“Our homes are a lived experience,” says Chitra Vishwanath, of Biome Solutions, a design firm specialising in sustainable architecture.
It is easy to see her point, when I look at the collage of beautiful buildings that are an equal mix of green and brown, plants and mud blocks, earthy shades that are appropriate for a firm with its roots in Laurie Baker’s philosophy.
“Initially, we were helped by the open-mindedness of Bangalore’s middle-class. They were willing to try these ideas 30 years ago,” says Chitra, referring to her early work in residential structures where water and waste were intelligently managed, and there was free flow of air and sunlight. The firm of architects also has designers, engineers, and urban planners, all of whom ensure that the project uses energy and resources efficiently. The open structures and high roofs allow people to reduce their dependence on electric lights and fans. Often the mud blocks used in construction are made locally from the soil at the construction site. The pit created in the process becomes part of the foundation. “Now, most people who come to us are aware of our work. Many clients are friends or relatives who have visited the homes we have built.”
She talks about a young boy who initially burst into tears when he saw his new home with the exposed mud blocks. He didn’t want to live in a house that looked so different. Now, more than a decade later, he says he cannot imagine living any where else. I can understand his sentiment, for natural light and breeze can be comfortingly addictive.
She admits that there are people who have unusual requirements. “A client once wanted the house to be radically redesigned based on the recommendations of vastu shastra,” she says. Isn’t their work already aligned with the core principles of the text, I ask. She chuckles and says it is easy to prey on people using superstition. She asked the client if their vastu consultant could build their house for them, and also guarantee their child’s future (the boy was due to appear for some important examinations). “They came back after a day and accepted the original design.”
It can get hard, though. “When you go from an air-conditioned office to an air-conditioned car, and shop at air-conditioned malls, your naturally ventilated home can seem very hot,” says Chitra. It is an inevitable side effect of modern lifestyles.
She also explains the omnipresence of whitewash in contemporary buildings. “It covers poor workmanship,” she says. If the bricks and masonry are good, there is no need for whitewash or plastering. I tell her about my parents’ home needing a fresh coat of whitewash and she is quick to ask about the age of the building and the presence of leaks. “When you have exposed brick, it is easy to see everything,” she says. Consequently, it is also easy to fix any problems.
I am enchanted by the images of the educational institutions designed by the firm, and wish my son could study in a school whose design celebrates children and their joy. I know that it may be an impossible dream and so ask Chitra about enhancing the quality of our existing living and working spaces. “Open the windows,” she says and I can’t help laughing. “Have plants inside,” she adds. “And live with pets… Cats, dogs…”
It is a wonderful way of looking at space and design, and I wrap up the conversation with a heartfelt wish to know more about the people and ideas behind this work.