The first building in the city's administrative
sector becomes operational
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.
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."
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
4. Multi-media Centre
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
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 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."
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.