Public: The Role of a 21st Century Architect in Rural India (1)

The article was published in Domus IndiaSeptember 2015 edition. Can be downloaded here.


In the first part of this article, we took a journey through different rural regions of the Indian Subcontinent trying to understand the materials, methods and ideologies used by the indigenous people to build their spaces. What we learnt is that although all regions differ contextually in terms of climate, landscape, materials available, techniques of using them, skills of the indigenous craftsmen and languages spoken by them, they have a common unseen quality that binds them all together. This quality is what I call building with ‘common sense.’

With 66% of India’s population, rural India is very diverse and complex in terms of people, their power dynamics, socio-cultural and religious patterns, economic and political considerations, caste and gender issues. These relationships play a very important role in the production of architecture in these regions. In developing countries like India, architecture is still made by people-skilled craftsmen, masons, carpenters and labour.

With the advent of globalization by the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 90’s, urban metropolitan India has seen a rapid change in terms of consumption patterns, trends, fashions, leisure, lifestyle, opportunities and ideas. While the pace of change has not been as fast in the villages, it is catching up owing to better connectivity networks like roads and transportation and the infiltration of television and radio into the culture and lifestyle of people. Difficulties and problems arise when trends and fashions are adopted and applied without understanding contexts. This is the tragedy of our cities and the fear is that our rural areas will fall prey to this soon. If certain ideas and philosophies are guilefully superimposed onto 1000s years of empirical research and development in lifestyles and living patterns through the use of mass media for vested interests, it is bound to create friction. This is happening in all fields of living in the villages from food habits and lifestyle to agriculture and crop patterns.

As a 21st century city bred architect working in these regions can be a real challenge. One has to have the ability to travel back and forth in time. Rural India is at a crucial juncture of time where if not guided properly, we could lose its diversity and knowledge forever to the homogenizing qualities of globalization and free market capitalism. When an architect goes into a settlement here to study it, it is important that one looks at it beyond a museum exhibit. We have to try to put ourselves in that context and time to understand why things were like this. Spaces here are very functional and practical and every detail has a reason. We have to put ourselves in that situation and try to figure it out.  This is linked to materials, technologies, spaces and lifestyles. Many a times, studies of indigenous architecture do not move beyond this stage, as they are dubbed ‘vernacular’ or of the poor and not in tune with our times. Concurrently, it is equally of importance to not get stuck in the past. Things were done in the past in certain way as it made most sense at that time. Yes we must observe, document and learn from it. Not all of it may be applicable in this time period and that is where an architect has to be judicious to know what aspects of indigenous architecture to take forward and what leave behind. Although heritage conservation has its place, one is not trying to do that in our villages. We are trying to use these indigenous or traditional materials, technologies and ideas to build contemporary spaces for people with aspirations for the future. It is very easy to get trapped in the romanticism of these materials and that is where the architect needs have the clarity in thought to understand what should be done. One is forever walking a tight rope of over the dimension of time.

Most often houses and spaces in the rural hinterland stand decayed, damaged and destroyed by the ravages of time accelerated by change of lifestyle. What are left are mere foundations and plinths as these are generally made from stronger impervious materials giving you a sense of how things could have been. Walls, roofs and windows have either fallen over or have been salvaged. This sort of landscape is more common on peripheries of towns and cities as the scale and rate of change is rapid. At times, one feels one is on production set of post apocalyptic themed war film. This is when an architect wears the hat of that of an archeologist or a critical forensic investigator. Time and history are the alleged suspects who leave behind hints and clues. It is up to the architect to develop an eye to notice these and pick up on them. These clues then need to be critically investigated and a mental map of the spaces will be made. This task is difficult and requires a lot of skill and patience and is the only way to find out why certain things worked and others didn’t due to the lack of documented data. This process also gives you important clues for building construction as walls and roofs are usually half fallen to show their construction details. The judiciousness needed to know which aspects of this mental picture to take forward and which to leave behind is required in this case as well.

This process of research and experiential data gathering is usually followed during the pre-design stage of a building and it lasts for a few months of the year. During this time the architect needs to stay in the village with people to understand the way they live, how they interact with each other and their surroundings and how the spaces they inhabit are governed by principles of common sense and logic. One cannot and should not come into this landscape with preconceived notions of architecture and design like the ones propagated in architecture schools throughout the country. This process of research and discovery is exhaustive, time consuming and require an investment of time and energy from the architect to make it successful. Only then can we get architecture that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.

Anubhuti Pragati aur Parivartan Kendra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Anubhuti Sewa Samiti( is a not for profit organization based in Lucknow, India. Deeply disturbed by the abject poverty and growing economic disparity in their home state of Uttar Pradesh, a group of likeminded individuals particularly women, decided to intervene by setting up this organization whose primary aims are to motivate and catalyze the capacity for self-help among the local populace, to provide for economic opportunity to all the sections of society, to deliver relief in emergencies and adversities of life, to optimize influences at policy decisions at political, social and economical arenas and to address discrimination in all forms and curb it to negligibility.

Until 2013, the organization conducted their programs, workshops and activities in leased out spaces in tier-3 towns and cities, some distance away from the target beneficiaries of these programmes-the inhabitants of villages. Transport was difficult and cumbersome and this added to overall costs. The need arose for a community centre in the rural setting that could function as the base for all the activities of the organization. This would get the benefits of these programmes straight to the people who direly needed them.

