Interviews: Suhasini Ayer

"In an exclusive interview, we asked the visionary architect Suhasini Ayer about her take on a sustainable future, her practice in Auroville with key emphasis on the impact she has made in shaping its architecture." -  Editor

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Suhasini Ayer

Founder

Auroville Design Consultants

About Architect Suhasini Ayer:

Suhasini is a graduate of ‘Delhi School of Planning and Architecture’; living in Auroville since 1985 and one of the co-founders of the Auroville Centre for Scientific Research; an organisation dedicated to research and experimentation in the field of appropriate building materials and technologies, water management, renewable energy and solar passive/ climatic architecture and sustainable urban planning.

As head of the Auroville Design Consultants, the Planning and Design wing of this organization, she has designed and implemented over 50+ projects in India in the last 25+ years.

To know more about Architect Suhasini Ayer click here.

How did you end up choosing architecture as a profession? How did you establish Auroville Design Consultants and what were your initial struggles?

How did I end up choosing architecture as profession? As a teenager I was curious about the buildings under construction, would wander through them and somehow I found myself thinking of ways it could be improved; functionally and proportionally.  I could see that the design and construction was just a juxtaposition of random thoughts and acts. This is not to say that I had any notion of the existence of architecture as a profession, but I was interested the product somehow. When I look back, it was just happenstance that I gave in to my curiosity and took to wandering in construction sites.

I came to Auroville in 1984 as a student of architecture and then returned after my studies in 1985.  

During that period Auroville was stagnant due to legal – political issues and there was no development projects as such or even architects studios in operation.  It was not possible to work with the local Auroville architects as no development was going on. So for the first 2-3 years I did a lot of odd jobs along with small renovation and remodelling works while exploring Auroville. It was sometime in 1987 during the course of attending an International earth Conference in Trivandrum, I realized that my interest in earth construction and the interests of HUDCO to promote earth construction could intersect if I could convince them to finance a  public building that would be a “research, training and demonstration project” to showcase earth construction. This would become the Auroville Visitors Center. To realise this project was not easy because I had no experience in earth construction but once we set the ball rolling, help came for unexpected quarters. I had an initial exposure from Development Alternatives, New Delhi on some of the design parameters when working with compressed earth blocks. And as the design for the centre was under development we had a visit from an earth building expert from Craterre, France -  Satprem Maini. He offered his collaboration and provided the technical expertise including training of the local masons in building arches and domes with the “Compressed Stabilized Earth Block” or “CSEB”. The Auroville Visitors Centre become one of the first stand-alone public building built with  CSEB and Ferrocement, with a prototype biological sewage treatment plant to harvest the recycled water for the landscaping, the entire water supply using wind pumps and the electrical energy required to power the building from photovoltaic cells. So in a way, the Auroville Visitor Center was almost my first project while also being my first experimental prototype in sustainable design in 1989 -90.

With a career spanning more than three decades, you have always been a voice for social issues especially those pertaining to rural development and habitat. How can the young generation educate themselves about these issues and the responsibilities associated with them? What common misconceptions regarding sustainable architecture should they avoid?

Actually, I have not been really dealing with rural development and habitat. Rather, living and working from a rural area, most of my ideas and innovations were a response to the challenges of designing and building in a rural context.  How to design and build institutional and public buildings for an international city in making, where the inhabitants demand a very high design and building standards using a very limited building material palette, with almost no construction equipment and tools and with labour who are actually subsistence farmers? The result was a context-based design approach that could be built with material and technological innovations relevant to economically and socially depressed rural zone. The solutions self-disseminated and were used for rural development and habitat.

How do you educate someone? Some learning is just not possible academically.  It can only come through exposure and experience, designers and architects need to get out of cities and town, see how 2/3rd of Indians live, experience their challenges and context. The curriculum of architecture needs to diversify to include environmental, social and economic studies. Architecture is a fusion of art, science and social intervention, so it is important that we are educated to take social responsibility for our creativity and Imagination. Every design decision has a ripple effect; intended and unintended.

As a practitioner of sustainable architecture, what do you think is the current state of sustainable practice in India? How do you compare it to that of when you started?

