Public: The Role of a 21st Century Architect in Rural India (2)

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


Yakshi Inter Generational Learning Centre, Telangana, India

Yakshi (http://www.yakshi.org.in) is a Non- Government Organization based in Hyderabad, India. They are a team of indigenous educators, theatre activists, artists, researchers, community organizers and leaders, primarily from adivasi communities who work with adivasi communities in India, towards reclaiming democracy and for indigenous self-determined visions of development. Their work supports and strengthens the efforts of these adivasi communities to protect their lands, resources, cultures and worldviews, through democratic governance structures of self-rule, using customary laws, and other safeguards in Indian and International law. Yakshi also facilitates spaces for adivasi, dalit, pastoralist and peasant communities to connect and interact around common concerns related to resources and food sovereignty and work especially with young people and children of these communities.

Up till 2013, the organization’s participatory workshops, community level meetings and programs were held in rented spaces in Tier 3 cities thereby adding to overall costs without giving much back to communities. There arose the need for a community space in the village which could be used as a base where all activities of the organization could be consolidated. This primary need was the genesis of the program brief which required a community kitchen and a dining hall to seat and feed 40 persons at a time, a 40 person meeting room for workshops and meetings, a community seed bank managed by women sanghams from the surrounding villages, two resource person rooms to host activists and volunteers from outside, a women’s dormitory for 20 people, common toilets for both men and women, a caretaker’s room and an open air amphitheatre to be used on hot summer evenings for folk artists for their theatre, music and dance. Tight budget constraints required the meeting room to double up as a men’s dormitory at night during large workshops and gatherings.

Since the built space is set in the context of rural Telangana, it made most sense to adopt an indigenous building vocabulary of the region. After spending a few months studying the traditional building systems and patterns, available materials and skill of craftsmen, wind flow directions, solar orientations and angles, rainfall data and summer and winter temperature, a design solution was mooted. This solution propagated the use of the vast indigenous building knowledge in terms of building material, technology and principles to build the Yakshi Inter Generational Learning Centre after carefully weighing its benefits and limitations.

The Centre is a G+1 mud building spread over a ground area of 5160 sft. Oriented in the cardinal North-South directions, the central east facing courtyard acts as the heart of the built space. To its north is the semi open dining room with two carved wooden pillars at its center. The kitchen is located in the north east corner of the building and gets the first rays of the sun. The central courtyard acts as a spill out for the dining room on hot summer afternoons and cool evenings. A 6 feet wide stone pillared verandah circulates around the central courtyard and connects the dining room to the community seed bank, common toilets, meeting room and stairs. Apart from being a circulation space, the verandah also acts like a transition space between the inside and outside to be enjoyed and used in all seasons. Three toilets and two baths have been provided for men and women each including a dry compost pit toilet. This aims to provide a solution to the acute water shortage in this region while also engaging in dialogue with local customs and prejudices related to it.

The upper floor contains more private spaces of the resource person’s rooms and an office. The toilets are placed to the south of the building as this faces the brunt of the sun for most parts of the year.  The south and west wings of the building are G+1 rising to a height of 20’ ensuring the post mid day sun casts a cool shadow onto the east facing courtyard. Thereby the courtyard becomes a usable space post 3 pm every day due to mutual shading of the building. Moreover south and western facades of the building elevation have been broken using a lean to roof which protects mud walls from south west monsoons. Since earth is required to build the walls of the centre, the meeting room and amphitheatre are sunk into the ground to a depth 3 feet. This also ensures the space remains cool in the summer and warm in the winter owing the thermal mass of the earth surrounding it.

The load bearing walls of the building have a strip foundation of roughly cut granite stones with mud mortar, granite being sourced from a local quarry. The foundation has a depth of 3 feet below which the hard strata begins. Once the buildings emerge above the ground, granite blocks dressed on site by skilled masons are used. These are bonded using a stabilized cement mud mortar of 1 part cement, 6 part sand and 6 part mud. A reinforced cement concrete (RCC) band is cast at the plinth level that runs across all the walls and doubles up as a damp proof course. Neem wood being a part of local culture and vocabulary is used extensively for tensile elements. Door frames of Neem are placed and external walls are raised in dressed granite to the window cill level. This is done to prevent the erosion of mud on exterior walls due to splash back of the rain. Interior walls need only a single course of stone after which the mud walls can begin.

The technique of mud that is used indigenously in this region is that of cob-balls of slightly wet stiff mud slapped and massaged on top of each other to form walls. The earth that is excavated from the foundation and the sunken amphitheatre are mixed well with water, sand and slaked lime slurry. Lime acts as a local stabilizer binding the clay particles together and consumes lesser energy in its production than its cousin cement. Also mud walls with lime can be easily recycled and reused for agriculture on the completion of life of the building. This is not possible if stabilized with cement, as cement changes the chemical properties of soil and renders it un-cultivable. Lime also acts as a strong deterrent to termites.

The wet mud is mixed together with the use of local buffaloes that use their webbed feet to good use here. Moreover they also enjoy an occasional cool splash and sprawl in the wet mud mix. This mix is then made into small balls of diameter of 6 inch-9 inch that are easy to hold and throw from one person to another. Each ball thus forms a single building unit akin to a brick in conventional buildings. Once they are slapped on top of each other, they amalgamate into one homogeneous mass and cannot be differentiated from the other. Each wall section is made to be not more than 1.5 feet high. This is left to dry for a few days before the next sections begins to prevent the wall from collapsing under its own wet weight. A strategy is applied to complete one course across all buildings walls before the commencement of the second course. This ensures that the first course dries up completely until the second one comes along. The top surfaces of two successive courses are made rough with the addition of small protruding pieces of granite. This is done to ensure sufficient bonding between them. Coarse sand and small gravel are added to the mix to decrease cracking due to drying. Large flat pieces of granite measuring 18 inch wide by 3 feet long by 6 inch 4-6inch high are used intermittently in corners and junctions to prevent the formation of continuous vertical joints. This whole process of using cob is very labour intensive and provides ample opportunities for the employment of the rural craftsmen and youth workforce thereby preventing them from distress migrating to cities in search of jobs which adds to already existing urban chaos. This indigenous technique ensures that money spent on building circulates within the village community and can be used for various welfare activities like education, health, sanitation, etc.

