by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
"In May, no way!" we had raised our voices, at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid (ETSAM),1 in May 2015, when Archiprix International’s (AI) director, Henk van der Veen had indicated this was the usual time to hold its global biennale event. The AI board members—for the best graduate projects, from all over the world, in the fields of architecture, landscape and urban design—fortunately, accepted our plea and perhaps the reality of Ahmedabad’s climate.
A year later, on May 18, 2016, the mercury at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, reached an unhealthy 50.5 degrees Celsius. While birds, exposed to this soaring heat, literally dropped dead on the ground, we sent the students home and waited for the wave to subside. We eventually hosted Archiprix International in February 2017, during pleasant meteorological conditions. It was a massive success. A 10-day architectural roller-coaster with participants from 45 countries2. CEPT had not experienced anything like it, since it was founded in 1962.
That was a heated year. The world nearly fell apart with the Cuban missile crisis and the India-China war. 1962 was also the year, in which architect Joseph Allen Stein completed a building complex for culture and hospitality, in the heart of Delhi. During the design process for the India International Centre (IIC), Stein and his team had wondered about how to cope with the north Indian solar heat.
For IIC’s guest wing, Stein came up with a double façade. Eleven rows of alternating crafted clay tiles, each made from a slightly different clay substance, formed the base of the brise-soleil grid. The low-tech cylindrical metal tubes held each tile into position at four points. The space between the tiles and the inner façade filled with shadow patterns effectively kept the rooms cool.
The natural light, bouncing off different shades of terra-yellow, terracotta or even terra-grey, is simply stunning. On a regular basis, architects and architecture students can be seen at IIC3, studying what was created six decades ago.
Designers of today are still grappling with solar heat. The non-sustainable approach of the 20th century was to create glass façade buildings—that require additional heating in winter and air conditioning to cool down the interiors, in summer. These buildings are unfortunately still being constructed around the world, but are not the way forward for people who care about health, the environment and/or massive energy bills.
In 2012, architect Kengo Kuma used tiles to prevent heat gain, for a building4 he had designed. He hung them flat, in an alternating vertical pattern, between stainless steel cables, as a visual high-tech screen around the building. In a later project, just southwest of Shanghai, Kuma decided to do three things differently, in the design of the external façade’s hanging tiles. For the 2015 China Academy of Art’s Folk Art Museum in Hangzhou, he placed the tiles horizontally, using the depth of the tiles to block the sun. Basically, he was returning to the conceptual idea of brise-soleil. The second thing he changed was the orthogonal grid—introducing a diagonal pattern of cables.
Lastly, he insisted on re-using existing clay tiles, which came from demolished roofs of old houses in the area5. The challenge, then, was that the measurements of the old tiles were all slightly different. But, patiently, in his typical crafted design approach, Kuma had four surgical perforations made in each tile, in order to connect them correctly to the stainless steel cables.
The second skin of the building creates a dazzling visual experience, especially on sunny days. The same tiles were also reused on new roofs of a series of interconnected parallelogram-shaped spaces. The ingenuity of materiality makes the Folk Art Museum arguably one of Kuma’s most inspiring pieces of architecture.
Clay roof tiles date back to Mesopotamia and are good at absorbing heat as well as good at varying humidity levels. Baked clay is UV resistant and can be found on all continents—in high-altitude Cusco in the Peruvian Andes, the historic city of Lijiang in China, and the colonial Galle Fort in Sri Lanka.
The gorgeous crafted terra roofscapes of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast are literally man-made. Since the Middle Ages, the human body has been used to mould these—wet clay shaped on top of male thighs. The resulting shape of the roof tile, thus, tapers down towards the knee, naturally allowing tiles to overlap each other and form waterproof channels called Kupe Kanalice6.
In Kathmandu valley in Nepal, a unique roof tile grid was developed. This roof tile pattern had a distinct twist that gave it its unique non-linearity. It looked almost like the protective scales of a pangolin’s armour. The crafted roofs with ingenious overlaps and slightly rotated grids protect the interiors of historic buildings, especially from the slashing monsoon rains that annually hit Nepali roofs, in June. The clay tiles called Djingati come in a spectrum of carmine, scarlet-red, vermillion, and tangerine orange colours. Upon close observation, one can see the thumbprints of the maker, emphasising that each piece was created by hand.
In the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquakes, almost 9000 people lost their lives and half a million houses got damaged beyond repair. I had been working with the Sustainable Mountain Architecture team to find solutions for re-using salvaged building material. We had worked with stone, brick, and timber. We, then, stumbled upon thousands of petite Djingati tiles, which had come down from the roofs, during the earthquakes.
For a project in Khumaltar7, just South of Kathmandu, we designed a pavilion to improve the emergency exit, giving new access to the flat roof. We literally popped an existing staircase through the roof. For safety and orientation, we wanted to bring in lots of filtered daylight from all four directions of the pavilion. But making it only from glass would drive temperatures up in May. We wanted to capture the diffuse daylight while keeping the harsh direct sunlight out. And we needed to create enough natural cross-ventilation, by inserting a mesh between the roof and the top of the four walls.
The design process included several low-tech 1:1 scale mock-ups and we started to feel comfortable using cleaned and upcycled Djingati tiles. We designed a light metal frame with two clasps per tile and owing to the 8 mm linear depression in the tile, the grip could be guaranteed. Each petite 200 x 105 mm tile forms an evocative mini-louvre and is placed in families, making up the superior panels. The subtle lozenge (or thin diamond) shaped pattern casts soft silhouette shadows, creating spatial elegance. And with the creation, 1452 Djingati tiles got a new life.
With the Sustainable Mountain Architecture team in Nepal and the Himalayan Architects & Planners (HAP)8 team in Uttarakhand, we give architectural support to mountain people, while drawing lessons from their vernacular wisdom. Combined with natural perseverance, innovation and frugality, we try to create evidence, which demonstrates the positive impact of architecture. We take deliberate risks, embrace the power of design and are loyal to our planet.
1.The 2015 edition of Archiprix International in Madrid was visited by the CEPT University delegation with Bimal Patel, Sachin Soni and the author.
2.See also http://www.archiprix.org/2021/editions/ahmedabad-2017
3.More information about IIC can be found in the Architectural Guide Delhi by Anupam Bansal and Malini Kochupillai,MOD Publishers (Berlin) ISBN 978-3-86922-167-0
4.The Xinjin Zhi Museum in Chengdu, West China.
6.More information about Kupe Kanalice and the roof tiles of Dubrovnik can be found on http://www.architectureweek.com/2001/0718/building_1-2.html
7.It is part of a series of architectural and landscape interventions at the ICIMOD headquarters by SMA. More information; https://sustainablemountainarchitecture.tumblr.com/
8.HAP was co-founded in 2021 with Ar. Himanshu Lal, after the Snow Leopard Conservation Center, we had designed with Ar. Shyamli Dongol & Eng. Anjan Suwal, received the green light from the Forest Department of Uttarakhand, India