While there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made to achieve gender equality within the profession, women have and continue to, substantially contribute to the field of architecture. In fact, an impressive number of female architects are the brains behind some of the greatest buildings worldwide as well as the leading and successful practices today. Courage, resilience, ambition, diligence and passion are some of the words that come close to defining what it takes for a woman to stand out in the tough male dominated industry. And we can confidently say that Architect Shamla Fernandes embodies all these values with a touch of elegance and a very well collected disposition.
Born to two civil servants, Shamla grew up with a normal childhood in a multi-cultural society. Like many other children, she attended a public primary school and interacted freely with other children – both Western and African. “I wasn’t put away in a special Indian school somewhere. And I believe this was important in forming the person I am today – I’m a very proud Kenyan and that’s why I chose to study and practice here. Not being a ‘black’ Kenyan has never been something I consciously live with. My upbringing had a lot to influence me as to who I am, what I do and how I work.” Shamla recounts.
Education & early career life
Though she was born in Kisumu, her family moved to Nairobi when Shamla was still a child. She attended Kilimani primary school and later the Kenya High School for her secondary education. “I was not very certain of the career I wanted to pursue after high school. All I knew was that I wanted to go to the university and study something challenging that would lead to an interesting profession. Surprisingly, I was very good in Maths, not art. But while filling the university forms, architecture managed to trap me and I thought, why not? Alongside my other personal interests, I selected the course and joined the University of Nairobi in 1983 to study it. It was not for any love of the built environment or artistry” she clarifies.
Despite being in a class with only two women and over thirty men, Shamla coped well at the university and she enjoyed studying architecture. She completed her studies in 1988 and landed her first job at Planning Systems Services Ltd two months after graduating. After working at PSS for two years, Shamla moved to BeglinWoods Architects where she worked for eight years before starting her own firm – Shamla Fernandes Architects, where she has worked for the last 17 years. According to Arch. Shamla, the success of SFA is attributed to the 10 years of experience she and her husband gathered while working at Planning systems and Beglinwoods Architects.
“At PSS, I was privileged to work with a great team under the guidance of architects Trevor Andrews and Jim Archer who were willing to teach you because from the university really, you know nothing about the real world.” Shamla identifies. Some of the projects she handled at PSS included the main building of the Australian Embassy in Nairobi and several hotel chains and lodges. “I had a particular interest in the practice of interior design as an architect when I moved to BeglinWoods. Architecture and interior design are related, but they are also quite different and unique. I learnt a lot from Arch. Simon, especially how to merge the two disciplines and try not to separate them. There is a thought process that entails every decision in interior design and fit outs, just like architecture” she explains.
It is the need to raise her young children that led Arch. Shamla to opt for resignation from Beglinwoods to start up her own firm. “Motherhood had a huge impact in the progression of my career. I had to actively and intentionally create time for my family and the most sensible decision was to start my own practice which would allow me to work and at the same time take care of my young family. It was easy to do both once I took control of my time,” Shamla remarks.
Together with her husband, who is also her partner at SFA, Shamla has handled multiple impressive projects since establishing the firm in 1999. “SFA’s first project was an interior fit out of a four storey building” she recalls. This project was followed by several corporate and hospitality projects including the transformation of the Fair View atrium, the design of Crown Plaza Hotel and Annex, Sea link Building, the renovation of Yaya Centre parking space, renovation of Country lodge, the design and construction of West End Towers, Crossroads Karen, International school and Mary mother of God church in Embulbul, Ngong among many others.
A typical Mathematician, Shamla works with logic. She is largely disposed towards concepts and functionality of a space. On the other hand, her husband, is gifted where form detailing and aesthetics of a building are concerned. “We complement each other perfectly and that’s how we handle all our projects. We also strive to design buildings that are not similar in whatsoever way. The form and the layout is different for every project and every project at SFA is special and unique in its own way. This is also what really inspires me; doing something new with every project, with its own set of requirements.” Shamla adds.
“Despite the fact that SFA is in transition at the moment, with the evolving systems in the practice of architecture globally, we want to ensure that this firm maintains values of uniqueness, transparency, reliability and accountability,” she adds. “We embrace sustainability, an emerging trend in the construction industry. Solar energy, for instance, has been incorporated in all our projects. We are also very passionate about the youth and we’ve joined a few groups through we which we can give back to the society especially towards youth focused projects.”
“Although technology has influenced the training of architecture in institutions today, certain aspects need to be corrected in the schools. The lecturer to student ratio in most institutions is quite low; something that needs urgent attention because it directly translates to the menace in the built and construction industry. A phenomena that can be curbed by increasing the number of teaching staff in institutions, given, the student population is constantly increasing” Architect Shamla observes.
The other phenomenon in the building and construction industry today is corruption. According to Shamla, corruption is real and it’s unfortunate to see how a sacred profession like architecture has been ruined by its surge. “The distribution of projects, for instance, is unfair! Look at the construction sites in Nairobi today. Who are the leading consultants? Is it that Kenya does not have equally qualified professionals? These are some of the issues in the industry that need to be addressed immediately.” Arch. Shamla asserts.
Advice to Students and Graduate Architects
A wife, a mother and an architect with over 17 years’ experience having worked for ten years before starting her own firm, Shamla singles out experience and skills as key factors to establishing a successful practice. “Before you decide to start your own company, work under someone with experience for some years so that you can learn. It’s important to also know what you want and when you want it. Timing is everything.”
“Delivering good projects on time and on budget as well as fulfilling the needs of the client is a principle that every architect should apply. Each project must be designed according to the client’s needs. We’ve had amazing designs that clients have rejected and we had to go back at the drawing board and start from the scratch to meet the desires of our clients. I would urge all the professionals in the construction industry to always listen to the client,” she concludes.