Sharanam Institute of Sustainable Rural Development Pondicherry, South India / Aurospace, The Sri Aurobindo Society
Strategically located within a cluster of surrounding villages Sharanam is an ongoing experiment exploring integral development.
Aurospace being the architectural agency embedded within The Sri Aurobindo Society that is responsible for the design and construction of the Sharanam campus.
Visiting the campus, or simply just seeing images of it, and it quickly becomes apparent that it is an exceptional place, certainly within its surrounding context. Internationally, be that looking specifically at village development, socially/economically orientated work or for that matter simply a broad-brush appreciation of architecture, Sharanam stands unique.
This short paper looks at this multifaceted formwork and seeks to identify some of the primary elements that have lead to the realisation of such space.
The project is largely funded by Cadbury but also through private donors and was born out of the timely bringing together of multiple actors and agendas, that at the time at least appeared very much a chance act. Cadbury, following a recent tsunami that had devastated much of the south east coast of India, felt compelled to extend their public donation operations beyond there normal field, usually in and around centers where the company is directly deployed; seeking genuine and effective projects that would actively improve life for impoverished communities affected by the natural disaster. It was a difficult search, much aid was pouring into the area with questionable results. At this time Mr Senthil & Ms Chitra where drawn to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram with the aspiration of offering service, outreaching non-religious spiritual guidance to village communities with the intention of bringing about progressive transformation, where work is self directed by all involved in a non-hierarchal environment. Architect Trupti Doshi had been embedded at the Society for sometime, exploring sustainable development platforms for an emerging agricultural experiment neighboring what would come to be the Sharanam site. Completing this initial assemblage, Jateen Ladd a project architect engaged with large-scale work in London, happened to also be visiting the Ashram and exploring activities of the Society.
The organisation quickly galvanised with clear insight as to the possibilities of this convergence of people and intentions; the Sri Aurobindo Society, Village Development Program began to be realised.
Auroville, an international township located close to Sharanam; comprising of residents from all around the globe that are unified in the aspiration for the continued evolution of humanity guided by individual principles of yoga, had for some time been conducting research into alternative and sustainable methods of construction. Cement Stablished Earth Blocks, sun baked, form a particular aspect of this research. Inspection of ground conditions at Sharanam found that the earth was ideal for such a technology and the idea of a large vaulted hall became apparent. Certainly the work undertook within Auroville provided a springboard for construction of Sharanam both in respect to the development of techniques and also with increased skill levels of some master and apprentice masons that reside in the area.
However the spirit of the Sharanam project is one of experimentation, the vault designed and constructed there, at the time pushed the boundaries of mud block vaulting; in both scale and slenderness. Furthering technical knowledge, the vault and surrounding structures also seek to excel and progress structural efficiency at all moments of design.
Sadhana forest, a mission group within Auroville that is charged with developing reforestation strategies also provided initial focus to help envisage the emergence of the new campus. The Sharanam site at first being a dry wasteland, is now a lush landscape of native trees plants and flowers. This dramatic transformation has been brought about by an integrated approach to building design and landscape management. Very early on irrigation trenches were dug on site with the intention of retaining rainwater rather than allow it to run off, this is bringing about a localised recharging of the water table. A particularly striking result when viewed alongside the potentially devastating problems large sways of India may encounter in the near future regarding water security due to a lack of strategic implementation at community and state level.
Any excess ground water run off or drained rainwater from rooftops makes its way to a reservoir at the lower end of the site, the reservoir being purposely dug with the removed earth used to make the vault earth blocks. The movement of rainwater is celebrated at every opportunity at Sharanam, in that sense it is a very traditional place. The building draws heavily from traditional vernacular Tamil Temple architecture, the timely movement of rainwater contrasting with the timeless solidarity of block piers and heavy black granite slabs. If many of the ideas deployed here are ancient and specific to that place, so also many are contemporary; such as the treatment and flow of space. Building fabric is loosely designed to fulfill specific criteria, such as the multi-media workspace, but the space has also been designed to be flexible and adaptable to unknown situations. It is an architecture of landscape, climate and playful exploration of shifting degrees of enclosure and shelter.
