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Auroville Adventure


December 2003

Towards a Township

- by Alan
The long journey from isolated settlements to urban living

 

Here's a conundrum. Auroville, as the name suggests, is intended to be a town. Yet, 35 years after its inauguration, it is still little more than a scattering of settlements with a few outposts of urbanization. This summer Auroville schoolchildren were invited to imagine the city of the future. What did they draw? Nothing resembling a city but rather an Auroville of rivers, forests, reindeer, snowmen and giant ferris-wheels (and, of course, Matrimandirs) over which rocket-powered Aurovilians flit like dragonflies.

Final galaxy town plan (1971) with the banyan tree, the amphitheatre and the Matrimandir and its gardens in the centre

Why is it taking so long not just to build, but even to imagine the town? The answer lies partly in external circumstances but also within the Aurovilians themselves...

In 1965, when Mother invited Roger to design the township, the energy for manifestation was high. Mother began by making a few rough drawings indicating four zones and their orientation. In March, 1966, Roger submitted two proposals to Mother. One was a fairly conventional grid-type town plan, the other a circular concept reminiscent of Mother's symbol. Mother enthusiastically accepted the latter, saying “He received my formation, my old formation which I had left asleep”. This became known as the ‘Nebula' model. Roger reported, however, that Mother wanted the concept to be made dynamic. In November, 1967, Roger returned with a new model – the so-called ‘macrostructure' model – in which two huge buildings swirled around a central core. Mother did not like huge buildings blocking the view of the centre, so Roger started splitting the macrostructure model into smaller elements. Finally, in February 1968, he presented the first ‘Galaxy' model. Here the long curved sweeps, which give the impression of centripetal and centrifugal forces radiating in and out of the centre, were defined by what Roger termed ‘lines of force': long, curving buildings, some of which ascended, some of which descended as they approached the centre. At the centre of the original Galaxy model was a massive sculpture of a flame surrounded by a vast, circular lake. By 1971 that centre had been redesigned as an oval island encompassing the Banyan tree, the amphitheatre and the site for Matrimandir and its gardens.

The extraordinary Galaxy plan was an inspiration for many. It came at the right time: the youthful idealism of the 60s was strong and young people were searching for new forms to embody a new consciousness. But it proved, like other dreams of the 1960s, very difficult to materialize. True, by early 1972 construction had begun on both Bharat Nivas and Matrimandir. However, much of the land in the area designated for the city had still to be purchased. Moreover the countries of the world had not come together to build this city of the future, as Mother had intended (“The completeness and the beauty of the town depend on the generosity of the world”), and consequently the vast funding required for the construction of the Galaxy did not materialize. At the same time, doubts about the wisdom of constructing it at all began to surface. Why? At that time, many Aurovilians were in close contact with the land and the local villagers. As they began to learn about that land, and as their rhythms attuned more and more to natural cycles and the slow pace of life in rural Tamil Nadu, the futuristic Galaxy with its huge buildings and moving sidewalks appeared more and more like science fiction, the product of another world which knew nothing and cared nothing about local realities. As one Aurovilian starkly put it, “The Galaxy is an imposition on nature, on the villages and on the Aurovilians”.

Other factors militated against early completion. The Galaxy would be highly energy-intensive both in terms of construction and maintenance. This hadn't seemed a problem when it was first designed, for energy was cheap and plentiful. However, the first oil crisis in the early 1970s and the rise of the environmental movement made such town plans look increasingly profligate and irresponsible. Meanwhile the pendulum was swinging away from macro-housing projects: cities like Chicago were demolishing large, multi-storey housing complexes because of the social problems they engendered. Then again, no manual, no guidance existed concerning the phasing of the construction. It looked very much as if the main lines of the Galaxy would have to be realized in one go, which would create huge logistical problems. Add in the fact that some Aurovilians were fleeing all forms of urbanization as well as hierarchical structures where the architect (or anybody) is king and one begins to realize why it was so difficult to get the Galaxy off the drawing board. For some Aurovilians the most trenchant criticism was expressed by another architect, Joel. “I think almost everybody in Auroville would agree that the primary thing is not a ‘finished product' but a certain inner process of consciousness, and the forms will evolve from that process”.

