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Wednesday, 11 March, 1998

The fire within Shalaka Paradkar  

Ray Meeker's resume is an exciting one. Here is a man with a university background in architecture, a passion for pottery, tempered with social concern and courage to dabble in alternative technology. What he creates are familiar forms: modest houses roofed by vaults and domes -- Middle Eastern shelters transplanted on South India's secular soil. The story of how he creates these, though, makes all the difference... As Meeker himself drawls in his flatly pleasant American accent, "It is an architectural vocabulary that has developed out of the process..."

He enumerates it in five simple steps:

Build a room/kiln in unbaked mud brick, roofed with a dome or vault.

  • Fill it with a product; bricks, tiles, drainpipes, etc.
  • Fire the whole mass as a kiln to between 900 oC and 1000 o C.
  • Remove the products. Use some to finish the house: tiles for roofs, terracotta screens...
  • Sell the rest to recover as much of building costs as possible.

    Meeker's own story however, cannot be toldin such a neat progression. In his fourth year at the University of Southern California, he dropped out, stifled by, "the strait-jacket of architectural commandments". One of his early ventures was the cheekily named Ray Meeker and Associates, Potsellers. Located on the beach at Los Angeles, its entrance bore the legend `Open Sometimes...'

    He came to India in 1971 and started Golden Bridge Pottery at Pondicherry, along with Deborrah Smith. An able, enthusiastic teacher as well, Meeker's has been a seminal influence on many young potters. What inspired him to marry the ceramist's craft with architecture? "The idea of firing a house was not mine. One of my Indian colleagues had already started firing existing structures in the late '70s, but later moved abroad and lost interest," he says. Then in 1985, along with Jan de Rooden, a Dutch ceramist, he started off on his bold experimentation. Helped along the way by Iranian architect Nadir Khalili's book, Racing Alone, a narration of his own experiences in bakingstructures of raw earth. "He used oil for the kiln, an understandable choice in Iran. We had to think of cheaper firewood.

    "Nowadays, he mixes coal dust in the mud. Still the energy, intensiveness and ecological aspects of the process compare unfavourably with say, cement stabilised soil blocks -- another way of building with mud.

    Recently in Mumbai, to talk on architectural ceramics, as part of the Enduring Image exhibition, Meeker held the audience in thrall with his homegrown brand of dry humour, seasoned by years spent coping with errant contractors, wayward cyclones and a temperamental technology. When asked what made him fire houses, he immediately quipped, "The pyromaniac within!"

    Building in mud is not exactly aspirational for a country, where an impoverished rural populace has been doing so for aeons. But Meeker's houses also need cheap, plentiful fuel, ditto for the labour and enough space on site to excavate the mud. And of course, the un-stated, but obvious: a client who will not beapoplectic when his dream house develops occasional cracks. Meeker is witty about this, labelling his works, "pre-cracked structures," as they do not endanger the inhabitants.

    The yawning holes on site usually become water tanks or in the case of Ray's largest project to date, the ITC shrimp farm at Tuticorin. Meeker is aware that his technique was used to whitewash what was an environmentally-suspect project. Did that disturb him? "For me it was an opportunity to use fire stabilised mud on a larger scale, a step up from the rural context of 800 sqft houses I had designed so far," says Meeker.

    What does worry him however is the typical contractor's pathological need to cut corners. If underbaked due to a skimping on fuel, the houses become unsafe. Apart from the tangibles, fire stabilised mud also requires a good deal of honesty and commitment to the cause of developing an experimental technology further.

    A persistent criticism against Meeker's architecture is related to the transfer of technology. Butaccording to him, the public sector engineers on one of his projects were immediately able to grasp the basics of building and put up three vaults themselves. Also, can these houses which must have an outer skin of standard bricks, in addition to the inner fire stabilised structure, really be called cost effective? Meeker thinks so. "If the economics of selling the ceramic product from within the kiln are worked out right, it can cross subsidise the building of the house." This has also motivated him to carry on regardless for the past decade, believing that his could be the answer to certain questions, under certain conditions.

    Copyright 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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