Neelam Manjunath began her presentation in Delhi showing homes of early humans, when caves made way for teepees and then wooden huts with thatched roofs. She showed three types of homes, which used different local materials, and a steel-and-glass building, which could have been anywhere in the world. This journey of 30 minutes across materials and time was her way of saying how we have become a civilisation of one size fits all. She was at the WADE Asia conference held in Delhi recently.
A member of the National Governing Council, Bamboo Society of India, and Chairman of its Karnataka Chapter, Manjunath says, “We plan to compile an International Bamboo Code to better promote the material. Politicians make policies about affordable homes; they should look at this material.” She recalls a recent trip near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, where she saw homes built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana used as cow sheds. “Concrete makes a building too hot in summer and too cold in the winters. People keep their cattle in these homes and sleep in their mud and thatch ones,” says the 52-year-old.
Her first project at Manasaram Architects in 1999 came from Karnataka’s only female governor, VS Ramadevi. In Raj Bhavan, Manjunath had to remodel a dilapidated brick building, which would become a space to entertain VIPs. She saw it as an opportunity to evangelise the use of bamboo, even if she got no fees for the job.
“I grew up in a family where frugal living was encouraged. We didn’t waste any resources or time, and that idea permeates my architecture. A graduate from the Government College of Architecture, Lucknow, her marriage to a bureaucrat from Karnataka took her to Bangalore. “At the time, I was working on solar passive architecture. Now it’s given marketing names like sustainable and green. Architecture is supposed to be climate centric. You must know about soil, economics, sociology and geology, all of it. We have diluted our own definition of who an architect is. Earlier, the architect used to be at the head of the table and now, builders and engineers sit there. Today, to be an architect, you need 3D printers and software, that’s not how it should be,” says Manjunath, who was nominated as World Bamboo Ambassador at the World Bamboo Organization in 2018, in Mexico.
While exploring material engineering, she found options in terracotta blocks and bamboo. “I began looking at fractal geometry, how a polyhedron works, how space and functions can work around it. I’m keen on grid-shell structures,” she says. Her engagement with these complexities shows up in her Cocoon project for the Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Trichy, where a multi-utility area became a teaching and exhibition space. Various experiments with mud and bamboo found place at her own home in Bengaluru, A House of Five Elements. Her office, close to her house, is another example in experimentation.
“In mud constructions you get only three-metre-wide windows. I worked with structural engineer MR Yogananda to get four-metre windows in my house. Since we were using stabilised mud blocks and wanted wider windows, we had to change the mix for every wall, so each wall was differently designed. The house also has a 175-ft long curved beam and two-way dome shell, which even 10 years ago was unheard of,” says the award-winning architect.
Manjunath’s advocacy has taken her across the country and the world, where she has presented papers on the efficiency of bamboo as an architectural material. “I believe in using less bamboo to do work more. I have presented proposals to the Bangalore Metro, where bamboo can be used in construction,” she says. Dispelling myths that bamboo warps in external use, Manjunath says, “Can you keep steel outside without it begin treated? It’s the same with bamboo. A research done on fire rating for concrete, steel and bamboo, showed each is equally susceptible. In extreme heat, steel loses its strength, concrete will collapse, but bamboo and wood will only char,” says Manjunath, adding, “When you buy cement, the money goes to a corporation. Who will sell you mud and bamboo?”