In dense jungle northeast of Puducherry on the Coromandel Coast in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is a city called Auroville.
In the middle, next to the great Banyan tree in a park called Unity, there is an enormous golden ball.
Thirty-six metres in diameter, suspended several metres above a lotus pool on four massive supports, the Matrimandir, or Temple of the Mother, is a giant geodesic sphere. Its outer surface is covered in huge gold mosaic-clad concave disks, a little like inverted Frisbees. Its inner surface is covered in an opaque fabric that tints the light filtering into the cavernous interior a warm orange.
At the end of the two slender glass and white marble ramps that spiral twenty metres up the interior of the sphere, there is a room. Inside, twelve white marble columns emerge from plush white carpet but they do not support the ceiling. In the centre of the ceiling there is an opening. Though it, a beam of light shines down into a perfectly spherical 70-cm Zeiss crystal ball in the centre of the room. The light illuminates the ball, capturing the images of the people seated cross-legged around the room and then passes through an aperture beneath it, through the cavernous space below and out of the base of the sphere, where it bounces off the lotus pool beneath.
Surrounding the sphere are 12 red sandstone ‘petals’ containing 12 egg-shaped meditation chambers painted in 12 vibrant colours. The chambers have no windows. A white marble platform is suspended in the middle of the chamber. There are small round white cushions on the floor. There is a light on the wall facing the platform to serve as a focus. The space is secular. There are no statues, images or mantras.
The Temple of the Mother is the psychic heart of Auroville. Viewed from above, it resembles a giant bud. Viewed from the ground, its sandstone chambers more closely resemble stylised clods of earth, pushed up by the sphere as it exits from the earth. From here, the Matrimandir seems a shining new world, captured in the process of being born.
As a metaphor, it is ideal. Founded in 1968, under the auspices of the United Nations, Auroville is a laboratory for living, a place to explore new ways of building, of organising, of being. Its remit is to reinvent the concept of the city.
It was the brainchild of Mirra Alfassa. A French citizen of Ottoman-Egyptian origin, known around Auroville simply as The Mother, Alfassa was the chief disciple and companion of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, one of India’s most respected yogi-philosophers and an early leader of its Independence movement.
By the time planning began in the early 1960’s, Alfassa was running Aurobindo’s ashram in Puducherry. She envisaged Auroville as the living embodiment of her yogi’s philosophy, a city where race, creed and politics were irrelevant, where there was no private property, no money and where ultimately, a new, more equitable social order would be born. It was, she declared, “the city the earth needed”.
The man charged with building that city was a French architect and urban planner called Roger Anger. A futurist and part of the Parisian Avant Garde scene, he was best known at the time for what was then Europe’s tallest residential complex, Grenoble’s Ile Vert.
In close coordination with Mother, Anger drew up the master plan for a galaxy-shaped city. It was divided into four sectors that spiralled outwards from a central Peace Zone, in the middle of which stood the Matrimandir. The completed city would cover an area of 5 km2 and house 50,000 inhabitants. A further 15km2 of orchards, farmland and forest - the Green Belt – would supply Auroville with its food and protect it from surrounding towns.
Anger’s vision of a low-slung city of inter-connected buildings, aligned along circular lines of communication, across which curving, shard-like apartment blocks and office complexes radiate, is still exhilarating. Courtyards, walkways and dozens of small parks break up the dense bands of development, creating an urban environment that blurs the lines between indoor and outdoor space and encourages a sense of community. It’s a perfect distillation of the period between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s when Space Age optimism seemed certain to provide new answers for a New World. Chuck in a monorail and throw a couple of plastisteel domes over the top and you have Logan’s Run, without the dystopia.
Or at least you would if the city had ever been finished but forty years after it was born, Auroville barely qualifies as a township. True, it sports several impressive public buildings, amongst them Anger’s Matrimandir, the first phase of the Town Hall he co-designed with Indian architect Anupama Kundoo and a Visitors Centre by Franco-Indian architect Suhasini Ayer-Guigan. True too, it is self-sufficient in power, water and food and recycles almost all of its waste.
Still, Auroville feels fragmentary. Cellphone transmission is often blocked by the trees, street signs still don’t have streets to indicate and even the main roads are rutted, red earth tracks, dusty in the dry season, mud-traps when it rains. Yes, its inhabitants include almost 45 nationalities and nearly half of the population is of assorted Indian origin but as of December 2007, the city of 50,000 was still 48,000 short of target.
Arrive with images of Anger’s galactic city in mind and Auroville will disappoint. It’s difficult to decide whether the city is emerging from the jungle or returning to it and tempting to dismiss it as another stillborn Utopia, a pipe dream that could not survive the cultural end of the 1960’s.
Tempting, but not accurate. Compared to 1968, there’s actually a whole lot of Auroville around, if you know where to look. It’s a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
When the first settlers arrived, they discovered their new home was barren. Deforested, with any new vegetation eaten by goats from the nearby villages, monsoon rains ran into the Bay of Bengal, flushing rich red topsoil straight into the sea.
With the exception of the great Banyan by the Matrimandir, almost every one of the 2 million trees that are so overwhelmingly present today, were planted by hand. The first batches died. Digging by hand, residents built dams, channels and underground berms to trap the rain and force it to drain downwards and replenish the water table. Neighbouring villagers were persuaded to graze their animals elsewhere and eventually grass began to grow and the saplings began to survive. If Auroville looks lush today is thanks to the sweat of its brow, not the grace of God.
