For many Aurovilians, Michael Bonke is more a rumour than a presence. Although he visits monthly, it seems he's never here for longer than a day or two before he's jetting off somewhere else.
Yet much of Michael's time, money and energy is directed towards completing the Matrimandir, and over the past 15 years he has played a key role in the successful completion of various projects associated with it. These include manufacturing the stand for the crystal, waterproofing the outer skin, fabricating the disks and inner skin and, most recently, organizing the design and manufacture of the hydraulic crane which will soon sit, invisibly, on top of the structure.
Many of these were ‘firsts', in the sense that they had never been done before. Take the covering of the disks. “The technique of sheathing gold in glass,” explains Michael, “is actually 2000 years old. The problem is that in the heating process the leaf gold tends to be absorbed by the glass unless you have a fast-melting glass such as was used in medieval times. But this glass cannot be used on outside surfaces as it doesn't withstand water. So our challenge was to find a way of encasing gold-leaf in ordinary float glass. It took us 3-4 years, but finally we developed a completely new vacuum process which has proved successful.”
Another saga involved the material to form the inner skin. There were various criteria, including non-flammability and the ability to transmit the exact shade of orange which Mother specified. Various materials were tried out, including polyester and glass. “We finally achieved what we wanted with glass, but then a company came out with a fibre-glass and silicon fabric which not only matched our requirements, but which was much cheaper and lighter than glass. However, we are using the original frames so that if, in a few years, the fabric becomes shabby or we find we have problems cleaning it, then we can always replace it with glass.”
Michael wonders if there will ever be a time when we can say that the Matrimandir is finished. “There will always be things to improve upon, to upgrade. It's more like a permanent process.” But wouldn't he like to spend more time here, to enjoy what has been achieved so far? “Of course, that would be nice. But for the time being there's too much to be done to allow me to think of relaxing. There are still some important issues to resolve.”
These include the question of building maintenance. “While the new crane and a gondola will be used for cleaning the disks, we haven't yet conceived of a maintenance system for the inner skin. The fabric will have to be vacuumed regularly as dust will accumulate and change the colour, but we don't yet have equipment which will reach every section of the skin.
“I'm also very much involved in the Matrimandir lake project. At present a pre-feasibility study is being finalised which focuses not only on technical, ecological and social aspects of the lake but also on the water system of the whole area. Soon we want to make three test basins to try out three different sealants and shore designs.”
Then there is the knotty question of where the water for the lake will come from. “We've designed, in collaboration with some German engineers, a new type of water-storage system. This would catch all the rain that falls over the lake area annually. We've ascertained that 1.80 metres of water will evaporate each year from the surface of the lake, so if we can store and pump back the 1.20 metres which falls annually over the lake, we only have to find another 60 cm, to make up the level (Roger does not want the level of the lake to fluctuate very much over the year). Another possible way of storing the rainwater is in the ground. It seems there is a geological formation behind Aurodam where we may be able to store it and pump it up when needed. This is also being studied.”
Michael is getting restless – he has another meeting to get to. What, I wonder, motivates him to work so hard in raising funds and solving the technical problems of the Matrimandir? “That,” he concludes emphatically, “is not a subject for publication.” And he's off.