Design & Product

When Beauty Powers Community and Function

Why is our approach to construction and deployment of technology so singularly unimaginative, even when the past is evidence that beautiful solutions are possible? Join Ayaz Basrai, acclaimed designer and founder of The Busride, as he asks if Chand Baori can inspire the solar plants of the future.

When Beauty Powers Community and Function
Chand Baori Stepwell, Creative Commons License

Come with me to the village of Abhaneri, about a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, on the road to Agra. Driving into this small dusty village, you are completely unprepared for the sight that awaits you as you duck into a short, dark entry and Chand Baori reveals itself.  

Chand Baori is a stepwell dating back to the 8th century, thought to have been built by a local king, Raja Chanda. In the desert states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the seasonal monsoon is torrential, yet the sandy soil lets precious water slip below the surface almost instantly. There are age-old aquifers here, waiting to be tapped by water diviners of legend, who use a deep sense of intuition and an almost forensic knowledge of surface signs to precisely triangulate the presence of underground water.

Our city-trained eyes tend to look up at imposing architectural structures.  It is a new experience to look down into something as awe-inspiring as Chand Baori

The term ‘Baori’ means ‘well’ but it does no justice to the breathtaking scale of the place.  The immense structure is almost a 100 feet deep and descends 13 stories below the surface in 3400 perfectly sculpted steps. Its other-world symmetry and geometric precision create constantly moving patterns and shapes through the day in a captivating dance of shadow and light.

The Baori not only makes the aquifer accessible in a purely functional way, it allows for a community to take ownership of the space. Its private, cool confines make it the perfect gathering or resting place during scorching afternoons and you will see women dotting the steps as they seize a few moments for a quick chat. There is even a subterranean palace for royals. 

A Beautiful Solution

The Chand Baori is what I like to call a ‘beautiful solution’.  Not only does it effectively address the issue, the articulated solution is one of exquisite beauty. Chand Baoris and others like it remind us how intuition, a visceral connect with context and a strong sense of art, craft and community can result in utopian structures; built by and for the people, accessible and welcoming, showcasing human creativity at its best for eternity. The process of conceptualising, building and integrating these structures into everyday lives, is beyond our current, ‘problem-solution’ mindset that leads to unimaginative, unsustainable short-term fixes.

Take for instance the mega solar plants we construct today. These demand not just vast investment in infrastructure but rapaciously consume resources like land and water.  We deploy technology blindly without thought to context or long-term impact. In fact, our paradigm of building today is singularly unimaginative. We are convinced that energy can only be produced in one way, no matter how dystopian it is. We create mammoth structures, secretive and ringed by layers of security. Far from engaging community or encouraging art and culture, these plants brutally terraform the landscape they occupy, with scant regard for impact or legacy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not if we pause to reflect, consider and reimagine these structures for our collective future.

The Abha Nagri Sun Temple 2035

A visualisation of the Abha Nagri Sun Temple, 2035 by Yuvraj Jha,

It is the year 2035. Come with me to the village of Abhaneri, originally named Abha Nagri, meaning ‘City of Brightness’, most famous for its proximity to the Chand Baori. More recently, the inauguration of the Abha Nagri Sun Temple has made headlines world-over, promising to be a new community space for the region. 

What better way to create a sun temple than with solar panels?

The Abha Nagri Sun Temple comprises a network of solar pyramids that generate a vast amount of power. The team that conceptualised this unique structure included local community, members of the Arts commission, technologists, geologists and third-generation water diviners. Technology and geological teams engaged in a detailed topographical survey of the area, using current geo-mapping tools and subterranean probes to precisely pin-point aquifer locations. The base frameworks of solar pyramids were then laid so as to not disturb any subterranean flows. A grid of algorithmically calculated engineered trees optimises their own configuration to make the best use of available sunlight, allowing for an ever-changing forest of mechanically controlled trees, in a constant feedback loop. The Sun Temple thus generates power using a combination of available geo-thermal energy combined with a distributed wind and solar backbone. 

A living breathing Sun Temple

The Sun Temple is poised to become a hub for cultural activities, with the programming managed by some of the country’s best creative minds.

The first year’s calendar of events is an eclectic mix of music programs, India’s first radical self-expression festival and adventure sports from the surrounding dunes. The eco-residences that are now springing up around the temple complex have adopted much of its ethos, buying power locally over short distances, within a new barter ecosystem. Locally grown produce is proliferating in the solar kitchens in Abha Nagri, allowing a new food culture to begin. The temple harvests its own rainwater, storing it in massive community underground water-tanks, and in a beautiful serendipity, has managed to energise the aquifers flowing to its sister monument, the Chand Baori.

The path to ‘Beautiful Solutions’

In order to achieve an expression of effortless synergy between technology and community, our base motivations need examination. I firmly believe that where technology partners with community engagement, relying on inclusive groups to shape vision, monuments of enduring function and beauty can be created. 

If we include beauty as a generator of community interest and participation, we can ensure long lasting value, stewardship, and a sense of place that we are sorely lacking today. 

We could start by asking simple fundamental questions before we start grabbing land to roll out endless fields of solar panels. How can this become a place that enriches the community? How can it welcome visitors, and leave them with a sense of wonder and awe? How can we inspire the sort of community engagement and stewardship that our great legacy of building has managed to? How can these structures be made relevant? What values can they subscribe to and create?

Our future selves will then define inclusive notions of beauty using high-performance materials that will rival the greatest achievements of the past in articulating new symbiotic relationships with our ecology.

The etymology of the word Konark, the most famous sun temple in India, comes from ‘Kona’ meaning corner in Sanskrit, and ‘Arka’, meaning Sun.  The idea is almost an invitation to our future selves to build the algorithmically derived ‘Konarks’ of the future.

Think for a moment about what the builders of the Konark temple in Odisha could have achieved back in 1250 if they had access to solar panels.

To read more about Ayaz Basrai, check out this interview where he speaks of the power of letting things emerge

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