09.12.12 | visiting aarohi
At the start of December we began a series of recce trips to choose the partner for our next project, which is being funded by the British Council. We were looking not just for the right charity, but the right proposal – in terms of location, site, scale and the community. One thing that we were keen to ensure in advance, was that the project offered the opportunity for skill development and capacity building within the community. Our criteria, defined in consultation with the British Council, were:
Local administrative and process support through the organisation
Context ready for an intervention with clearly defined architectural need
Local community to benefit from learning building skills
Regional distinction from our current project in Dehradun
Climatic conditions suitable for building in summer months
Local existing craft or building skills or distinct architectural style as a potential feature for the project
Our first trip was to Aarohi, a small charity focusing on healthcare, education, and livelihoods in the Kumaoni region of the Himalayas in eastern Uttarakhand. Satoli, the tiny village where Aarohi is based is absolutely beautiful – with a small cluster of shops and houses dotted around the mountainside that look across a valley towards the snow-capped peaks of the high Himalayas. Although it seems idyllic, especially after the fumes and noise of Dehradun!, the life here is hard with many people struggling to farm on the difficult terrain, and young people finding few opportunities. As the younger generation leave for the cities, city folks are moving in, building second homes, or coming to stay in ‘Himalayan retreat’ hotels.
We were introduced to Aarohi through a friend of ours, Amritha Ballal, who came across them many years ago by chance when she was trekking in the area. Intrigued by whoever was building a new structure using traditional methods and local materials (a pretty rare phenomenon!), she met Sushil Sharma – a doctor who was setting up a health clinic, and understood the value of vernacular architecture.
The charity has now expanded to include a primary school, and a small factory which produces natural body products from locally grown apricots. Sushil approached us with a clear list of potential collaborations, including a prototype house for the region’s farmers, the development of fuel efficient and emission-controlled wood-burning stoves, the construction of play equipment and landscaping on the school’s field, and the addition of a third floor on top of one of their existing school buildings. This additional space would have to house classrooms, as well as have the capacity to host community events and after school activities – so the overlaps with our research and design development from Dehradun were striking. However, it was already funded, so on this occasion wouldn’t be appropriate.
Once we had arrived in the village and started talking through the options with Sushil and Pradeep, the charity’s secretary, the potential project that emerged was a vocational training center focusing on carpentry and bakery. The site would be below the existing school building, on an area of terraced land looking across the valley. We were incredibly inspired by the local architecture we had seen, particularly the dry-stone walls, and were very interested in using similar methods in our own project . One immediate pragmatic concern was that we would need to quarry these as soon as possible if they were to be ready in time for the project. We were also anxious that there wasn’t a pre-existing and immediate need for the training center, as we didn’t want to find ourselves trying to invent the program as well as the design – and wanted to absolutely sure of the need for what we were building. On the other hand, we all fell in love with the place, and liked the people we met and would be working with very much. After a lovely couple of days, we left feeling excited, but trying not to become too attached to the project before visiting the other two potential partners.