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June-July 2003

Challenging aesthetic sensibilities

- by Priya Sundaravalli


Fabian, a young architect, shares perspectives on home design in Auroville


FabianLike a ship emerging boldly out of the horizon, Bobby's aluminium and steel home rises out of the green terrain of Prarthna. The dull grey sheen of metal reflects the expanse of sky above, with subtle curves of a sweeping roof and taut pylons of steel like ropes holding sails to a mast; it has an undeniably futuristic look, sleek and well-crafted like a fine piece of precision machinery.
At the other end of the city, in Auromodel, Klara's house is a picture of post-modernism - metal juxtaposed with warm yellow Jaisalmer marble, smooth grey plaster, warm Vengai wood and sand-blasted glass. The stairway floats out and a zen-like quality pervades it both inside and outside. Klara's house in the final stages.

Homes that could very well have come straight out of the sets of 'Matrix', and of which everyone seems to hold such strong opinions about: "What is this? A boxy railway caboose?" "A factory with tin-roofs?" "An oven? Surely the residents are going to fry inside!" "A transformer station?" The biggest critiques come from seemingly the most open people. Amidst all this, the bold architect, his non-conforming clients, and two communities that stand behind the experiment open to new perspective

Auroville Today met the upcoming architect Fabian and learnt of his motivations, challenges, visions and dreams.
Trained in Germany and with work experience in Berlin and Mumbai, Fabian has been for more than one year part of the Brand New Day Team. He is proud of the international nature of the 15 member team there. "We feel ourselves strongly as a kind of global office. Dominic and Jean-Marie are French-Canadian, Baskar, Suresh and Rajendran are Aurovilians born in the neighbouring villages, architects, trainees and supporting staff come from various places in India and Europe. We want to remain like this - diverse and mixed."

He speaks of the influence of other architects at Brand New Day on his own work and appreciates the interaction that happens between the team. "While we have our different styles, what we have in common is our love for architecture, the love of building and the commitment to the ideals of Auroville. But we don't see ourselves as being limited to a specific location. We see Auroville can manifest in whatever form and the spirit of Auroville can be found anywhere.

However, getting the communities of Prarthna and Auromodèle to approve his personal vision for two houses was a challenge. Fabian reminisces, "Suhasini was very open-minded and with her nod of approval, I gave the drawings of Bobby's home to the Development Group. At first there was an uproar - how can this be here? But the Group and the community soon agreed that the spirit of experimentation was welcomed in that particular place. It was the same in Klara's case too. In that area in Auromodèle different kinds of houses with no connecting visual aesthetics or a uniform architectural style stand side by side, still going harmoniously together. It is a kind of unity in diversity that is enhanced by the green carpet that connects the buildings."

Fabian attributes his ability to manifest these new kinds of homes essentially to the openness of his clients and good communication amongst the people involved. "Klara came to me when I was still working with Satprem," he says. "She was very receptive to modern architecture and we found a common ground in our appreciation of it. I was very interested in trying out this fusion of a light steel frame with a solid base and Klara liked the idea and the design as she wants to have a house that is designed like a modern capsule. In Bobby's case, something very interesting happened. While there was a similar kind of trust and openness, he did not have a specific vision, except that it was understood that the house should reflect his stylish vision of himself." Fabian came up with a proposal tailored to Bobby's situation - that of a young single guy, upwardly mobile and modern, a computer professional living alone but perhaps not for ever. "So I felt why not give him a house which fits his frame of mind. When he wants something else, then he can just disassemble the house and sell it on the scrap market or extend it. Bobby fell for it!" And so the idea of the steel frame with aluminium was born.

Bobby's house under construction.

Fabian realizes that he may be perceived as the 'wacko' guy doing oven like steel and aluminium sheet homes, but doesn't see himself limited to a single style. "I think I am far too young as a professional to be judged and placed in a slot and I do not believe in the application of the same recipe to different situations. Every project has different parameters and the job of the architect is to understand them, ask the right questions and - in continuous communication with the client and consultants - to create a structure which satisfies these parameters. We all at Brand New Day are committed to modern architecture trying to cope with ever-changing needs and requirements. Architects and "their" architecture have to be flexible and adaptable, like surfers riding the waves of the ocean, to use a metaphor of Rem Koolhaas."
He explains that while Bobby's house is pure in the sense of material used, restricted to steel and aluminium and clearly separating materials and construction, Klara's home is almost a departure from traditional architecture. "It is a hybrid with conventional brick work, natural stone, steel beams, wooden screens, aluminium, glass …The design plays with opposing elements/characteristics like open and closed, light and heavy, industrial and natural, neighbour and inhabitant. "

Fabian strongly believes that these new homes are suitable for the climatic conditions and affordable in the long run. "Aluminium is long-lasting, reflecting the sun and light. Its thermal mass is low, which means it does not collect heat to radiate it back at night like in brick houses. If you combine the qualities of aluminium with insulating materials like Aircon-Panels (concrete with air-voids) or insulating layers of air which can flow freely, than one can call this kind of construction climatically responsive. Along with these measures the roofs in both houses have a large and ventilated air-buffer between the actual roof and a kind of false ceiling defining the living spaces."

The cost-effectiveness of these homes is still an issue. "We continue to learn," he admits. "The materials (and the skill to work with them on the site) that are so easily available in the West, prefabricated and of a controlled quality are hard to come by in India and contrary to Europe not cost-effective but expensive. Plus everything in India has to be done with manual labour. But we are learning the techniques and the ways to optimise the construction, to make it less complex, less heavy, with less material. I think this is something that is worth experimenting with and I believe that industrialized materials provide the means for beautiful, cost-effective and climatically responsive future buildings."

What does Fabian feel about his creations? "I think Bobby's house has something of the cover of a computer desktop. Like a motherboard with all its circuits inside into which you can just plug in. A cover for something vibrant inside. Klara's home corresponds very beautifully to the organic growth of the nature around. It forms a counterpoint to nature rather than merging with it."

For Fabian, materials like aluminium or steel with their technological / intellectual character and their rigidity can form a perfect backdrop for the actual flow of life within the building. He points to the grey sky above Klara's home. "Aluminium has the wonderful quality of connecting the sky with the earth. See how the home appears - with the reflections of the almost leaden sky on the material it perfectly fuses the two elements! And it reminds me of airplanes made in the forties (Junkers JU 52) and the streamlined cars of the fifties, designs expressing the vision that technology can serve humankind in beautiful ways."

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