|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2021|
[ID:3411] The Bespoke Museum and What It Speaks of: Studying Climate Resilient Tribal Homes and The Tribal Museum of Bhopal
“You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared.”
Traditional Indian architecture has long withstood the extremes of varying geographical and climatic conditions that exist within the country. Be it torrential rain, scorching heat or even high seismic activity, dwellings in India have always stood their ground against the climate strains. Tribal architecture, in particular, is informed by both aesthetics and climate resilience.
Conversely, modern architecture has found it difficult to develop the traditional practices and has shifted to concrete and brick structures which rely on mechanical solutions to respond to the climate. These buildings succeed in keeping the user comfortable, but, rather than utilizing form and material to respond to climate, they use power-driven means. This in-turn causes more climate change and sever weather states.
In this essay, a study of two sites - a tribal home just off a state highway and the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum – supplements an understanding of climate resilience of architecture in the central Indian state Madhya Pradesh, which largely reflects that of the entire country.
I first met Dhawat Singh when his work was displayed by my mother at an exhibit many years ago and his family has extended an invite to ours to visit their village at every meeting, proud to display their heritage to anyone who comprehends its true glory and determined to convince those who don’t. The entire family is involved in creating Gond tribal art. The first site, “the dwelling”, is his ancestral home. He splits his time between Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, and the village he was raised in. His family has made the small hut their home for four generations now and continue to pay respect to their lineage by conserving their humble abode.
A sculpture made by Dhawat’s late older brother gloriously takes its place at the second site, “the museum”, the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum. Envisioned by the Tribal Welfare Ministry and implemented by the Cultural Ministry, the museum celebrates the ways of life practiced by the seven major tribes in the state – the Gond, Bhil, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol and Bhariya – through their dwellings and their crafts. The architect of the building, Revathi Kamath, took inspiration from the forms, traditions, activities and dances of the communities that inspired it to develop the one of its kind, bespoke museum.
‘The dwelling’ is located in the south-eastern part of Madhya Pradesh while ‘the museum’ is located in the center. Their micro-climate is, thus, different which adds to the differences in nature of the space-making and function.
Madhya Pradesh falls in a sub-tropical climate zone. Located in central India, it experiences a long, extremely hot, dry summer. The south-west monsoon winds bring respite from the heat but heavy rain and a big rise in the humidity as well. This makes the region susceptible to flooding and the humidity levels are a cause of great discomfort. The south-eastern part of the state, from where the River Narmada originates, receives 2150mm rainfall while the central part receives about 1100mm. The winter is cool with only some hilly regions experiencing a very cold January.
“To know nothing of what happened before you, is to forever remain a child.”
An extremely early morning flight. A six-hour drive through the wilderness. No phone connectivity for large time periods. A beautiful couple days spent being welcomed into the lives of a small Gond family… Meeting Dhawat and his family, learning about their way of life, experiencing their joy and their strife, understanding the depths of their cultural richness, visiting their home in the village and the thought of living off the land – simple sustenance – was an enriching, even therapeutic, experience.
Dwellings of different tribes in Madhya Pradesh have many features in common – thick mud walls for insulation, pitched roof with wooden trusses to allow water to run off the and a raised plinth to avoid flooding during the heavy rains brought by the monsoon winds.
Gond houses follow the same archetype with a few distinct features. Each space within the house is functional comforting or enhances user experience. These factors are not independent of each other, rather amalgamate to form each home.
Dhawat’s ancestral home is no different. It is located in a village on the foothills of the Vindhya range. The plinth is only a foot tall, lower than the usual height, as the slope caters to drainage and prevents water-logging. The house overlooks the field which is owned by the family, located just as the land becomes plain in nature to allow water to collect there during the monsoon.
A three-sided courtyard with a mud boundary wall on the fourth side dominates the design. It aids ventilation and helps bring in light as there are problems in supply of electricity in the region even today. At the same time, it is a space where the family gathers in the evenings to discuss their day and spend time together. The exterior walls are painted in solid colors, patterns, motifs and figures which symbolize the practices and beliefs of the tribe.
Interior partition walls separate the three sides from each other and are strategically placed according to wind direction to ensure ventilation is not hampered. The unit opposite the boundary wall serves as a sanctum and place to sleep. The units to the sides are for sleeping and cooking.
