Amidst unlikely desert surroundings 160 kilometres south of Chennai in Southern India, lies a small oasis in the form of an international community founded in 1968. Founded by Mirra Alfassa – “the Mother” – and her spiritual collaborator Sri Aurobindo, founder of the Pondicherry Ashram, Auroville was born of the will to make an independent country, the ethos of which would be reflected in the way people lived, learnt, shared – and built.
With the involvement of French architect Roger Anger (1923-2008) from the outset, the first buildings at Auroville were the result of experimentation more typically associated with sculpture than architecture. Built with time – not money – Auroville has developed a unique landscape and the quality of its 40 year old architecture remains striking even today.
Roger Anger was a well-known figure in the French architectural world, with a promising career, but his work suddenly stopped appearing in publications in his native France following his decision to help design and construct this Indian micro-nation from scratch. In collaboration with the Mother and strictly following her vision, Roger Anger developed several masterplans for what was intended to be a universal city, all based around a circular site plan. The last plan he produced featured a galaxy-shaped city where delineated sectors would shift the landscape into a formation reminiscent of a Kandinsky sketch. At the centre of the spiral a magnificent building would rise: the temple of the Mother.
It was only in 2008 that the Matrimandir finally opened - four decades after Roger Anger first presented the plans to Alfassa. Visiting this extraordinary structure remains a compelling and memorable architectural encounter. But alongside the Matrimandir, other more humble examples of the unique talent of this architect-sculptor still stand in Auroville.
Together with a couple of detached houses, Roger Anger, working according to the Mother’s vision for education to design, built four schools, which simultaneously provide a unique laboratory for educational experimentation, whilst being architectural objects of uncommon beauty. Hidden behind trees not far from the main entrance of Auroville, one could easily miss these structures which together represent the main elements of Roger Anger’s legacy to architecture, very different to the more conventional one he might have forged in France.
The four buildings sit together as unique artefacts, each providing a different function and for a different stage of the Mother’s educational theory. The buildings, Last School, After School 1, After School 2 and No School – their names underlining the intention to overcome classical notions of education – emerge as if sculpted from the ground. There are no classrooms in Anger’s schools – as there are no subjects to be taught in the classical understanding of the term. The spaces reflect the idea of implementing knowledge in a fluid way without strict structure. In these schools, the teachers act as mediators and are asked to follow the students’ thoughts by explaining one topic out of another as they arise, bringing to educational theory a lesson in the potential of the unplanned.
The four schools are deliberately closed off to the outside world, in order to provide a secure, peaceful environment where pupils can focus. Working with this idea of definitive enclosure as a constraint, Anger had to come up with design solutions that would still provide ample light to the core of the buildings, which he did with finesse and ingenuity.
As both architect or sculptor, Anger particularly excelled in building with light, which is apparent in all his works at Auroville: from the perfect clarity of the ray of light striking the huge clear crystal located at the exact heart of the Matrimandir, to the horizontal fissures of light let into the sides of the After School 2 pyramids (which are still unrestored), and the ingenious system of polyester modular pieces of funnel-shaped roofing that provide constant light within the soft walls of the Last School, as well as necessary protective shade from the strong Indian sun. But Anger also designed windows to frame a piece of surrounding landscape from within the enclosed patio area, providing students with daily inspiration from nature.
The week before I visited, Cyclone Thane had devastated the area, leaving the roof of Last School blown off, yet the overall power of this ensemble of educational buildings at Auroville was still clear, as was the wider experimental aim of the site and its architecture itself: a whole system orientated towards a self-governing and self-sustaining vision for living.
– Joanne Pouzenc is a French architect, curator and researcher who is based Berlin. In 2012, she launched Post+Capitalist City in association with CollageLab, a one year cycle of architectural and urban competitions for prospective thinking and geopolitical fictions. In 2014, she coordinated and directed Berlin Unlimited, a festival for Arts, Architecture and Urban Research and earlier this year was part of the Make City curatorial team.