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Russian translation

Samasti

"…A new statement towards the urban pattern of built up space.."

 

Samasti was collectively envisaged by a group of architects, town planners, and people enthusiastic to live together and be part of a radial experiment that would change the trend of habitation, in turn with the future of their town. Much time and many discussions later, three architects designed parts of the project separately, exchanging ideas on those decisions that would influence the neighbourhood as a whole. Architect and town planner Peter Anderschitz imaged one cluster to get out of the suburbs towards a more urban concept - a more impersonal cluster situation and approach.

The main aspiration was?

Architect and town planner Peter Anderschitz: To find the structure patterns. To realise the urban concept of Auroville. To get more collective and impersonal so that it wouldn't matter who your neighbour was. To make it possible for highly individualised lifestyles to live next to each other... To find the guidelines for these patterns and to give them a form... To begin with a stepping stone, a starting point in Auroville's residential zone, and learn from it and take the next step in an organised manner.

The way to a common language?

I was particularly influenced by the ideas of Christopher Alexander, Director of the Centre for Environmental Structure and Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. His books - 'A Pattern Language' and 'The Timeless Way of Building' - were extremely helpful in finding the way to a common language. According to Alexander: "There is a timeless way of building. It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves. It cannot be attained.. It will happen of its own accord, if only we let it." A Pattern Language is a working document for such an architecture: "these patterns can never be 'designed' or 'built' in one fell swoop, but by patient piecemeal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate these large global patterns, will, slowly and surely, over the years make a community that has these global patterns in it." These books helped clarify several important patterns regarding the intimacy gradient, the public and personal spaces, the transition spaces - and the layout of open and covered areas based on social patterns. The design criteria that resulted largely reflect this 'pattern language'.

What design criteria resulted?

A building language was developed, based on certain criteria that would repeat themselves again and again, responding to the need for close living with neighbours, and yet fulfilling the more individual needs. A climatic design approach was the main criterion as it was clearly necessary to evolve an appropriate module of building, best suited to the climate of the region. It eventually led to a somewhat vernacular approach, against my previous ideas, after all tiled roofs with large overhangs, good ventilation, wind catchers funneling in the wind and vents on the top of pitched roofs to release hot air and create a draft… The choice of local materials was another criterion - mud walls and, wherever possible, ferrocement instead of wood to ease the pressures on the timber market a bit. Introducing alternative energy sources like solar energy and wastewater recycling were still other design criteria.

And your spatial considerations?

To create a series of open and covered spaces, observing the necessary hierarchy of public and private spaces to fulfill the intimacy gradient as well as the social patterns, common areas at the heart, distributed to smaller courtyards that live, and further to galleries and walkways to the more quiet alcoves and window places.

What factors dictated their forms?

First of all, density. The focus of the city is coming together and close living. A town plan accommodating 50,000 people eventually calls for dense living spaces. A new skyline, going higher rather than sprawling around horizontally, was also desired. We decided to be more semi-collective than the earlier super-collective efforts people had opted out of. It meant that certain common infrastructures could be shared, a common storeroom, a common guest house, and also common public spaces within a compound with a common character in terms of spaces, their massing and outward appearance. The kitchen, bath and toilet facilities, however, would be provided independently. Recognising the hierarchy of the public spaces, the ground floor would be invested with a public character - containing an atmosphere of streets, lanes and plazas with their pockets of livelier public areas, and special care taken to work out smooth transitions between connected buildings.

And did it all work out?

Well, the idea of interconnecting the houses at their upper first floor and on the ground was eventually dropped, as it didn't suit the clients. The gallery system was adopted in its place - to build wherever possible at every floor level, galleries balconies, niches, and outdoor seating at the edges of buildings, specially where they open off public spaces and streets, connecting them directly to the internal rooms with doors. For, as Alexander states: "if people cannot walk out from the building onto balconies and terraces which look towards the outdoor space around the building, then neither they themselves, nor the people outside, have any medium which helps them feel that the building and the larger public world are intertwined."

The most private spaces - the bedrooms and study located on the upper floors - stand as free pavilions out of the continuous structure below, projecting out separately and distinctly to state their character of individuality.

A single compound holds a cluster, part of a larger arrangement of different clusters of group housing. Three groups of people got together to form the self-contained compound, sharing certain functions. The outcome is three houses and a guesthouse, along with a service structure, on a 4-acre site oriented around an entry courtyard about a single tree that stood on the portion of the site that was apt only for that.

The houses suit different family sizes - the house on the east side, a childless couple; at the centre, a couple with two youngsters; and on the west side, a single woman. They share interconnected entrances around the central court, but have at the back their own private garden. A feeling shared by the group is that there is a need for special places for special activities of a different nature. The pianist in the house on the east side requires space for rehearsals and tuitions. The central house belongs to dancers, and so contains a small studio. A practicing therapist lives in the third house. A section of the courtyard was even elevated with a small pool to form a socio-cultural area with a mini-amphitheatre, open to the sky, as there was every intention of using the courtyard for small-scale performances.

