In the foothills of the Dhauladhar Mountain Range in Himachal Pradesh is a little town named Sidhbari. Enveloped by beautiful fields and dotted with slate-roofed mud homes, clear gushing streams, and a backdrop of the snow-clad mountains, this town was home for over four decades to the late self-taught architect Delia ‘Didi’ Contractor.
Didi’s contribution to the local architecture of Dharamshala began in the later phase of her life. She was in her 60s when she started designing homes primarily using bamboo, mud, and river stone. The self-taught architect designed over 15 houses and 3 institutions around Dharamshala; Didi left behind a legacy deeply rooted in heritage, tradition, and sustainability.
The inspiring architect and designer breathed her last on 5th July 2021, aged 91, at her home in Sidhbari.
A Life Steeped in Art
The entire life of Didi Contractor had been imbued with Art and Design. Born as Delia Kinzinger in 1929 to a German father and an American mother – both expressionist painters involved in the Bauhaus movement – she grew up surrounded by artists and designers.
Didi fell in love with architecture at the age of 11. However, she faced discouragement from pursuing it professionally for it was an “unseemly career for women” in those days. She grew up to study art at the University of Boulder, Colorado, where she met Indian civil engineer Narayan Contractor.
Together, they moved to Nashik in the 1950s and then to Mumbai’s famous seaside Juhu locality in the 60s. Here, Didi had the opportunity to design a few homes, including one for the late actor Prithviraj Kapoor. Besides, she got a chance to renovate the famous Lake Palace in Udaipur.
Didi Contractor’s life-long love story with adobe (an organic material derived from the earth) kickstarted in her teens. Ever since she helped her parents renovate a home in New Mexico, she discovered her awe for its flexibility. Her relocation to Sidhbari in the Kangra valley in 1978 deepened her love for the material and allowed her to observe local construction techniques.
Didi Contractor and her Love for Simplicity
A quick perusal of Didi Contractor’s designs reveals the harmonious nature of her rooted buildings. Built using vernacular techniques with locally sourced materials, the buildings are at once striking and serene.
In contrast to the looming concrete and steel structures of the modern-day cities, Didi’s designs seem like a breath of fresh mountain air. She believed in using the innate qualities of locally-available materials to her advantage, creating a sense of playful harmony and tranquility.
Building using mud can take a long time – even up to a year. Didi Contractor, however, believed in the necessity of this slow pace. By allowing the construction process to be dictated by the natural cycles of nature, the resulting structure developed a harmonius co-existence with its environment. Didi’s designs resonate with the spirit of a constant conversation with the surrounding landscape.
Architecture that Speaks to the Users
The artistic sensibilities of Didi Contractor led her to design structures that felt homely, comfortable, and playful. She used her deep understanding of the site and its ecological aspects to create a dynamic character within the spaces.
The use of light was one of the significant factors in her designs. By allowing natural light into the interiors through windows and skylights, Didi highlighted prominent architectural features and brought the form to life.
Another essential aspect of Didi’s designs was the use of staircases. She believed that staircases behaved as not only a physical journey from one space to another but also an emotional one. Didi Contractor used the stairs’ location, material and direction to guide the user through an interactive narrative.
One could simply pause on a random step and look around – at the landscaping, the view from the window, or simply the texture of the steps themselves – and be in awe of the attention to detail. Simple pathways transform into distinctive architectural features with a simple intervention.
Spearheading the Ideology of Sustainability
It is evident through Didi’s buildings that her designs were rooted in a sustainable lifestyle. Her work was merely a reflection of the values by which she lived her life.
Didi would recycle all her household waste routinely, and only wore clothes made of khadi. The recyclability of building materials was, naturally, important to her. “When I take something out of a natural cycle, I think how it affects the cycle, and whether it can be replaced, or reused – earth from an adobe building can be reused in a vegetable garden”, she explained, in a book about her architecture by Joginder Singh.
Inevitably, this nurturing quality of hers found its way into her designs. Throughout the entire construction process, her attention to detail ensured that the result was a space that rightly served its intended purpose to the users.
Project Focus: Nishtha Rural Health Clinic by Didi Contractor
Built in 1995, The Nishtha Rural Health Clinic at Kangra was Didi’s first public project. The clinic offers holistic care to those who are poor and chronically ill. At the same time, the mud walls and bamboo interiors instantly instill a sense of ease and comfort in the visitors.
The lush green hills visible from the rooms, airy corridors with ample natural light, and the innate visual warmth of the materials all aid in the clinic’s holistic attitude towards health and rejuvenation. Through traditional construction techniques, the pastel brown mud walls and slate tiled roofs protect the interiors from the harsh winter winds of Himachal while maintaining a pleasant ambience in the summers and remaining resistant to earthquakes.
A Design Ethos Attuned to the Rhythms of Nature
Through her work, Didi poses a marriage of traditional knowledge with a contemporary outlook, proving that modern demands in architecture can be satisfied while remaining ecologically sensitive. To suggest that her work is an example of alternative building methods would be a vast understatement indeed.
In fact, her designs prove that by inculcating traditional artistry and a sensitivity to the environment, it is possible to live a sustainable life – one that is attuned to the rhythms of nature and brimming with peace.