However, perhaps the key element in the failure to materialize the original vision was the fact that Mother was no longer physically present. In March, 1972, she told Satprem that for her plan for Auroville to succeed not only would she have to remain in her body, but she would also have to become strong. If the city was to be built fast – and she repeatedly told him she wanted it to be completed within 15-25 years – it had to be centrally planned and built. Only Mother's authority would have made that possible. When she left it became inevitable that subsequent development would be more piecemeal, more ‘organic'.

Not surprisingly, Roger grew increasingly frustrated. Finally in 1974, fed up with what he termed “conservative opposition” unwilling “to push the future forward”, he resigned from the committee of organization. Subsequently he left for a long self-imposed exile in France. The increasingly vicious and disruptive struggle between many Aurovilians and the Sri Aurobindo Society which characterized much of the later 1970s seemed the final nail in the coffin of the Galaxy...

Not yet dead

Yet the idea that Auroville would eventually be a city was not completely dead. Land already purchased in the central area (in 1982, 50% of the city area had been acquired) was planted out with trees, but the general understanding was that this was a temporary measure: one day the city would be there. But what kind of city? Roger said that Mother gave him only two initial parameters: one was the division into four zones, the other was the figure of 50,000 inhabitants. Now both of these parameters were questioned. It was pointed out that in conventional town planning the strict zoning principle had fallen out of favour because of its tendency to create ‘dead' zones.

As to the 50,000, the early Aurovilians had grown used to inhabiting wide open spaces and many couldn't imagine how another 49,500 could be shoehorned into the area without the carefully restored environment once again being devastated. In fact one senior Auroville architect suggested that 10,000 inhabitants was the absolute maximum which could be accommodated.

Others, while accepting Mother's guidelines, doubted that the Galaxy concept was the best way of achieving them. Ajit's study of historic city architecture in India and abroad led him to believe that 50,000 could be accommodated in the designated township area not through massive lines of force but through high-density, low-rise constructions which utilized local materials and people-friendly spaces and perspectives, all unified by a common ‘pattern language'. Others didn't agree. In the circumstances, as Joel Goodman expressed it in 1982, the feeling was that “we are simply not yet ready to start the city”.

Some Aurovilians wouldn't accept this. For them the city was an integral part of Mother's vision for Auroville and shouldn't be postponed into an indefinite future. In the mid 1980s, Paulette and Gilles Guigan made studies to ascertain exactly what Mother wanted for ‘the city of the dawn'. When these were circulated widely in the community they helped generate a new appreciation of her intentions. Meanwhile some old-timers, exhausted by the daily battle with goats and high-maintenance greenbelt living, were beginning to look afresh at the advantages of apartment living, while many newcomers tended to have professional backgrounds and lacked the hang-ups regarding urbanization which burdened some of the hard-core pioneers. But where were these new arrivals to live? For it was becoming very difficult to find accommodation or a site to build in existing settlements, newcomers were discouraged from starting new settlements and the city area remained off-limits.

Practical dreaming

1988 was something of a watershed. The Auroville Foundation Act was passed, marking a new period of stability, and Roger had returned, stating “There is more fraternity and more authenticity than before.” Now he clarified that he had never intended the original Galaxy plan to be manifested in all its details; the details had only been included “to give a sense of completion”.

Suddenly there was a new spirit of flexibility and cooperation in the air. “We must become practical dreamers”, said Luigi, one of Roger's closest associates, while Ed, a long-term greenbelter, mused that Sri Aurobindo's symbol might provide the key to a new way forward: the ascending aspiration of the earth meeting the vision descending from above within the square of integration.

