In an exclusive interview with Anupama Kundoo, Architect
Sustainability is suddenly the flavor of the season. You have however been practicing it long before it became fashionable. Can sustainability and globalised architectural style go hand in hand?
There is no reason why deeper values of healthy building practice would result in anything less good looking. Flashy designs could be seductive and surprising when they just appear, but fashions and styles are always a temporary phase that pass by quickly and have a very momentarily gratifying wow factor. Then there is the timeless beauty that is eternal. I see no contradiction between benign materials and technologies being used for achieving good and contemporary architecture. It is a myth to think that architecture that is informed by the unsustainable trends is necessarily a nostalgic return to the past. It is rather one, which continues to be envisioning a better future that is aware of follies of the past and present, with long-term gains in mind rather than short-term impulsive reactions. You have researched a lot on materials.
Are any of these available on a commercial scale?
Through my research I have emphasised the new ways of using natural building materials, rather than researching new manufactured materials. Natural materials are available everywhere and these differ depending on the local context. Usually these are not standardised and not marketed in the same way as manufactured materials. For example earth, lime, wood or stone as building materials have a great variation in their characteristics and properties unlike say Portland cement, which is a standardised material that is manufactured and processed to be uniform regardless of where it is used in the world. This means that a lot more local knowledge, as well as study and analysis is involved in the use of natural materials in each new setting. Natural materials such as stone, wood, earth etc., do not require huge quantities of energy consumption in order to transform them into standardised, manufactured materials that can be ordered from factories. Further, locally sourced natural materials significantly reduce transportation energy and may keep the material depletion in some kind of balance compared to the environmental impact that industrial quarries have on the territory, where materials are produced in bulk and transported to far away destinations. There are also growing health concerns in the case of several manufactured materials that exude harmful compounds and impact health. Then there is the pollution aspect. The choice when opting for manufactured materials must be made judiciously knowing these facts, and in cases where natural materials cannot be achieve the spatial needs, but unfortunately the trend of selecting materials for contemporary buildings is usually an unconscious act. They could result out of habitual practice, ignorance and personal convenience for those who decide rather than for the actual betterment of those who inhabit the buildings and spend all their life in them. As there will be a renewed demand for natural materials these would also become commercially available. In Spain it is possible to buy natural clay plasters and surface finishes as ready mixes, for instance.
As someone who has been so closely associated with the soul of Auroville, how do you think the model could be replicated in other parts of the country?
There are many aspects of Auroville that can be seen as replicable such as its successful reafforestation program, and its efforts towards integral management of water and wastewater or its renewable energy applications. However as far as the project of Auroville as a whole is concerned, I think that we are far from being a replicable model in terms of urbanism. Auroville was conceived as a model new city in the Indian context for 50,000 people. Forty-seven years later there are still only a little over 2000 people occupying proportionately large areas of land, which in the case of India particularly, seems to be a very wrong model of land use or urbanisation. There are many reasons for this, and a lot has to do with working towards a common vision of the city. Auroville was conceived with the aim of achieving human unity, and its no wonder that people are struggling there with finding consensus. However there is a general agreement that what was envisaged, has yet to be achieved.
Affordable housing is your forte. When are we likely to see fired mud houses mushrooming around us?
The fired mud houses were the result of my fascination with Californian ceramist Ray Meeker and his relentless engagement with such radical experimentation. I believe that given the growing concerns of affordability issues around housing for all, any technology that has any chance of contributing to the cause is worth pursuing. I do not imagine a scenario of fired mud houses sprouting across the country, no. In any case all technologies are appropriate to certain contexts and apart from other challenges in this technology, the minimum condition to consider it would be the onsite (or very nearby) earth would be clayey and conducive for brick making. I continue to work with various affordable technologies for different contexts depending on the climatic, urban, geographic and other local conditions. I am now developing a prefab ferrocement housing system called Full Fill homes that can be assembled on site in less than a week.