Like a house on fire: Ceramics pioneer Ray Meeker on his new book, Building with Fire
At the launch event for the book Building with Fire, hosted as a part of the Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur recently, Ray Meeker took the stage to present a very realistic perspective, even as a host of ceramists, designers, architects and enthusiasts hailed his work, specifically to do with the concept of ‘fired houses’.
The idea might sound simple on paper: A ‘baked-in-situ’ mud structure can loosely be defined as a house primarily built using sun-dried mud bricks and mud mortar, which is then fired on site.
But Meeker, who’s a bona fide legend when it comes to ceramics, and a towering mentor to many an up-and-coming ceramist and artist, took his time to articulate that a viable, sustainable solution that is easily replicable at a mass level, is still a distant dream.
Meeker’s body of work, having founded Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry with his partner Deborah Smith nearly five decades ago, is unparalleled in many ways, with projects ranging from “tea bowls to houses” to kiln building and the odd monumental sculpture. His biggest trait yet, might be his need to keep things real. In an email interview, he spoke of his vision for baked and fired house constructions, and how getting a little crazy can go a long way...
The big question, and concern that you address - of economical, durable housing, still remains a huge, unresolved problem not just in India, but in many parts of the world. Still, what manner of hope would you like to offer for practitioners of alternative architectural practices? How would you like to encourage innovators to continue experimenting, and persist with their ambitions?
Actually, (the late British-born Indian architect) Laurie Baker comes to mind. Baker tweaked standard building practices well- known by local masons to evolve a moderate cost architectural vocabulary that worked in both domestic and civic contexts.
There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, so delve into the local skills and building practices, especially those that predate reinforced concrete. Don’t get me wrong, I love a beautifully caste concrete wall. But I also love a beautifully rammed, cement-stabilised earth wall. Dharmesh Jadeja and Satprem have done wonders with the red earth of Auroville and beyond.
(Award-winning architect) Anupama Kundoo takes Baker’s approach, but adds to standard brick a wide variety of red clay building elements made by local craftsmen. Her Wall House is a compendium of low-tech, locally produced building components in fired brick and terracotta, elegantly orchestrated in a brilliantly contemporary architectural statement. Texture that invites touch—intimacy. Red-orange, the color of Auroville earth, complements the forest’s green. Guna tiles for vaulted roofs and jack arches in extruded hollow clay segments.
Bricks, achakal, 18 x 10 x 2.5cm are used in vaults sprung low and in walls where Anupama plays with scale, at once emphasizing and subordinating the brick size in a massive façade rendered delicate by the rhythm of broad, deeply raked joints, off-white, the color of lime mortar. Making a bold and quite literal statement by coming to a point in an acute angle at the northeast corner, the ‘wall’ is introduced as the pivotal conceptual element of the house.
Anupama’s design is site-specific. This is an Auroville house that could probably not be built elsewhere. But the techniques can be used anywhere. Definitely appropriate in the urban context. Contemporary and warm. And she spreads the word, teaching at the University level around the world.
There's a lot of technical information that you pack into the book, Building with Fire. But there's still a lot more left to be said about matters of patience, persistence and tenacity. How would you describe the importance of these particular qualities and attributes, when it comes to building larger structures, and working with clay, in general?
The visual account of the twelve years of tests in the evolution of building mud structures for firing implies patience, persistence and tenacity. And don’t forget crazy. Yes a little madness goes a long way. And the ability to take risk, to fail. See the collapsed vault in test two. There is no room in this book to go into the technical aspects and inevitable loss in approaching monumental clay sculpture. Clay is a jealous master that tolerates few mistakes.
“Mud. Architecture. Fire. Affordability.” Is there anything you'd like to add to that equation - motivated people, perhaps? While you do mention a certain middle-class sensibility, there's definitely a growing interest that perceives such projects as urban, upwardly cool, hip and happening. Are you comfortable with such changing perceptions? What would your apprehensions be, about more people experimenting with such concepts and techniques?
If there is a “growing interest that perceives such projects as urban, upwardly cool, hip and happening” I welcome it. That said, I doubt if that will start a fired building revolution. Twenty years ago I reached the conclusion that interest in my experiments was minimal at best. Not from potential clients, but from the building community. The chapter 'Beyond Ray Meeker' did not go very far. But there seems to be a five year cycle of renewed interest in fired building, which is one of the driving forces for publishing this book. You do have to be highly motivated to take on a project like this. It’s fine—and cool—for demonstrations and photo ops, but to take it up as an approach to housing—even on a modest scale—it’s a serious commitment.
There is nothing difficult about building mud structures. But firing is critical. Under fire and you compromise stability. This is where my experience with kiln building and firing was essential. So start small. Learn to fire first, or bring in someone who can fire. And who knows kiln design so that you are at least close to a fireable solution.
Are there any updates to your findings about Indian preferences for or against vaulted and domed structures? How would you explain your predisposition for vaults and domes - in architectural as well as aesthetic terms? In the new age, and in an urban contemporary society, do you believe that such aspects related to geometry and structure continue to have much cultural relevance?
