Architectural Echoes: Reflections of Aspiration

If you happen to find yourself walking from Auroville’s Visitors’ Centre to the Matrimandir, you will no doubt notice a weird-looking building on your left, all angular corrugated tin pointing at once both skywards and downwards, almost to the ground. This is the new accommodation block for the African pavilion; an affordable housing solution for volunteers staying and working at the pavilion.

The design is a copy of the original Aspiration community huts from Auroville’s very earliest days. They were designed and built by Piero Cicionesi who, along with his wife and fellow architect Gloria, arrived in Auroville in 1968 and went on to design and build some of Auroville’s most iconic structures; from houses and schools to community complexes, and they also played a huge role in the construction of the Matrimandir. But the Aspiration huts hold a very special place in the life and soul of Auroville.

It is interesting to note that an early idea for Auroville’s construction was to build the entire city first, and then let the residents in, after ‘cutting the red ribbon’. I first heard this perspective from old-timer and veteran Aurovilian extraordinaire, Frederick. The plan was for the workers to live in Pondicherry and travel in to work on the city, without residents ‘cluttering up the place and getting in the way’. However, what soon became obvious was that the devastated land needed regenerating before large-scale building and landscaping could take place. The topsoil was gone and only baked red earth remained, and all rainwater washed over the land and down into the sea. New trees, once planted, needed protection from hungry goats and humans in search of firewood, so temporary communities developed on the site, beginning the process of reforestation in tandem with the first major building project, the Matrimandir. Although there were earlier buildings in Auroville, going back at least to 1966, the first real working community was at Aspiration.

On the 15th of August, 1969, the first caravan of European pioneers coming to work on Auroville’s construction set out on their epic journey, overland from Paris to Pondicherry. The challenge put before Piero was to have some kind of accommodation ready for them that, in its very nature, expressed the ideals of the Aurovilian dream. The resulting ‘polyhedral huts’ were a unique blend of local, tradition building materials with a forward-looking design. By September 1969 the first 9 huts were completed, along with a communal cafeteria. Those sweeping, steep rooflines of the Aspiration huts were an expression of modern design with practicality at its heart. Keet roofing (coconut leaves) was then a cheap, locally sourced, temporary roofing material, but the steep gradients of the Aspiration design ensured that the roofs dried out quickly and lasted longer. They were designed with ventilation in mind, and also both heat and noise insulation, as far as was practicable. The huts, first square and then hexagonal, were designed as modules that could be linked together by a connecting hallway with a bathroom. In 1969 there were a few huts and one tamarind tree. By the time of another caravan coming from France in 1973, there were trees, saplings and flowers everywhere and a blossoming community. A brochure published in 1973, Auroville Perspective, draws a picture of life at Aspiration, from the point of view of a young Aurovilian child:

Within Aspiration the child learns to walk, to walk in a new grace. Enfolded in an oasis of greenery, a symphony of many-coloured flowers wanders gently through the paths surrounding the polyhedral huts, nestled in cellular arrangements. Central to the clustered dwellings is the dining room and meeting area, adjoined by a coordinating office.

Beyond the temporary educational facilities which face the commons, receding back towards the ravine which winds behind the community, lies the formative services and industries. Auropress [… and] a polyester unit [for] synthetic building materials […] the workshop to be reconstructed [after a fire], a paper factory [and the first phase] of the health centre. The village pastorale, steeped in ancient ways, contrasts in unique symbiosis with the birth to come, the chiaroscuro of ages past and future. ( Cited by W.M. Sullivan in The Dawning of Auroville (Auroville: The Auroville Press, 1994), p. 174.).

Anu Majumdar goes further in her depiction of life in Aspiration in those early days:

Aspiration was the happening place. People knew at once when a new message arrived from the Mother, or else from the group that went to meet her every week. Discussions unfurled across the Aspiration Kitchen, about new levels of consciousness about to be reached any moment. It was an exciting time, the future seemed very close. As Christine recalls with a laugh, ‘We were all very young and everything seemed possible, there was such a freedom. On avait la peché! We had such a drive! (Anu Majumdar, Auroville: A City for the Future (Noida, India: Harper Element, 2017), p. 71.).

Frederick remembers the project as being influenced by the contemporary space age. The city of Auroville was envisaged as being ‘like a biosphere, isolated cells, living independently from society. We were to be a laboratory for the fast-forwarding of human evolution. [In Aspiration] we were like space cadets.’

Walking around what is left of the original Aspiration community, tucked behind the now bustling village of Kuillapallayam, one can still feel something magical in this charmingly Edenic quarter of Auroville. There I met Boris, another long-time Aurovilian, who has been living at Aspiration for the last 27 years. ‘In the early days,’ he reminisced with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘it was a really good place for stargazing.’ Back then, with just the one tamarind tree, Aspiration’s clustered huts stood alone on the barren red landscape that stretched down to the sea. Now those original, much-repaired and many times re-roofed huts, nestle in between a lush and wildly diverse forest, itself testament to those early settlers’ green fingers. Boris pointed out a few choice specimens: ‘That is a ficus religiosa or ‘Buddha Tree’. It is a sacred tree in two religions! It was under such a tree that the Buddha reached enlightenment.’ This particular example was planted around 1973, when the Dalai Lama first visited Auroville/Aspiration.

Aspiration is a place that flickers between past and present as the dappled gold light of the February sun splashes through the forest canopy overhead. One cannot help but reflect on those early days here. Frederick tells me of plans to make what is left of Aspiration a Heritage site, to protect what is left of Auroville’s unique and beautiful beginnings. It was also Frederick’s idea to build an updated recreation of Piero’s Aspiration hut in the International Zone, partly as a conscious reflection on Auroville’s past, and partly as a tribute to the simply stunning contribution that Piero and Gloria have made to Auroville over the years. The African pavilion jumped at the opportunity. ‘The main problem in drawing African volunteers to Auroville is one of finance,’ said Eric, a mainstay of the African pavilion, as we stood together in their new Aspiration hut. ‘Guesthouses in Auroville are too expensive for many Africans, so they don’t come.’ The pavilion has experimented with a campsite, which was successful, but something more permanent was desperately needed. Auroville’s 50th Anniversary fund, consisting of both Indian Government and private grants, was able to assist in the funding of this architectural echo from the past. ‘Those young hippies in ’69 were very “hands-on”,’ Frederick told me. ‘They got things done; they improvised. There is something of that pioneering spirit in the African pavilion right now.’ The first Aspiration huts in ’69 housed 14 pioneers from Paris. This new-old Aspiration hut will house 18 volunteers, hopefully all from Africa. It should be ready by April 2019.

Further information on Piero and Gloria’s life and work can be found here, including the original Aspiration community and much more: https://www.auroville.org/contents/3523

Matthew Tildesley
February 2019

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