Matrimandir is unlike any other building in the world.
When Piero, who supervised the construction for many years, is asked if it has influenced any other existing structure, he shakes his head. “In today's world, who would build such a complicated and impractical thing?! But, at the same time, it has fascinated many, many people.”
The experts, Piero notes, often didn't realize what they were getting into when they volunteered to take up one of the many complex technical challenges. There were also some pretty strange ideas circulating in the early years. “For example, at the beginning the globe in the chamber was supposed to float in the air. But how? Somebody worked out that the globe could float 5 centimetres above the floor if we created a strong magnetic field. The only problem was that if anybody got too close, anything metallic, like keys or coins, would be irresistibly attracted out of their pockets! Another researcher had the idea to fill a light plastic globe with helium. The drawback here was that any change in atmospheric pressure would have made it sink to the floor or disappear up to the ceiling. Then there was the man who wanted to fit three hydraulic pistons to each of the 1200 disks. The pistons would be controlled by a central computer and the idea was that the disks would move in waves! But people didn't find it ridiculous to study such things. On the contrary, they took it as a serious challenge.”
Piero was challenged himself. Arriving in Auroville as a young architect soon after the inauguration, he began by designing houses. However, as soon as the construction of the Matrimandir began, his engineering skills were called upon and for the next 20 years he became the man to whom everybody on site referred to for technical guidance.
“I started by doing the geometrical drawings of the building: these were not yet fully defined when I began work. Then I would bring them to Chennai for the necessary calculations to be made. Based on these I would do all the drawings to execute the structure. This meant the design of the reinforcement, the scaffolding, the wooden form work, the lifting devices – even the wheelbarrows! On top of that I was doing the practical on-site supervision. It was a huge job. There were always problems to be solved and sometimes it was necessary to make major adjustments. For example, originally there were four ramps, one for each rib, but this made it difficult to get adequate clearance, so with Roger we decided to eliminate two of them.
“Technically, such a heavy structure sitting on only four pillars of very limited section was a huge challenge for an engineer to calculate. Luckily there was this brilliant man, Santhanam, who was also ‘captured' by Matrimandir. He was a junior engineer in the Madras Structural Research Centre and he began by writing a computer programme to make all the necessary calculations. It took him one and a half years just to write that programme, but eventually he got what he wanted: the most accurate results for the building's safety.”
The original idea was that the Aurovilians would do the foundation for the four pillars but then an outside contractor would take over and complete Matrimandir. But when the foundation had been completed, many Aurovilians wanted to carry on. Piero wrote to Mother asking for guidance. She told him that what they were doing was very good and that they should continue. “I was probably one of the dreamers who wanted to carry on,” says Piero. “but somehow I forgot it would probably take a good part of my life. And when I realized... but how could I have said to Mother that I couldn't spend so much time on this? It was such a privilege.”
In fact, Piero was to spend more than twenty years supervising the work on the structure. His last task was the inner chamber. “When we finished that and the crystal globe had been put in place, those of us working there felt that the essential work had been done. From that moment people could go to the chamber for concentration, as Mother had wished.”
What kept Piero going all those years? “Even before starting work on Matrimandir I read the conversation where Mother describes the inside of the chamber as a white space pierced by a sun's ray falling on a globe. It was a mystery, a beautiful and fascinating thing, and that passage has remained a huge source of inspiration for me. And then there was the satisfaction of finding a way of building the Matrimandir without a contractor.
“I knew people were depending upon me, but I never felt I couldn't do it. There was so much help – I was working with a very good team – and there was also this feeling of heroism, of doing something exceptional.”
Piero remembers one of the high points being the 24 hour concreting for the foundation for the pillars. “It was a fantastic experience. Mother sent flowers and we went on through the night, all these people working in this huge pit under lights. It was like something out of a film. The students from the Ashram School came to help, and they were radiating such joy because they were building the temple of The Mother . Even now, years later, when I meet some of them they tell me they have such a sweet memory of that time.”
Ruud Lohman described the Matrimandir as a people-transformer. Did Piero also feel that Matrimandir was building them at the same time as they were building it? “Very much so. You'd see people arrive, offering to help. Some left very soon, but with those who stayed longer often some unexpected talent emerged, like Ruud and his bar-bending. It's very moving this, when you see someone suddenly finding themselves in their right place. And this happened many times.”
Does 21st February, 2007, have a special significance for Piero? “Not really, although it was good to set a date to motivate the finishing of the work. In 1991, when we put the crystal globe in the chamber we did it in a very Aurovilian way – without inviting people, without ceremony – and it felt O.K.
“Today, I'm happy for Roger that the structure will soon be completed. He's shown such a remarkable will to go on for so many years more then me. Some of his ideas seemed so impractical but somehow, after so many good and bad experiments, a way has been found to materialise them. He's done a magnificent work there.”
Piero's regret – and one shared by many Aurovilians – is that he and Roger and Paulo Tommasi could not have worked more closely together on the construction of Matrimandir. “Somehow, it happened in spite of us rather than through a conscious collaboration. We three would have made a very good combination as we complement each other. I had the technical skills, Paulo held Mother's vision for the inner chamber and Roger has seen through the work on the general design, the petals, disks, inner skin etc.”
It's one of the paradoxes of Matrimandir: that a project initially designed to bring the Aurovilians together has generated so much controversy over the years. But Gloria, Piero's wife and co-worker, remembers that Mother had said that the stronger the light, the stronger would be the opposition. “So for me it is almost natural that there have been so many attacks on Matrimandir as Mother put such an extraordinary force there.” “It's an amplifier,” adds Piero. “It accentuates both the best and the worst of us. So now let's use it for the best.”