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Auroville, a town that belongs to the earth

In conversation with its architects
A testing ground for experimentation, the architecture and philosophies of this town in southern India continues to attract attention for its deviation from the conventional.

by Apurva Bose DuttaPublished on : May 20, 2019

As I write, glimpses of my visit to Auroville in 2010 engulf me. During that short visit, the place intrigued me, as it has intrigued everyone. An experimental town that was established on a spiritual philosophy of peace, harmony, knowledge and upliftment, 51 years down the line, Auroville has emerged as the universal town, offering emphatic lessons in unity in diversity across nationalities, cultures and castes; in focussing on one’s inner self, spirit and the community; in devising technologies and materials that belong to the earth, in redefining ways of sustenance, and enjoying unabashed freedom.

In the case of its architecture, it is globally symbolic in alternative ways of building, using alternative sources of energy, materials and technology. Whether it is local materials, such as brick, bamboo, wood, sand, thatch, cement and mud, or building technologies and construction practices, such as compressed earth blocks in load-bearing structures, ferro-cement technology in roofs and interior fittings, or the diverse ways of roofing including pitched, vaulted and dome; architecture here rises from the soil and belongs to it. Apart from which, the town scores in protecting the environment in terms of wasteland reclamation, waste-water treatment, and afforestation.

  • Workers are trained in the old and new appropriate construction practices Image Credit: Andreas Deffner; Courtesy of Dhruv Bhasker
  • The town uses materials that belong to the earth, as seen in this structure with coloured oxide plaster Image Credit: Andreas Deffner; Courtesy of Dhruv Bhasker

Unique experimentations in design, technology and symbolism, and an integration of architecture with nature have been the hallmark of Auroville architecture, a prime example being the glistening Matrimandir, a solar-powered structure that took 37 years to build. From this central locus, the town radiates out in four zones of cultural, residential, international and industrial activities. Whether it was Roger Anger, the French architect who designed Auroville, or the numerous architects that Auroville houses today from across nationalities, the town is a hub for those keen on experimenting, innovating and implementing applied research in their work.

Notably, the Auroville community is not looking at encouraging or popularising the town for tourism - neither for travellers nor for architects, and hence, most of the architectural projects are not open for visit either. The town is focussed on doing its own things, finding local solutions for their problems using local resources, being a part of an experiment in history, without wanting to project themselves as role models. However, it passionately trains and shares information on architecture through platforms, such as the Auroville Earth Institute, Auroville Bamboo Centre and Auroville Building Centre. Today, when the idea of sustainability has globally taken centre stage, Auroville ends up becoming a model because of its eco-friendly, cost-effective and vernacular architecture. Having enjoyed international acclaim, there, however, still exist discussions on its success/failure and the feasibility of the replication of the model in other contexts.

  • Matrimandir – the focus of the town Image Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

In recent times, architecture has come up to become a profession that has fallen in the trap of the need of propagation. So, what is it that makes architects come down to a town that houses only 3100 residents? Is it the free spiritedness, where one is not bounded by laws and has the freedom to explore, invent, discover and experiment where even the laws of construction and permits are issued by a working committee of residents and not a central authority? Is it the need to be self-sufficient and self-sustainable and stay closer to mother earth and create a life where dependence on anything artificial is not an option?

A few architects associated with Auroville share their views on the township, what sets it apart, and how architecture and design have come to redefine it and vice versa.

Mona Doctor-Pingel, Founder, Studio Naqshbandi, Auroville

Mona Doctor-Pingel
Apurva Bose Dutta (ABD): During your 25 years of association with Auroville, you have also worked on the Auroville Architects’ Monograph Series. What makes architects and planners come to Auroville and stay?

MDP: Auroville attracts all kinds of people from different walks of life and cultures. To come and live in Auroville is generally, in my opinion, not a ratiocinative decision, but more of a calling that longs for a different kind of society and evolution of the human being. The opportunities to develop oneself come as per one’s inner potential. The longer one lives in Auroville, the more challenging it is, and therefore that much more fulfilling the outward and inward life becomes.

If we think about those who come today after 50 years of Auroville’s existence, the situation is very different from those who came in the pioneering years (1968-1985), when the barren land and the non-existent skilled labour asked for experimentation and frugality in the use of materials. Today, the architect/planner is presented with different opportunities or challenges. The stage has been set, and it is up to individuals to find their different ever-evolving role as per their inner aspirations. We are each contributing to a musical theatre piece together, sometimes in dissonance, and sometimes in resonance.

