Delia Contractor, affectionately known as Didi, was a self-taught artist, designer and architect. For more than three decades, she has promoted the need to live and build in harmony with nature, to follow sustainable skills and to value traditional wisdom. With over 15 homes and numerous public projects in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, designed by her, Didi’s name was synonymous with low-waste buildings. She died on July 5 from age-related illnesses. She was 91 years old.
Didi received the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2019, the highest civilian honor recognizing the contribution of women in their respective fields. Many young architects in the country have been mentored and prepared by Didi. Through her own life, she showed what it meant to live sustainably – in the way she recycled materials in her own home in Sidhbari (Himachal Pradesh), the clothes she wore, the food she ate and the buildings she designed.
Her friend, Bengaluru-based architect Chitra Vishwanath, recalls: “I called her to Bangalore for an event in 2010. She insisted that she stay in our house rather than a five-star hotel. She championed the practical type of architecture, where she favored local handmade work and skills. For young architects it is a lesson in how to build simply and how to work with and improve vernacular materials. She revolutionized the use of mud, meeting all the contemporary needs of a home, with more light and air. At the Dharmalaya Institute in Bir, she has led numerous training workshops on sustainable construction and living.
Raised in Germany and the United States, Didi made her home in India in 1951, when she married the late Narayan Ramji Contractor. His first days in India were spent in Mumbai, painting and raising his children. Thanks to 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 esthete Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay gave her the momentum needed to pursue new apprenticeships in traditional Indian handicrafts, which led to other interior projects, where she designed textiles, furniture and furnishings.
Growing up with parents engaged in the influential Bauhaus movement, Didi’s predilection for rural life brought her to Andretta in Kangra in the 1980s, where she observed and learned the nuances of local building with brick bricks. sun-dried mud, bamboo and slate. Its creations have thus evolved from its ethical, ecological and aesthetic values. Architect and urban designer KT Ravindran says: “Didi’s designs did not come from a romantic notion of nature or vernacular buildings, but from a value base that knew what was good for the world. She was able to explore the quintessential behavior of mud, bamboo and slate and convert it into a new idiom in her buildings. She used very innovative techniques, mixing and matching technologies, using local skills and adding her own, and inventing along the way. She was very aware of its theoretical and philosophical basis – the conceptual framework upon which her work was based. “
Knowing her for over 35 years as a friend and fellow practitioner, Ravindran recalls her earliest memories with Didi in Andretta, when she designed solar mud and glass cookers for the people of the valley. “We were neighbors in Andretta. From our first meeting, we hit it off very well, as we deeply shared a similar worldview. She lived a frugal life, and that became the foundation of her work, ”he says.
Her engagement with adobe (mud brick) led her to design a community clinic for a friend using local materials, adding her own ingredients to traditional techniques. She was then already in her sixties. There was always room for experiments, from using rice husks and pine in the mud plaster for insulation to using old car tires to fill in the berms. His own home in Sidhbari is a testament to these innovations. While concrete was a default choice for many in the hills, Didi showed how mud can stand the test of time, whether it absorbs radiation, is a good insulator, or even resists earthquakes. Earth.
Pinaki Roy, a member of the Forum for Responsible Buildings (FRB), recalls the 2014 workshop he organized at the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Palampur, which Didi designed for public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan. The four-day sustainable buildings conference, anchored by Didi, brought together more than 30 participants from different fields, including architects, designers, masons, contractors and permaculture experts. Many of them are now part of the FRB. Roy remembers his lament over the loss of Gandhian values in people’s lives and how the Indian landscape had changed.
“Didi’s life reminds young professionals that you don’t have to rush into your practice, you can dig your heels, go slow, do a good job and be happy,” says Vishwananth.