Not really. No updates. Vaults and domes are the most efficient forms for a kiln, easiest to fire evenly. They are also the only forms to build when you are using mud brick and mud mortar with no shuttering, steel for reinforcement or cement. Flat roof—not possible.
Engineering. Vaults and domes have been used for centuries, principally where there is little or no timber—nothing to make a beam. Beams resolve tension. Structurally, a catenary vault is in pure compression. Brick, whether fired or not, is weak in tension, but strong in compression. Hemispherical domes do have areas of tension, but that can be designed for. The dome can be catenary as well, and towards the end of my fired-building development we did build high catenary domes on very low walls. This greatly reduced the building mass, something that had troubled me for years.
Twenty-five years ago, the cultural reference to vaults and domes did arise, but even then I do not think it was relevant. The aesthetic is not for everyone, but my fired houses did enjoy wide appeal. I love the geometry—the undulating roof-scape rhythm of connected vaults and domes.
There's a hugely inspiring sentiment conveyed in the book, that "The village potter, whose livelihood is now threatened by mass-produced plastic and aluminium vessels, and whose knowledge and skill with earth and fire are no longer fully utilised, holds great potential for creating a rural clay-based building industry". While this thought is quite visionary, in itself - in practical terms, do you find many local artisans interested in the idea? How would you like to encourage more village potters to, in a sense, broaden their horizons, and apply their abilities to something more substantial?
The vision is the easy part. Twenty-five years ago, the sons of the traditional potter wanted to be motorcycle mechanics, today they are more interested in information technology. In 1992, for one week, Deborah and I, with Deborah Thiagarajan and Hans Kaushik, traveled the districts of Thanjavur, Pudukkottai and Trichy, searching for villages where monumental terracotta sculpture was still being made.
That one-week trip culminated in a one-month workshop that I conducted at Kelambakkam on Deborah Thiagarajan’s farm, thirty kilometers south of Chennai. Potters came to demonstrate their own skills and methods and to be challenged by new ways of working, especially in kiln design and firing technique.
Seventeen potters from eight towns or villages gathered in a large palm-leaf shed set up for the workshop. We had a truckload of local Chennai clay for pots and another truckload of clay suitable for large sculpture, from Aranthangi, a village in Pudukkottai district, about four-hundred and seventy kilometers south of Chennai. Potters began right away with the big pieces, as they take longer to make and dry. Horses, elephants and bhutams began to fill the large keet shed.
Three kilns were built: 1) the traditional kiln of the Thanjavur-Pudukkottai area [which I call the horseshoe kiln], 2) a 3m-wide, 2m-high catenary vault and 3) a simple unroofed cylinder which upgrades the traditional bonfire method used by potters all over the subcontinent.
The 3m-wide, 2m-high catenary vault was built to introduce vault-building and firing of a typical roof that I use for my fired houses. Built on the ground for simplicity, it could easily be moved up onto low walls for a house. That was a big leap for the potters and did not take off. We had an agenda—large scale sculpture for the Aiyanaar shrine that was to be built at Dakshinachitra. No time to concentrate on the fired house aspect. I did hire traditional potters to make products to fire in my mud vaults and domes.
Probably better let the potters concentrate on products and leave the firing of the structures to the mud/fire loving builders. Hire the potters to ake pprooducts.
There's a great deal of romance here too, especially with the ideas of destructive wild fire, and its transformative, creative properties. The idea that technology was actually born with the potter, makes one re-think current aspects of progress today. Is this a call for people to go back to their roots, and rediscover nature, perhaps? How much of this is a plea to mankind, to preserve and coexist with the environment?
That technology was born with the potter is conjecture, but why not?
It is all a ‘plea to mankind’ to preserve and coexist with the environment. How that is accomplished is an open question, but one that cannot be ignored.
I viewed the process as an experiment in pursuit of an eco-friendly technology, and in fact it proved to be too energy-intensive for sustainable development. But, living in thrall to the process, on technical as well as aesthetic levels, I continued to fire houses long after I realised that it was not going to work as I had hoped.
To me, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as a very large kiln: a series of six or eight volumes connected by a winding tongue of flame—a roiling dragon of incandescent fire—restrained by an undulating roofscape of mud vaults and domes. As a potter—and pyromaniac of sorts—with a university background in architecture, I was drawn to the idea and then captivated by the process—and by the challenge—of making such a bizarre notion work.
‘Going back to our roots and rediscovering nature’ have regressive implications harking back to the sixties. It’s part of the equation, but there will be new approaches, new technologies and just be applying common sense to current methods as Baker did.
Please tell us a little about your immediate, and future plans for baked and fired house constructions. Are you considering any other commissions - in India or overseas - for smaller projects such as the Nrityagram shrine, or perhaps something larger? Are there many people today who are still waking up to the idea of mud houses that can be stable, and water-resistant?
I stopped firing houses in 1998. I do not see myself returning to that, in India or anywhere else. I was committed to developing the technique and I went a long way towards that. I was not committed to firing houses for rest of my life.