When I started practising architecture more than three decades ago, the term sustainable development or green architecture was not part of the general vocabulary of most of the Architects, at least not in India.  And today, the words “sustainable, resilient, green architecture…” have come to mean nothing from overuse, they are inserted in conversations, publications and talks as window dressing to market the same old in most cases. And yet there are some very serious young practitioners who are doing incomparable works, without compromising on design while lowering the carbon footprint of their projects. They are invested in educating the users for post-occupancy lifestyle changes as no building by itself could reverse the effect of climate disruption unless the people using and living in it also change. These architects are also looking at the entire supply chain of design to construction in a manner that is commendable.

The developments in the communication sector have enabled the lonely voices who had struck out for decades with niche practices, to network and mentor the new generation of adventurous architects who do not want to do more of the same. Over the last decade and a half, many of them have set new benchmarks in sustainable design practices. Hats off them!

It’s hard to believe that a city like Auroville exists in India. The idea of a universal town seems far-fetched in the likes of big cities. When it comes to architecture, what role do the city, its people and the governance play in successfully implementing and promoting sustainable design strategies and techniques?

Yes, it is difficult to believe that a place like Auroville could actually exist given the present state of humanity and the planet.  But if you could think of Auroville as a living laboratory, building an urban environment, wherein real-life conditions one could experiment with evolving socioeconomic structures, use the environmental challenges as a catalyst for changing human nature itself, collectively and individually, then you will realise that it is amazing that we do not have more Auroville’s as human beings need to change fundamentally if we are to have a future on this planet.

One of the components to bring about a change in human nature is of course planning and building sustainable human settlements, ensuring that the built environment is in harmony the functional needs of the users, responsive to the geographic and climatic context, frugal with the natural resource use and ensuring a closed loop.

Your work with Centre for Scientific Research is truly inspirational. How has it grown over the years? How have people responded to the work? What are its future goals?

Most of our projects in Auroville have manifested from evaluating the needs of the growing community, anticipating the directions of growth and proposing development projects that respond to these needs; economic – social – environmental, while ensuring judicious resources use. I have a small studio that fluctuates between 5-8 persons that handles most of the projects and we have built a collaborative network with other studios/consultants to take on large projects too. Individuals and agencies, inspired by some of the work we have done, directly approach us to try something similar in their town or city. It would be good if we could take on more diverse projects, make inroads in the development undertaken by the corporate sector and property developers.  After 3 decades of working within the niche market of NGO’s, institutions and the government, one realises that unless one is able to bring these ideas into the market-driven development sector and test the waters, these interventions will never become mainstream. But it is not easy to break into the conventional development sector with its closed structure and rigid with the supply chain that controls the entry into the club.  This is a pity as if there is one place that really needs change it is the property development market.  

What contemporary project has inspired you recently and why?

This is a very difficult question for me because in almost every project I manage to find something interesting and inspiring.  If you look beyond the product and try to understand the process that leads to the built environment, you see the complexity of expression even in the banalest and conventional projects. Also, my problem is that I am never been able to remember the names of the architects or the projects,  am just unfit to have conversations about who has done what and how amazing it is in the architecture world…

What contribution and sustainable architecture and green buildings make in the fight against Covid-19?

One can only hope that with the impact on the present global economic structure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will have learnt the hard way about the inter-relation between health, education and livelihood.  It is no longer possible to close borders, use policies and politics to isolate or protect one group of people at the cost of the rest of the world.  

In an urbanized world, where livelihood and labour is concentrated in towns, cities and metros, the habitat, workspaces, transit systems is tend to be overcrowded due to demand on real estate.  To be less vulnerable to transmission of diseases would require rethinking at urban planning and management level. Interventions like the use of natural ventilation rather than the use of air conditioning which is dangerous when dealing with the airborne virus, need cleaner air quality in our cities. Stricter enforcement of passive solar techniques to reduce heat build-up within buildings and heat island effect in the urban open spaces will also help in reducing the use of air conditioning.  In short: architecture, urban design and urban planning cannot continue to operate in silos if we want to be prepared for the next pandemic.

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