Tech­ni­cal di­ver­sity of tra­di­tional cre­ativ­ity

In­dia has man­aged to pre­serve its ver­nac­u­lar cre­ativ­ity. Now it is in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion to de­velop the en­tirely new ar­chi­tec­ture

Down to Earth - - LIFESTYLE - LAU­RENT FOURNIER A grad­u­ate from cole d'Ar­chi­tec­ture de Paris-Belleville, who works with lo­cal ma­te­ri­als and on re­fur­bish­ment of ex­ist­ing build­ings. He cur­rently lives in Kolkata

IN­DIA HAS man­aged to pre­serve its tra­di­tional cre­ativ­ity and an im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal di­ver­sity. We are in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion to de­velop the en­tirely new ar­chi­tec­ture that can solve the unique prob­lems of our time by bring­ing to higher lev­els of trust and cre­ativ­ity the re­la­tions be­tween owners, crafts peo­ple and de­sign­ers. What il­lus­trates this is the re­vival of the an­cient tra­di­tion of domes. This has been done by ma­sons, not by ar­chi­tects, en­gi­neers or sci­en­tists. Sev­eral decades af­ter it emerged, the ed­u­cated elite takes in­ter­est in it, and works hard to try to clar­ify in for­mal, sci­en­tific terms what has been achieved by peo­ple en­gaged in ev­ery­day prac­ti­cal prob­lem solv­ing.

The main in­no­va­tion of these ma­sons is a pre­cise, well-ad­justed com­bi­na­tion of brick domes in ce­ment mor­tar, with steel ties em­bed­ded in con­crete. The bricks can be ei­ther con­ven­tional burnt clay or ce­ment-fly ash blocks made up of build­ing or min­ing waste. Re­source­ful and in­tel­li­gent mas­ter ma­sons from Ut­tar Pradesh and Haryana have re­vived, in the last two or three decades, the an­cient art of dome-mak­ing, adapt­ing their var­i­ous tech­niques to the con­tem­po­rary need for low-cost, long-last­ing pucca build­ings (see Evolv­ing through cen­turies’ on fac­ing page).

The great­est sav­ing of this tech­nique is in the use of steel, dras­ti­cally re­duced com­pared to a con­crete slab. The domes are built with wood­less shut­ter­ing, such as shut­ter­ing made of mud, re­us­able bricks, re­us­able dung cakes and tem­po­rar­ily rented steel gird­ers, or sim­ply with­out shut­ter­ing at all. This brings a great re­duc­tion in the eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of shut­ter­ing. Re­duc­ing the amount of steel and con­cen­trat­ing it where it is most use­ful and best pro­tected, say when used in the tie around the dome, makes a much more ef­fi­cient and long-last­ing struc­ture.

The tech­nique also ad­dresses the key bar­ri­ers to af­ford­able pucca houses—the cost of shut­ter­ing, which has been in­creas­ing be­cause of the scarcity and sky­rock­et­ing price of wood, the ne­ces­sity of large quan­ti­ties of steel for re­in­forced con­crete, and the need for con­crete rich in ce­ment to pre­vent the pre­ma­ture cor­ro­sion of the steel re­in­force­ment inside the con­crete. The art of wood-less shut­ter­ing is al­ready quite de­vel­oped in or­di­nary, low-cost In­dian ar­chi­tec­ture for beams and col­umns, but lit­tle progress has been made for the slab shut­ter­ing, which al­ways re­quires some sort of flat board, ei­ther made of ply­wood or solid wood, which are of­ten used only once (see Against all odds’ and Mod­ern choice’ on fac­ing page).

The in­ven­tion of ce­ment and of re­in­forced ce­ment con­crete ( rcc), and con­tin­u­ous re­duc­tion of the price of ce­ment and steel, has al­lowed the use of thin walls and roof slabs, thus mak­ing pucca build­ings af­ford­able and wide­spread, but lead­ing to the dis­ap­pear­ance of many lo­cal tech­niques, and a se­vere loss of “tech­ni­cal di­ver­sity”. Domes are now the sub­ject of re­search by Hun­nar­shala Foun­da­tion in Bhuj, the Mrin­mayee-Mahi­jaa team in Bengaluru, the Build­ing Ma­te­rial and Tech­nol­ogy Pro­mo­tion Coun­cil, experts in Auroville and at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy near Bos­ton, and by in­de­pen­dent prac­ti­tion­ers.

The mas­ter ma­sons from Ut­tar Pradesh and Haryana, through a process of grad­ual re­fine­ment and ad­just­ment over the past few decades have made domes ex­tremely ef­fi­cient in terms of sav­ings in labour and ma­te­rial. The ma­sons from western Ut­tar Pradesh have si­mul­ta­ne­ously raised their level of com­pe­tence and earn­ings, while re­duc­ing the cost of roofing a room by 80-70 per cent, and im­prov­ing the over­all beauty, el­e­gance and dis­tinc­tive­ness of or­di­nary build­ings. Their ef­forts can be seen in the hos­tel build­ing at the Col­lege for In­dige­nous Food and Cul­ture, Hukum­tala, Raya­gada, Odisha. Its floors are made of shal­low brick domes held in a grid of con­crete tie-beams.

This im­prove­ment in the hu­man skill, lead­ing to a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in ma­te­rial and en­vi­ron­men­tal cost, shows how to ad­dress the en­vi­ron­men­tal and cli­mate change prob­lems of the hour.

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