Down to Earth

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

- 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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