Auroville – An evolving utopia

Auroville is a city conceived on a desolate and degraded land of 5 km diameter that had lost its topsoil quality to the sea by progressive erosion. The responsibility of designing this ideal city was entrusted upon Roger Anger, a French architect in 1965 by the Mother (Mirra Alfassa).

The city was envisioned to be an embodiment of human unity through international engagement; 51 years later, it still holds true. Two parameters were set before Roger Anger.

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One, the city must be designed for 50,000 inhabitants and two, there must be 4 division of zones to organise the principal activities of the city, namely, Residential, Cultural, Industrial and unique to Auroville, International.

It was important to establish this because of the international dimension of the vision and its role in fulfiling the city’s commitment to human unity.
Roger Anger and other pioneers of Auroville sowed the seeds of architectural experiments and paved the way for research and innovation for years to come.

The early buildings at Auroville are an exemplary display of novelty and skill through their forms, building technologies and programmes. The perfect blend of state-of-the-art architecture and their dialogue with nature has been a constant source of inspiration for extensive applied research in architecture since its inception.

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For this very reason, Auroville attracts young professionals and enthusiasts from all over the world to be a part of the process.

Auroville is not an arbitrary development, unlike most planned towns. The key intent was to realise Auroville on its own dynamism so that a real communion can build itself between those who live in Auroville and those who create it. More often than not, it is the most challenging aspect for an architect.

The city was initially planned to develop within 15 – 25 years. However, the pace of development slackened after the demise of the Mother in 1973.

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Spurs of decision-making conflicts resulted in early inhabitants settling into an organically growing settlement, originally intended and inaugurated as a planned city.

Internal polarities arose between early residents fleeing from urbanisation and the new residents with professional backgrounds embracing urbanisation.

This meant choosing the spirit of the original concept or favouring organic growth. Roger Anger and his team proposed a master plan that involved adaptations and reinterpretations from both sides by emphasizing on practicality; the core zones would be developed as per the master plan while the rest of the city would evolve in its natural form subsequently.

Their unwavering determination of living together in contemporary life, technology and respect towards nature in a novel way has proven to settle the differences and reawaken the collective will of human unity.

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The architects put forward two proposals for the master plan of the city; one with a rectangular grid with extensive gardens and the other with a concentric plan with the city arranged around a bold central space. The latter was chosen for, its dynamism resonated and symbolically represented the idea of Auroville itself.

The four district zones were planned to radiate through a spirally rotating movement around the city centre. This quality brought in gradual integration and less segregation amongst the zones that culminated at the city centre.

The celebrated epicentre evolved into an iconic structure, the Matrimandir, that illustrates the soul of the city. Their sensitivity towards nature is reflected in the overall planning of the city with chiefly low-rise buildings and a proposed green belt around the city.

The resemblance of the concentric masterplan to a nebula brought about the popularly used term of ‘Galaxy plan’. However, the term did not originate from the architects themselves. It is more or less an overshadowing misconception of the architects’ intent.

The city of Auroville was inaugurated on barren land in 1968 where it is said that people from 125 countries brought soil from their homeland to show their commitment towards the vision.

Auroville’s imagery is defined by the silhouette of the quintessential structure of Matrimandir in the city center. It took 37 years for the project to materialize and is the last of Roger Anger’s architectural realizations.

The vocabulary of design elements reverberates with the symbolism of the story of life. The large, slightly flattened golden sphere suspended above the ground expresses the birth of ‘truth-consciousness’ rise out of the earth.

Matrimandir is a secular structure and thus poses no images or conducts organized meditations. Roger Anger found inspiration for this geometry from an old tantric symbol concerning creation and unity.

This influence can be seen in the amusing quality of the Matrimadir being in the same shape as the path which surrounds the oval garden of the periphery. The sphere doubles up like a protecting element and a transitioning space to the inner chamber.

It is a space-frame structure supporting the double skin of the Mantrimandir with triangulations. Ferrocement panels with portholes are used for sourcing diffused light into the structure and are covered by golden disks.

Sunrays are guided into the inner chamber through an opening at the apex with the help of a heliostat. The presence of consequent openings on the slabs makes it possible for the illumination to travel to the base of the structure, the figurative lotus pond.

The archetypal character of this vital structure leaves an indelible impression on the inhabitants and visitors alike.

The city of Auroville oozes an intimate warmth and zest for achieving collective life. The expertise of communities and local artisans on these scattered lands extends beyond architecture.

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They are unanimously associated with innovation, experimentation and the quest for perfection in the facets of art, culture, education, farming, green practices, low-cost alternatives to building and many more. Simply put, the whole city can be viewed as an ‘Incubating laboratory’ of perpetuating ideas and geniuses.

>> Text: Srinidhi Ravishankar / Photos: Shameer Mohamed