The Making of the Mumbai Artist Retreat

Mumbai Artist Retreat - resilient architecture
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Resilient Architecture

How do we deal with land in Coastal areas considering the thread, and the reality of rising sea levels?  We could of course all agree to avoid building near the coast. But coastal areas are naturally some of the most desirable places to settle. Either livelihood, or the environmental qualities will continue to attract people to opt to live in coastal areas, despite the climate related risks.

Could you instead deal differently with the land? Can we ‘built in’, climate resilience? Can we use building methods and create a resilient architecture that has less impact on fragile ecosystems? Is it possible to make sure that they future ready as well, and could accommodate rising sea levels?

Artist Retreat

On the other side of the Mumbai Bay our firm was asked to design an artist retreat. The Mumbai Artist Retreat that is about to be completed, is poised to become a place, where artists can work in a spacious, natural environment. It allows artists to retreat from and reflect on the heavy physical and psychological demands of the global metropole. The Artist Retreat will function as a community space. It is an art lab of sorts that aims to bring together art, ecology and society. 

The locale of the project is a rural, agricultural area that still somewhat has a shoreline to speak off. The site itself is a low lying coconut palm plantation, located near a beach and surrounded by paddy fields. Since it is surrounded by low lying land, it suffers from saline ground water in the dry season.

ecological context of water habitat

Masterplan

The masterplan is laid out as series of pavilions, cabins and workshops placed orthogonally in the grid of the palm tree plantation. These stilted structures allow the landscape, whether productive, aesthetical, riparian or functional to continue uninterrupted and independently of the built elements. We reduced the scale of the module of the residents to the minimal footprint possible. This allowed us to place them in between the clear spacing between the palm tree plantation.

Mumbai Artist Retreat - Masterplan

We developed a new typology that accommodates a workplace on a stilted deck. Above this workplace a sleep platform on a loft occupies the steep pyramidal volume of its roof. The site will accomodate multiple outdoor spaces for working, relaxing and contemplation. Sculptures created over time in the artist centre, but also works developed specifically for the centre, will become an integral part of the landscape.

Water harvesting pond

The first element that was implemented in the project was a water harvesting pond. The curvaceous shape of the pond acts in contrast to the man-made geometry. The plot receives an annual rainfall of around 15,000 cu.m. Since this rainwater falls in a short period of 3 to 4 months, it is impossible to store all this water and to make it last till the next monsoon. Therefore a water harvesting pond serves not only to retain water, but also to replenish the ground water table with sweet water.

The rainwater accumulated in the pond pushes down the saline groundwater. It helps preventing the existing wells on the site from turning saline in the dry season. Additionally it increases the wildlife and biodiversity of the property since it attracts a plethora of insects like damselflies and dragonflies, amphibious animals and birdlife. Furthermore it can become a source of food as well.

Seasonal changes

Since the water in the pond slowly evaporates after the monsoon, its living ecosystem changes over the seasons. While hydrophytes will overgrow the pitched sides in the wet season, they will be replaced with vegetables at the winter and summer advances. The planted areas will have a thick mulch layer of vegetable matter. Jeevamrut and Amrut Paani spread over the mulch will help convert the bio-mass in a rich compost. The vegetables grown here benefit from the moisture left behind on the slopes of the pond.

The resilient home

In the first phase of construction it proved to be most useful to implement the Artist Workshop. This allowed the artist retreat to begin with organising events and workshops at its premises at the earliest. Constructing a building on a land that may not exist anymore in the near future calls however for different strategies.

These problems aren’t actually new to humanity. In the past, many cultures have had to figure out ways to be able to construct so that all their efforts wouldn’t go to waste when circumstances would change.

In the Indonesian archipelago, frequent earthquakes forced people to evolve construction methods that would enable structures to withstand the violent shaking of the earth. They therefore devised construction methods that allowed the structures to shake along with the earth, one of the most effective principles to prevent earthquake damage. However this also had a side effect. Because the structures were light, built with flexible joints and fitted together without nails, they could be dismantled and resembled elsewhere. This also meant that they could, with enough help, lift an entire intact house from the foundation and shift it elsewhere, like in the example below in Bulukumba in South Sulawesi.

As Snouck Hurguronje wrote in 1906 in “The Achenese”, “For anyone who understands the uniform structure of the Achenese house,…, the task of taking a house to pieces and setting it up again elsewhere is but the work of a moment. So when an Achenes sells his house, this means that the purchaser removes it to his own place of abode.” (read Roxana Waterson, The Living House – An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia)

Transporting a house at Bulukumba, South Sulawesi (Photograph by Walter Imber)

Pyramid roofs

The Artist workshop consists of “tropical shed” made in two modules of 6m x 9m each in a grid columns with a 1.5 meter spacing. Each module supports a 6 meter high pyramid shaped roof. By shifting the roofs away from each other asymmetrically, the two spaces below are defined more clearly from an experimental perspective. In one of the modules, a store room with screen printing equipment creates an additional loft with a workspace on top of it.

