Uncovering the history of a minimalist Ashram in India helps us explore how a building can inspire spirituality within.
It’s a complex task to write about buildings constructed for worship because doing so implores us to consider the significance of structure beyond shelter. We ask many questions of this type of building. For example, is this particular set of walls anticipated to inspire spirituality on an individual level? Or, what about the built structure is meant to provide collective solace to a faithful group of followers? Or even more broadly, can a building do these otherworldly things?
This month, we are examining a lesser known spiritual house from a distant part of the world: the Golconde Ashram in Pondicherry, India. There is a unique architectural language there, spelling out the region’s storied past. Intricate and colourful buildings stand as reminders of the French colonists’ appropriation of traditional Tamil design. In contrast, the minimalist Ashram is something quite radical; it begs an explanation.
For our purposess, the story commences at the beginning of the twentieth century when yogi-philosopher Sri Aurobindo established the Sri Aurobindo Ashram alongside French artist and spiritual guru, Mirra Alfassa. The pair had amassed a loyal community of followers who were in need of a dormitory in Pondicherry proper. Mirra Alfassa had the great sense to commission the then Tokyo-based-Czech-architect, Antonin Raymond to draft plans for this dormitory. As he set to work drafting, Raymond entrusted the on site construction to his long time associate, George Nakashima. He was on a spiritual journey of his own when he agreed to take the opportunity to work on this project in India.
The result of the partnership between Raymond and Nakashima is a modernist dream. The dormitory at the Ashram is a simple, minimal concrete construction carefully positioned in its surroundings so as to work with nature in its efforts to heat, to cool, to shade its inhabitants and to provide ample space for group yoga and individual meditation. One foundational teaching of the Ashram is that there is always room for spirituality within the confines of a physical existence on earth. The building reflects this philosophy. In its simplicity, it relies upon the Ashram’s principle of living only with that which you actually need, removing excess materiality in your surroundings allows one to better understand what is essential for within. The building’s interior is readily open to the exterior, embracing another principle that your salvation begins from the inside out. Coming back to the questions posed at the start of this piece, it’s clear that the Ashram serves multiple duties as provider of basic necessities, as teacher of philosophic practice, and as inspiration for living with the Ashram’s principles.
In short, yes, a building can do these otherworldly things.