Golconde…the name brings to us the grandiose fort anchored in the sylvan suburbs of Hyderabad, to the east of the Indian peninsula. For us, modern architects of post–independent India, it is a synonym; for the first high strength reinforced concrete building of India which, in the words of architect Jefferey Cook, “has the reputation of being the most comfortable building in Pondicherry.”
The experience at Golconde was a strangely beautiful one. Strange, at first, due to two reasons. In a heritage-conscious town like Pondicherry, where INTACH is very active to conserve the French and Tamil architectural legacies, all the local inhabitants, including designers, architects and conservationists take great pride in Golconde being an inseparable part of the deft urban fabric. So deep rooted is their awe for Golconde that even architects practicing in Auroville look upon Golconde as the ideal of perfection and beauty towards which they strive.
Secondly, because of the strict code of rules that this guest house of Sri Aurobindo Ashram scrupulously abides by and their meticulous care for material things. The first condition to live in Golconde is that you must live there for a month, in the least! At first, this came as a shock. But after the stay, one realizes that it is indispensable for its aim. Golconde tries to offer a different lifestyle – of solitude, simplicity, beauty and silence. Floors for men and women are segregated. Only one person per room. Children are not allowed. Even the interiors of each room are quite minimal, rather austere, but nevertheless very beautiful. One bed having light teak frames that will hold mosquito nets. Cane bottoms for chairs and beds allow for maximum ventilation. A relaxing arm chair, a wardrobe, a shelf for books, a cloth drying stand, a kuja and a mirror. And, of course, fresh flowers everyday for the vase. Not only was each object a thing of beauty in itself but also everything came together as though complementing each other to form a harmonious whole.
Soiled shoes and wet umbrellas had to be left downstairs. Soiled clothes for the laundry had to be kept outside the room, neatly bundled before 6.30 a.m. Utmost care was demanded not to make the slightest noise while opening or closing the sliding doors, lest the neighbours should be disturbed. The entire schedule at Golconde was planned so meticulously that one could easily pass a whole day without needing to utter a single word! Above all, the whole atmosphere at Golconde aimed towards a certain inward realignment and focus and an intense soul-searching on the true raison deter of life (which according to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual philosophy known as Integral Yoga, is the first step towards an inner fulfillment). In this, Golconde succeeded superbly. It was a most amazing privileged experience.
Exceedingly beautiful it was, for many reasons.
Firstly, for the sheer tenacity of its expression. The entire building is practically wholly covered with movable hand-operated louvres by which the entire structure can completely open up at one time and close down at another. It would not be inappropriate to say that here, the shading device is the architecture. The occupancy, time of the day, even seasons, are directly reflected in the movement of its louvres. Every opportunity of physical contact with these louvres gave the feeling of being able to sublimate an entire wall, from bottom to top, into an ethereal light. It was as though, a gross wall of solid matter had diffused into an intangible, extremely subtle matter-less ‘wall of light’. This louvered rhythm in concrete through its ever changing myriad moods, evokes the sensations of the eternal opposites-the revealed and the concealed, the dark and the light, the changing and the changeless, the tangible and the intangible, which in a way transcend one to that ancient Upanishadic Truth of ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’, the Manifest and the Unmanifest.
Secondly, because of the ‘aspiration towards perfection’ which served as the guiding principle not only during its building process but also now, after more than 50 years of its completion, for its spectacular maintenance. There are umpteen stories floating around in the libraries and on the lips of the members of the Ashram who have either participated in or witnessed its construction or have inherited the tales from their seniors. By the authentic and fastidiously maintained records in the Ashram archives of this ‘love’s labour’, one is led to believe that most – if not all – of them could be true. A few of them follow.
