by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
At 1900 metres altitude, Nathuakhan is in the forested hills of eastern Uttarakhand in India. The green slopes are a mixture of terraced farmland, dryer chir pine swats and rich banj oak forests interspersed with rhododendron, deodar, Himalayan cypresses and kafal (bayberry). Twelve years ago, Professor Kiranmayi Bhushi looked into the eyes of an owl. Seated in a hollow of a massive 120-year-old deodar (Cedrus deodara) tree, the flat-faced bird stared at the former chef, who worked in several restaurants in Chicago. Owls have massive tubular eyes1 rather than eyeballs and this makes an owl’s gaze imposing. Kiran (Prof. Bhushi) talks about having had "a magic moment of grounding". She followed her intuition and purchased the owl-deodar land.
Presently a well-established academician, an award-winning author2 and a food practitioner, it took her years to read the remote land, improve the south-facing terraces, understand the annual cycles of the existing trees, set up a makeshift house and experiment with planting of fruit trees, herbs, medicinal plants and vegetables.
Over time, the far northern tip of the upper part of the land became a favourite spot for Kiran. With ample sun, good views and an abutting bird-rich forest, the area felt ideal for a permanent working-living place and she called us, Himalayan Architecture & Planning3. Himanshu Lal had set up the HAP-Studio in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand, and we embarked on a double task. First, we surveyed the petite triangular land Kiran had identified. The site itself is slightly contoured, with steep slopes on all three sides. A few existing mature bayberry trees on the western side made the challenge clear; to design a new building for this site, we would require a tailor-made solution.
When I first heard her talking about her initiative, the first thing I thought of was One straw revolution4, Masanobu Fukuoka's manifesto and journey about radically changing farming and food self-reliance against the political mainstream in Japan. Her in-depth knowledge about ingredients and fresh produce, combined with her long engagement with local agricultural communities, has inspired her to "try to practice methods of processing, preserving and consumption in the Himalayas. Food is not divorced from politics and more and more we are no longer eating natural produce, but products of food science"5. This would fundamentally challenge the mainstream, high-energy agricultural practices.
We worked with Kiran to identify the components for her elegant laboratory for discovering, cooking, educating, brewing, pondering, fermenting, innovating and triggering the taste buds. Ground floor spaces were defined as kitchen, root cellar, library, conservatory and a grand café-like space. Here, vernacular wisdom of the local agro-forestry community can fuse with innovative culinary experiments. If that description sounds too complicated; taste together! This approach aligns with The Botany of Desire. Michael Pollen argued, in his 2001 publication, how people and domesticated plants have formed reciprocal relationships similar to that of honeybees and flowers. He examines how we have benefited from these plants and how we have also done well by them, ending up with his famous question: "who is really domesticating whom?"
On my next site visit, I worked with the contoured land to create a conceptual scale model. This hands-on 3D exercise was most effective. In testing out several spatial scenarios, the quickly-made models revealed that a cascading floor level strategy would work best. The kitchen and library are on the highest level. Towards the south, two steps down, is the grand café and ultimately, with another two steps, one sails into the open-air porch.
The user-centric design journey for Fiddleheads Farm led to a corridor-free building, with a remarkable small footprint at 84 m2. In the cold winter months, this compactness has several advantages; it reduces the energy consumption, it performs better in earthquake situations and it will require less maintenance.
For the heavy stone walls of the ground floor Lal selected excellent river stones. He got it transported on mules to the site. Here we could actually select several different groups of stones - pinks, browns, striped and more. The exposed stone walls will, through carefully designed patterns, tell several architectural micro-narratives. During the initial explorations of the direct surroundings, I found in the upper part of the land several pieces of iron-saturated hematite. Twice as heavy as granite6, I collected 84 of these natural beauties of gnarled and frozen liquid heaviness. They will find their place in the building somewhere, so Fiddleheads Farm will be a celebration of Himalayan geology.
The upper floor's materiality is a light-weight combination of timber and steel. It is designed as a cozy top floor of a mountain lodge. The comfort for guests and Kiran's private spaces is quintessential, as it will be her place for permanent living. With the south-southeast orientation, thermal insulation and double glazing, there is no need to come down to the warmer plains in the winter months.
Over time, the land is transforming into a meaningful, healthy and inspiring environment in the mountains, where food is an integral part of Fiddleheads Farm's life. The carefully crafted architectural addition to her land will make it possible to say farewell to city life. And from her private spaces on the upper floor, Kiran and the owl can keep an eye on each other.
References the magnificent binocular vision of an owl is reflected in its weight. The eyes make up three per cent of the total body weight. For humans this 0.003 per cent. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/birds-eye-view-wbt/
 her 2018 book Farm to Fingers: The culture and Politics of Food in Contemporary India was awarded the Gourmand Award (Paris, 2019) in the category 'Sustainability': ISBN-13 9781108416290
 shizen nōhō (=natural farming) was published in 1972. The English version, One straw revolution, saw the light in 1975, ISBN 978-1590173138. Masanobu Fukuoka passed away at the age of 95 in 2008.
 Michael Pollen explains in his 2009 book, In Defense of Food, that most of what we are consuming today is "edible food-like substances".
 At 5.04 (g/cm3) the density of hematite is double as compared to granite and white marble, who stand at 2.6 and 2.5