Meanwhile the first priority remained obtaining funds. In 1989 Auroville sent a portfolio of funding requests for land purchase and infrastructure development to the Human Resource Development Ministry to be forwarded to the Planning Commission, Government of India. The total requested was 56.6 crores rupees ($38 million). The Planning Commission politely requested further details. As such huge wish lists without any kind of context were clearly not going to get us anywhere, and as the community urgently needed to agree upon development priorities, it was decided to draw up an Auroville Development Plan for the next five years. In 1991 a Development and Planning Coordination Group was formed to prepare this plan for approval by the Residents Assembly. The Group, which was constituted of people with widely divergent views, made some progress in defining priorities and came up with the Auroville Development Perspectives document, but eventually the gulf between the ‘visionaries' and those who favoured ‘organic' development proved too wide and the experiment collapsed.

In 1992 a Development Group was established with more specific objectives: to make recommendations regarding the location and density of constructions in the Residential and Industrial Zones. The urgency of the need to evolve guidelines for development in the city – where construction had at last begun – enabled them to come up with practical recommendations.

Nothing is fixed

This new spirit of pragmatism was evident in May, 1994, when the first ‘Master Plan' was approved by the Residents Assembly and the Governing Board. What is striking about this plan is that, as one of its drafters explained, “It only defines what is necessary and widely agreed upon at this stage of Auroville's development, giving ample space for everything unfolding. The report says that nothing can be considered as fixed, final and determined until it has finally been put into matter.” In this plan there are no lines of force, no densely urbanized cityscapes. And while the geometricism of the Galaxy is still evident in the perfectly circular Crown and outer ring road, the dynamic sweeps are now defined by four city parks which divide the zones, while the original radial roads have been reduced from twelve to eight. The mantra now was ‘green city', ‘sustainable city'.

However, as construction activity exploded, particularly in the Residential Zone, there were the beginnings of a backlash. Even opponents of the original Galaxy concept conceded that it represented a unified vision of development, whereas now every new settlement reflected the taste of the presiding architect rather than any attempt to attain a larger synthesis. Meanwhile supporters of the Galaxy concept became increasingly concerned that the last vestiges of it would be snuffed out by architects and individuals more interested in realizing their own visions. In 1998 a Development Group with strong loyalty to Roger assumed responsibility for granting or denying building permission within Auroville. Their somewhat inflexible approach soon made them unpopular. Meanwhile the Planning Group, which had responsibility for issuing development guidelines, continued to affirm they were open to anyone working with them. The proviso, however, was that Roger's was the final authority, a condition which alienated some potential collaborators.

Exactly where Roger stood in all this is hard to say. When he returned to Auroville in 1988 he stated that the Galaxy concept “contains in its entirely the message of Mother and the dream She had for us.” At the same time he stressed that, “I am not here to impose anything – it is up to Auroville to find it, to define itself.” Later he was to affirm that nothing in the town plan was fixed, with the exception of the lines of force, the high-rise buildings which, he explained, “are essential for the silhouette of the city and for integrating all access to the city centre”. While his statements over the years about the town seem somewhat confusing, even contradictory, the reality seems to be that he remains faithful to certain features of the original Galaxy –like the lines of force and the fact there be no visual separation between Matrimandir and the inner city – while being willing to modify the original plan. Recently he mentioned that he no longer wants to be seen as the architect of the city, but rather as an advisor. Whenever there is a problem, he stated, “I am willing to be the final judge to keep Mother in the reality of the town.”

Land speculation

In early 1999, a new element entered the equation. A large plot of land in the Green Belt was bought by speculators who threatened to build a big housing colony. This new threat to Auroville's geographical integrity led to the establishment of a Land Use Coordination Committee with the brief to draw up a land use plan. This, a visiting town planner explained, “is the main part of a Master Plan that shows how the land is reserved for specific purposes. Once there is an approved land use plan for Auroville we can request the authorities concerned to protect the land for Auroville against speculators and unwanted development.” In July a revised Master Plan, incorporating land use, was approved by the Residents Assembly and sent to the Governing Board. The latter approved it in principle, but requested that experienced town planners be consulted prior to sending the document to the Central Government. Two very senior town planners with experience in metropolitan urban planning offered their help.

