Architect Antonin Raymond created the Golconde Dormitory, also known as Golconde, as a private apartment for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry, India. Raymond designed the building as “The First Modernist Building in India,” the first structure in India to use reinforced concrete to counteract the impacts of the hot and muggy atmosphere.
Golconde was constructed between 1937 and 1945 in a city where Sri Aurobindo, a recluse philosopher from 1872 to 1950, lived with Mirra Alfassa, a French artist and spiritual seeker who would later become known as The Mother. In 1926, they founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram together. Attracted to the teachings of the renowned author and spiritual teacher, visitors came to this commune from all over the world. The Mother commissioned Czech architect Antonin Raymond, based in Tokyo, to create Golconde as a residence for community members. After spending eight months in Pondicherry, Raymond and his wife discovered that the city and its inhabitants profoundly impacted them.
In contrast to Pondicherry’s French Colonial and Tamil traditional architecture, Golconde’s clean lines and concrete formwork were undoubtedly unconventional and avant-garde. The construction of the dormitory, in Raymond’s words, “was not primarily for the purpose of housing the disciples; it was to create an activity, the materialization of an idea, by which the disciples might learn, might experience, might develop, through contact with the erection of a fine building.” After establishing the initial concept and construction, Raymond and his wife moved to the US. They handed the project to their friends, the Japanese-American carpenter George Nakashima and the Czech architect Francois Sammer, who later joined the Ashram.
A stairwell is a hinge between the two long wings that make up Golconde’s straightforward layout. A corridor that extends the entire structure is lined with single rooms. There are three stories and a partial basement, which serves as a utility area and has a nice semi-open space for a tradition of afternoon tea. Golconde’s long ends are aligned from north to south, leaving just its short ends with a limited surface area directly exposed to the sun, minimizing heat absorption. The building’s ability to have louvers installed throughout its entire length on both the front façade and the back wall, which can be opened and closed depending on the weather, may be its most notable feature. By opening the louvers within the room and those across the corridor in front of it in the morning, one can almost unclothe the area by leaving themselves and the area exposed to the outside. One of the earliest pieces of woodwork Nakashima ever created, the room is entirely furnished with beds, desks, and closets. It feels like a profound, reflective trip through the lengthy, frequently deserted hallways, with light seeping in on one side through the horizontal louvers. The teakwood sliding doors on the opposite side have staggered slats and may be closed for total privacy while allowing you to enjoy the sea breeze.
There were several peculiar but lovable procedures throughout the production of Golconde. A group of devotees who resided in the Ashram worked on it; they included both expert and unskilled labourers, some of whom had no construction experience. For making fits specifically for Golconde, workshops were established. Brass cups, bowls, and plates the Ashram’s residents contributed were melted down and cast again as bolts, hinges, and door handles. Several components were imported, including steel rods from France and machineries like Japanese sawing machines and combustion engines. In his book The Soul of Tree, Nakashima stated that because Pondicherry lacked a wharf, the steel was transported there on boats made of palm trunks lashed together from a ship anchored ship in the Bay of Bengal.
The steel rods were bent such that they resembled a pile of spaghetti by the time they were unloaded on the shore. Bullock carts were used to transport them from the beach to the construction site, where they were hammered straight by numerous lines of workers.
The notion that every one of us can design a spiritually conscious life within the confines of human existence is crucial in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. It supports taking concrete steps toward salvation while acting with integrity and beauty from the inside out. The experience of the building reveals the philosophy. Golconde stands out as an example of architecture that increases awareness of one’s body, emotions, and thoughts due to its ascetic simplicity, unity of materials, removal of anything unnecessary to the living inside, and harmony of the interior and exterior. It is possible to have a spiritual experience inside a building.
A look at India’s first modernist building, Golconde in Pondicherry, Architectural Digest. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.in/story/a-look-at-indias-first-modernist-building-golconde-in-pondicherry/ [Accessed March 14, 2023].