Can India's 'City of Architects' Green the Building Industry?

The country's national construction is on pace to heighten emissions by nearly 400 percent in less than 40 years. But these designers are trying to change that.

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Mark Bergen

AUROVILLE, India – On a Saturday afternoon, I meet someone around my age who ticks off his professional designations:  sound engineer, artist, architect. In this unusual town in southern India, another new acquaintance jokes, five out of four residents are architects.

It's an exaggeration but not by much. I've heard various estimates of the number living here: 20 or 25; around 40; upwards of 100. Those may not include the numerous fresh graduates that come to study. Even if the lowest guess is accurate, it would mean 1 in 100 here are architects. In India, the profession represents, by one estimate, 1 in 2,000.

They are drawn by the city's unique heritage of innovation. Chugging along in motorcycles on Auroville's narrow roads is a mix of original French and Tamil dwellers along with arrivals from 45 different countries. Many have, over its forty years, lent their own national style to the homes, guesthouses and collective spaces here. Most of the structures are stunningly unique and elegant.

"It’s some sort of expectation that brings all these young architects here,” says Ajit Koujalgi, a resident since 1971, and, naturally, an architect. What they expect is a chance to experiment with forms, materials and aesthetics often unavailable throughout the rest of the country.

They aren't alone. Many of Auroville's residents eschew money and devote themselves to the arts or research in fields like alternative energy. While it takes its name and principles from the yogic philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, an early Indian politician and guru, Auroville is less devoted to cloistered spiritual pursuit than communal living. It pitches itself as a nation-less, experimental ‘universal town.’ As one resident explains, "We’re a town, not an ashram."

Birthed in 1968, the town was planned to hold 50,000 residents. Now, it has just a bit over 2,000. While Indian cities are bursting with newcomers, on net last year, I am told, Auroville lost three residents. Various explanations float around, but the simplest may be that its unconventional living situation—residents cannot own properties outright, and the stipends doled out are relatively meager—is not for everyone.
 
Those that do live here, with their town plan fanning out like a spinning galaxy, are still receptive to new designs.

The Last School, photo by Mark Bergen

"You don’t get the usual architects just looking to make money,” explains Alok D’Souza, a young practitioner who graduated from school about a year ago then bee-lined here an apprenticeship. He’s learned more in his stint in Auroville than his years of schooling, he says, before shuttling me around to two different sites that his firm, Buildaur, is designing.

The first, a circle of separated homes beside the firm’s future office, is marked by gently arching bricks. The walls are the same reddish brown as the dirt. Most of the materials are dug up from soil within a few miles, a technique, like the smaller bricks, borrowed from rural building in the region. On an unfinished second floor, workers funnel sand through the bricks in something called filled slab—a process more labor intensive than usual construction. "The main thing," D'Souza says, "is there is a lot less concrete."

At most construction sites in Indian cities, concrete dominates. And it signals a serious impending calamity: per one projection, national construction alone is on pace to heighten greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 400 percent in less than forty years.

Buildaur’s projects can be be up to 45 percent more energy efficient than conventional homes, claims Dhruv Bhaskar, one of the two principal architects. 

But the firm, which works on projects across the country, faces the same issue other Indian drafters with a green eye do: the people willing to pay for their work are usually those with the deepest pockets. Even then, the homes are never as ecologically sound nor suited to the Indian context as they could be on paper.

"You can’t always do that when there's a client involved," Bhaskar says. "You have to weave in sustainability into what they want."

This is evident in the second site I visit. Just outside of the town, which is owned by the Auroville Foundation, a plot hosts a nearly finished extravagant family home. It has similar mud walls and arched brick. But they are spread over four different structures—a central living quarter, replete with a swimming pool, twenty paces from three different detached bedrooms.

The home reveals how design in Auroville, while aesthetically liberating, doesn’t always translate to the needs of expanding Asian metropolises.

The Buildair sites. Photos by Mark Bergen

"All of this experimentation has its limitations,” notes Koujalgi, who directs a branch of INTACH, an historical preservation group in the nearby city of Pondicherry. Homes in Auroville rise in isolation. With a population that sorely needs more dense living arrangements, he continues, India cannot create “a city with disconnected buildings.”

Community leaders in Auroville, which is now taking steps to expand its terrain to meet its initial population aims, are focused strongly on intensive planning for their expansion, another luxury that Indian architects working outside the town simply don’t have.

And it is striking that, in a nation where they are badly needed, future architects are drawn to a place—with its sparse population, open spaces and intentional design—so unlike the cities they will return to.

Bhaskar deflects this criticism: it’s no different than architecture students going to the U.S. or Australia, where the city spaces and environments are entirely different. Young architects passing through Auroville, he claims, are taking the lessons of sustainability and innovation back to urban centers. It is, he admits, a gradual, uphill process.

"When they come here, the parameters are very different," he says. Taking artistic and green gambits here is, relatively speaking, quite easy. "And it’s very difficult," he concludes, "for them to do it in their own cities."

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