WADe Asia is a platform established in India in 2016 to promote women architects and designers. Anuradha Chatterjee interviews Vertica Dvivedi and Madhurima Chowdhury about WADe’s work.

Audience at WaDE Asia, 2017

Audience at WADe Asia, 2017

I have been very fortunate to have instant friends in the women leading WADe (Women Architect & Designers) Asia, founder Vertica Dvivedi and associate director Madhurima Chowdhury who recognised me as a strong public speaker and moderator, and invited me to moderate panel discussions at WADe’s inaugural conference in 2016, and then again at the Asia-wide conference in 2017, in New Delhi.

WADe Asia defines its key objectives as:

  1. Ensuring visibility of women-led projects
  2. Bridging mentorship between leading and aspiring designers
  3. Standing by those who want to come back to the profession
  4. Encouraging, sharing and learning through research
  5. Celebrating the life, work and achievements of women in design
  6. Rewards and recognition.

All at the 2017 WADe Asia conference appreciated the energy, talent and passion that Vertica and Madhurima and their team bring to these events, including their carefully and thoughtfully curated panels of speakers. With its combination of work and play, the exchange of information and the sharing of stories, deep thought and humour, there was never a dull moment at the conference. I met really interesting people (architects and designers, women and men of all ages and backgrounds, from different states in India), who I normally would not have encountered. Vertica and Madhurima are right in describing WADe Asia is ‘Not Just an Event but a Movement’, as it explored themes such as challenges in starting a business; scaling up businesses; Asian architecture; working with one’s life partner; luxury; slum redevelopment; and building with local traditions and knowledge. During the event, I conducted the following interview with Vertica and Madhurima.

Madhurima Chowdhury and Vertica Dvivedi

Madhurima Chowdhury and Vertica Dvivedi

Anuradha: Planning such an event takes a lot of time. How do you find time and energy to do this, given that you also run the Surfaces Reporter magazine?

Madhurima: It requires immense time and effort. Before we launched WADe India in 2016, we researched for about one year. Venturing into a completely alien project – a national level event, something totally new to us – meant putting in additional time, and planning everything from scratch. Working on Surfaces Reporter was kind of a silver lining, as it had already exposed us to some level of research, and we picked up from there. But it was our firm decision to keep Surfaces Reporter and WADe as individual and separate entities. So, while the team pretty much remains the same, when work for WADe starts we absolutely switch off from the magazine. It’s difficult juggling two different things but it is fun as well. Smart decisions and carefully planning and delegation have worked for us so far.

Vertica: Very interesting question indeed! We started with research. The objectives were clear in my mind. However, there were several pertinent questions. Is it at all needed? How do we shape it? How do we get the industry connected? How do we get sponsors? How do we articulate the objectives with the team precisely to drive the movement? When there are too many questions and no footprint to follow, I felt it was better to jump right in and see what’s ahead.

Every day, we faced new challenges. The first rating we received in Facebook was 1 star by a man from the industry. Some women openly conveyed they did not want to be part of a women’s forum. Some even said that they do not believe in sharing their knowledge and experience with upcoming designers. We received responses such as ‘We had no mentors; they too should learn on their own’ and ‘Why should women have a separate forum?’ These statements from women were quite shocking for us. We also received some shocking comments from men, who were not happy about what we were going to do for women.

While the concept was not well received to start with, we knew where these comments were coming from. Collectively, we believed in the objectives and that was enough for us to start. Undoubtedly, we needed to have ‘shock-absorbers’ in our minds while conducting the survey. At first it was discouraging, but then we decided to focus on the encouraging ones to start with and the negative ones to conceptualise our plan for the event.

Since the core members of both WADe and Surfaces Reporter are the same, it was a big challenge to start with. Inevitably, when managing a start-up like WADe, there were plenty of obstacles to overcome. Each one of us decided to wear multiple hats and set forth for action. Reassessment of roles was done. Smart planning of the magazine helped us to manage our time effectively. To stay sane, we decided to maintain our motivation and take one problem at a time, even though we were bombarded by many together. Sponsorship was another big hurdle, so Surfaces Reporter funded a major part of the event. All in all, we learnt that there is no substitute to hard work. Also, we learnt that a thorny path to a beautiful destination is worth taking.

Anuradha: What do you think was the highlight of the 2017 event?