Gangways interconnect the house on the ground, with special care taken to connect the exterior and the interior of the units visually. The ground floor is denser than the upper floors, which get progressively lighter as their pavilion-type bedrooms are more loosely connected. Each individual is granted his own quiet private space, architecturally articulate and enjoying the view and ventilation. With an eye on the weather, and for want of a view of the more public entrance courtyard at the heart of the cluster, the houses are oriented from north-east to south-west at the garden front, though they are entered from the northern face of the plot. As the heavy rains fall from the north-west and north-east, and the good winds blow from the south-east to south-west, the houses have openings towards the south and more protection towards the north.

The gangway idea connecting all the entrances in order to enliven them and make them that much more inviting is well achieved, specially at the central house, with a porch stretching well into the common courtyard to make place for intermediate spaces. The guest house, entered through an elevated platform from the amphitheatre, has its own front courtyard. A tiny pavilion is planned as its architectural and functional focal point, right next to the entrance of the main compound. East of the entrance is the service structure with its own inner open space amid storerooms, an electric room, tool room, water-supply system and washing facilities.

The more private gardens behind the houses are interconnected, with subtle definitions of their borderlines, and the central and more common landscape feature of the tea pavilion, which presides over the free-flowing form of a pond inviting more group interaction.

The openings are rich and varied, large and with many contacts with the climate and visual connections with the environment. The grilles installed for security give the openings a Japanese character, with their delicate, repetitive grid-like arrangement, while screens repel the mosquitoes. To break the monotony, the shapes change. A circular opening in the central house overlooks the garden, while some diagonally rotated square cutouts face the central courtyard. Many openings project out to great alcoves and bay windows with cozy window seats for two.

A skeletal load-bearing system in concrete allows the non-load-bearing walls to move along freely. The distinctions of the two materials are outwardly enhanced, and the wall column junctions treated specially.

The mud wall is constructed with mud from the site, which does not require its composition being changed nor any stabilisation with additives. Mud blocks, 30.5x14.5x10cm, were formed in a compressed block machine, and used in the 15cm thick walls, plastered with cement-stabilised lime mortar. Pile foundations with connecting ring beams proved a better alternative to continuous foundation walls, although the soil did not demand structural piles. They guard against termites and any foundation settlement.

The mud walls erected on the ring beams also proved safer. Of course, the rafters supporting the edges of the buildings - made of ferrocement instead of large amounts of wood - are over-designed. If correctly precast, they could be much smaller, saving considerable amounts of cement and steel. The floor slabs are composite filler slabs whose 30x40cm grid contains three bricks in each bay. They are reinforced along the gridlines with single, 12mm diameter bent bars in one direction, and 10mm diameter ones in the other, while concrete covers the bricks by 5cm. they hold good for spans up to 4m and save on steel and concrete considerably.

Running all around the periphery of the houses, a water channel stops ants entering the living quarters. Built out at several places into large water bodies, the channel leads to close contact with water in this environment.

Geomantic network plan

Geomancy is being rediscovered in the west, but was already practiced on this plot. A geomantic diviner measured energy lines on the ground - the global and diagonal grid nets that influence the well being of any organism on a more suitable plane. He pinpointed the trouble spots by overlaying the nets of different lines - the intersection of several energy lines. These were the danger spots, where one should never sleep, work or even sit still for long. And so, the buildings are placed and planned carefully, standing clear of the troubled spots with expert advice from the ace geomancer on how to neutralise the negative energy with a fireplace, pillars and walls, so that they never get underfoot.

Individual septic tanks receive the black and grey sewage water of each house, allowing the solids to settle before the overflow into the larger common tank adjacent to the sewage treatment plant. Toxic water flows out of this tank into an adjoining soil bed, where plants like canna grow. This root purification plant purifies wastewater through decomposition and certain degree of absorption by plant roots. The 'sieved' water is then directed into yet another tank, reserved for collecting pure water. It also contains mosquito-eating fish, which die at the slightest trace of toxicity. If the water passes this test it can be recycled for clothes washing, gardening and several other purposes other than drinking.

Energy is supplied via two networks - the usual 220V wiring and a DC back-up system. A light and plug operate in each room from a common 12V battery, which is automatically recharged from the electrical system as well as by solar panels. Hot water supply is also ensured in each bathroom and kitchen in addition to a solar water heater on each roof terrace.

See also 'Tracing Patterns'.

 

Adapted from an article by Anupama Kundoo,
published in 'INDIAN ARCHITECT & BUILDER', January '91

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