The Eleventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2009
Berkeley Prize 2009

Dominic Mathew Report

The Auroville Earth Institute, Auroville, India 

September 2009

Swiss Architect Roger Anger's "Last School"

Ant Channel

Small Open Air Theater

“A new creation beginning with a model town and ending with a perfect world” -The Mother

The Frenchwoman known as ‘The Mother’ or Miraben thus in a single line epitomized the true meaning of the existence of Auroville. Nestled in a quiet and remote part of Tamil Nadu is Auroville, the ‘City of Dawn’. Auroville was the creation of The Mother who was a ardent disciple of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, an Indian freedom fighter, after whom she named it. The town of Auroville is situated in Pondicherry in southern India. It is meant to symbolize a universal town free of caste, religion, nationality or politics; where people live and progress together in harmony. 


  Radial Map of Auroville

Auroville is a self sustained town run with the help of solar, wind and biogas power. The planning of this place resembles a radial spreading wheel, with each side earmarked for a different purpose – industrial, residential, spiritual or green belts. But this is a town with a difference, it is not open to having visitors, first timers will easily get lost in this maze of buildings and belts even with a map. There aren’t any proper roads, mud roads with back breaking contours would pretty much keep the casual visitor from visiting the interiors of Auroville. It is an international township which people from many different countries have made home over the years, notably the majority are European, with a sprinkling of Israelis, Russians and Americans.

The whole town converges around the Matrimandir, which serves as the fulcrum or ‘soul’ of Auroville. It is in the shape of a huge golden golf ball and serves as a place to meditate and find one’s inner consciousness. I did get the opportunity to visit the inside of the Matrimandir, its beauty and minimalism would simply overawe and


  completely take you over. A flight of ramps connects the floors leading to a huge room with pillars and a small opening at the top which let light on to a crystal ball kept in the middle. You are allowed fifteen minutes to meditate inside the hall, after which you are guided outside. This town is a perfect juxtaposition of many cultural, spiritual, industrial, residential and most importantly; architectural sensibilities.

The architecture of Auroville is distinct and traditional. The place fosters ‘community living’, this togetherness has been achieved through a large extent with the placement of buildings and use of material like the earth which helps a person get a rustic feel of the place. It is one place I found out during my stay, which just frees you up, strangers smile at each other, and wish good morning with a curt shake of their heads and striking up conversations with people is very easy. This informality was a major change from the attitude I found in the cities, and played a major part in Auroville endearing itself to me.  

There are several educational centers run here inside Auroville, some which are into research and some which impart innovative techniques, The Auroville Earth Institute is one of them. The Auroville Earth


  Earth Institute Premises

Institute (AEI), experiments with various low cost, traditional and sustainable architectural techniques. It then imparts training to people from all over the world on these techniques. The buildings in Auroville all bear the stamp of innovative - traditional techniques, like the use of corbelled arches, skylights, domes and vaults. The Earth Institute is headed by Satprem Maini, a French national who has spent the last twenty years in India; he encourages the use of traditional techniques and local materials in the construction of buildings. His vision of building homes according to their local environment is visible in most of Auroville. The Visitor’s Centre in Auroville for example is one of his projects; he made it in collaboration with Ar. Suhasini Ayer. The use of vaults and arches with an exposed brick surface, it is simple yet conveys a strong point aesthetics wise.  The courses held by the Auroville Earth Institute are conducted in the framework of the UNESCO Chair Earthen Architecture “Constructive Cultures and Sustainable Development” and BASIN South Asia “Regional Knowledge Platform” 

