HUNAR in URDU means ‘skill’ or ‘art’. And that is of the essence
at Hunnarshala, meaning the ‘workshop of art’. Hunnarshala Foundation was set
up by architect Sandeep Virmani, who hails from Kutch, in Gujarat, famous the
world-over for its marshy salt flats. Hunnarshala is based in Bhuj, an area which
was laid to waste by the horrific earthquake of 2001.Bhuj became the epicentre
of Virmani’s practice of disaster-resistant social housing. Hunnarshala helps build
self-sustaining housing for the poor, involves traditional artisans in
construction, and promotes locally available ecofriendly materials and
indigenous technologies. Under Virmani’s leadership, the foundation has worked in
disaster rehabilitation in India, Iran, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. Virmani is
widely consulted by governments on disaster rehabilitation and natural resource
development programmes. Virmani also guides the work of Kutch Navnirman
Abhiyan, a network of NGOs on policy, capacity building, and natural resource
management programmes. “We do not let drawings become our masters; they are
used only as a tool; so, our architects live on the projects not in the
offices,” says Virmani in an interaction with Pallikkutam while referring
to one of his core operating principles.
You have been at the frontiers of a community driven, artisan-led, organic form of architecture. So, in many ways, you have lent a broader idiom to vernacular architecture. In fact, the expression ‘vernacular’ architecture in some senses risks being patronising because vernacular has been extraordinarily innovative, environmentally sustainable, and socially inclusive. Nevertheless, how do you visualise architecture as a key function of community and institution building?
A few years ago, I was in the Phobjikha valley in Bhutan to see the Black necked cranes that had just arrived from Tibet. Early in the morning, in the twilight haze, as I was making my way towards them, guided by their characteristic twittering call, I was distracted by the faint sound of a group singing to the rhythm of a soft thumping sound. When I arrived on the scene, I saw a group of men and women standing atop a wall they were building and hammering their rammers; they were making a rammed earth wall. I learnt they gathered every morning for three hours to make a widow’s house, after which the owner, fed them butter tea and ema datshi, and they then went off to work for the day.
Closer home, in the Aravalli range that enters Gujarat from Rajasthan I saw the same practice with the Bhil tribes build rammed earth homes for one another. Over the past five years we have done housing studies to recommend designs for five state government social housing programmes and consistently everywhere communities come together to help one another to build. In Kutch, where I come from, this practice is called ‘abhat’. They make homes, wells, clear fields, anything where the trust and faith of a group and the social capital can be realised for mutual benefit. This is generally a system that can be found amongst tribal and pastoral communities across the Asian subcontinent. It always ends with food, some smoke, and a locally brewed wine in some communities, celebrating community camaraderie.
They do this because they know that happiness is experienced in selfless acts. Further, this builds their social capital, a barometer of trust amongst themselves they can tap when complex situations require communal action.
In Hunnarshala, we have kept this as the mantra for all our work. We have developed this into a policy called Community/Owner Driven Housing’ for post-disaster reconstruction that both the National Disaster Development Authority (NDMA) and World Bank now recommend. We ourselves have helped hundreds of communities use this to rebuild their lost confidence after a disaster by rebuilding their homes.
In the context of a school and educational institutions, are we now beginning to seriously look at the aesthetics of design and architecture in order to create a conducive environment for learning and education?
Aesthetics or the built form is an expression of what we value. Every age has its challenges to which we respond. A responsible school building today will inculcate values of care for the environment, and consequently, use materials with a low carbon footprint, like earth, or bamboo. It will be designed to use less energy, get maximum natural light and keep the building cool in the tropical summer heat. Too much of stress on the use of the mind and information in our modern age is externalising our search for happiness in material goods; therefore, re-establishing the ability to ‘think with our hands’ and being energised by listening to our heart will centre us within ourselves. Thus, respecting artisanship, hand-crafted buildings are important. The Gandhian values of simplicity and frugality need to be reinforced in a world where opulence is celebrated. So, the use of simple low-cost finishes and multi-use spaces should be inculcated.
J.Krishnamurti’s pedagogy for education in his charter to Krishnamurti Foundation India schools is to use the school campus and the bioregion around as an educational tool. Many teaching methods realise the importance of ‘experience’ as the basis for conceptualising our world around us. Today, children have information about the world but do not have their moorings in their own surroundings; ideas to make the material world more comfortable and accessible takes precedence over relationships. Therefore, we focus on working with the teachers and students in engaging with ecology, agriculture, water, crafts, people, language, and climate of their region, such that ‘relationships’ not just ‘ideas’ nourish us. The masterplan of the school campus emerges from this exercise. The material and artisanal craft skills of the bioregion find place in the buildings.