There seems to be about a five-year cycle of renewed interest in firing houses. Long after I stopped firing houses in the late nineties the idea would resurface—Anupama Kundoo’s PhD at the University of Technology, Berlin, 2005/08, and my lecture in Brisbane at the Verge Conference in 2006.
I had no contact with the late Nader Khalili since my second lecture at SciArc in 1990. In 2016, a call came from Iliona O. Khalili, Nader’s third wife. She was in Pondicherry. “Could we meet?” Iliona Outram Khalili, RIBA, is a founding and a directing board member of New Earth UK, and a Master Builder in Earth Architecture. She had been in Bangladesh promoting fired building.
In February 2017, Jacques Kaufmann, President of the International Academy of Ceramics, came to Pondicherry. Jacques was planning to fire a glazed dome in Kazakhstan. That did not materialize, but he did fire a thin-shell steel and chicken mesh reinforced fiber-clay dome at the first Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur this year.
Professors from several schools of architecture in India have come to Pondicherry, bringing student groups with questions about firing houses. One will attempt a small test at the college. And I still get requests from students who want to intern in my architectural office—an office that has been closed for twenty years. Add, of course, Anupama Kundoo’s continued pressure to publish this book.
Meanwhile, do you find enough spare time to indulge your artistic projects - of terracotta murals and sculptures? Do you intend to spend more time with your own artwork, while also teaching and helping others in the community? How do you view things changing for ceramic artists looking to make a living, and continue their artistic practices, alongside so many other new forms of contemporary art, including photography, video and much more?
I am not firing houses. I have been in my studio since 1996 with my own artwork, which I do not see as an indulgence. We are still teaching at Golden Bridge Pottery, but I am not the teacher.
The first International Ceramic Triennale in Jaipur, Breaking Ground, brought together thirty-six Indian artists and twelve international artists working in clay—raw or fired, installation or object-based, on walls, floors, inside and outdoors, monumental and miniature, experimental, experiential, some witty, some political, figurative, painterly, minimal, drawing on cultural heritage and contemporary urban life—well, a very diverse group of artists and ideas—expressions in ceramics that have not been seen at a single venue before in India.
Hopefully, this will open the eyes of the Indian audience—collectors of course, art enthusiasts and the broader general public as well. Through international participation in major ceramic events, the Triennale working committee has a well-developed sense of the leading trends in international ceramic art and personal contacts with many of the important artists and educators.
While you are considered a pioneer in the field, what is the extent of your vision for realising the full and complete potential of site-fired buildings as art and architecture? How does this balance of purpose, in a personal sense for you, translate into something larger, for a greater good? While socialistic architecture has always tended to be far removed from anything aesthetically pleasing, is there any way you can envision an urban solution that is equally meaningful, purpose-driven and artistically appealing?
Hassan Fathy’s Architecture for the Poor introduced me to the idea of aesthetically pleasing ‘socialistic’ housing. For me, art and architecture are synonymous. I think that is one area where in situ fired buildings can succeed. However, if it is only the aesthetic quality of the building there is really no need to fire in situ.
At Tuticorin, when the monsoon approached and mud building was no longer possible, we finished the third cluster with fired brick produced in the first two clusters. Exactly the same built form. In fact more possibilities open up when not firing in situ. However, the aesthetic that emerged from firing in situ depended on the structural limitations of mud construction and the design of the structure as a kiln.
But the ‘balance of purpose for a greater good’ for me personally would come from realising a significant improvement in the energy audit when compared to standard construction techniques. This is possible in the right context. The Additional Collector for Special Projects, Salem District, estimated that eighty percent of the building cost would go to labor for the Ayothiyapattanam project. This estimate was probably optimistic, but it is true that it is a very labour-intensive process.
For a larger, global perspective: How would you say, Auroville, Pondicherry stands today, as a centre of innovation, alongside other sites and cities across the world, from Iran to Mexico? Would you like to play visionary again, and give us your view of the township's growing significance, and how it could possibly have a larger impact on not just artistic, but socio-economical and cultural affairs, in the years to come?
Me, visionary? No. Khalili was the visionary; I was the nuts and bolts guy. And I can’t speak as an Aurovillian, because I am not. Not sure about other cities across the world, but in Auroville a new socio-economic-spiritual paradigm is the goal.
Architecturally, Auroville is a strong center for innovation, one of the best destinations in the world for intern architects. And Auroville is very strong in forestry. It’s all an experiment. And a bold one, with varying degrees of success.
I began writing this book by dropping one of my fired-building PowerPoint’s into InDesign. That visual narrative worked as a broad technical outline. But it was flat.
So. How did I get to Pondicherry? The Road to India. When I travel I draw. Or at least I used to. In 1970 I did not carry a camera. Cell phones? How did we live without them!
I scanned all my sketch books in 2015. I can use those. The sketches add a bit of magic. The sketches made me look for other interesting bits and pieces of history to braid into the narrative. It’s all the people involved in the development of fired building. They come and go throughout the story. Deb’s poem, Vineet Kacker’s Fired House Board Game, Jan De Rooden’s pizza recipe, Jim Danisch in Nepal, and many more.
That makes a world which is round.
Published by CEPT University Press, price by request.