Madhurima and Vertica: There were several, but some of them are:

  • WADe 2017 saw WADe India becoming WADe Asia. We introduced the WADe Artists award. From a one-day conference, it became a two-day event. We introduced a small exhibition of building materials, and we also introduced student workshops and project awards.
  • Immense love and support from the fraternity, especially excited with the enthusiastic contribution and participation from male architects, a very positive development.
  • WADe MasterClass with Mentors was a definite winner, with numerous messages from grateful young architects, even peers and male architects on the insightful session with five stalwarts of design.
  • The coming together of Women from South East Asia on a common platform, chaired by Dr Anuradha Chatterjee, was one of the highlights. Holding hands and building on each other’s contribution will take us a long way.
  • A special moment was when 88-year-old Didi Contractor encouraged women not to worry and to start from where they left at whatever stage of their working life. She explained how she designed her first building at 30 and her second at 60 years. She said that while women have to stop to look after family and kids, it is possible to come back and move forward again.
Anuradha: Are you able to see social change as a result of these events?

Madhurima: Yes, we definitely see more awareness and growing acceptance of the platform and, more importantly, the issue of gender diversity in architecture. When we first started, there was very little awareness about the issues. Many people seemed to be in denial about the fact that women architects’ works were less documented and that there was a need for a platform for women to come together and share their work, challenges, success stories and just network. Men have started acknowledging women’s work and many also openly speak today about brilliant women in their workspace who should be nominated for WADe Awards. We feel that’s very encouraging. While a lot is yet to be done, we have taken baby steps in the right direction.

Anuradha: You always address women’s issues in architecture, not just as an individualistic pursuit but as a societal one, involving women and focusing therefore on the inter-subjective space. Can you talk about this a bit more?

Vertica: Underlining our core objectives, talking about women’s issues in WADe as a societal one, WADe Asia has a three-fold aim: Sharing information of women-led development; Engaging men of repute to be a significant part of WADe; and Rewarding women in design and highlighting their achievements in mass media.

WADe’s research in India revealed that women are not good at documenting and spreading word about their work. It is important, but among a lot of priorities, documenting work takes a back seat. WADe’s initiative is individually doing a world of good for women. And on a societal level, people are becoming aware of so many good projects by women. WADe believes, through positive awareness, mindsets can change. We have seen great development in the last two years.

Engaging men in WADe was a challenge to start with. They had their own inhibitions. However, we are glad to have changed the mindsets in this area for the good. It seemed incomplete to have women only to rejoice in their achievements. Thus, WADe has skilfully worked on the psychology of men and what was stopping them from joining this movement. Societies cannot change without the participation of all stakeholders of the society. Now, not only men from the industry but families are joining to celebrate women-led development.

WADe found that mostly, news about awards and achievements are spread only within the design community. That is quite limiting. News about talented designers, artists and architects should spread beyond the design periphery and inspire women in general. We never know who we might inspire to be the Zaha Hadid of Asia. With this thought we work to promote the achievements of women in mass media. The national newspaper The Hindu published a full-page article with the photos and names of WADe Asia award winners for 2017. The same was done by television channel ET NOW, which is broadcast throughout India. Similarly, we are discussing coverage of the winners with media platforms from Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Dean DCruz Goa, Anupama Kundoo from-Spain Padma-Bhushan, awardee Rajeev Sethi with Vertica Dvivedi.

Dean DCruz Goa, Anupama Kundoo (Spain), Padma-Bhushan-awardee Rajeev Sethi and Vertica Dvivedi.

Vertica Dvivedi is the Founder of WADe Asia, WADe India; Chief Editor of Surfaces Reporter magazine; and Director of Bigsea Marcom (I) Pvt. Ltd. In 2017, she was awarded an Excellence Award under the ‘Women entrepreneurship’ category by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) during their 5th SMEs. Vertica has also received awards such as the ‘Exceptional Women of Excellence 2017’, by Women Economic Forum; the Hafele ORBIS Award for being the ‘Hafele Woman of Influence 2017’, and the ‘Indian Women Achievers Award’ in 2017 by the National Summit for Women, organised by Anchor Media.

Madhurima Chowdhury is Associate Director, WADe Asia and Bureau Chief, Surfaces Reporter magazine. Madhurima has a Masters in Communication and Media, with extensive experience in content management and business & design communication. Madhurima lives in Mumbai with her three adopted kids, CoCo, Juno and Max.

Anuradha (Anu) Chatterjee is an Indian-Australian architectural historian, academic, author and designer based in Sydney, Australia. She received her PhD from UNSW. Her third book, John Ruskin and the Fabric of Architecture (Routledge, 2017) has just been released. Anu currently works as Senior Architectural Researcher and Heritage Advisor at Cracknell and Lonergan Architects. You can read her Letter to My Younger Self here