Friday, June 15, 2012

Two (retractable) Roofs (and a Third?)

In April of 2012, we executed a small walkway covering at 24 Sunder Nagar. In April 2010 we executed a small outdoor courtyard covering at 540 Khel Gaon. Two projects, with essentially similar briefs, separated by 24 months.

The Outdoor Room (as I like to call it) in Khel Gaon, would arguably be my first built project, and so holds a certain dearness. It was built, with a team of masons, and small-time steel fabricators. The design hinges on two half –vault roofs in tensile fabric – one sliding over the other, and the use of sliding channels -one right way up, and one upside down! It was another experience to make drawings for someone untrained to read drawings that would enable him to fabricate and construct a complicated sequence of production and assemblies in steel, glass, bamboo-mat, stone, and engineered tensile fabric. And a roof  moved with manually operated sliding mechanism.  A kit of available parts, some modified and then assembled.

The Walkway Canopy at 24 Sunder Nagar, is just what its name says – a covering over a walkway. It covers a walkway, 21 feet long, from a gate to a front door, on the southern edge of a garden. This covering too moves, but more like an accordion, the 6 segments of fabric, each riveted to a central spine, (when collected to one side) droop and collapse into a neat little collection hanging below a quiet stainless steel archway.  When stretched, the single cable that holds the covering suspended over the walk almost completely disappears. The covering feels more like a soft green vault –umbrella, floating  gently in a garden.

But what makes the walkway covering a triumph of sorts, is not that it was made, but how it was made**.It isn’t always hard and sweaty and blood- drawing work.

The first time around at Khel Gaon, on a much simpler assembly, it took six weeks of site visits almost every day to get it right. A painful period of directing, convincing, and most of all overcoming the mason’s staunch refusal to do things in ways he had not done before. And a lot of sweat in the April sun.

The second time around, was a set of drawings, weekly site visits to a small shanty, where things were cut shaped and fabricated. And after 4 weeks of this, a truck loaded. A kit of parts dispatched to site, and assembled there, from scratch to working retractable walkway canopy in 9 hours flat.

That is why it is something you want to write home about. Things can be done, they take a little blood and sweating (the first time around), but they get better with practice. And once you have proved the point, a reluctant mason and doubting fabricator can become willing and keen collaborators to hair-brained, but awfully interesting design interventions. And then, when the opportunity presents itself, you can take the idea even further, (wait till you see our entry to the Jaipur ISBT Competition). Ideas grow!

**Having used the same team on other occasions, post the roof in Khel Gaon, I realized one could get a little more adventurous. Here though it was not out of choice, but necessity. Considering the brief’s explicit requirement for no columns, and as little interference in the garden, the only options was to attach to existing structures, the gate and the house itself. And use a spine between them as the mainstay. Sliding on a cable is an easy enough idea, till you discover a) you do not get grooved pulley wheels in 3 inch diameters, with in built sealed ball-bearings (these were made out of Royal Enfield axle bearings, with steel bushes mounted on them and lathed), b) you do not get assemblies to hang spines from the cable, c) Well I could go on, but the point being, everything, barring the cable, and the turn-buckles, every single component was customized.  

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