Ignited Minds: These Young Architects Are Making a Difference in Rural Communities Through Design

8 young graduates from CEPT University are exploring new techniques of construction with local communities in remote places of India, by building schools and public places.

When the Pritzker Prize was awarded to Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi this year, he was lauded for his contributions to the lives of the ordinary people of India. Through his sustainable designs for projects like Aranya Low-Cost Housing in Indore, Life Insurance Corporation Housing in Ahmedabad and Vidhyadhar Nagar masterplan, Doshi combined a sense of aesthetics with practical utility and affordability and has served as an inspiration for generations of architects. Compartment S4 – a collective of 8 young architects from CEPT University – seems to also draw ample inspiration from the veteran architect’s socially conscious work. To create work that impacts lives in the marginalised sections of India, the team has initiated a Handmade Workshop Series for the making of architectural solutions at the grassroots. The workshops are aimed at using modern architectural knowledge to rectify, and not replace, as is the trend, the vernacular building techniques of a particular region.

The 8 partners of Compartment S4

Based out of Ahmedabad, Compartment S4 is devoted to the practice of architecture in both urban and rural areas, and was founded in 2017 by Aman Amin, Kishan Shah, Krishna Parikh, Manuni Patel, Monik Shah, Nishita Parmar, Prasik Chaudhary and Vedanti Agarwal – all were batch-mates at CEPT and are now comrades in a shared vision. Nishita Parmar shares, “All of us hail from the privileged sections of society, but we possess a zeal to help society while simultaneously surviving in the commercial sector. The companionship between the eight of us has been deep since the very first year of our college days. We started visiting the AMC office regularly, asking them for work in rural pockets of the city. The authorities initially ignored our requests and visits, but our persistent visits every week prompted the officials to tell us three names of local villages in which urban planning help was required: Badalpara and Bhat were two of them.”

On a rotational basis, two partners, out of the team of 8, constantly dedicate their time for philanthropic architectural work. They venture into remote places, explore and experiment with local materials there and lead the research for the projects. The team then develops innovative construction techniques in collaboration with the local communities. By interacting with local authorities in the selected vicinity, including the Sarpanch (Head of the Village), they try to ascertain the requirements of the locals and understand the village demography. Through this participatory process, they build friendship and trust with the community. With the help of the local authority, they then devise interventions to help the community meet their needs. The entire team of Compartment S4 leaves their commercial projects aside on workshop days.

Compartment S4, Rural Community

So far, the team has helped build a classroom extension to an existing Anganwadi (pre-primary school) at a coastal village in Gir-Somnath district called Badalpara, and will soon transform an unused dump yard into a serene public place with the help of AMC and the local people at Bhat village in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Funding such causes is always a challenge. Compartment S4 team had to put in their personal funds in addition to  support from the local authority, to realise the completion of their maiden project.

To make their initiative more collaborative, the team has given it the form of a workshop. Once their plan of activities is laid out, the team invites architects, students and willing individuals to participate in the workshop. This serves multiple purposes – it gives them more skilled hands, makes the process participatory and, since the participation is paid, it also provides a means of financing the project. This, I believe, is quite a novel way of approaching the issue at hand. The Workshop Series is now receiving some external financial support from private as well as public sources that are supportive of the team’s efforts to uplift living standards in rural India.

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The young architects aren’t simply reaching out through a top-down process, however, in hopes of bestowing rural communities with well-crafted buildings. Their motto is to make the people self-capable – to empower them to build their own buildings using appropriate methodology and materials. For instance, with the help of the community at Badalpara, which is a village of potters, the team taught local potters a unique roof construction technique known as Wardha guna. The technique involves making a self-supporting roof structure using earthen clay tiles known as guna tiles. Together, they built these tiles and installed them on the roof of the school through the help of steel formwork. “The process of involving local people in the building techniques creates a positive atmosphere in the community and builds employment opportunities for the locals. And they can take this method forward by applying their learning at other sites,” explains Nishita. The team says that the locals are now applying this technique of roof construction to make roofs for other structures in the village. She added, “When they become part of the making process, they automatically build a long-term relationship with the premise.” This is a significant achievement, unlike in many other well-intentioned projects in which the technique or process developed is not able to sustain itself. We hope that the team continues to focus on this aspect to ensure sustenance of their interventions.

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The team’s upcoming project focuses on the rejuvenation of a primary school in a remote town called Ghugghu Kham, located 25kms from Nainital in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. The school is where the children of locals study, most of whom are daily wage earners. The project aims to use localised material and techniques to enhance the schools’ structure and amenities and provide the children a better space for learning. To be held between June 5 to June 16, the project is a large one that envisions the making of an amphitheatre, reading centre and library. The registrations for the workshops are currently open and interested incumbents can apply till the deadline of May 10th, 2018. If you are looking for ways to serve society through your knowledge in the field of architecture, then join the Handmade Workshop in Ghugghu Kham. Interested people can register with the team by emailing them on compartments4.design@gmail.com.

The enthusiasm of this young team is inspiring. If every established firm were to take it upon themselves to go out of their professional capacity to effect change in society, particularly in the rural sections of India where design concerns don’t percolate so far, the possibilities for improving the built environment would be limitless. And Compartment S4 ignites this hope.

Compartment S4

Photographs Courtesy : Compartment S4

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