An Architect in a City in the Making: Suhasini

Go away, you are an Aurovilian already.

“I came to Auroville for the first time in 1984, by sheer chance. I was doing an undergrad in architecture with the intention to study town planning after. In the 80’s, India was still a socialist country and all urban and town planning was under government control, except for a private agency that was planning the steel townships of India – this was located in Pondicherry. So along with a couple of students from the same school, I applied to do an internship at that agency. On the second or third day at this office, we met an architect from Auroville who had dropped in to get some blueprints. Talking with him, we found out that the interns’ who were to work with Poppo Pingel, another Auroville-based architect, had just dropped out. So wheels were set in motion and we transferred to Auroville.  

In June 1985, after my architectural studies, I moved to Auroville. In this period the community did not have any formal structure of management or administration, so there were no real development projects or a planning office. I started working in Auromodele Atelier with Prema, who was screen printing her own fabric and starting a line of hand-painted silk scarves. She asked me to oversee the designing and production. I did this for a few months; at the end of which I knew that fashion was not my world. André Hababou had a small architecture studio in the same atelier and was designing the extension of a school in New Creation. I started to design an alternative and it was not really appreciated, as he came from a non-academic background and did not resonate with an integrated approach to design. One day, Roger Anger dropped in and André presented both design options to him to get his opinion. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised that Roger preferred my design where the geometry, function and the proportions were rationalized. Very soon after I had to leave the atelier, as the interpersonal relationship with André deteriorated due to our divergent views on design and development. 

I then had the opportunity to work with Pierre Elouard, who had projects in Pondicherry. Around the same time my interest for town planning grew, so I used my afternoons and evenings to put all the land documents together to create an overall map of Auroville and I participated in setting up a planning group in 1986, called the “Auroville Resource Center – ARC”. After Roger Anger won the majority vote with the proposal for a “gold” Matrimandir, he took over the space of the planning office and we were shown the door. So I set up a design studio in my hut and I did a few projects, like Centre Guest House, Samasti, and Aurelec, among others, until 1987. During this period I joined Auroville Center for Scientific Research Trust and set up the Auroville Building Centre with the team there, and a design studio to undertake applied research in design and buildings.

While researching for my under-grad dissertation thesis on the Auroville Town Plan, I used to have weekly sessions with Kireet Joshi, who was then the special secretary in the Dept. of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, to understand the connection of the Integral Yoga with the goals of Auroville and how this is translated in to the town plan symbolically and practically. While reading together with Kireet-bhai some of the text from the Life Divine, my thoughts were, “Sounds great as words, but how is this possible given how human nature is?” So, after my graduation, I decided to spend some time here, not really intending to join. After some time I thought, ‘Why not look into joining?’ so I went to the 3-person entry group, one of them, a nice elderly Indian gentleman told me, ‘Look, your parents spent money on an education that is useless here and we have no housing either. Why don’t you go back to Delhi, work for a few years, make some money to be able to build yourself a house, and then come back?’ I said that I would think about it. I went back to the group a year later to tell them that I had thought about it and that I wanted to stay and take my chances. Around this time Auroville was moving from manual data keeping to digital, and seeing my name on the list, the entry team told me ‘Go away, you are an Aurovilian already.’ 

As I said already, when I arrived Auroville was an unstructured place. We didn’t have a governance system that took care of planning and development.  Decisions were made, more or less in a decentralised way. A lot of space was given for people to take initiative. For example take the Visitor’s Centre project; I started that with Gilles based on a funding possibility that came out of an International Earth Conference that I attended in 1987. I was listening to all these experts from Europe and India talking about using earth as building material for housing the poor. My question to them was, ‘why use earth to house the poor, why not do public buildings with it?’ I managed to find a way to convince the then South Zone Director of HUDCO to support us with funding to do a public building to demonstrate earth as a building material for an institutional public building. There was no agency within Auroville who questioned our capacity to fundraise, plan, design and implement the Visitors Centre project, or question the need for such a centre. The only road block was to be allocated a site within the city area in an area linking the Matrimandir and International zone. 

The Visitors Center was not the only project developed like this, couple of housing projects, the Solar Kitchen and PTDC were also developed similarly, where except for site allocation everything else, from identifying the developmental need, fund raising, planning, designing and implementing was taken up as an integrated package by a group of people who collaborated voluntarily. The system and agencies of governance and administration that have emerged in the last 2 decades of Auroville are more invested in enforcing regulations and controls to prevent financial mismanagement than to promote development and growth of the project. This has effectively discouraged people with domain capacity in taking up developmental projects, besides scaring away the potential donors.   

Despite these downsides, living in Auroville is wonderful. You have a society that is not enslaved to preconceived social structures, as due to the diversity there is no expectation of social protocol based on external status structure. It is extremely liberating to communicate and function with people who are not afraid to be real. It works well with my best quality: I cannot hold back when I am involved or invested in any idea or action. The other beautiful thing here is the density of people who are able to think for themselves compared to the rest of the world. Most Aurovilians don’t take no for an answer, they don’t take a structure for a given, they question, which is not so prevalent in most societies.

In other people, I appreciate people with original minds and with capacity to effect action and change without coercion.  I know a few people like that and each time I am with them I am amazed how, with the least amount of effort; they are able to use their power of conviction to motivate change. I am envious of them. But at the end of the day, what I have really learnt here is that we are all the same at the core of our being. We may be from different cultural, socioeconomic and geographical background but we are all still hampered by the same limitations of human nature. It’s just expressed differently.”

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