Is design a cultural function or peculiarity? What, to your mind, are the essential aesthetic divergences between shall we, broadly, say the East and the West? The underpinnings thereof I am sure cannot be summarised with any measure of philosophical or ideological accuracy
India and, I suspect, many parts of the world have two dominant ways of engagement — the ‘classical’ and the ‘folk’. While the classical is obsessed with permanence, the folk is comfortable with change. In classical thinking, the teacher and taught are recognised as a mode of knowledge exchange, while folk contributes and takes freely from the ‘commons’. Consequently, in the classical, history is a linear scientific inquiry into fact, folk looks at the past as a set of ideas to live the present; the classical creates best practices, rituals for replication, folk waits for realisation through a mastery of several streams coming together instantaneously, mystic in form. The classical is concerned with the product it is creating, whereas folk is content with the process. So, the divergence is not as much east versus west as much as it is classical versus folk. And as ‘classical’ is conscious of the ultimate form it creates, it tends to be superficial, pretentious, on the surface. It is, however, far better documented and, therefore, taught more than ‘folk’.
What, from your perspective, is of the essence in a learning space with reference to its most fundamental aesthetics and architectural vision?
When two traditions meet with respect for the other, it is a space of tremendous creativity. So, what we do is to get trained architects/engineers to work with master artisans. This participatory method helps us create a very different way of making and delivering buildings. While training helps validate new ideas with calculation, the master artisans use their senses to determine reality.
I remember, one of our master earth builders, who today runs a 40-lakh turnover company, came to us as a migrant labourer from Madhya Pradesh. On the construction site, where the soil for building was being dumped by the tractors, he said the soil was not good for construction as it had salinity in it. On testing he was proved right. Similarly, Ismail Khatri, a well-known block printer, was assisting a PhD student with the recipe for making vegetable dye colours. He would add ingredients to the boiling pot not by measurement but by estimation, which the scholar would measure and note in her diary before he added it to the pot. But when he turned off the flame, she asked him how he decided it was enough. He took some of the liquid from the pot in a spoon, and put a few drops in her palm and asked her to taste it. He then said taste would give us the appropriate colour of indigo we wanted!
We have built this pedagogy of having trained professionals work with experts from the villages to develop solutions in the fields of agriculture, animal sciences, ecological restoration, water management, craft, and design and architecture.
Further, our professionals are trained so narrowly that they are incapable of appreciating the implications of their expertise in the larger socio-political context they live in. In fact, an appreciation of the liberal arts is being abandoned too early on in our education in pursuit of a technical education for jobs. Our youngsters in that critical age of 16-25 is brimming with curiosity about the world and its ways, but our technical institutions of higher learning limit their growth. The liberal arts inculcate the wonder and philosophical quotient required to be able to look at life holistically.
Your practice at Hunnarshala has been unique: you follow a design-and-build practice as opposed to most urban architectural practices that only design and then pass on the drawings to builders or contractors. How do you experiment on such a scale on different projects with vastly different and demanding needs, with reference to context and environment?
Whenever I go give lectures in schools of architecture, I ask the students if they want the curriculum to have you build with your hands, and a large majority want it. It is only natural. When we began our practice, there was no one who could build in the cities using these vernacular technologies. Clients, too, wanted the confidence that these technologies would not fail. So, we developed a design and build practice.
For thousands of years the world built with only five materials — stone, mud, bamboo, brick, and wood. However, their diversity has created a million possibilities. So, understanding the core principle of how these materials work, helps us engage with local master artisans who reveal their local essence, their potential to us.
Our building industry is organised vertically with no regard for the labour who actually builds. The process works through instruction through technical drawings where the material and space that is being constructed does not provide feedback loops for decisions. We do not let drawings become our masters; they are used only as a tool; so, our architects live on the projects not in the offices.
You have also set up Karigarshala, a residential artisanal school for young children. How has Karigarshala shaped up?
In Karigarshala when the students arrive, they are scared and under-confident. They have received a third-rate education for a few years before they dropped out. They have been exploited in the market where they go to make a living. The pressure to get a formal education has stolen the possibility of being trained in their traditions as farmers, craftsperson etc. So, for the first month, the school does not get them into classrooms at all. They are encouraged to use their hands; do some carpentry, make mud blocks, anything that will make them feel comfortable.
Another exercise they enjoy is to compete as groups to build a wall and plaster it. They have to build and break and build again, several times. This teaches them teamwork, leadership, quality, and the ability to quote in the market. It is important to be able to compute in monetary terms the output to time taken, in delivering a product.
They enjoy reading and discussing Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and regional literatures. They are taught design by the architects in Hunnarshala.They finally take on a contract to build a small structure that Hunnarshala’s clients offer. The Karigarshala building too has been built largely by successive batches of students.
Another exercise they enjoy is when they team up with architecture students who come to Hunnarshala for training programmes. Together, they are given assignments wherein they learn to appreciate one another’s contributions.
Over the years more than a hundred students have been through this one-year residential programme. Hunnarshala has created a company platform for them, called ‘Sau Haath’, (Hundred Hands) that they use to get work and deliver in the market. Recently some of the alumni who are doing well, came together to donate to the school!