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Auroville Adventure

October 2003

A step towards Auroville unity?

-by Alan
The first building in the city's administrative sector becomes operational

. The Auroville Centre for Urban Research alias Town Hall Annex View on Matrimandir from inside the ACUR
From the Matrimandir perimeter road the first impression is of a low-slung glasshouse interspersed by dark verticals and diagonals. If the sun is out it's all flashes and reflections, but in a quieter light the building suddenly becomes transparent and you feel you are looking at one of those models in a science museum where all the inner workings of a cell are revealed. Inside, the light stone walls and floors, the large empty public areas and the open-plan offices reinforce the sense of coolness and transparency.

The Auroville Centre for Urban Research, alias the Town Hall Annex, has been functioning for some months now. Although the formal inauguration is awaiting the relocation of Auroville Fund and the Financial Service from their present offices at Pour Tous, other major groups like Auroville's Future, the Land Service, the Housing Group, Development Council, the Finance and Assets Management Committee and the Working Committee and Council have already taken up residence. For some it was a matter of necessity, for others a long-held dream come true. "It's been clear for some time that we had to reorganize to take our administration into the future," explains Judith, "but how? Then Auroville's Future (the town planning group) had to vacate Bharat Nivas, and Luigi and Sauro wrote a project for a centre for Auroville's town planning and development activities which was subsequently funded by the European Commission. We decided this was an opportunity to bring some of our key administrative groups together in one building. However, we didn't have enough money to complete the enlarged building this would require. This only became possible with generous support from the Dutch Foundation, Stichting de Zaaier, and contributions from Auroville Fund."

The atrium: in the centre an unfinished sculpture by Roger Anger

Then came the challenge of designing the building. The architect, Anupama, began by studying Roger's plan for the city. She noticed there was one zone in the centre which had been intended for administration but where nothing had been started yet. "In the original model the buildings here were higher, but Roger explained that now that we can better project the nature of Auroville's administration and organization, the space requirements would have to be recalculated."
Roger gave Anupama some guidelines for the overall design of this administrative sector. This is the only part of the inner city which must have a direct visual contact with Matrimandir, he explained, as it is important that the decision-makers should have Matrimandir - the force of cohesion and the essence of Auroville - always before them. He also told her that all the administrative buildings in this sector - such as those dealing with education, economy, planning and development, relations with neighbouring villages, public relations and internal affairs - should be linked together to facilitate interaction between groups, and that all residents of Auroville should feel welcome to use these buildings. This would ensure there would be no elitism, no separation between administrators and citizens. Finally he indicated that the administrative sector should be self-sufficient in terms of facilities, such as seminar halls, exhibition spaces, copying and binding services and a cafeteria.

Map of the administrative area

1. Site of future Town Hall
2. Auroville Centre for
Urban Research
3. Cafeteria
(under construction)
4. Multi-media Centre
(under construction)

5. Park
6. CIRHU hotel (under
7. Matrimandir lake
(the dimensions of the
lake are not final)
8. Matrimandir area

Anupama worked out an urban design based on Roger's indications. It consists of several principal buildings (including the town hall proper) for different work areas. These are interspersed with secondary smaller buildings, such as Auroville archives, libraries etc. and ancillary buildings for services, such as the cafeteria. There are a number of plazas in between. All these buildings are arranged in a curve around Matrimandir which, 320 metres away, is the focal point. There are two main circulation 'arteries': one, on the side facing Matrimandir, is a lake promenade which links all the buildings, the other is a pedestrian walkway on the opposite side of the buildings. Behind is a service road bordered by facilities like the generator room and wastewater treatment plant. Further back is a small park which separates the main administrative buildings from a habitat area for Aurovilians who work primarily in the city centre area; there will also be some guest houses and hostels related to the activities of this sector. All the main buildings will be linked by bridges (there are also ramps for handicapped access) and the ground floor spaces will be open to everyone. "When I showed the concept to Roger he seemed satisfied that it was in tune with what was envisaged there," recalls Anupama.
Today, not only is the Centre for Urban Research operational, but construction of the next major building - the Multi-Media Centre - is well underway, as is the restaurant and plaza which lies between. Behind, the power generation centre for the whole sector is complete and the wastewater recycling plant will soon be ready. Across the small park, a CIRHU hostel for students is also coming up.

