Sadly, so many of the buildings that we live in are rather ugly. Concrete boxes with garish colours seem to rule most cities. And even in the village, the ugly steel rods poke up from many a ‘pukka’ house.
How refreshing, how absolutely delightful to when we find places were simple beauty rules. One such tiny corner of this planet is the Asha Kiran Hospital in the Koraput district of Odisha.
Feast your eyes on what the average patient sees when she or he walks into the main gate.
This is a village. A hospital deliberately built to evoke the cluster of homes that the average patient (90%+ being tribals) and their care-givers will be used to in their own hamlets.
This is a hospital which has been ground-up designed to say ‘welcome home’ to those precious ones who come for help and healing.
Just look at how the back of the hospital looks at the end of the day.
All that is missing are the fires of people cooking their food. But wait, they are there too. The Asha Kiran Hospital has made places where care-givers can cook and sleep, including an indoor shed for winter and monsoon times.
When the Asha Kiran Hospital was founded 25 years ago, the pioneering doctors and nurses used old motor cycles and local busses to come to a small mud hut which was their first place of clinical service.
That life-style continues in many ways, and has been captured in the beautiful architecture of Laurie Baker who designed the original Asha Kiran Hospital clinical and staff buildings. And the subsequent buildings have continued to be poetry in brick.
Here are some of the basic elements of which the Asha Kiran Society continues to (literally) build on.
Every building uses brick. And that too in a rat-trap design which creates a natural insulation and uses less bricks. The motto is to cut costs – as much as possible. So minimal concrete is used. The bricks are also generally not plastered – or if at all, directly painted on. As a result the whole Asha Kiran campus is a symphony of terra cotta and white.
No painting needed because the bricks do not get wet the roofs over-hang and cut out the major monsoonal down-pours. Most of them are ordered without the maker’s stamp so they form a pretty grid of which can be seen all over campus. These staff quarters for example...
All the roofs are concrete. But in contrast to our standard box sets, most of the roofs are a slanting slab of concrete to allow the rain to wash off – and stop being the heat amplifiers that most ‘pukka’ houses are.
But for me the ‘wow’ moment was looking inside. As you look up at the ceilings you are greeted with this beautiful sight. For example in the meeting room / prayer space in the main admin building.
Well, unless you are building a sky-scraper, most concrete slabs just don’t need that much steel, or concrete for that matter! So what Laurie Baker taught was to skip 2 out of every 3 steel rods and have some ‘filler’ matter in the resulting ‘empty spaces.’
The Asha Kiran team chose tiles. But these are actually reject tiles which the factories sold them at a song – and whose role is to be a honeycomb of alternate materials. A bit of paint from the bottom and what you have is a ravishing set of ceilings. While at the same time drastically cutting the costs of the building – and still having perfectly strong buildings to live in for a long time!
Look what a beautiful passage way the patients and their relatives walk along in the main hospital:
And see what the ceiling of one of the staff quarters looks like.
Simple. Repeated. Stunning.
The brick symphony is taken further by using a set of basic designs over and over again.
One is the beautiful arch. The bricks are arrayed on a 180 degree mold, sunshine-wise and then allowed to set. The arches formed and strong and repeat the lovely semi-circle to a wonderful effect.
All across the Asha Kiran campus you see arches. Laurie Baker has gone to meet his Maker. But the arches have been picked up by the next generation of architects and builders who continue to push the Asha Kiran design further.
Like in the training centre. The arches are of course very visible.
And when you step inside the training centre you also see the repeated use of cross shaped holes which allow light and air in (and mean less bricks and mortar too – hence lower costs again).
It’s no wonder that the training centre is often used by the Asha Kiran family, other civil society organisations, and government officials too.
When we were there the training centre was being used to build up the basic skills of a new batch of Mother-tongue Learning Education teachers who had just been recruited. And then on Sunday morning a worship time was held there too.
Use, Reduce, Reuse.
The low-cost approach keeps asking, what can be done cheaper, while still maintaining structure and beauty. One approach is to make built-in furniture. Every residential home has built-in cupboards in the bedrooms and kitchens. And an L-shaped sitting area where a dining table can go. Some porches have built-in seats too.
And another is reusing things.
A recent structural audit showed that the basic buildings were very fine – the brick walls will last another 50 years at least. But some of the concrete roofs were leaking. What to do?
And so a beautiful idea was brought forward and implemented by Mr. Shaji who has been building the Asha Kiran campus since its inception.
Take used tiles, and layer them on the roofs. Extra cover. Protects the cement roof. Makes it all look more beautiful. And is cheap.
Mr. Shaji is able to get used tiles at Rs. 2 a pop. Add transportation costs and it goes upto Rs. 7 per tile. But that is an absolute steal when you think that new tiles cost at least Rs. 40 each. And so gradually all the slanted roofs, which were previously just a simple concrete slab, are now being dressed with beautifully weathered tiles.
Why is he getting the used tiles so cheap? Because no one else wants to buy them as most new builders want their concrete-bunker buildings…
The used tiles are slipped onto the concrete slabs after some small rills were added to give them some grip – but they are not plastered on – just laid out on the roofs.
And voila! A new-old look!
The Asha Kiran Hospital campus is a small Eden. Over the years, trees have been planted and nurtured. Silver Oaks tower along the roads, with coffee plants growing in the shade and pepper vines climbing up their sides. A pine-apple or two can be seen. Jackfruit trees buckle with the abundance of fruit. Mango trees do their stuff with a good harvest every other year. In addition a dairy provides milk and the goatery is also functioning. A chicken farm has been hived off to an ex-employee who now runs it as a business.
There are trees all around the homes: luscious bamboo groves and majestic gul-mohors with their splashes of red-flowers in the warmest part of the year. This means that the staff homes are not only given the shade of trees but also are situated in the sheer beauty which has sprung up over the years.
And so here we are.
A really five-star beauty which has come from sheer simplicity and clarity of design lived out and consistently put into practice. Who says low-cost has to look cheap?
Even more recent buildings, made long after Laurie Bakers demise, bear the finger print of the master builder, and those who continue to build these brick-poetry mansions are allowing the finger-print of the Master Builder to shape their labours of love.
Would that more people would follow the visionary beauty-creators of Asha Kiran Hospital