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Not by the book: Alternative approaches

Not by the book: Alternative approaches

Chartered accountants rarely choose to bring about social change by turning to building construction. R. L. Kumar, 45, who runs the Centre for Vernacular Architecture (CVA) in Banaswadi , Bangalore, formed a cooperative of construction workers to undertake building projects in 1989. Today, CVA designs and builds homes, offices and institutional buildings, and ensures that the profits of contracting go directly to the workers. In the process, Kumar is also helping sustain an alternative approach that is rooted in values common to traditional architecture.

Architecturally, Kumar’s most significant achievement is the definite sense of ‘place’ that his buildings often show. It also shows that lively and nurturing spaces do not necessarily require obsessive perfection in detailing. In fact, it suggests that they may even benefit from the lack of complete, often overpowering, aesthetic control. And the fact that he started from a political concern with employment generation and housing rights for slum dwellers, reflects in his humanist view of architecture.

“During the National Campaign for Housing Rights, I realised that housing is not about buildings alone, but also about the kind of housing," says Kumar. CVA started out executing the designs of other architects, but Kumar soon began designing the buildings the cooperative executed. Exposure to Laurie Baker’s work and approach, combined with his own ongoing questioning of modernity, has also led him to explore many traditional technologies like cob (mixture of compressed clay and straw) walls, and thatch roofing. The unstated core of his approach is the commitment to creating engaging places.

Home-office for Trends Ad Films Pvt. Ltd

(Photos 1-4)

1. Entrance courtyard of Trends with rough stone paving, leading to the veranda-like reception area

2. The reception at Trends with one corner of the table attached to the ceiling

3. Niche given an interesting touch with Warli painting

4. An informal meeting space—note the ‘filler slab’ roof where discarded roof tiles replace some concrete in the lower thickness of the RCC slab

Underlying Kumar’s contingent approach to architecture is a concern with addressing the intricate needs of habitation and engaging the user’s (not another architect’s) imagination. The home-office for Trends Ad Films Pvt. Ltd, on the outer Ring Road in Bangalore, expresses the home part of the building in brick and the office in rough granite.

Method and materials

The connection with nature is established by exposed stone and brick work. The rough granite wall (built with mud mortar), has little chips inserted into broader chinks between stones, that are visible when you get close. Other elements—the Madhubani mural in a niche across the entrance courtyard, the reception desk partly suspended from the ceiling—are each elements with their own personality.

Bellary Pupil Tree Academy

(Photos 5-7)

5. General view of the campus of the Bellary Pupil Tree Academy. The brick-domed pavilion offers moments of rest in the open space

6. The wavy thatch roofs of the cultural centre were built by Bangladeshi immigrant craftsmen settled nearby

7. The academic block showing the easy flow of space throughout the campus

The 20,000 sq. ft Bellary Pupil Tree Academy in rural Karnataka is another example of this approach. There is something remarkably like an updated village, about the 14 acre campus which has academic, administrative and cultural activity spaces. “We were trying to push the idea of breaking away from the ‘barrack’ and ‘hospital’ model of school design," says Kumar. “Though we did not succeed entirely, we were able to introduce playfulness into the architecture, and also into the curriculum and operations."

The campus exemplifies many of Kumar’s strengths as an outsider with an ideology, and a learner open to collaboration. The complex is basically a huddle of small buildings built with a lively mix of materials, and kept sane by its small scale and simple geometries. Kumar has kept independent blocks close together in informal geometries, creating very intimate outdoor spaces. These are detailed with warmth and made memorable.

Method and materials

The wavy thatch roofs are entirely the work of Bangladeshi refugees living close to the site. “They designed the roof themselves without any engineer to help them, including the dormer-like openings for ventilation," Kumar says. His pride in the craftsperson’s skill is revealing. Mastering the constructional aspect of architecture has obviously been a fraught business for this ‘outsider’, who cannot sign statutory applications nor call himself an architect. The respect he feels towards the rural craftsperson is not sentimental: CVA’s success and sustenance depends on it.

Kumar’s craft orientation comes through quite clearly in his work. Most artist-architects usually build the entire building completely in advance on paper (or computer screen) right down to the smallest detail. Thus, the building is first built in virtual space, far from the light, breeze and possible viewpoints on site. Kumar, on the other hand, begins construction only with the broadest scheme, letting the actual detailing emerge. The walls of the different buildings at Pupil Tree are a variable mix of materials—brick, stone, plastered concrete—and each block has a different kind of wall pattern. The constant variety of visual impression this creates could easily have degenerated into kitsch. Indeed, to strict formalists, this may already appear as such. However, the lack of an all-controlling order actually humanizes the basic simplicity, especially welcome in a school.

What makes space memorable

This is an enduring question in architecture. ‘Place’ has been defined as a ‘concretion of value’ by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. Such a definition automatically involves the human being, since values are humanly created.

Some believe that one of the reasons village houses tend to be so engaging is that the process by which they have traditionally been put together is more just, empowering and wholesome than modern building processes. So, CVA’s humane logic of “profit to the producer", possibly has something to do with the engaging quality of the spaces.

Photographs courtesy: Centre for Vernacular Architecture

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