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Verve People
August 12, 2019

Quality Controllers: Trupti Doshi

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Image Courtesy: The Auroma Group

Stepping into a demanding realm of work, they have harnessed technology to develop and reinvent urban topographies. In the last of a three-part series, Trupti Doshi tell Verve about their innovative planning methods for optimising the potential of Indian cities…

Oddly enough, her fascination with lines and design began with shoes — her father is a product designer and shoemaker and her mother, an interior designer. The Mumbai-born, Trupti Doshi, who is currently based in Puducherry (Pondicherry), recalls, “As children, both my brother and I were either learning the science of shoemaking or the craft of woodworking.” She was also a top-ranking student at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s A. H. Wadia High School and “excelled in several things”, successfully representing her school nationally in public speaking, creative writing, science exhibitions and Sanskrit recitation. She later received a bachelor’s degree in architecture, with honours, from Mumbai University’s Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA).

When very young, she had learnt about her maternal grand-uncle, architect Vanu Bhuta, who was invited by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design and build Rajghat, the memorial at Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site. Doshi rewinds, “I believe this occurred after the samadhi was built. Nehru wished to surround it with expansive lawns, like a monument in the colonial style, whereas my grand-uncle firmly believed that it should be a true representation of Gandhi — austere, with the black granite cuboid simply rising out of bare earth. It was a fight between two architects: one, the architect of modern India and the other, a master builder of India. Nehru stuck to his views while my grand-uncle stormed out. Years later, as the story goes, he refused Indira Gandhi’s proposal to design Nehru’s samadhi saying, ‘You want his soul to rest in peace’.

Her first date with design and technology
In front of my Seven Bungalows home, on Versova beach, Mumbai, is one of architect Nari Gandhi’s masterpieces — The Moon Dust House. The first time I saw it, I was mesmerised by the soaring arches and the way it upheld itself, almost precariously, every stone differently sized. I wanted to create an equally magical world.
Soon after my graduation in 2001, I was asked to come up with the master plan for a 43-acre lush green campus on the banks of one of South India’s most important wetlands — Ousteri Lake, near Pondicherry. This is when I started applying all my learning to creating a mini township.

On sustainable engineering and its importance
This is the central focus of my work. One of the ways I define sustainability is ‘closing the loops’. Imagine a building like a tree. It harvests the sun, collects water, cleans the air, makes oxygen, generates soil and nutrients, facilitates thermal comfort and provides space for meaningful leisure. Cradle to Cradle design integrates economic, ecological and social benefits. Everything is designed to be a nutrient for something else. Buildings are able to function as healthy material banks, where materials maintain their status as resources which can be reused. A Cradle to Cradle building defines materials as part of biological and technical cycles to actively improve the quality of biodiversity, air and water, all the while being energy-positive.

The use of technology to create viable designs
Technology is the only way we can become resource-efficient. One of the definitions of technology is ‘a capability given by the practical application of knowledge’. Until a few hundred years ago, we needed two-foot thick walls to keep interiors cool. Today, we are able to achieve the same result with a fraction of the material. The earthen pot which our grandmothers used to keep drinking water cool is a brilliant example of technology. I have built buildings which act as earthen pots and keep the interiors cool without air conditioning. I learnt the principles of thermal comfort from the past and applied them using cutting-edge technology to create responsible, sustainable and eco-friendly spaces for the future.

Her most challenging project
The giant arched roof — an earthen vault — at the Sri Aurobindo Society’s Sharanam campus in Pondicherry. We began work on the project in 2007 and completed it in 2014. It is perhaps one of India’s largest earthen roofs constructed without any support underneath. If the same were to be built with the ordinary bricks available in the market, the thickness would have been more than 60 inches. Following the technique which architect Antoni Gaudí used for building the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I brought down the thickness to a mere 4 inches. Additionally, the entire 5,000 square-foot vault was handcrafted with unfired bricks, and the material used to hold them together is soil. Only a pinch of cement has been used. A vault which would have otherwise consumed over 10,000 bags of cement was built using only 33 bags. It is made of one of the heaviest materials — earth — and yet looks paper-thin. I’ve personally trained over a hundred workers in this technology.

On evolving traditions
On a hot summer day in July 2008, we were to begin making the handcrafted giant vault at Sharanam. I called all the workers and started explaining how we were to construct this roof without any support, using earth bricks and soil mortar. Among the mostly semi-skilled workers was a highly skilled man named Muthulingam. He walked up to me with a big swagger and said with characteristic arrogance, ‘You are very young in the construction trade. My grandfather was a mason. My father is a mason. I am a mason. We have been putting bricks together for the last 37 years. We have always used 15 millimetres of cement mortar on fired bricks. And you are trying to tell me that you are going to make us construct this giant roof with 1 millimetre of mortar and that too with soil?”

I asked him to do what he had always done. Muthulingam picked up an earthen brick, confidently slapped on 15 millimetres of cement mortar on it and stuck it on the arch in front of him. And the brick fell. Every time he tried it, the brick fell. He was totally confused and slightly embarrassed.

We can infuse scientific knowledge into traditional wisdom. I explained to him the reasoning behind my process. After that day, Muthulingam became the foreman on the site. And instead of taking over six months to build this giant roof, they completed it in just nine weeks. This building was later chosen by the United Nations Environment Programme as a model for sustainable development in India.

Technology in her personal space
Generally, when we say ‘technology’, one pictures a gadget with buttons. I would call them convenience-driven, gadget-oriented technologies. These have been reduced to the essentials in my personal life. There is another category which I call life-oriented technologies. Taking regular forest walks, going to a silent retreat in the mountains, learning total immersion swimming — these make my personal space highly technology-driven!

Read Part 2 with Dipika Prasad here

Read Part 1 with Trupti Amritwar Vaitla here

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