At the 7 foot lintel level, another RCC Lintel band is cast running continuously across all the walls. This is joined to the lower plinth band at the corners and the junctions with a single 12mm reinforcement rod. This flexible frame counters the lateral movements of an earthquake keeping the damage to a minimum. The lintel band also helps in redistributing the load on mud walls and provides for larger window openings to negate the drawbacks of traditional building materials. As mud is poor compressively, walls need to be at least 18” thick. This adds to the its thermal mass thereby acting like a heat battery, slowly absorbing and storing the heat during the day and radiating it back in the night. There is significant difference of 8-10 degree Celsius between peak summer and winter interior and exterior temperatures.  This calls for a nomadic lifestyle on behalf of the occupants to maximize the advantages of living in such a building. Summers call for days to be spent indoors and nights outdoors or in verandahs while winters call for days to be spent outdoors under the southern sun and nights indoors in the warmth of the mud walls. This is similar to living patterns of the local community.

An intricate Neem wood truss, beam and rafter pitched roof system is adopted based on local traditions. Neem is extensively found in this region and has socio-cultural and religious implications. Local carpenters have a history of detailed designs and carvings in Neem, and due encouragement has been provided to entice them to produce good craftsmanship and thereby have a stake in the building process. They are the trustees of this heritage and it is easily incorporated into the built space without increasing building costs. The trusses are made to fit into each other without the use of nails, staying in place owing to the weight of the roof and tiles above. Neem wood battens are used to provide an impervious layer above the rafters on which lie hollow semi-circular clay tiles. Care and respect of indigenous spans and proportion were followed to initiate the craftsmen to take ownership of the built space as they were familiar with it. Due to slow demise of these roofing systems in this area with the advent of RCC flat slabs, potters had ceased to make these hollow clay tiles. This problem was overcome with the sensitive adaptive reuse of hollow clay tiles from old neglected houses of the region. These tiles are fixed on a 2 inch-3 inch thick layer of mud which also provides the requisite thermal insulation from the torturous summer heat. The mud walls are plastered with 3 coats of mud plaster, the final coat of which is mix of cow dung, water, and millet husk. As a modern addition, chemical adhesives work well to hold this final layer together for a longer period of time and decrease the need for constant maintenance. An advantage of reusing old clay tiles is that they are have already weathered beautifully with the ravages of time and this gives the built space a sense of timelessness, like it has existed in this context for centuries. It is completely of its place.

 

 

Conclusion

The advent of modernity at the turn of the twentieth century has altered the way people live and behave in everyday life. This has changed landscapes and cultures across the world with increase in communication, data sharing and travel. While the advantages of a smaller globalized world should be welcomed and rejoiced, one does need to tread with a bit of critical caution. Traditional rural economies around the world have a rich cultural legacy and heritage of life that should not be allowed to be trampled over by the marauding forces of free market capitalism and globalization. A dialogue is needed between the two to imbibe the positive aspects of each and discard the rest. Unfortunately with the case of vested interests of certain forces, it is a one sided battle, in which these indigenous cultures are destined to lose. With this knowledge of the larger context, what is the role of a twenty first century architect in rural India?  That is the crucial question.

Working with these considerations in this rural hinterland can be very challenging on more days than one. The vast diversity of building materials, techniques, principles, ideologies, languages and cultures in rural India make it imperative for an architect to spend as much time on site as possible. The responsibilities of an architect go above and beyond those taught in architecture school and require of us to be a designer, a builder, a contractor, a materials procurer, a labour terms negotiator, a travel agent, a dusty tired traveler, an activist, a mason, a carpenter, a daily wage labourer and sometimes even a client all at different stages of the building process! There are days when we go hungry without basic food; be abused by a police constable in feudal Uttar Pradesh, shudder in sub zero temperatures in Himachal Pradesh while waiting for a peak of the winter sun, get burnt under the sun with dehydration in drought hit Telangana, get stung by hot loo winds blowing across the summer plains of Uttar Pradesh, travel three hours non-stop on a noisy rickety boat in the Sunderbans, all this while dealing with the insecurities of youth and yet we must persist. For there comes a moment, a silver lining in the otherwise dark gloomy horizon when maybe we see the new found confidence with which your dalit mason Chattrapal conducts himself in hierarchal Uttar Pradesh where caste is everything, or the gratitude on the beaming face of Carpenter Laxman at the prospect of working on a wooden roof after 8 years in Telangana. It is precisely these moments that light up your day and truly make it worth much more than the art and aesthetics of the built space. After all, architecture cannot exist in a vacuum to be considered pure art. It is fundamentally about the people who use them and build them.

Our generation of architects has an opportunity to make amends for errors and faults of the previous ones. We stand at a unique precipice in history where the bombarding forces of modernity are right at the doorstep of age old rural indigenous systems, and if not answered to swiftly and correctly, we could lose more than just ‘vernacular’ buildings. The clarion call to act is now. The only question is how will you act?

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