Saturday, 29 June 2019

A Symphony in Brick - the wonderful architecture of Asha Kiran Hospital

Beauty is something we crave deep down.  It’s one of the defining human traits – a desire to see things lovely, a deep sense of wonder we have at the ever changing sunsets, or the gurgling tumbling waterfall.

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 no concrete monstrosity, no steel and glass ice-cube which has fallen down from Venus.

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.

Using bricks.  
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...

Using concrete minimally, to maximum effect
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.

You see tiles inside.  And why may that be?

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.

Using Arches.
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!

Grow around

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.

Come, let us walk in a garden.  It’s a wonderful place to live…. 

Would that more people would follow the visionary beauty-creators of Asha Kiran Hospital

A Railway Day

I grew up on the Indian Railways.  Some of my earliest memories are the long summer train rides in sleeper class down to Madras Central.  On arriving, we would then go over to Madras Egmore station to get the metre-gauge overnight train towards Madurai, getting off early in the morning at  Kodai Road station, where a bus would take us up to the coolness of the eucalyptus scented hills.

Other vague memories have me plastered to the open window, looking out ahead to see the steam engine pulling our train forward (!).  Needless to say, we were rather soot-stained dirty at the end of those trips.


These last 6 months have seen us all use the railways a lot – but I think I have never had as many trips in as short a time… and it has been such a thrill to catch trains up and down the country.

Here is ‘a railway day’

It starts before dawn.  At countless railway stations across the nation. People are waiting for their trains.

Eventually, as time and tide pass, and as the sun starts to lighten the skies, the long-desired train trundles in...

Waiting, is of course one of our great Indian virtues.

And there are things that help make the wait bearable. Sometimes barely.

While many a station sells stale tea, there are of course many wonderful exceptions to start your day with.

At Chennai Central, you can get fresh frothy filter coffee

At Vishakaptanam, the idli-wada seller does great business as the travelers get their breakfast.

The savory treats are wrapped in newspaper and you get your coconut chutney and sambhar in seperate plastic bags to douse your breakfast with at your leisure.

"All aboard, Friends!  The train is about to leave!" (we hope…)

Once inside the story changes

Each train has a different vibe, a culture of its own.

Depending which 'class' you are in, you will see different slices of society.

Some a closer proximity than others of course.

.... and all through the journey the tea / coffee wallas walk through hawking their wares... crossing the various classes of bogies - seating car, unreserved (general), sleeper, 3rd AC, 2nd AC, AC chair car - the various combinations and permutations that each train will have

Each bogies has its unique mix of people...

All precious in His sight of course.  

As we sit and listen and talk (less now-a-days after alsmost everyone and his dog has a mobile device) we gather snippets of lives.

In the silence there are also wonderful opportunities to pray quiet blessings into the lives of others…

We now live amidst a wired generation…

Every train has a power outlet to charge our irreplaceable mobiles…

Sleep, especially in the heat – is always a sweet relief…

The best entertainment, however is not on a small screen (even if the Cricket world Cup is going on…)

You just have to gaze out of the windows for big-screen glory:

Some prefer to grab a seat at the base of an open door … with dizzying views down as you cross bridges and go up mountains..

And then you are rewarded with views like this - crossing central India in summer …

Or this scene just after the spring harvest in northern UP....

We live in a vast country… and what better way to get different glimpses of India's varied beauty

Such as crossing mighty rivers (here the Godavari at Rajamundry in Andhra Pradesh)....

And pray, when did you last see a woman carrying 7 pots of water on her head?  (southern Odisha)

Or see shepherds herding their flocks in the twilight?

Or gaze at “progress” in its various shapes… and forms...

All views, courtesy of windows (and maybe a door or two) of Indian railways, all the while taking you to your preferred destination!

Where will your next train ride take you?

The ride itself is worth the ticket price (which is so, so low for most of the trains we use...).

I love opening a door and looking out, watching the loco pull us along through the country side…

There is something magical about seeing the train snake ahead of you, being pulled to an infinite spot on the horizon..

The magical rails takes you up mountains, through gorges...

Or through city-scapes…

Our nation is girded with rails.  

And what a blessing to be able to move around 

And then there are the stations.....

The rustle and crush of getting in and out – especially when it only stops for 2 minutes!

Some stations are just a single platform and a bench or two....

Others are behemoths… places where thousands move forward and backward every day, a teeming mass of humanity that erupts out of trains that pause shortly for breath at their platforms.

Our nation is dotted with stations

The same basic features multiplied or minimal   

Rails. Platforms. Places to sit.  Food stalls (in some).  

The heavy clatter of trains passing through.   

The incessant updates being robo-announced “the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted”.

Some delightfully decorated with relics of ye olde days...

Some never sleep....

And some have the strangest sights in their waiting rooms…

Each station has a unique name

Some with faded signs...

Others fairly grand...

 Some stations are linked with metros and other forms of transportation

Every station having an infinite number of possibilities.   

You watch people and wonder.  

Who is going where?  Why are they dressed this way or that way?  

Who has come to see the person off – and who are the travelers?  

What dreams are being lived out, what hopes are in tatters?

People and luggage.  Hearts and homes.  Going somewhere, or coming from some place.

And our many stations are also dwelling places – some temporary, others semi-permanent – for so, so many.

Its the end of a railway day.

For those of us who are blessed to have one, it is a wonderful joy to come home after a long train ride.  

To see the familiar lights and streets that twinkle ‘welcome back’ to you.

 And finally the almost hesitant way that the train sidles into the final destination.

You see the grey of the platform streaming like a quiet river outside and you know that it's time to step out .

The trip is over. 

Your railway day is done.