Since the community centre is set in the context of rural Uttar Pradesh, it made common sense to harness the centuries old indigenous building vocabulary of the region and breathe into it a sense of contemporariness. After all, this building would address the dreams, aspirations and ambitions of the community over the next few generations and it was important to address the same. This required nearly three months of study and documentation of traditional housing patterns and technology, available local materials and skill of local craftsmen, wind flow directions, solar orientations and angles, rainfall data and peak summer and winter temperatures of the area. Time was also spent with the local community to understand their socio-cultural habits and patterns, their economic conditions and limitations and the socio-political implications of these. Only after this comprehensive study and understanding, a design solution was proposed.

The Anubhuti Pragati aur Parivartan Kendra is a G+1 mud building spread over an area of 6500 sft. in rural Uttar Pradesh which witnesses extremes of summer and winter. This called for the building to be oriented in the cardinal North-South directions so that the southern courtyard and amphitheatre can act as a spill out space to tap the low winter southern sun. This amphitheatre is shaded by the shadows of the western part of the building thereby becoming a space that can be used post 3pm on all days. The built space is open to the east and south and the deep southern verandahs let in low winter sun while blocking harsh summer sun. The built space includes two 40 person meeting rooms, kitchen with stores, an office, resource person rooms and common toilets. The kitchen and meeting rooms are oriented to receive the first rays of the sun, while the common toilets face the brunt of the western sun. High 12’ ceilings and ventilators create a natural draft in the rooms which let warm air rise and escape while drawing in cool air from windows. This keeps in check the ambient air temperature inside rooms.

The indigenous technology of using sun dried mud bricks or adobe has been used for load bearing walls. These are made on site with earth excavated from the foundation trench with help of local community labour. The earth is excavated and then mixed with sand, wheat husk and slaked lime. This mix is then put through steel moulds of 9”*4.5”*3” to produce wet mud bricks which are then allowed to dry in the sun. Once dried, they are picked up and stacked and used in construction using regular bonding patterns for 18” thick walls. This whole process is labour intensive and ensures that money spent on material circulates within the village economy and can be used for education, health and development of village amenities. They are not siphoned off into the global economy with the procurement of expensive market materials. Since adobe is made on site, it uses no scarce fossil fuel in its production and transportation therefore having a low embodied energy. Also as adobe has poor compressive strength, walls need to be at least 18” thick to take the weight of the load above. These thick walls act like a heat battery absorbing and storing solar heat during the day and releasing it at night. This helps in regulating internal temperatures.  Adobe walls are plastered with 3 coats of mud plaster using sand, wheat husk which is an agricultural bi-product, slaked lime and cow dung. As a modern addition, synthetic adhesives are used in the final coat to hold the plaster together for a longer time and decrease the frequency of periodic maintenance.

Baked brick is used to a minimum only in the foundation, plinth, external walls upto cill level and wet walls to take advantage of its superior compressive strength and imperviousness to moisture as compared to adobe. Although in this context, baked brick is an indigenous material, it still uses huge amounts of fossil fuel and hence its must be kept to a minimum. There is wrap-around verandah connecting the meeting rooms, office and resource person rooms which can be used in all seasons as a transition space between the inside and the outside. The pillars of these are made of un-plastered baked brick which gives the mason some stake in the project to produce better craftsmanship and to inhibit the use of energy intensive cement plaster to cover up bad workmanship. Baked brick has also been used as jails to screen the harsh summer sun and as window openings in toilets to save on energy consuming wood and glass along with a standard rat-trap bond. A cement-lime mortar is used for baked bricks.

The indigenous vocabulary of western Uttar Pradesh does not have adequate natural tensile materials like bamboo and wood. Hence compressive masonry elements like arches and vaults are used to span lengths and spaces including a one and a half brick thick brick masonry vault over a span 15’ over which stairs have been built up.  Although these are traditional techniques, the skill of constructing them has diminished over the years due to the advent of reinforced cement concrete (RCC). These techniques inculcate an atmosphere of using more labour work days and lesser energy guzzling cement and steel, without increasing the overall cost of building thereby giving the mason an incentive to produce better work. Time had to be spent on site with craftsmen to relearn basic principles and techniques of arches and vaults.  Door and window frames are made of locally available Jamun wood called mamma in the local parlance. This prevents the encouragement and use of plantation timber and all its negative effects. Locally grown Eucalyptus or safeda trees are used as floor joists to supports the weight of the floor above. This is topped with ¾” plywood layer and a 2” impervious ferro-cement layer.

Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) is used for the final roof with locally made clay pots acting as the filler material. This not only reduces the amount of cement as dead weight in the slab but also creates employments opportunities for the local community potter and gives him a stake in the project. RCC is also used as two continuous 3” horizontal bands- one at the plinth level that acts as a damp proof course and the other at the lintel level above all doors and windows. These are connected at junctions and corners with one single 12mm vertical reinforcement that binds them together and helps in countering lateral forces during earthquakes that cause extensive damage. Locally available red sandstone slabs or pathiya are used for tiling and flooring instead of energy intensive ceramic tiles. These slabs are also used as chajjas over windows to cut out the harsh mid day sun. Baan is hemp that grows in rivers and waterbeds. It is harvested in the months of May and intricate patterns are weaved for khats and khatiyas. Traditional community baan craftsmen have been employed to produce indoor screens and lattices to create opportunities for them to continue their crafts and skills.

While working with the indigenous community here, one of the main challenges was to overcome the negative perception with respect to their own traditional materials and technology. Mud brick or kacchi inth is considered a material of the poor. Once the root cause of these prejudices was understood and overcome, and the space built, it had a direct visual and psychological reference to the place and community due to the range and sensitivity of local materials used. Additionally, care had been take to understand and respect local proportions, scales and spans giving the built space a sense of rootedness in this context. This was an importance factor for it to be accepted as a community centre by the people for them to occupy and use.





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