A small grinder to make flour as well as mini-silos are built as part of the monolithic mud structure and integrate activity with the built form. The position of these within a house is determined by the purpose they serve and by the beliefs of the people.
The openings are small to aid ventilation during the long, dry summer months. The small size of the openings would cause problems during the high humidity of the monsoon. However, the courtyard and the orientation of doors and vents allow the interior to remain comfortable.
Winters are cool, but not overtly so and the house is kept warm using an ‘angeethi’, a small moveable hearth. The thick walls ensure that the heat remains trapped inside.
Families in the village can be split into two factions – those who can only afford to live in mud houses (“kaccha” or ‘of mud’) and those who can afford to build concrete-frame and brick homes (“pakka” or ‘strong’). Dhawat, an artist who understands the significance of his heritage and the need to conserve it, has both. His mother refused to let go of the house and so, it retains its glory while a new, more comfortable house has been built closer to the highway. His family works hard to maintain their old mud home, dealing admirably with the financial strain.
The mud houses are extremely comfortable to live in, except during the monsoon, when moisture seeps into the unbaked walls. This house requires a lot of time and effort for long-term maintenance. It is, however, an inexpensive and eco-friendly maintenance process.
The new cement and brick housing typology has become the better of the two in the eyes of the people, due to its durability. The recent shift is also a result of the promotion of the same by various authorities in India, the allure of the new, the colonization of the mind, lobbying by cement industries etc.
However, these new houses are dependent on mechanical heating, cooling and ventilation and the form is not climate resilient. Moreover, carbon emission increases multifold which leads to climate change and erratic weather conditions, creating a need for an even higher degree of resilience. The traditional dwellings are self-sustaining – local natural resources are used while paying respect to their source. Nature is sacred to the community and their built forms interact with and celebrate the unbuilt.
“A people's relationship to their heritage is the same as the relationship of a child to its mother.”
- John Henrik Clarke
Bhopal is an amalgam of its history and new developments. Two cityscapes, split by the Upper Lake and Lower Lake, exist within the city. The old heritage town lies north of the lakes while the new modern parts lie south of them. Both parts are different but influence each other and coexist to give the city a beautiful dialectal of its own. The Janjatiya Sangralay or Tribal Museum is a fine example of this blend and an indicator of how the old traditions continue to be revered by the people.
Unlike a traditional museum where artworks are procured, preserved and displayed, the exhibit at the museum has been designed to give a comprehensive idea of the way of life of the communities. Interactive dwellings modelled at their real-life scales, enlarged sculptures, highly curated artefacts and even recreation of simple everyday objects bring to life a space which allows one to transcend into the world of those who made the works.
My first visit to the museum was post a long day of exploring the city for a college assignment. The last stop saw me tired and a little disinterested to begin with, but soon captured my attention with the simplicity of the form and the purity of the displays. I find myself drawn back to the space multiple times and it brings me a sense of comfort in a city that, in many ways, still remains foreign to me.
A curved, rising driveway leads to the building with a parking space en-route. On entering one is greeted by a small reception lobby which also reflects tribal art in its design.
The form has been developed as a multi-levelled verandah with large semi-open spaces. Perforated walls made from bamboo mats shade the verandah and create minute openings for ventilation in the summer. In winter the operable mats are moved to horizontal positions which allow sunlight to filter in.
The pitched roof rests on steel trusses, a deliberate choice of material given the structural requirements and a reflection of the city’s history (the rich iron age) and contemporary scenario (truck body manufacturing industry). The tribal simplicity of form is reflected in the bare steel skeleton of the trusses and castellated beams, inspiring artists of different tribes to decorate them based on their different style.
The building was inspired by tribal aesthetics and the artists that made the work kept in it have taken inspiration from it completing a beautiful cycle of inspiration and creation. Their work is displayed four main galleries – ‘tribal living’, ‘tribal aesthetic’, ‘tribal spiritual’ and the guest space. Walking through the curve formed by these galleries and the transition corridors that connect them is an experience which leads to new discoveries and outlooks every single time I complete the tour.