The result of this collaboration was the drafting, in early 2001, of the first phase of the Auroville Universal Township Master Plan. This was a 25 year ‘perspective' plan containing the broad concepts for the town's development. In April, 2001 this was approved by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The second phase is a more detailed 5 year development plan. “We start,” explains Lalit, a member of Auroville's Future, the town planning service, “by making assumptions about the population growth of Auroville over the next five years (they assume a population of 5,000 by 2006), and from that we estimate the likely patterns of consumption for water, transport, energy etc. Then we make surveys to establish present consumption levels and come out with a blueprint suggesting what kind of development could take place in the near future.” Lalit's colleague, Pashi, believes that Aurovilians' attitudes to urban development have tended to be based upon emotion rather than hard facts. “So we need to come to statistic-based and data-based thinking to see what is practically possible and what is not.”

On 20th January, 2003 the efforts of the town planners and Land Use Coordination Committee began to bear fruit. The Tamil Nadu Government issued a Government Order stipulating that, in future, layout approval on private land within the Auroville Township Master Plan area would require a ‘no objection' certificate from the Auroville Foundation.

Zone by zone

What is the reality of the township today, zone by zone? In the Industrial Zone development has been relatively slow: today less than one third of our productive units are situated in this zone. Development has been hampered by water scarcity, poor access and lack of suitable land. The latest idea is to rename this zone the Auroshilpam Economic Zone (‘Auroshilpam' was Mother's name for the Industrial Zone): while offices would be located here for administration and research, the bulk of manufacturing would be outsourced.

In the Cultural Zone Transition School was constructed in 1985 and later a large sports ground was established. Recently, a high school – Future School – has come up close to Transition. The Zone has also seen the establishment of a Youth Centre and an artists' colony – Kalabhumi – although the status of the latter as a permanent settlement in the Cultural Zone was long in doubt.

For many years, the incomplete Bharat Nivas remained the sole outpost in the International Zone. Only recently has it begun to assume its true role as India's pavilion. Simultaneously its international character has been underlined by the construction of Sri Aurobindo World Center for Human Unity in its midst. Other major developments in the International Zone have been the Visitors Centre complex, which was inaugurated in 1991, and Savitri Bhavan, a study centre for the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Mother.

 

First Master Plan of Auroville, 1994, showing the city area

However, one of the key components of the International Zone – the pavilions of different nations and cultures – have taken much longer to manifest. To date, in addition to Bharat Nivas only the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture, the Student Guest House of the American Pavilion and the first phase of the Unity Pavilion have been constructed. There are various reasons for this. Cost is one factor, but the slow pace of development is also due to ambiguous responses to the pavilions' concept from the Aurovilians themselves. Some feel that, in an increasingly internationalized world, it is an outmoded concept which would merely encourage chauvinism; others fear that nations with the most resources will dominate the space available. Many others are unclear about what ‘their' pavilion should display as expressions of the soul of their nation. Even the suggested grouping of the pavilions in the International Zone has undergone radical changes over the years. The present plan is to group the pavilions by continent, each continent having a central plaza or campus round which its nations and cultures will coalesce.

Residential explosion

By far the most activity in the city area over the last 15 years has taken place in the Residential Zone, driven by an increasingly serious accommodation shortage. From the late 1980s onwards major new settlements came up in the south east sector of the zone. Each project was a learning experience, both for architect and clients. The advantages for the architects included the ability to express their ideas on a wider canvas and the savings in energy and, theoretically at least, costs accruing from modular construction techniques (actually, construction costs on almost all these projects ended up wildly exceeding original estimates). Meanwhile the inhabitants of these new communities were saved – to a greater or lesser extent – the energy-sapping experience of being responsible for the construction of their own accommodation.

The two main criticisms directed at these new settlements relate to aesthetics and lifestyle. For while each settlement tends to have its own architectural language, little or no attempt has been made to relate this language or to connect in any way with settlements nearby to create the beginnings of an ‘urban fabric'. As to lifestyle: many of these settlements were presented as opportunities for Aurovilians and newcomers to experience community. However, living in proximity to others does not automatically make for community. In recent years there has been a movement to construct settlements that will foster greater collectivity. For example, while the ‘Creativity' project is still not completed, its future inhabitants have been meeting regularly for almost two years to discuss their needs and agree upon guidelines for harmonious living. Another experiment in high-density community living is the Line of Force project, the first part of which was completed last year.