Clearly, the energy in this new sector is high. But has Anupama had to make compromises? She grimaces. "Yes. For example, to give the building a maintenance-free exterior as well as a solid presence of permanence, it was decided to clad it with stone. I would have preferred to use red Agra stone, the same stone used for the petals and Amphitheatre. This would have accentuated the way in which this building reflects and is having a dialogue with Matrimandir, the soul. However, Agra stone was too expensive, so we ended up using this black stone which, I admit, makes the building appear a little forbidding while it is still unfinished. However, when the external louvres are fitted, the effect will be very different as the stone cladding will become part of the transitional indoor-outdoor space and some of this stone will be masked. Also, my original idea was to design a building which was climatically comfortable and didn't require air-conditioning, except in specialized areas. Since the view side, towards Matrimandir, is south-facing this was a challenge, but I incorporated big overhangs for shade and I wanted the glass windows to be openable to regulate air-flow. I also designed open-plan offices to maximize through ventilation and a central courtyard open to the sky. Unfortunately several of these original plans have been modified. A decision was made to go for partly fixed glazing rather than all opening windows. This was due to budgetary restraints as well as people not wanting their view spoiled by smaller window profiles, but fixed glass is a disaster in this climate! I've also had to turn one large room into three smaller rooms by erecting additional walls. Now the whole building is much less climatically-efficient. In fact, I feel upset about how unventilated and therefore unsustainable it has become."

Some of the other modifications reflect the changing wishes or needs of different end-users. "While the larger spaces allocated have tended to be based upon how much money a group has raised or donated for the building," explains Joseba, who coordinated the construction, "we knew that many services with limited means also wanted to be included. At the same time, some groups which originally intended to move here have decided not to come. All this means that we have had to modify some rooms and that we must be prepared to use the open spaces as flexibly as possible." The open spaces he refers to are the common usage and circulation spaces in the building, which constitute over 40% of the total area. Anupama has already been requested to consider enclosing some of this space for more offices, but she refused. "People think they can use and modify the space however they want, but for an architect it's a disaster to have end-users who are constantly changing their minds. In a large building used by many people you need open areas as relief. I already reduced the central courtyard and yet one of our donors still complained about the 'wasted space'. What people don't understand is that this is a functional core which brings light and air into the building."

Users' responses
Obviously the organic growth versus fixed design controversy has not yet run its course. Still, most of the present users seem happy with their new home. Anandi of Auroville's Future recalls how dysfunctional their previous offices were in Bharat Nivas. "There was no proper ventilation and we did not even have an assured water supply. This building is cooler and the set-up is much more professional. For example, we have a systems manager who looks after all our computer needs. Data will be regularly backed-up and all the computers in the building are networked, which means that exchanging information within and between groups is made much easier." She admits, however, that one of the features of the new building - the light, open office spaces - can also be a disadvantage. "Computer-users are having problem with glare, and sometimes it's more difficult to concentrate when everything is so open-plan." Blinds and small partitions are planned in order to remedy this. There are also privacy issues. Although smaller offices and meeting rooms are provided, sound insulation is not perfect.
Another charge concerns the reception desk. A small step leads down to the sunken desk, but the step is situated at the exact point where visitors tend to look up to view a sculpture which hangs above in the atrium. "The step is totally unsafe," says Judith, "but plans are apparently afoot to fill in the sunken area." The reception area is one of Roger's contributions to the design of the building. Anupama readily acknowledges how helpful he has been. "He has such a refined sense of form that he immediately saw something I had missed. There's a duality in the building because, while the main axis is aligned to Matrimandir, the longer side of the oval which forms the atrium actually pulls in another direction. In order to harmonize this, he designed the hanging sculpture and the railing for the staircase which integrate both axes and link above with below."

Other issues
Other challenges remain, but they are not design issues. What, for example, do we finally call the building? The Auroville Centre for Urban Research sounds somewhat pretentious, and the abbreviated acronym, CUR, is unfortunate. It's not the Town Hall - that is planned to come up alongside - but Town Hall Annex makes it sound a bit like a broom cupboard. Then there's the matter of the chappals (shoes). At present, users are asked to leave their chappals outside. Piles of chappals at the door do not contribute to the overall elegance of a building. Moreover, when the other buildings come up they will all be interlinked by bridges. This means that you may enter one building and end up on the other side of the sector. Will you remember where your chappals are? And what if you want to walk back outside on the promenade?
And then there is the proximity to Matrimandir itself. For some Aurovilians it's almost sacrilege that the Matrimandir can be so easily observed from the new building. And what happens when the cafeteria becomes operational? "Aurovilians already ask me," says Anupama, "will people be allowed to eat chicken sandwiches or smoke while looking at Matrimandir? It's something I hadn't even thought about!" For Anandi, on the other hand, the visual presence of Matrimandir is an inspiration. "When you look at Matrimandir you can't hide from what brought you here. It's a constant reminder to be sincere."

Ultimate test
Ultimately, however, the test of the new building is not whether it wins design awards, but whether it furthers human unity. This is the first time that most of Auroville's central working groups are sharing a common building. What effect will this have? Will old egos and suspicions erode, will differing visions approach a higher synthesis through daily interactions, through the thousand tiny building-blocks of casual encounters on the stairs and shared coffees on the promenade? Or will a building which in its very design symbolizes openness and transparency become no more than a hollow shell, a bastion of group and individual rivalries, of power and control? As always, it's in our hands.

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