Workshop on domes with mud, 4- 8 Jan, 2018 – Chattisgarh, India

Here is a simple story of how a Mexican dome (boveda mexicana) came to India in 2018. (I am sure it has been here before, but this particular one is my experience).

Three years ago, I was amazed to see the structures built my architect Ramón Aguirre Morales of Oaxaca. He took me in as a child and a disciple and showed me the basics of a mexican dome, I have sweet memories travelling several times to Oaxaca from Queretaro to learn to build from him. varun 4

A year later when I attempted my first project in mexico for Rocio and Jorge Camacho who showed trust in me in spite of my lack of experience on Mexican soil. We set out on building domes with volunteers and amateurs, but soon found a strong direction with the presence of the world renown masters of mexican domes.. Andres Flores Castaneda of Cholula and then later on with James Anthony of Washington DC. The learning curve was steep initially.. and it still is even after 2 years of building. Andres and his brother built this 8m x8m dome effortlessly in a week with minimal help and at such a meager fee.

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I then physically over – loaded the dome (to get the design of a stepped amphitheater above the dome) and went beyond my calculations by 30% to still find the dome structurally very very stable. Minimum deflections, in spite of a Live load of more than 3o persons added to the 24 ton dead load. (We are by now far ahead of a typical concrete slab). This dome now defies all rational thought known to us!

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After a few workshops with Andres, and closely observing James, I found myself sufficiently brave and keen enough to teach and build one in India. (my first attempt 3 years ago had failed, in a workshop in Hyderabad).

My chance came when I first got to know Ritesh Agrawal the collector if Jagdalpur, Chattisgarh. This humble civil engineer turned IAS officer, is fearlessly fighting building conventions and actively looking at skill development in his district. They have set up livelihood colleges  where traditional skiils in the arts and crafts are being taught. Local tribals are bring taught adobe brick making, rammed earth, earthen plasters and what not. He is actively looking for artisans who can teach as well as teachers who can build.  (I fit the second category). He organized a workshop at livelihood college Jagdalpur. Jan 4-8 2018. He received me with great care and preparation – all organized to immaculate detail.

I tried my best to introduce the essential concept of the mexican dome – building though intuition. No guides used, no threads drawn, no calculations made… nothing except using the body and the posture (a dance as taught be Andres) to form the curves of a dome. More than 60 participants witnessed this phenomenon – intuition being a more powerful approach than rational thought.

Here are the facts for the ones who ask the unromantic questions.

  • Will it last? – I bet it will if cared for.. for hundreds of years.
  • Will it be cheaper? – It took 600 bricks (including 10% wastage), 2 bags of sand and 3 bags of mud. A scaffold, one master mason and one helper on three full working days. (A day and a half if Andres works). Do the math.
  • Is it easier to learn than the rational vaults and domes? – Apparently it is.. many of the guys and tribals in the images below haven’t even stuck a brick in their life. They seem to have grasped the idea in 2 days.
  • How to protect /waterproof this dome? – In my short experience so far, there are four approaches in decreasing order of maintenance and increasing order of cost .
    1. 1. A sacrificial clay plaster done every year after rains.
    2. A lime plaster like opus signinum, Look up Laurent Coquemont for this.
    3. A stone/gravel/ceramic/brick layer laid interlocking/butt/ overlapping using mud or lime as a adhesive.
    4. A sheet of plastic with a natural roof, drainage and drama.
  • Where do I learn? – Go to the source of this knowledge. Look up these masters on facebook.
    1. Bovedas Andres Flores. If you are looking for a sensei and want to walk the route. He is a third generation artist doing this for a humble living. Its worth calling him all the way to India or anywhere in the world and learning from him. One of the rare artisans who is also a great teacher.
    2. Ramon Aguirre Morales. For all the science, the engineering, codes as well as personal learning as an Architect / Enginner.  An architect and a professor, he has traveled and taught in more than a dozen countries and has successfully built all over latin america and Europe. a perfect fit for a university setting. He has a famous book published and is also an expert on building domes in earthquake zones. ALL his domes have survived several 6+ earthquakes in Oaxaca. 
    3. James Anthony. If you want and can pay for ART. A professional fit for the patron and are privileged to be in his liking . Someone who will take every job very personally. A true Michelangelo! Observe and learn!
    4. Auroville Earth Institute. My first teacher Satprem Maini who has been conducting workshops at very affordable costs since more than two decades. The simplest place to start.

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