The pyramids are “chopped” off at the top by skylights. The northside of the skylight allows indirect natural light to flood the interiors, reducing the requirement for artificial lighting. The glass is openable and when open, pulls up hot air from the space below. This induces a natural flow of air across the workshops. On the south facing side of the skylights, integrated solar panels generate power for the workshop. These solar panels have been integrated in such a way that they their technical character does not overpower the design of the pavilions.

Structure

The stilts, columns and beams of the Artist Workshop are made in prefabricated steel components. Because of the proximity of the sea and it’s saline atmospheric conditions, all the steel components have been hot-dip galvanised. The roof structure is built of bamboo V-shaped rafters, which are covered by a lightweight sandwich roof. A solar skylight on the top of the roof, generates power and pulls up hot air from the space below. The skylight brings in light, but it also generates power, and the otherwise distracting solar panels are subtly integrated in the roof design.

In order to reduce the impact of the construction process and prevent damage to the ecosystem on site, the steel components of the workshop are manufactured off site. Hereafter they are transported to the project site and assembled with nuts and bolts. Since none of the joints are welded, the structure can be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere.

Reassembly

This ability to dismantle and reassemble a building has one more advantage. Since all joints are flexible and removable it is possible to remove and add components without doing any damage to the connecting elements. At the Artist Workshop Flexible wall panels can be connected to each bay of columns. This allows the spaces to be modified. Depending on the requirement, the Artists workshop can be used as a single large workshop, multiple simultaneous workshops or an exhibition space. The panels on the exterior, provide shade and block out the rains. However they can also be unscrewed and placed in the central bay to separate the two spaces.

The columns are placed on large stone boulders. They form the foundation of the structure. The boulders are taken from the excavation of the foundation of one of our other project sites, merely a few kilometers away. But rather than supporting the building, the weight of the boulders acts more as anchors to tie the building down. In heavy storms, the roof could potentially act as a balloon that is at risk of being lifted up by the force of the wind. The weight of the foundation boulders helps preventing the structure from lifting up in case of strong coastal winds.

Ambalama

The idea of a structure resting on large boulders is loosely based on the “Ambalama” in Sri Lanka. The ambalama in Karagaha-gedara in particular is one of the most beautiful public infrastructure projects of the early 19th century. It is sited on a modest rock outcrop, an island amongst a sea of paddy fields. Pilgrims, traders and travellers from all over South Asia gathered here to rest, meet and share stories with each other. The ambalama was described in a 15th Century poem: “People gather from diverse ways to rest here. Some recite poetry, and vie with each other; one challenges another at riddles. Foreigners learn and repeat the Buddha’s teaching.”

The structure delicately balances on 4 boulders of around 2 feet in size. The height of the boulders carefully levels the difference between the slope of the rock surface and the horizontal plane. 4 large rectangular shaped tree trunks, overlay like a puzzle piece into each other. They form the support of the super structure, as well function as a bench to sit or sleep on. Space, functionality, tectonics, materialisation and structural essence all converge here. It is heavy and down to earth, but transparent and light at the same time. The spatial quality of the ambalama is one of continuity, while being anchored and rooted to its specific location.

Ambalama in Karagaha-gedara Photography by: Aruna Sylva & Kumari Gamage

Material Limitations

The materials used in the artist workshop are determined by the limitations of the site. Local building materials are scarce and expensive. But additionally building regulations only allow materials that are of a temporary nature, which excludes brick or stone masonry and concrete. Therefore the project restricts itself to four main materials: galvanised steel, reclaimed teak wood, bamboo and bison cement board.

Bamboo Architecture

Bamboo is a wonder material with its low embodied energy and its remarkable strength in relation to its weight. However it is also a difficult material to work with. It is never straight, and it varies in diameter between the bottom and the top. The fact that in India the bamboo construction industry is virtually non-existent aggravates the difficulty of handling the material. Therefore the bamboo that is available in the region is used mostly only for temporary scaffolding and not for permanent constructions.

This project did not have the luxury to afford a rigid selection process. Importing expensive bamboo from Indonesia would defeat the sustainable qualities of bamboo. We therefore accepted the crooked, uneven bamboos that we got locally.

indian bamboo at market

In order to avoid the natural irregularity of the bamboo from becoming distractive, the layout of the rafters follows a zig-zag pattern. However this has an added benefit. The zig-zag geometry increases the strength of the structural frame in lateral direction. While the framework is exposed from the inside, on the exterior a lightweight roofing of cement sheets cover the bamboo framework.

At the top of the roof a ring beam in steel, ties the bamboo framework together. Every bamboo piece meets the bottom beam and skylight ring beam in a different direction. Pre-galvanizing the structure prevented us from welding connection plates to the structure on site exactly in the right direction of the bamboo. Therefore we devised a detail that can be not only rotated in all directions, and but can also be bolted to the structure instead of welded.

Bamboo Treatment Process

Since a vacuum pressure treatment plant was not available, the bamboos in this project were treated on site. After drilling a hole, the bamboos are injected with a creosote oil substance. The injection hole is plugged back with a wooden pieces. Hereafter bamboo craftsman tie the ends of the bamboos with coconut rope to prevent it from splitting. This needs to be executed in a very particular way. Before applying the rope it needs to be made wet. Hereafter with deep concentration the craftsman tie the rope with maximum strength around the bamboo. 

solar skylight and bamboo roof