Pondicherry is no stranger to world-class architecture and one particular precedent became a formative guide to the development of the Sharanam site. Golconde, 1938, is one of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Dormitories and is one of the earliest examples of Tropical modernism. Its architects served their apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright and the building is a master class, it is a robust inhabitable piece of furniture eloquently detailed. But it is the buildings responsiveness to the local climate that is exemplary both in strategic design and in detail. The buildings orientation to the sun, its user customisable natural cross ventilation, considered use of shade and water to create micro climates to specific spaces and its use of exposed concrete and stone to cool the body all demonstrate an intimate understanding of climate and design.
However, insightful as Golconde was in forging a design framework, Sharanam is something else materially. Whereas Golconde is modern, pioneering new techniques in concrete and asbestos: Sharanam pioneers the uncovering of forgotten wisdom. It is made of the earth; low embodied energy with high thermal mass, mud walls being naturally cool to the touch.
While we have perhaps now gained a picture of Sharanam born out of tradition, ideas and techniques particular to its place: as we start to appreciate it as an exploration of integrated strategy and detail we must look further to gain a true appreciation of its uniqueness. It is not only about a design framework, it is also how it was built.
Returning to Golconde, we see such an exceptional building not just because of its design but also due to the execution of its construction, it is highly crafted. In craftsman we see two things, firstly ones skill; here credit must lie with the architect in designing a system building that could be constructed by relatively unskilled workers and achieve beauty, secondly we see emotion and the human soul. The craftsman is care full, caring for all one does, touches, is and is surrounded by; there is love for work and for being, gratitude and an appreciation for beauty. The craftsman’s appreciation for beauty is born out of passion, a passion to transcend limitation, to move beyond the pains and suffering of failure to success. So with all this must grow compassion as the way of the craftsman is passed to the next, in his apprentice he sees himself. But also in working together with others he sees greatness. And it is so apparent how limited the viewpoint of mechanistic material science, of machines and abstract modernity, when experiencing buildings such as Golconde and Sharanam. There physical form is imbued with the human soul; the spirit in which they are built is manifest in, even as, there material form.
Sharanam takes advantage of pre-fabrication and pre-casting, numerous tricks have also been utilised to produce high quality finishes from straightforward construction techniques, but the building is also a labour of love. It has taken time to build because it is hand built. Great credit must be given to the donars and the society in seeing the gains in affording the building time to be constructed. But Sharanam was not built to become a center for sustainable rural development, out of the center of sustainable rural development Sharanam was built. While some highly skilled workers had learnt their trade at Auroville the vast majority of those who worked on the project were unskilled. As a construction site Sharanam was a training ground, all of those involved came away greater in skill and awareness than when they began. Workers felt that they were cared for and were proud of the work they were learning to produce. The compassion the school offered was poured back into the building. It is said that all life is yoga, so then should all construction sites and work be like this.
It is pertinent for contemporary practice, be it architecture or in general, to be progressive. Being progressive is perhaps a conscious avenue of evolution. Like most things it is a word brandished too readily, if seen correctly it can be regarded as the application of newness. New techniques, technologies, ideas, happenings or occurrences; but when we look at the emergence of newness we see that it quite often is a trajectory from the past, in particular the field of knowledge. As such it has a career of its own and occurs in time, it can be said that all action is timely. More than this however to be progressive is essentially to move forwards, not necessarily with reference to the past, this is a movement into the unknown. A space is created into which one blindly walks in order to see what is there. This is the objective of experimental architecture, undertaken by a process of measurement and observation, as it is necessary to record how and what is found if the work is to become applicable.
Sharanam was designed and built confidently and comfortably within the unknown, much of the building could not have been foreseen at conception and it was designed in such a way where the design, specifically the schedule of works, could carry any pockets of unknown fabric with it; knowing that the intelligence to inform action would arise by when it was required. This may sound far out, but it is just the same way the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower was constructed in Florence, 1296. It is a timely organic way of design; of course chaos exists within the organic, but so to does order.
Moving from the past to the future the dog chases his tale; only in the present does he decide how to act. So with movement into the unknown we are faced with a choice, space is born out of the intention it was created. To open a door and step in, you will see yourself and that is a choice, to see beyond is a great challenge.
So perhaps underlying it all, Sharanam is testament to a human spirit that is unique and self-guiding.
For some time now TAoE has published online and in print, such formations are timely productions; this deep web space, an outpost in the mist, is a first place of settling for wandering abstractions. As they gather, they form...
It is like the sea.