Recently, in spite of a continuing shortage of accommodation, the apartment boom has ground almost to a halt. Developers like Rolf point out that the demand has slackened because costs have escalated (he estimates that the cost of construction doubles every 5-6 years). At the same time, developers find it difficult to get the up-front money they need for apartment projects as they cannot obtain conventional loans. One possibility being floated is that Auroville business units extend loans which could be repaid through renting out the completed apartments to community members. However, this is still a controversial topic.

Final lay-out as presented in the Auroville Universal Township Masterplan Perspective 2025, approved by the Government of IndiaOther development constraints include uncertainty about water resources in the Residential Zone and a lack of coordination, even competing agendas, between the various groups and individuals responsible for housing matters. Projects like Kailash and Courage have almost foundered on disputes between the Development Group and the architects involved, while newcomers seeking accommodation frequently recount harrowing experiences of being bounced back and forth between the Entry Group, the Development Group and the Housing Group.


A little help from our friends

For many years, the Aurovilians involved in town planning were amateurs with much enthusiasm but little expertise. As the problems became more complex, so their shortcomings became more obvious. Crucially, they were unable to come up with basic principles of urban design, described by the architect Helmut as “the ground rules for building up the city – rules which are clear enough and flexible enough to carry over to a new generation of designers, builders and users.”

In the late 1990s a young town planner offered his help, and subsequently we have had the assistance of two very senior metropolitan town planners. A German traffic planner has also offered his help in evolving a concept for a pedestrian-friendly, pollution-free transport system within the city. All of this has introduced a new spirit of professionalism into our town planning process.

The other main fillip to the development of the town in recent years has been Auroville's participation in the Asia-Urbs programme. This idea behind this European Commission-funded project was for European cities to transfer their best practices in urban governance, sustainable energy generation, waste disposal etc. to city partners in Asia. Auroville at present is far from being a township, let alone a city, but the enthusiasm and drive of Aurovilians like Luigi and Sauro, and the fact that Auroville was still something of a tabula rasa, something which fascinated many town planners, managed to convince the organizers that Auroville should be included. Under one Asia-Urbs project, Auroville was partnered with Venice and Cologne. Not only did it receive valuable town planning assistance from each municipality, it also received major funding from the European Commission for the Auroville Centre for Urban Research (ACUR). This, the first building in Auroville's administrative zone, opened recently and presently houses Auroville's town planning and development groups, along with many other key working groups. In effect, ACUR is our first town hall.

What are we building?

Various people, including India's pre-eminent town planner, Mr. Doshi, have remarked that in Auroville we're building much more than a physical township – we're trying to build a new consciousness. And this requires not bricks and mortar, master plans and subsidies, but goodwill, honesty, transparency and, above all, a willingness to open ourselves to another reality. For Mother said more than once that the town is already built: we merely have to bring it down, to materialize it.

How do we go about this? More than anything it implies a surrender – of our hang-ups regarding urbanization, of our preconceptions concerning what a city should look like, of our suspicions regarding the motives of fellow Aurovilians – along with a full commitment to make Auroville a town, not a snooze of suburbs.

The last thirty five years have not been wasted. Instead of the Aurovilians moving into a ready-built city – the original concept – Auroville became a laboratory for the organic working out of many problems. We have learned much – about the land, about construction in the tropics, about the needs of the bioregion and its people, about ourselves. Today, we have a chance to take the next step. A new group, the Auroville Planning and Development Council, has been constituted to work on all issues relating to planning and development. Its membership is diverse, its size, perhaps, unwieldy. But if they can pool Auroville's collective experience of the last 35 years and then listen, not only to each other but to Mother's voice as it speaks through our defective instrumentation, perhaps, just perhaps, we'll be able to pass at last beyond the either/or right/wrong monotony of our argumentation to that space where Mother's city – whatever that city may be – flashes like the morning star, calling us to a brand new day

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