The galleries are double heighted enclosed rooms made of brick walls with mud plaster and have small openings to create a cool interior with hints of natural light. Courtyards on the lower level rise through the building and puncture the form. The help lighting the enclosed transitioning the corridors and in ventilation. Sprinklers have also been provided in the courtyards for the extreme dry heat.
Exiting the last of the enclosed galleries leads to an exhibition space which now displays the gallery of children’s games and toys. It is one of the few spaces in the building which is air-conditioned. When constructed it was air-cooled using vents but over time air conditioners have been installed.
The lower level is a series of semi-open spaces for visitors with small enclosures for services, storage and the office interspaced in. It is shaded on one side by the operable mats and on the other side by vegetation. When talking to the architect, I learnt that the site was entirely rocky strata when work started so soil was filled and the vegetation has all been planted or re-planted. All the trees and shrubs are indigenous and grow throughout Madhya Pradesh. In her words, “There are fundamental tribal commonalities distilled in the building to create a vocabulary, wherein we look at its contemporary form and, still, see the simplicity and beauty of the tribal forms,” and this has been reflected in each aspect of the museum.
The natural slope has been used to create a relationship between the enclosed and semi-open spaces with the open spaces such that they flow easily from one to the other. The central amphitheater is a stage and the slope itself helps create space for the audience to sit. The gardens and green roof are irrigated using rainwater which is collected and stored.
When the museum was being built, keeping in mind budget constraints, the design made provisions for the space to remain cool without air conditioners. The entire form was developed by the architect as a response to the micro-climate. The mud plaster, sprayed with silicon to avoid wear and tear, helps cool the interiors. Some of the rocky strata was retained and the soil fill created a drainage pattern which allows water to collect in rock pools. This helps cool winds in the summer by evaporative cooling and the water is used to irrigate the gardens and the green roof.
My conversations with Ms Kamath also brought to light a lack of understating of the possible contemporary implementation of vernacular architecture within authoritative bodies and a strong belief that concrete and power-driven buildings are the future. Local materials, particularly mud, have repeatedly been deemed primitive by the governing authorities and no steps have been take to develop mud structures into stronger permanent buildings.
She faced many difficulties during the execution of the design, most caused by a desire to take the easy way out by the builder or a lack of understanding by the governing committee.
“How much did the climate impact the building?” -- “The whole form!”
-Conversation with Revathi Kamath
The two sites explored in this essay give a glimpse into the simple effective principles of the vernacular design which aren’t permanent dwellings owing to the material choice, but their principles can be evolved into contemporary, large, permanent structures to create buildings which are more efficient and resilient than the current norm. Analysis of both sites has led to the three following principles of design:
Building a Relationship with The Unbuilt
A site of tangible unbuilt space with intangible unbuilt factors acts as the start point of every design process. The intangible unbuilt refers to the context of building requirements and the site while the tangible unbuilt refers to the terrain and the climate. All the unbuilt factors must be analyzed comprehensively and inform the design. The new construction should interact positively with the changed unbuilt environment and the disruption caused should not negatively impact the surroundings and its users.
The traditional vernacular forms of any region, particularly those which flourished before the invention or import of concrete, thrive on local materials and integrate aesthetics with functional requirements. Rather than deeming them to be primitive and deeming them primitive, contemporary climate resilient buildings should understand the principles of these forms and using modern techniques evolve the generally ephemeral dwellings into contemporary more permanent urban structures.
Tribal dwellings are sustained from the land they are built upon. They utilize natural resources but the communities treat every inch of land and what grows on it with respect and strike a balance, ensuring not a single resource gets depleted. Contemporary buildings should see this model of sustainability as an ideal - using local resource to the maximum extent without exhausting them.
These principles should serve as the genesis of the design and be supplemented by technical research.
Architecture commenced from the human need to shelter from the constantly changing climactic conditions of our surroundings. Climate resilience should act as a guiding factor of the design process of any building as it is the main determinant of user comfort. However, this resilience should not be obtained by means that increase carbon footprint, add to the ever-growing problem of climate change and create a need for further resilience. To summarize and emphasize, Dhawat’s parting words from our meeting at the museum - “We constructed buildings that were comfortable to live in without hurting the environment. We should go back to that way of construction.”
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