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October 02

 

Towards undivine anarchy?

- by Alan

The Auroville housing situation

Practicality and imagination: these two strands informed Auroville's experiments with housing in the early years. The first settlers looked at what had already been done by the local inhabitants - huts with mud walls thatched with coconut leaves or straw - then tweaked it to accommodate their rather different needs. The result? The Auroville 'capsule', an airy, lightweight hut resting on granite pillars: it could even be moved from place to place.

Yet, from the very beginning, this 'indigenous' line of development was paralleled by a 'visionary' line. The sweeping concrete curves of Last School, the soaring cantilevered wing of the Bharat Nivas auditorium, the fluid forms of Auromodèle - all these, in their attempts to herald the new, the futuristic, paid little attention to traditional materials and conditions.

Today architecture has clearly shifted away from the visionary and towards the practical end of the spectrum. Most of our institutional architecture is bland, and many Aurovilians live in somewhat featureless houses and apartments. These changes reflected a number of factors: changes in occupation (computer work replacing land work), an increased desire for security, cleanliness and comfort, a new wave of Aurovilians arriving with different expectations and desires regarding housing. The 'gentrification' of the capsule was also an expression of Aurovilians' deeper connectedness to the land, the flip side of which was an increased sense of proprietorship: 'my house', 'my land'.

In the early days this didn't seem to matter. Land was scattered over an area of 20 square kilometers, so there was plenty to go round. Only land bought near the centre was left vacant or temporarily afforested: it was "for the future, when the city begins". In the early 1990s that moment arrived. In an effort to kick-start the urbanization of Auroville, new land was bought and existing land made available in the Residential Zone for a number of new projects. Trees were felled, bunds leveled, roads laid, and settlements like Prarthna, Vikas, Arati, Surrender, Invocation and Prayatna mushroomed up.

Meanwhile the Development Group, concerned that the town plan would go by the board and realizing that Auroville would never reach 50,000 inhabitants if things didn't change, began drafting planning regulations. Temporary structures were banned in the city and minimum densities specified for different sectors. Newcomers were encouraged to buy into the new city housing projects. Not all of them jumped at the chance. The apartments were not cheap nor were they designed for children, while many of the new medium-density communities smacked too much of the urban landscapes newcomers were fleeing in the West. Suddenly the Greenbelt, which for years had been viewed by some Aurovilians as a kind of Punishment Park inhabited by the Red Foot tribe, became desirable real estate. Bemused greenbelters, clambering out of compost pits, were confronted by elegantly dressed apparitions in designer sunglasses enquiring about where they could build their dream houses. Often they narrowly avoided being composted themselves.

As the population increased, and the land available and the possibility of constructing one's own accommodation decreased - the greenbelters were the next to draw up guidelines, reaffirming the greenbelt was not for development and defining who could live there - the screw tightened further. At the mercy of rapidly increasing construction prices, bounced between the rather different agendas of the Entry Group, Housing Service, Development Group, architects, developers and Auroville communities, house-hunters could be seen wandering disconsolately backwards and forward like disembodied souls.
Some became perennial house-sitters, shifting their belongings every few months. Others found temporary accommodation with friends or in storerooms. Aurovilians in dire straits who had been allocated newcomer housing units refused to move out until alternative accommodation could be found. Something had to give way. In the event what suffered was both the authority of the Development Group as a few unauthorized constructions crept up, and the ideal that accommodation in Auroville once constructed or purchased could not thereafter be sold or let. It began as a concession: newcomers to the community who moved into an Aurovilian's house could deposit the cost of that house in a special fund, so allowing that Aurovilian to build elsewhere in the community. However, as this did not allow an Aurovilian to be financially compensated if he or she left the community, this concession was soon overtaken by borderline or unofficial transactions which saw people (sometimes not even Aurovilians or newcomers) purchasing - at suspiciously high rates - the contents of a house (moveable assets, unlike fixed assets, are not the property of the Auroville Foundation), or simply the house itself. Meanwhile the renting out of rooms to newcomers (coded as "contributions towards accommodation") became another unofficial means of supplementing Aurovilians' income and easing the accommodation crisis.

The losers in all this are those who, like some Tamil Aurovilians and Auroville youth, have nothing to sell or rent and don't have the means to purchase or rent the accommodation on offer. The choice for them seems stark: stay here and live like a second-class citizen in sub-standard accommodation or leave to earn the necessary funds elsewhere. As for those young Indian students, full of energy and idealism, who would like to become newcomers, the message seems to be at present, 'Come back when you've made your millions'.

There have been attempts to eliminate the worst excesses of the present anarchic housing situation. The Funds and Assets Management Committee has drawn up the Auroville Housing Policy. This reaffirms that all houses, apartments and immovable assets created on Auroville land are owned by the Auroville Foundation and therefore there can be no private ownership of houses or apartments in the community. The Development Group, in its efforts to control spiraling prices and inequitable housing patterns, recommends a maximum construction price per square metre for all accommodation in the city, and specifies 65 square metres as the maximum space allowance for an individual (a couple are cosily allocated 100 square metres). Meanwhile the Housing Service attempts to supervise house exchanges, 'sales' and the allocation of houses which have been vacated. It uses the income from the 10% surcharge on all new constructions above four lakhs in Auroville to repair some sub-standard accommodation and even to allocate new accommodation free to a few fortunate individuals. The newly-formed Tamil Housing Fund is also trying to raise funds to provide housing for those with little means who are living in sub-standard or temporary accommodation (of the 25 or so most urgent cases, the vast majority are Tamil Aurovilians). The Housing Service also administers the newcomers housing project which provides some newcomers with temporary housing for the first two years against payment of a fairly substantial deposit or a monthly sum. As for the youth, two settlements have been constructed specifically for them (with the condition that they vacate their rooms at a certain age), while they may also benefit from housing projects in which those with more resources subsidize accommodation for those with less.

At the same time, a number of supposedly more affordable housing projects are coming up in the Residential Zone. The problem here is that 'affordable' sometimes means that the lucky occupant gets to pay for all kinds of unexpected extras not included in the basic price - like the finishing and infrastructure, contribution to the Housing Fund etc. - which markedly increase the final cost.

For many people, the ideal remains that accommodation of a reasonable quality should be available for all those who genuinely want to live the experiment which is Auroville. At present we are far from achieving that. In the short term, then, it seems the emphasis should be upon ensuring that those Aurovilians in genuine need, and those with limited means who would like to join the community, have access to decent accommodation. And this implies, among other things, that the community needs to be more creative in its fund-raising, that architects more readily take up the challenge of wedding beauty to simplicity, practicality and affordability, and that resources are more efficiently used. Why, for example, can't more architects share common office facilities? Why isn't there a central bulk purchasing and storing service for building supplies? Why is supervision on Auroville construction sites so notoriously lax? Why is it so difficult for the layperson to get information about the real costs of construction and the advantages, disadvantages and costs of different building materials and methods?

And then, of course, there is the issue of density. So far the Development Group's attempts to legislate minimum densities for different sectors of the Residential Zone have resembled King Canute's vain attempts to turn back the waves. All too often, once the first houses spring up in a new project the new inhabitants suddenly discover they need more and more space around them. We all know about the neighbour from hell - and sound insulation in the tropics is a real challenge. But could it be, at some fundamental level, that our need for space and for the personalization of our environment is actually a refuge, a retreat, from the demands of the yoga, or from a community process in which we have lost trust? If this is so, the problem - and thus the solution - may ultimately lie more within than without.
Ah, there's the rub.


October 2002

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