  • Aikdio Dojo: A martial arts centre in Auroville designed by Mona Doctor-Pingel Image Credit: Mona Doctor-Pingel
  • Studio Naqshbandi in Auroville designed by Mona Doctor-Pingel Image Credit: John Mandeen

Trupti Doshi, Co-founder,The Auroma Group, Pondicherry

  • Trupti Doshi
ABD: You led the architecture department of the NGO wing of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, of which Auroville is a sister concern. Being a model experiment for sustainable architecture in India, how do you think the government and the architectural community could step in to enhance the visibility of Auroville?

TD: Auroville is a mecca for the architectural community in India. I stay in Pondicherry, which is a twin city of Auroville, located 2 kms away from it. Auroville has a very clearly defined geographical boundary as the outline of the township. Though my office is situated just outside the boundary, and I am not an Aurovilian (having not taken the citizenship of Auroville), however, the spirit of Auroville's architecture permeates through all my buildings.

In order to enlarge its presence in the national dialogue, publications and workshops focusing on the unique contribution of the experimental architectural forms and techniques in Auroville would be helpful.

  • Auroma French Villaments, a gated residential community on the outskirts of Auroville, designed by Trupti DoshiImage Credit: The Auroma Group
  • Auroma Concord: A meditation hall built with compressed stabilised earth blocks and earthen plaster on the outskirts of Auroville, designed by Trupti Doshi Image Credit: The Auroma Group

Dominic Dube, Co-Founder, DDIR Architecture Studio, Bengaluru

  • Dominic Dube
ABD: You spent some important years of your career at Auroville before moving to Bengaluru. There is a certain freedom that architects in Auroville enjoy. Do you miss that freedom now in a metropolitan city?

DD: Sri Aurobindo said, “The whole world yearns after freedom, yet each creature is in love with his chains: this is the first paradox and inextricable knot of our culture." This resumes the entire attitude that a man/architect is facing not only in Auroville, but in the world as well. I do not think that there is more freedom in Auroville than anywhere else in the world, as according to Sri Aurobindo, “freedom is what you are; it is what you become.” To limit it to a context, even being in Auroville will be misleading. There is surely a vibration of openness in Auroville, which is rather unique by the fact that in its isolation, it allows this ‘freedom’ of manifestation with fewer constraints than the normal world. And there is this nature in Auroville, which provides all you need to create. Due to this isolation, it is very peaceful; so I miss the forest and silence. However, the real work is for one/architect to reach this state of freedom, not only in Auroville, but in the world we live in as well.

  • ‘Reve’ housing Development: An apartment complex in Auroville designed by Dominic Dube Image Credit: Dominic Dube
  • A residence in Auroville designed by Dominic Dube Image Credit: Dominic Dube

Dhruv Bhasker, Co-founder, Dustudio, Auroville

  • Dhruv Bhasker
ABD: Can an experiment like Auroville sustain in the urban realm? What are the technologies practiced here that could find a presence in the urban scenario?

DB:  Auroville has come a very long way from the simplistic, vernacular-driven, wood-thatch-stilted huts to the seemingly over-the-top urban housing typology. From no public infrastructure to largely funded public buildings and spaces, it has unknowingly created a huge field of impact in all realms. In the field of architecture, urban design and planning, the influence on the urban sector has been vast.

Sustainable building practices such as stabilised rammed earth wall construction, terracotta roofing, vaults, domes, arches, filler slab roofing systems, coloured oxide IPS plasters, etc are all practiced here and are spreading out across the country in urban settings. For the world to adopt/ accept the work that has been done here, it needs to be as lucid as Auroville to create the dialogue between various disciplines, age-groups, faculties, as has happened in Auroville. It is not that there is absolute acceptance of such practices within Auroville either. Often, the seemingly sustainable practices are cross-examined, put to test, not supported or even discarded easily here. For the sustenance of such efforts elsewhere, the context needs to prepare itself to receive, implement and support ideas and efforts that may be from Auroville, or may come out of their urban context itself.

  • Dustudio in Auroville designed by Dhruv Bhasker, Dharmesh Jadeja and team Image Credit: John Mendene
  • Skandavan in Auroville designed by Dhruv Bhasker and teamImage Credit: Andreas Deffner

Having spoken with a number of architects, it is perhaps safe to conclude that in today’s times, the abstractness and idealism of Auroville lends it a charm that might be difficult to replicate anywhere else. For many, while its functioning remains a mystery, for others it continues to be a stimulus to ideate and create with full freedom.

What do you think?

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