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AnUrban Experiment Auroville

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Founded in the year 1968, Auroville near Pondicherry in South of India is an international township recognized by the Government of India under special Act of the Parliament passed in 1988. The city is governed by an autonomous institution, the Auroville Foundation. Auroville is guided by its own Charter laid down in 1968 by its founder, The Mother a French woman Mira Alfassa, collaborator of philosopher-yogi Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. Out of necessity in the first years and later out of a growing awareness for the environment, building construction in Auroville lays emphasis on sustainability. In fact, right from its inception, the residents have experimented with natural materials and construction processes for building eco-sensitive built forms. To understand the architecture followed in this universal township of inhabitants from about 50 countries of the world, Sapna Srivastava, on her visit to the city, spoke to Aurovillian architect Mona Doctor-Pingel who runs an independent architectural practice in Auroville.

Auroville conceived for 50,000 inhabitants from around the world is located on a low lying plateau on the south east coast of India, some 10km north of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu. At the centre stands the Matrimandir, a place for individual meditation and spiritual concentration. Radiating from this90ft high, gold disc-clad sphere are four zones, the industrial (North), the cultural (Northeast), the residential (South & Southwest) and the international (West). Each zone focuses on an important aspect of the township life. Surrounding the city area is the green belt consisting of forested areas, farms and sanctuaries. Mona says, “While many other experimental cities/communities across the world have not been able to survive, Aurovillehas grown from initial handful of (couple of hundred) residents to about 2,500 today and is still growing with new members joining every day. It is not a city based on a fixed ideology, geographical, economic, political or religious factor, but is a city that aims to be a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity. The activities of the inhabitants are multifarious including afforestation, organic farming, medium and small scale businesses, education, building construction and other services. The architecture of the place too is the reflection of its society and has a symbiotic relationship with the landscape. Every building is an example of the owner’s endeavor to create something special in his or her own way. There are no fixed ideas, techniques or parameters to tell how to build and thus residents are encouraged to experiment with materials, designs and construction.”

Auroville Development

Auroville Master Plan is in the form of a circle of 2.5 km radius encompassing 20sqkmwith itsdevelopment inextricably intertwined with the surrounding villages. Most ofthe land is generally of poor quality for agriculture and the entire area was identified as a backward area back in the ‘60s. There are a number of village settlements located within and in close proximity to the township. Thus, its development is closely linked with the development of the surrounding villages. The improvement models evolved in Auroville township, be it plantation, regeneration of land, water harvesting, education, building technology, etc., are benefitting the entire region. Giving a larger picture of the mutual interaction and challenges, Mona says, “When the work at Auroville started, the land was eroded with very few trees and vegetation. Everyone living around came to work for building the spiritual centre Matrimandir, not as labourers but as an equal stakeholder in the path breaking initiative. Also, with Auroville and the surrounding villages sharing the same environmental challenges, the Aurovillians worked closely with local communities to conserve water, restore wasteland and promote biodiversity. Locals were absorbed within the Aurovillian way of living and many became the first Auroville residents with access to education for children and skill training in handicrafts, farming etc. for themselves. As the town is growing, more land needs to be acquired but we are not a for-profit or political entity and decisions are taken by inclusive consent. However with economic development of the country and Auroville attracting a lot of visitors, land value of villages has gone up. Many villagers have sold their land to investors from Chennai and other places which has become an issue. It presents a challenge in urban planning and in maintaining the integrity of village communities which are in and around Auroville master plan. Since Auroville never went in for acquisition of land but rather negotiation, Auroville holds only 80% of the land within the city and 40% of land in the surrounding Green Belt”

The foundation of the city was laid by architecture pioneers like Roger Anger from France, Piero& Gloria Cicionesi, Italy and Poppo Pingel from Germany. They set standards from which future generation of designers could take inspiration. The buildings of early years ranging from curvilinear and innovative shapes of Anger, ‘Aspiration’ huts by Piero & Gloria made using local knowledge in a modern way to low cost yet detailed buildings of Pingel, set examples for the Aurovillians to follow in the coming years.

Architecture & Building construction

In the first decade, the city adopted the vernacular building materials of casurina, keet, palm leaf and thatch. The builders took these materials of construction to high forms of self-expression and imagination, and worked in close interaction with the local artisans. At the same time, the push to experiment for ‘community living’ as a step towards the future city, gave rise to ‘Auromodèle’, designed by architect Roger Anger, an area which still remains an architectural exposition of forms and shapes that break the mould of the conventional principle of ‘four walls and a roof’ habitation. The creative freedom of the 70’s and the early 80’s in experimenting with building materials, technology, design and life-styles resulted in present day serious applied research offering advances in ferro-cement technology for roofs and interior fittings as well as compressed earth blocks for load bearing structures.

Mona gives a brief account of the Auroville architecture and building innovations, “Not having pre-defined by-laws or being bound by the conventions of human society has allowed a multitude of expressions to manifest in Auroville´s development. We believe in the experiment of changing the people and the society at large by the process of building a city that is the natural extension of the quest for the new. The architecture here, in its multiplicity of styles and typologies is an expression of its core values and reflect the socio-economic, cultural, ideological, ecological and climatic factors of the location. Technology plays an important role in the pursuit for sustainable living. The word generally misconstrued as advanced engineering and materials is also learning from the past, using the basic materials in a most innovative ways and building structures that are user friendly and sustainable in the long run rather than being iconic buildings with no relevance to its context, natural surroundings and the user. Several research institutes at Auroville are working on innovative processes by modifying and integrating new and existing technologies. More than 40 architects are working in Auroville and there is no competition as everyone who comes here finds work, big or small. Since decisions at every level of planning are taken by consensus, it necessarily means that the pace of working is measured and slow. Therefore designers do not take up many projects simultaneously. The focus for every designer here is to learn something new, test new concepts and create sustainable buildings rather than count the number of projects.”

The Planning Committee of Auroville is the body in-charge of organizing the resources and policies within the city. Rather than act as decision makers, its members are seen as facilitators that ensure that the direction of projects are geared towards the Auroville vision. It also works on developing and encouraging cross-sector integration. Many research projects, design processes, and infrastructural developments are initiated in response to sustainability challenges. “Aurovillians create their own context and constraints guided by the personal leanings. The client is not just the paymaster, the architect not just a supervisor and the craftsmen are not reduced to labourers. Each is a respected part of the building process working closely to experiment and develop details with local materials and new techniques,” sums up Mona.

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