Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A documentation of the urban development and architecture witnessed within Auroville

An experiment in urban planning A. SRIVATHSAN The Hindu Book Review Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007 Documentation of the urban development and architectural accomplishments witnessed within Auroville AUROVILLE ARCHITECTURE — Towards New Forms for a New Consciousness: Pub. By Prisma, Auroville-605101.
The 19th and 20th century urban history is replete with utopian visions and manifestos. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Richard Owen and Tony Garnier, every one had his share of urban vision. The story subsequently continued with Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier. What connected many of these utopias were rationalist ideas like separation of functions like residential and commercial, and presence of green belt as segregators. Some of these utopias failed, while others never materialised. A few of them survive as a folly and even fewer schemes crawl towards reality.
Urban utopias took new avatar in Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti where architecture and environmentalism hit new collaboration. Auroville near Puducherry is one such utopian vision conceived partly as an ashram retreat and partly like a rationally organised urban precinct. This book is a documentation of the urban development and architecture witnessed within Auroville since 1964.
Mirra Alfassa, popularly known as the Mother visualised Auroville as an urban experiment to "undertake the work of evolution of consciousness." She commissioned the French architect Roger Anger to give form to her vision. Anger came with a spiral plan that resembled a galaxy with the Matri-mandir at its centre. The entire city was divided into industrial, cultural, residential and international zones with a green belt encircling it. The town was designed for a population of 50,000. The book discusses the features of urban planning and architectural accomplishments in three sections. The first section briefly documents the important stages of Auroville's urban development. It reproduces some of the archival images, sketches and notes that illuminate the ideas leading to its conception. In the second part, the details of the plan, the various zones and important buildings within them are listed and described. The last section profiles the various architects who are part of Auroville and gives brief description of their important works and views.
The first two sections on the town plan could have been elaborated in order to give more insights into the functioning of Auroville as a settlement. The details of how it functions, how resources are managed, utilisation of land and issues of density could have been discussed. This would have been useful to appreciate and review it as a model.
Auroville exhibits a dichotomy between an overarching central idea manifested in the form of a galaxy plan and the wide variety of buildings it possesses. While the plan may be rooted in a particular spiritual worldview, the buildings are freewheeling experiments in architecture. This conspicuous division is reflected in the book. The two sections of the book in this sense appear disconnected.
The sections on individual buildings and architects are well illustrated and form the bulk of the book. The architectural experiments are remarkable and have a lot to offer to those who seek alternative approaches to design. The variety is impressive. There are buildings that appear like habitable sculptures, some are construction virtuosos, while some remain as modest abodes. The range of construction techniques displayed is equally impressive: from the use of stabilised mud blocks to traditional construction techniques are displayed. What the book misses out is to feature the works of the Auroville architects in Puducherry and elsewhere. This would have been useful to understand the extent of influence of these ideas bred in Auroville on the world outside.
The book certainly presses home the need for an elaborate and a critical review of Auroville as an urban experiment. Many of the related issues remain undocumented in the book. For example, its recent attempt to come with a new master plan that demands more land for `complete' development, the unsustainable low density currently prevalent, the absence of any collective transportation and the hierarchical relation with the adjoining villages needs to be reviewed. The book gives a glimpse of innovations achieved within Auroville. It merits to be treated as a useful introduction and a catalogue of architecture in Auroville.

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