In the letter of 1935, Antonin Raymond, the architect of Golconde, states, “…no time, no money were stipulated in the contract. There was no contract – everything was done to free the architect completely so that he might give himself entirely to his art and science. And yet simultaneously, on the job, perfect order was maintained and every nail counted.” Apart from an architectural model, a full scale prototype room was made before starting the actual construction (which houses an inmate even today). Cement, sand, steel and electrical components all had to be imported from Japan and France, despite the tense international climate of escalating war. A laboratory was set up for testing cement, aggregate, sand grading and test blocks of concrete etc (in pre-standardization days). Every detail- bricks, furniture, fittings- were custom designed. Bricks were of size 210mm x 100mm x 50mm as the brick manufacturer rejected the architect’s suggestion of 70mm thickness for they could not be dried in the green stage because of humidity in Pondicherry. George Nakashima, the on-site architect for the project, during his two year stay at the Ashram, became a member of the community and gave up his salary from Raymond’s firm since he felt that he was receiving more than he was able to give. In fact, he considered himself a disciple of Sri Aurobindo to the end of his days. He always treasured the name that Sri Aurobindo gave him on his birthday in 1938, Sundarananda-literally, “one who takes delight in the beautiful,” a name befitting an architect.
After Nakashima left in 1939, the entire construction of Golconde was carried out by unskilled voluntary workers of the Ashram community. The Ashram had to build special machines for custom fabricating nuts, bolts and other hardware in the building. Every gravel used for concreting was cleaned with a toothbrush! Every piece of bed linen was hand stitched. After the whole construction was over, the length of remnant imported steel was 2”! This was the level of ‘perfect perfection’. In Raymond’s words, “It (the work) was done with an excellence such as I would not have achieved even in Japan. I found out eventually that it did not matter how long the job took, nor did it matter very much what it cost. What was important was that the process of building should be a means of learning and experience in the life of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where not only the spiritual but all other aspects of man’s nature must be developed and perfected. Here I was to do a technologically complicated modern building with former priests and monks from Tibet, India and Indo-China, with former professionals from all over the world, including French and British.”
Lastly, because of its strikingly simple and overwhelming response to the environment. In Pondicherry, salt winds blow from the sea, there are typhoons and periods of rainy weather, but mostly there is a blazing sun and the climate is hot and damp. The problem before the team was to design, on a rather narrow plot of land (80m x 30m), a guest house for the disciples for the Ashram which would include living and sleeping accommodation, workrooms and utility rooms (dining facilities are provided elsewhere) and design it in a way to keep the inside as cool as possible without mechanical aid. They solved the problem by synthesing various principles. They oriented the building perpendicular to the path of the sun such that the harsh radiation is shut off. The longer side faces the predominant wind direction- 20° E of South.
The entire wall surface covered with operable horizontal louvers affords protection against the sun and wind and allows through ventilation. The entire building is continuously open to natural convection. Breezeways have been provided underneath the building-reminiscent of the space beneath the Pavillon Suisse created by Le Corbusier’s characteristic pilotis. This breezeway at Golconde is a delightful area, where tea is often served and conversation exchanged.
Golconde is only one room wide and it has a single loaded corridor. The sliding teak doors are ventilated by their construction of alternating slats. Gardens are attractively laid out and being enclosed, become cloistered with cool and green ambience, free from noise and dust. Galleries serve the double function of acting as corridors and creating deep insolative areas in front of the sleeping areas. A ventilated roof construction with curved roof tiles and a high solid compound wall to retain the pool of cool air around the garden are other aspects of the perspicacious design.
Today, we have stepped into a millennium where all of a sudden, people all over have been caught by concepts of sustainability and renewable solar energy, almost overnight as though the sun had never existed before! And here, we have a building built in the pre-independence era of India, which till date remains one of the unparalled examples of perfect respect to site and context and a reverential response to climate which – in spite of all the modern technological innovations available to us today – is difficult, rather utopian to achieve.
Exceptionally unique against the backdrop of the myriad heritage buildings of Pondicherry (derived from Puducheri which means “new settlement” in Tamil), unlike other so called modern buildings around the world, which open to nature visually (due to excessive and sometimes unsparing use of glass), this ‘new settlement’, opens physically. The very presence of this edifice remains a source of inspiration, not only for the people in Pondicherry but all those who visit it, towards a new spatial experience which is the consequence of a new way of living.
Golconde is the answer to a budding architect’s dream of building a house that opens up like a flower to the call of the morning sun, sways with the passing breeze, becomes a hollow channel for the exchange of nature’s forces and in the deep silence of the night, closes its petals for rest and recuperation only to blossom again with the new dawn.
Golconde is not a building to be visited…it is an experience to be lived.