Concrete Contradictions

(Reflections around Sustainability; take-aways from ACEDGE course, ‘Building without Concrete’ mentored by Ar. Sanjay Prakash, Shift Studio, Delhi.)

By Rama Raghavan
Assistant professor, NDMVP College of Architecture, Nashik

How to become modern and to return to sourceshowto revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization”.[i]

This paradox, which was thrown to the masses in 1965 by French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his seminal work ‘History and Truth’, was a strong reaction against Modernization and Universalization that had started taking over the world post the Industrial revolution. This was the period of birth of the Architecture of Resistance[i],so wonderfully illustrated by Architect and theoretician Kenneth Frampton in1983.

On the one hand, the futurists were advocating for cuttingties from the past and moving towards newer modern pastures. On the other hand,the war against the futurist revolutionaries, the concrete lovers and brutal builders had begun being waged by a reasonably large group of people who dwelled in the nostalgia of their vernacular past.

For the third group however, like Frampton, Ricoeur and several others who were stragglers, trapped in nostalgia but ready to take in what the future had to offer, it was about the perfect balance. How could one achieve a cohesive amalgamation of the wisdom from the past and make sense of it along with the innovations that the future had to offer. How could one be critical of both in order to metamorphose into an even strong space conception born out of the two? This architecture would signify the wheel of time in a sense.

Geoffrey Bawa’s photograph of the courtyard at the Ena de Silva House.Image source- Archdaily

Aren’t most of us stragglers in some way or the other? We advocate preservation of cultural heritage but build aspirations of a lifestyle which supports our contemporary needs. As architects, we speak of going back to the roots and build notions about alternative materials but we cannot completely forgo the comfort of our evolved lifestyles which are built around modern materials.

Debates around sustainability have picked up of late in our country. Many of these discussions result into a contemptuous outlook towards modern materials. While truth be told, ‘Sustainability’ is not just about using alternative materials. It involves more than anything, processes that look into judicious ways of using any given material. Be it modern or alternative.[i]

The manner in which one could decide on how ‘Sustainable’ a building is, involves a deep analysis of the processes involved in the construction. One cannot simply say that negation of materials like concrete or glass in a building makes it sustainable. This would be a very shallow approach to understanding sustainable processes.

For instance, if one needs to decide on the material palette of a building to be constructed in a particular context, one needs to do a thorough research on availability of resources close to the site. The closer the materials are to the site, the lesser the energy consumed in transporting  them. The energy consumed for the manufacturing of the material would also be crucial to do a check on. The other steps would be to do a check on various properties of the material itself with respect to the climatic context of that particular context; for instance moisture or humidity resistance. Longer the building lives, the more sustainable it tends to be. Hence criteria like Lifespan and durability of the material would be pertinent to look at, before selection. The social impact of selecting a material is also important as this determines how the building would sensitively respond to the social context,generate employment etc.

A comparative of various materials based on detailed analysis on these various criteria would be able to help one make the right choices.

the climatic context to churn out details that would make the building energy efficient with the given material palette. A combination could also work in many cases.

Many design firms in India are working towards this balance in industrial as well as natural materials.In Auroville, for instance, ‘The Auroville Earth Institute’ has done a lot of research and development on Ferrocement, a material that can yield great forms but does not need as thick cross-sections as reinforced concrete. Similarly, Rammed Earth, Adobe blocks, if stabilized with a certain minimum percentage of cement could become more durable and stable.

Design is always about making choices. And not all choices will be ideal in all aspects. The challenge in the true sense for us as designers would be to become aware of the choices we make. It would be to constantly question the relevance of certain decisions with regard to the context. To critique and contradict; to innovate and ideate; to amalgamate as well as deconstruct; to keep as well as to refrain; to ‘use’ as well as to ‘let go’. Design is all about paradoxes.

Swayam community housing, Dustudio, Auroville.(Image source- Dustudio)
Swayam community housing, Dustudio, Auroville.(Image source- Dustudio)

[i]Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth,1965.

[ii]Towards a critical regionalism- Six points for an architecture of Resistance-Kenneth Frampton

[iii]Alternative materials here indicates naturally sourced materials like Earth,Bamboo, Thatch, Stone etc.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sanjay Prakash says:

    Rama has written a cogent, intellectual response to the primary developmental issues associated with non-concrete construction.

    The battle between concrete and non-concrete is not just a matter of the future vs. the past, as these polarities need not exist. Rather, it is important to recognize two different structural materials (concrete and bamboo, for instance) for their distinct properties and use them differently when and as appropriate, for their respective advantages.

    Materials which take up greater natural resources and create more emission (such as reinforced concrete) naturally need to be used sparingly, and as far as possible only for the best use they can be put to, like any scarce resource. You wouldn’t use gold if you wanted a shiny metallic finish where chromium would work, would you?

    — Sanjay Prakash


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