Nor has it had an easy ride politically. When Alfassa died in 1973, a battle for control erupted between Aurovillians and the new heads of the ashram. The city ground to a halt. In 1980, Indian authorities intervened and the tussle turned legal. In 1988, the court ruled in favour of Auroville, irrevocably severed its links with the ashram and through an act of parliament, created the Auroville Foundation.
The Act endowed Auroville with a triumvirate of governing bodies (local, national and international), reconfirmed its unique status (residents have special visas and the city is not subject to government control) and mandated a new development plan, which was finally ratified in 2001. After nearly 30 years, Auroville was free to pick up where it had left off.
In some ways, the hiatus had been a blessing. Auroville used the time to plan. Its guidelines, laid out by Mother at its founding, were straightforward but complicated to enact. A ban on private property was easily managed, a money-free economy more complicated but a money-free economy that was also integrated with the outside world, well that was far more difficult.
Then there were the purely physical challenges. Building a sustainable, densely inhabited city in a climate that demanded doors and windows remain open if environmentally unfriendly air-conditioning was to be eliminated, raised thorny issues of privacy and noise control. Realising that if they were to build this city, they would have to come up with innovative solutions, Aurovillians used the stasis of the 70’s and 80’s to experiment.
German architect Poppo Pingel, who later designed the undulating dome-studded Natural Healing Centre at Quiet, Auroville’s seaside outpost and the decidedly Japanese-looking Afsaneh Guest House, ditched concrete and glass and began working with rammed earth, timber and mud instead.
Satprem Maini, an architect of French origin who arrived in the late 1980’s and currently runs the Earth institute at Auroville’s Building Centre, took earth-based building in a different direction. He developed a range of hand-operated machines that produce compressed earth bricks. Maini’s bricks are robust but do not need firing, doubling their environmental cachet. A yellowy-orange colour, they have been used all over Auroville, perhaps to greatest effect in two of Ayer-Guigan’s projects: the Auroville Visitors Centre and the Solar Kitchen, where 2000 free meals are prepared each day using steam generated by a giant roof-mounted parabolic reflector.
Anger too, was experimenting. His prototype neighbourhood, Auromodele, used ferrocement to create flowing, sculptural buildings, part art and part architecture, which appear to grow out of the ground. Photos taken during construction are hallucinatory. Aurovillians in loincloths, carrying pick-axes and baskets of earth on their heads, stand in front of structures that would look every bit as startling in Disney’s Tomorrowland as they did on the still barren plains of southeast India.
Auromodele marked a radical departure for Auroville. Existing communities like Aspiration, were kraal-like clusters of huts with communal kitchens and relaxation areas built out of palm thatch and casuarina wood using modified indigenous building techniques. Anger’s houses were not only more solid, providing better protection against the elements and the legions of ants and termites that returned to Auroville with the trees, but were also equipped with their own kitchens and bathrooms, introducing an element of individualism to what had thus far been a communal experience.
Simultaneously, Anger began work on a cluster of what would become some of Auroville’s most iconic buildings. Each, in their own way, experimented with form but also preconceptions of privacy, function and hierarchy, not always entirely successfully.
After School was a low, undulating bubble-like building that looked like it belonged at the bottom of an ocean. Organised around a central garden courtyard, classrooms were personal spaces of exploration, where students were free to choose their own topics of study. The Language Labs, with their curving corridors, round rooms and spiky roofs that lent them the appearance of a cluster of atomic pineapples, encouraged a necessary sense of intimacy through layout, rather than by resorting to walls. The Pyramid Arts Centre, originally another school, appears impenetrable from outside, windows no more than horizontal slits in the double pyramid structure, but inside, it was airy and completely open-plan, individual teaching areas defined by changes in the height of the floor, acoustically designed in a way that voices did not carry from area to area. Last School, perhaps the most striking of all, was almost windowless and like the Pyramid, also open-plan. Light filtered into the building through its arcaded roof of upturned hollow square-shaped funnels made out of a specially treated fabric that also doubled as rain-harvesters.
With a largely middle-class, often financially independent population and a planning department that invited innovation, Auroville had no trouble attracting architects. R. Chakrapani (the Bharat Nivas Indian cultural complex) and later arrivals like Kundoo, Ayer-Guigan, Helmut Schmidt (the very Gruppo 7-esque Savitri Bhavan cultural complex and a series of striking water towers) and Sonali Phadnis (open-air meeting hall at Aurovindo Bhavan), all helped flesh out Auroville’s evolution while privately-funded homes, built on the understanding that they remained municipal property, gave young architects like Dominic Dube, Fabian Ostner, Ananda and Jana Dreikhausen the chance to adapt the architectural trends of the last half century to a tropical climate.
Turning forty this year, Auroville is in its best shape for decades. With the Matrimandir finished and grants secured to restore its ageing buildings, plans to pave main roads, finish the city centre and start on the first public housing projects, have been revived.
The town’s renaissance has been accompanied by a revival of interest in its founding passions. Talk of the need for a socially and ecologically sustainable existence is becoming mainstream, self-sufficiency smacks more of common sense than Survivalism and the desire for more equitable and enriching ways for humans to interact has renewed appeal in a world fragmented by confrontation.
Auroville doesn’t pretend it has the answers but it is convinced that it will one day. The newly burgeoning wait-list of prospective residents suggests that more and more people feel the same way.
As it once again looks towards the future, it does so having lost an important link with its past. Roger Anger passed away in January at the age of 85. He lived just long enough to see the Matrimandir, his most profound expression of the city’s ethos, completed. Repository of light and silence, a space of meditation, of imagination and transformation, like the town itself, the Matrimandir is a space of endless becoming. In Auroville, getting there is all the fun.
Originally Published in Wallpaper
Photo © Warren Singh-Bartlett