Public: Design that speaks a meaning

An interview in the The Hindu by Ranjani Govind on October 06, 2013.

Builders should avoid using energy-hungry materials and chant the sustainability mantra, young architect Siddharth Menon tells Ranjani Govind

When young architect Siddharth Menon came down to Bangalore to address professionals in the field of built expressions, a motley crowd of senior architects, engineers, contractors, young students and budding architects curiously assembled, for, the architecture graduate from Mumbai University, after familiarising himself with mud structures during his training at Auroville, has spent the last two years in rural Himachal Pradesh with mentor Didi Contractor.

Didi, known to be a sensitive, evolved design expert who absorbed the good from her years of learning, scrutiny and perceptive analogies, prioritises her work based on climate and other natural resources available locally.

With ‘learning the core values of sustainability and life,’ being the under-current of Didi’s professionalism, she leads one to discover a new thinking with “design approaches that embrace nature,” reiterates Siddharth.

In an interview to The Hindu-HABITAT, Siddharth Menon speaks about the green lessons he learnt from Didi Contractor that bring an overall ecological balance to living.


Re-trace your thinking route. How did you land up in Himachal after living in Mumbai?

Growing up in commercial Mumbai left me hungry for some kind of a cultural identity, limited to taking part in festival feasts or meeting up with my family in Kerala.

With a spirit to learn more and more about different lifestyles that trace different ways of built structures, the turning point seemed a significant one, a visit to the Arabian Gulf where man seemed to be controlling nature with his lavish lifestyles!

From this moneyed opulence that I observed, to the grounded community back home at Auroville (in Pondicherry) where I took professional internship at the Auroville Earth Institute, it seemed a re-birth…as working on stabilized mud buildings there was an initiation into the idea of sustainability.

This was when I heard about an old lady in the hills who believed in building with mud.

To understand and feel what sustainability meant I had to stay away from city life, live in a rural community and observe straightforward ways that helped one design structures for living with nature, and un-learn some of the urban design parameters.

This is how I met my mentor, Didi Contractor.

Didi’s work in Himachal or Laurie Baker’s in Kerala are tuned to be more accepted in the interior regions, because it makes more sense to the non-urban lifestyles and geographical make-up?

What we need to understand is that Didi’s work, like Baker’s, is very contextual in terms of techniques, materials, resources, topography and climate. One cannot and should not replicate it in any other place.

That would not help in understanding the ideology behind ‘the entire thought process.’

What we can take is the philosophy derived from a certain world view. In a resource-starved country it is criminal to use energy guzzling materials such as cement, steel or glass.

Not negating the fact that some structures do need them, one needs to pause and think, for, every kg of cement you use, there are a multitude of external costs vis-à-vis energy incurred in production, environmental costs acquired due to pollution, the staggering transportation costs to reach the sites and the social costs for people getting displaced to make way for big limestone mines…all this making landless people migrate to the cities. So where are we heading?

So, urban styles of build can also bring in philosophies to reduce energy costs. One can improve on passive energy flows, avoid energy-hungry materials, use local, natural materials and ensure a just treatment for labour. When we don’t follow the elements inherent in either Didi-style or Baker’s exactly and still claim to have followed their design course, aren’t we being unfair to these maestros of simplicity in design?

Why do we have to classify our architecture as Baker-style or Didi-style when we are not sure of their distinctiveness being replicated?

If Didi is not trained to be an architect, but was led to becoming one with an interest that woke up traditional/sustainable thinking, may be educated architects missed out on simple wisdom with respect to materials and design? Does Didi herself feel that study-curriculum has to contain such features?

Definitely. Our architectural education system today is generally geared towards producing efficient craftsmen catering to various builders, and helping architectural colleges mushroom in city life.

When I first landed at Didi’s doorstep straight from the Mumbai University College little did I know the amount of de-schooling my system needed.

Didi constantly reminded me of the blind spots in my education, introducing me to a whole new world through reading, sketching, active inquiry and the importance of working with your hands. Moreover, she said, ‘Sustainability is a lifestyle. One has to live it. You cannot have a professor teaching sustainability sipping tea out of a plastic cup!”

Alternative constructions cannot be mainstream, isn’t it? What are the limitations of such streams to be adapted in urban living contexts? (e.g., stabilized mortar, how can this be handled during rains?)

We can use natural materials in urban contexts. Various techniques have been used by architects in Bangalore and Auroville for four-storeyed mud buildings too.

There are ways in which mud can be stabilized to increase its strength and resistance to water to be able to use in cities.

But that would necessarily mean a sustainable building.

Making it a ‘mud building’ at any cost would render the process an energy-consuming one, defeating the whole purpose.

So, in a city any slum would be the most sustainable, built as it would be using waste materials sourced from around the city.

Torn plastic sheets, broken GI sheets, waste bricks and stone, the same waste which we periodically discard!

An idea of how Didi tackles the three principle energy philosophies …

* Embodied energy – energy consumed by each building material in its production and transportation; Running energy – measured by the amount of energy used by a building in its day-to-day running; and Emotional energy or spiritual energy that has to be brought into structures, something that makes you love a building.

It could be an odd detail here, or a wonderfully worked out proportion for the window, or the realisation of the space in a dramatic way…it all adds to this. Didi’s buildings have answers to tackle all these energy factors, they touch a deep chord within you.

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