The Green Revolution marches on with Fabian Ostner's attempt to build a high-calibre ecological home in Auroville.
Klara Brogli's home in tropical Tamil Nadu could well have come straight out of the sets of Matrix. An expression of western architecture and contemporary perceptions of space, it fits smoothly into the rich colourful culture of the Indian subcontinent. Self- confident and aware of its origins, the house exhibits its modern and (some might say) strange appearance in a frank and respectful manner, reaching out to invite and exchange. The lightweight structure of steel, aluminium and plywood appears to be almost afloat. Water bodies with lilies and lotuses, and the surrounding lush vegetation balance and harmonize.
Fabian explains that this spacious and minimalistic house is almost a departure from traditional architecture. "It is a hybrid with conventional brick-work, natural stone, steel beams, wooden screens, aluminium, glass..." Reflecting the often extreme faces of India, the house plays with contrasting elements: the familiar and the foreign, aloofness and intimacy, the light and the heavy, industrial and natural, hi-tech construction and traditional craftsmanship, sky and earth.
The attempt to build a high-calibre ecological home (with photo-voltaic panels for 95 per cent of its energy requirements, waste water treatment and rain water harvesting) in Auroville triumphed despite extreme conditions (power cuts, heat, rain and insects) and material constraints (limited building materials, near unavailability of tools and machinery).
From the entrance, the east and north-eastern facades seem like parts of a strange object piquing our curiosity. Like the eastern, the western facade uses different layers to adjust to the scorching sunlight and heavy rain. A wooden screen, woven like traditional baskets, filters the sunlight, while sliding elements of glass and fabric farther inside protect against the rain and the humidity.
Carefully designed openings lead to steps inside. Sunlight pouring into the double-height interior is reflected by the natural yellow stone floor. The play of light on the white, yellow and rust-co loured surfaces makes this an animated and spiritually uplifting space. The aluminium outer wall, air and plywood on the inside and strategically positioned openings allow for an interior climate independent of air-conditioning systems and artificial ventilation throughout the year, proving that modern design can be both appropriate and sustainable. The interior atmosphere changes with the time of day and the seasons, accompanying Klara on her journey to a higher consciousness.
Warm flooring blends with smooth-polished plastered walls and fine exposed concrete gently emerging from the soil to create an elegant living space. A raised plinth with varying levels and a water channel define the area of the building without isolating it. Around its open pavilion-like core, the ground floor merges with its surroundings forming an ideal backdrop for social events and dinner parties. Despite its openness, there's enough privacy to withdraw. The large kitchen in an autonomous block provides ample cooking space and connects to the neighbourhood road, inviting friendly chats across the fence.
A steel staircase and bridge at the centre of the house allow visual connectivity between floors. The first floor offers a glimpse of the beyond while still remaining a part of this world. The ephemeral atmosphere created by the movement of the sun culminates in a dramatic sunset, giving this ordinary residential space a hint of something sacred...
Soothing colours, soft surfaces and an intricate play of light create a sensual environment. Initially the favoured colour scheme was serene, with minimalist materials (black Cuddapah for the floor, white finish for the walls), but Klara insisted on a warm, feminine ambience. Walking through the godowns, the warm yellow Jaisalmer stone felt right and its colour became the base. The grey walls remained, polished with sandpaper to an almost fabric-like degree. The ferrocement works are an example of how smooth and colourful an experience working with cement can be (if one praises the local masons enough). The elements though distinct in colour, function and appearance, are clearly part of a bigger whole.
Fabian, who trained as an architect in Germany, attributes his ability to create innovative homes to the openness of his clients and good communication amongst the people involved. "This client was very receptive to modern architecture and we found common ground in our appreciation of it. I was interested in trying out this fusion of a light steel frame with a solid base and she liked the idea and design as she wanted to have a house designed like a modern capsule (original Auroville shelters were capsules made of modular bamboo frame covered with plaited coconut frond)".
Fabian realizes that he may be perceived as the 'wacko' guy doing oven-like steel and aluminium sheet homes, but doesn't see himself constrained 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 - create a structure which satisfies these parameters. 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 believes these new homes suit the climatic conditions and are 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 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, then one can call this kind of construction climatically responsive. Along with these measures, the roof has a large 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 techniques and ways to optimize the construction, to make it less complex, less heavy, with less material. I think this is something worth experimenting with and I believe that industrialized materials provide the means for beautiful, cost-effective and climatically responsive future buildings."
Klara's home interacts beautifully with the organic growth of the nature around. It forms a counterpoint to nature rather than merging with it. Fabian thinks materials like aluminium or steel with their technological and intellectual character and their rigidity form a perfect backdrop for the 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 '40s (Junkers JU 52) and the streamlined cars of the '50s, designs expressing the vision that technology can serve humankind in beautiful ways."