Stabilizing Method

  In duration of three weeks I participated in three of these courses. The first course involved studying the theory behind building of vaults, arches and domes. Charting out their stability lines and estimating the number of voussoirs (bricks) constituting an arch, using funicular and optimization methods. We used small chains denoting the weight of a single brick or voussoir to prepare a diagram of the arch to be made, be it elliptical, circular, pointed, segmental or semi-circular. The chains were arranged in a descending order till the final middle keystone was reached. The arch was prepared diagrammatically according to the pre cast bricks available in the institute. But our learning wasn’t only restricted to building the arch, we also learnt on how to optimize the arch and reduce the number of bricks we used; this optimization method brought a certain tapering towards the middle of the arch. The vault was just a continuation of the arch, building bricks on either side of the arch and extending it; formed a vault. During this week we were also given a number of presentations on the numerous arches, vaults and domes present around the world, pictures that Satprem had clicked on his various visits abroad and in India; even some natural forms like the homes of termites which resemble these structures. 

The second week was the more interesting one; we got to try hands on whatever we learnt in the theory class. We built the arch which we had stabilized and optimized

using earth bricks. The masons in Satprem’s team showed us the way to properly apply mortar on the bricks and how to immerse the bricks in water before its application. The laying and placing of bricks is also an art I came to know that day!

 Using moulds according to the specific shape of the arch, bricks were placed on it, after numerous chippings and applying of mortar the arches were finally made. Then after allowing the bricks to dry the mould was slowly and carefully chipped away from the main arch. Similarly the domes were also made, we were provided with circular moulds of varying radius’s and a lever which was ground into the centre of the dome and acted as a guide for the tapering of the dome as its height increased. We experimented a bit with huge openings in the domes, using buckets as a mould to give a better finish to the dome and also to save on the painstaking application of bricks in that area! After finishing the domes we went on a site visit for a day, to help the masons there with laying

of bricks and building arches and vaults in an ongoing residential project.
The third and final week was the most laborious of all weeks; it started off with the testing of soil using different techniques. Then we proceeded to the Auram press 3000, this is the press used to manufacture CSEB (Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks). Cement, sand, aggregates and water were mixed in specified proportions to prepare the mix to cast the bricks. The advantages of these bricks are that they can be cast on site and their manufacture consumes

 less energy than a fired brick; plus it doesn’t pollute the environment. This press was developed by the Earth Institute to suit local needs and the materials found here. The press can accommodate different moulds for different type of bricks.

It was a bit hard to handle, needing two people to pull down the lever to compress the brick. During the same course we learnt on how to make rammed earth walls. Placing two 1-1.5m boards side by side, with a coating of kerosene on it to avoid any sticking of earth, piling the earth in between the boards and keep ramming the earth till it is compressed and won’t go down any further. 

Thus ended a memorable workshop in which I came to learn many new things, but other than the time I also got to move around and explore the mystery that Auroville is. The buildings here are ‘different’; it follows neither a distinct city nor a rustic village style. The buildings here have personalities of their own, Skylights, vaults, arches; use of materials like earth in construction has created an individual outlook of Auroville. Some predominant features like the use of an ant-channel around the house, just like a moat; it’s a channel with water covering the perimeter of the

house to prevent insects and ants from getting inside the house.
Also the innovative use of broken, useless porcelain to decorate gardens could be seen in quite a few homes. In Auroville, even walls won’t simply look like tall opaque barriers, a little variation in the placement of bricks or murals on the walls bring life to them.

There is this technique used in many places in Auroville to keep water from smelling bad and from accumulating mosquitoes, water is drawn up a cylinder where motion is introduced into it, this whirring of water does the needful and keeps water from getting stale. In this township another interesting feature I came across was the use of solar energy panels, most of the homes fulfill their energy needs on solar power, Auroville even has its own Solar Kitchen. Such use of technologies and promoting a free open living places Auroville in a different mould from any other ‘concept’ town and for me it indeed was a once in a lifetime experience.

If words indeed could describe how much I miss the place,

Just like the moon and stars at which I gaze,

Fly did days so seemingly fast,

Left with only thoughts that would forever last!

Even Steps Seem "Different"


Residence Named AMI

Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email
Mr. Dominic Mathew, Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, India; for travel to the Auroville Earth Institute, Auroville, India
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