important and every Saturday and Sunday we would do things together like going on picnics, etc. My hobby was building and flying model airplanes. And many weekends we would go to a flying site as a family. So the balance between a successful architectural practice and home or family was pretty much in place. She was very fond of gardening, music, and generally having people around where she would take the lead in enabling all to have a good time.


DS: Moving on to her professional life, was she inspired by particular architects or styles?

DB: Her favorite forms of architecture were factories and hospitals. She designed textile mills, factories to produce printing ink, cable producing facilities, and many others. She also enjoyed designing and building hospitals. She designed and built a fair number of schools.


As far as residential homes were concerned she built to the best of my knowledge only two of them. One for a relative of her father’s which was a job consigned to her as her first architectural venture. The day she passed away, I was with her, and we were looking out of a hospital window at the first house she built. The second residence that she built was for a close friend of hers just outside of Hyderabad. The family had purchased the property which culminated in a sheer cliff. And they wanted a home that would be an extension of that cliff. So if you looked up from the bottom of the cliff the home would have been an extension of the cliff itself. Needless to say that the family that commissioned that job was very satisfied with the way it was executed.


DS: What was her favorite project that she built, that she was most proud of?

DB: As to her favorite project - she never had one. Every project she took up was with equal fervor and zeal. She didn’t stop practicing architecture till she died. She won a couple of international awards for various designs. She was the chief architect for the Salvation Army hospitals in India and Africa. For this service, she was honored by being invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. For the German engineering giant, Siemens, she had built a cable factory with a very innovative designed roof from which heat escaped but copious amounts of light entered the building. For this design, she won a German award.


The Belgians honored her for saving a hospital in Mumbai. One of the covenants on that property was that the original structure could not be demolished and if it were then the land would revert. She then devised a method of sandwiching the original walls between new walls and reinforced cement concrete. Thereby enabling a completely new building to be built which is one of the leading maternity hospitals of our city. Incidentally, I was born in the old hospital on the 8th of March, and my daughter was born on the 8th of March in the new hospital many years later. A nun who was an assistant nurse was present for my birth and was the Sister Superior of the hospital when my daughter was born and was also present in the delivery room.


She was the chief architect for the Salvation Army hospitals in India and Africa. For this service, she was honored by being invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen.

DS: Did she do any collaborations with other architects?

DB: When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer came to India they presented my mother with a design by their architects in Los Angeles. She accepted the design, made certain radical modifications, and presented it back to the Americans. Every single one of her suggestions was incorporated in the theatre stands today largely as designed and built by her. She even designed and built a church.


DS: How was her experience of working with her father and her brother as a partner at the firm?

DB: After school, my mother was all set to do law. It was a subject that interested her to no small extent. But when her father realized that his eyesight was failing he requested her to take up architecture so that their firm would not die. She did so and joined the JJ School of architecture and passed out as the first female architect of our country. She then joined her father and as she described it, became his eyes. That, in a nutshell, should answer what her relationship was working with her father. Her brother joined the firm as a partner some years later and they had a very cordial relationship. I do not think that they have collaborated on any project jointly. However, that is subject to correction as I am not sure of this.


DS: Did she share any memories of her college days?

DB: Her college days were a whirlwind of fun as she was the only female in the college at the time. And boy did she know how to enjoy herself. But having said that she worked very hard to be always close to the top of her class as her father was also a professor in the same school of architecture. She and her friends would often have an early dinner in Bombay and then drive to Khapoli (halfway to Pune) for a cup of coffee. Over 35 years later one of her friends from college jokingly said to her after dinner that you have now grown old. She got into her car, got him into her car, and said I’m now taking you for a cup of coffee to Khapoli.


Her college days were a whirlwind of fun as she was the only female in the college at the time. And boy did she know how to enjoy herself [...] She and her friends would often have an early dinner in Bombay and then drive to Khapoli (halfway to Pune) for a cup of coffee

DS: What were some of the challenges she faced in an all-male profession?

DB: She never faced any difficulties or challenges as a professional. The only problems she faced were when she was confronted with corruption which she would not bend to. She never spoke about her profession as being gender-specific. To her, it was just a natural phenomenon.


DS: An interesting instance or favorite memory of her that you would like to share with our readers?

DB: One of my favorite anecdotes about her was a story that she would tell, with great pride, about her father and her uncle. Her father, Jamshedji Mistri, was a qualified engineer who practiced architecture. When he was a student there was no course on architecture or any architectural degree available to him in India. He could not at that time have afforded to travel abroad as his father was a carpenter. Jamshedji had hired his younger brother as a site supervisor.


When my mother was apprenticing with him they had gone together on a site visit. All three of them were standing on a low-level scaffolding when Jamshedji was pointing out certain mistakes in the woodwork. The carpenter who had done the job pointed out to Jamshedji that it was a design error and not bad workmanship. His brother the supervisor reprimanded the man by saying that he was a mere carpenter and had no right to comment on the architect’s design. Jamshedji turned around and slapped his brother across the face so hard that he fell from the scaffolding. He looked down at him and told him never to forget that his father was a carpenter. This was a story she told often.


And I guess that is why one of her favorite carpenters was employed full-time at home. Coincidentally, his son continues to be employed, full-time at home to this day. As an aside, I guess this also explains my love of working with my hands, woodworking, and of course working with engines et cetera. It’s not my fault, it’s genetic.





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