Environmental Thresholds - School in Veti, Murbad

Course Mentors:  Dipti Bhaindarkar & Sabaa Giradkar (+ Malaksingh Gill, Abhijit Ekbote, Faizan Khatri, Shrikar Bhave & Rhea Shah)

Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock James, 1981) speculated that there must be some regulatory system that keeps our environment in a relatively constant condition and that a regulatory system could be the terrestrial life itself. A system in which human life is also one of the participating partners, and therefore what we do to our planet will also depend on where we do it. He further argues that the vital organs of Gaia may be the landscapes of estuaries, wetlands and muds alluding to the significance of these elements in processing and readjusting systems on earth. He proposes that till such time we know more about the Earth it is better to tread gently, or left alone at best. Amongst several details of this hypothesis embedded in the bio-sciences, chemistry and the like, three important fundamentals emerge:

1. The earth system is self-regulatory and it regulates itself through living organisms of which humans are a part.
2. The larger system is dynamic and temporal.
3. By virtue of a self-regulatory mechanism, the system is interconnected through various subsystems.

All of the systemic environmental interconnectedness and flows are today reinterpreted with the framework of current economic thinking. This dominant discourse has resulted in new spatial priorities. They have largely ignored the environmental consequences of such developmental conflicts causing huge disruption to the very interconnectedness of all life forms and natural systems. These rapid transformations have created disruptions and contradictions on one hand while opportunities and possibilities on the other.

Several important theoretical frameworks and practices evolved alongside the emerging environmental discourse. One such philosophy is the environmental philosophy of Deep Ecology (Arne Næss, 2008) . The philosophy expanded on the idea of ecology to mean a way of life. It argues for an interconnected and self-regulatory system. It, therefore, advocates a way of life that is non-violent in its relationship with all organisms.

Ian McHarg, in his seminal work, Design with Nature, (1969) questioned the notion of human superiority and recognised the resultant disruption. McHarg's anthropocentric ways of thinking largely stayed within the framework of the new economic order; he devised a method of understanding the natural systems and their dynamism over time and space, temporality and the interconnectedness through a technique of layering various disciplines over geographic space. This brought environmental systems to the forefront of planning and design discourse and gave a framework for decision making on the nature of spatial interventions in a given context. Subsequently, there have been several critiques and extensions to this work, however, the principles of this seminal work continue to be relevant and applicable at several levels.

A few years later design thinking on the environment was introduced to various concepts at various levels. All emanating from environmental concerns and sought newer understandings of man-nature relationships. The Biophilia Hypothesis (Edward O. Wilson, 1993) was one such, that spoke about deep affiliations of humans with nature. It later influenced design thinking in more ways than one. At another scale, the natural systems and their role in city development was understood through practices of landscape urbanism (Charles Waldheim, 2016). This studio seeks to build newer imaginations towards coexistence of biodiversities and to remediate the contradictions within the same.

a) POLITICAL – The Gram Panchayat of Veti Murbad had a small Ashram School (“Live-in” school) within its political boundary. The school had a capacity of around 300 students from grade 1 to 4. However, due to lack of maintenance, the school ended up in a state of disrepair and is now defunct. With this backdrop, the village has now decided to erect a much larger education facility. The land for this proposal is finalized by the community of the village and a village notice identifying the land, its size and its political boundary is issued. The gram Panchayat now awaits a proposal from the PWD (Public Welfare Department) for the same. The proposal would be for a much larger educational facility, which would house students from grades 1 to 12 (SSC AND HSC). The students who opt for the “science” faction of the HSC would be studying in the facility. The original “Live-in” school module will also continue to exist in the facility.

b) SOCIAL – The village is located in the tribal taluka of Dahanu of the Palghar district. It has a thriving tribal heritage and still is very much connected to its tribal ethos. However, the people of the village now find it difficult to cope with this ethos and balance it with the contemporary worldview to which they are exposed to. A lot of contextually relevant practices, including the practice of native architecture, are followed only as a tradition or are dismissed as outdated. These practices are slowly being replaced by culturally alien and geographically disjunct ideas. Many times these ideas are heavily subsidized by the Government to enable the dependence of the otherwise self-sustainable tribal community on the market economy.

c) ARCHITECTURAL – For centuries, the tribals of the Dahanu taluka have been building homes using the biodiverse forests that surround their village. The humble wattle and daub home of the tribal plays host to all the livelihood generating activities of the family. These structures need to be maintained frequently, but all the materials and skills needed for maintenance are available in the context and at negligible costs. The reason why the original Ashram school became defunct is that the industrial materials used were difficult to maintain and the needed heavy costs for repairs.

The Community of Veti Murbad and Design Jatra together are now trying to submit an architectural proposal of this particular school to the Tribal Research and Training Institute, Mumbai along with the Tribal Welfare Department. Considering the already mentioned context, both the above stakeholders would like the students of “School of Environment and Architecture” to take this up as a brief for one of their semesters. The stakeholders expect the generation of context-sensitive architectural ideas and a practically viable concept proposal, which would be the base of a generation of actual proposals to the government.