Infrastructures of the Sacred and Profane

by Vedhant Maharaj

In our practice, our work very often emerges from the complexities and rhythms of daily life, exploring the boundaries between architecture, the environment, heritage and people in their connected contexts. My architectural thesis YANTRA, located along the banks of the sacred river Ganga in Varanasi, India, explored the intersection of infrastructural progress with cultural tradition by looking at the program of a water purification infrastructure and the quotidian rituals of the inhabitants of the holy city.

India’s Ganga River has been a religious symbol for millennia and is the life-force to approximately 500 million people however, relentless and increasing pollution has rendered its water bio-medically hazardous. The Ganga River represents a deeply significant cosmological relationship between people and ecology. The holy city of Varanasi is the nexus of this symbolic relationship; making it an ideal site to explore the architectural articulations of designing water infrastructures into sacred landscapes. If infrastructure is not implemented correctly the threat to the city’s unique character becomes material. This contextualized approach has the potential to invent a new typology for purification infrastructure throughout the river network. These polyvalent challenges are addressed by combining various water treatment methods in a way that reinforces the sanctity of water through a considered hybridisation of heritage, nature, science and infrastructure.

The site is located at the junction of the Assi, a tributary that feeds large quantities of sewage and industrial waste upstream of the city, five hundred meters from the main ritual bathing area. It is between these two points that the water purification sanctuary seamlessly integrates itself into the stepped, eight kilometre, majestic east facing city promenade.

The proposed built form mediates the relationship of different technologies, from the mechanized and scientific to natural systems; from unapologetically large charcoal gabion filtration walls to molecular water laboratories, bridging across a multiplicity of ecological and cultural undertones. These are composed into a sanctuary which is programmed in accordance with the daily rituals and requirements of water in the city: from the infrastructural to the socio-ecological. Programmatically, this includes a waste-water treatment plant, scientific research facilities, gender sensitive public bathhouses, lavoirs and a number of multi-programmed variably treated public pools.

The philosophy of “big but gentle” was employed as the governing principle of the design aimed at creating a strong urban gesture whilst being acutely conscious of the human experience. The monolithic stone precinct is laced with moments of lightness through breezeblock walls permeated by gently filtering light or the tapering trafficable roof slabs that float above the main water gallery. Additionally the various bodies of water within the landscape coupled with the introduction of indigenous planting create a sense of serenity and humanness. The stepped open ground plane is dedicated entirely to the public with the research facilities being located underground, with their existence being marked by giant stone stone turrets which pierce through the ground as a purposeful expression of spatial tension.

As the monsoon causes the water level on the banks to rise, the building responds to the changing conditions both spatially and systematically creating an annual narrative, rendering the architecture nearly invisible at times and reappearing as levels drop. The building has been designed to morph into a ruin, eventually becoming another part of Varanasi’s mythological history.

Over time, the building will ruin and merge into the fabric of the ancient city, becoming a part of its heritage. We feel that it is important not only to make bold gestures that question the status quo but that are critically aware of their context, heritage and sociological positioning. This approach allows us to be discerning in how we design buildings and their long-term effects and impacts that they have on the societies they inhabit and ultimately how we create a sensitive and sustainable world-space.