London Design Biennale 2021: Bamboo toilet in Somerset House

Architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh showcases indigenous ideas at London Design Biennale’s India Pavilion, to spur divergent approaches to sustainability

June 18, 2021 01:17 pm | Updated 01:17 pm IST

An artist’s sketch of an installation conceptualised by Nisha Mathew Ghosh

An artist’s sketch of an installation conceptualised by Nisha Mathew Ghosh

The India Pavilion at the ongoing London Design Biennale 2021 (LDB) is mapping ‘hero stories’ — from innovator-engineer Sonam Wangchuk’s ice stupas (which melt in summer to generate water) to smokeless chulahs . All inventive, indigenous, and sustainable ideas developed in various parts of the country in the last few years. “It is quite an ‘aha’ moment to see what India looks like through the lens of its people and their efforts to make a sustainable world,” says architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh, 52, who has curated the pavilion. “It is exciting to imagine a future of collaborations to build this world of better ecological stewardship together.”

The pavilion at Somerset House, titled ‘Small Is Beautiful: A Billion Stories’, comprises 150 entries segregated into five categories: Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Earth, Clean Energy, and Forest. Ranging from product inventions to material explorations, each responds to the overarching theme of ‘Resonances’, as chosen by LDB’s artistic director, Es Devlin.

Bengaluru-based architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh, who has curated the India Pavilion at the ongoing London Design Biennale’s

Bengaluru-based architect Nisha Mathew Ghosh, who has curated the India Pavilion at the ongoing London Design Biennale’s

Back to nature

The India Pavilion engages with the ideas of sustainability through effective design. “All these projects are reactions to situations and contexts. For example, the Story of Fish [by landscape architect Prachi Chopade Wakaley] uses art as strategy — making a fish from waste glass bottles to remind people to keep their water sources clean; Pollinator People [by landscape architect Vidisha Barwal] uses the logic and process of pollination to offer a design for the recovery of ecosystems; and Forest Cabin [by Architecture Brio], shows you how to build lightly in a forest setting with least impact,” says Nisha.

Among the plethora of intriguing projects, Bamboo Toilet — an initiative by Tata Trust, and designed by Delhi-based Shift Studio — has piqued interest. The brief was to build a toilet that would meet the needs of rural India, and Mayank Mishra of Shift Studio says they came up with a design that used bamboo and EcoSan technology (dry toilets that do not use water). Ideal for places that have scarcity of water, it converts human excreta into compost and fertiliser. “An individual unit will cost anywhere between ₹12,000 and ₹24,000, which can come down when built and managed by the community,”explains Mishra. “It was challenging to evolve processes to elevate bamboo from a craft material to an engineering level [meeting the needs for structural constructions].”

The Bamboo Toilet

The Bamboo Toilet

Travelling stories

Speaking of the showcase’s engagement with viewers at Somerset House, where the various projects are being screened on a large projection, Nisha explains, “It’s a showcase that is packed with ideas and needs a couple of hours to fully watch and observe.” Beyond the Biennale, she feels that the ideas, which have emerged from traditional wisdom, scientific temper, and the communities’ needs, must be shared with the entire country. “We could do a travelling exhibition,” she says. “These stories can be vital to bring about a change. People must know what’s happening in various parts of India.”

Moreover, she believes the current situation underlines the need for solutions that are local and interconnected, while still recognising the value of the large scale. “The two need to work together for the preservation of our resources. If an earlier Indian austerity could be referred to, it was doing the most with the least, and I believe design will respond in this manner given the conditions around us. We don’t have a choice but to re-look at maximising the potential of our natural resources for the benefit of communities post pandemic, and this has to begin with great ideas.”

London Design Biennale is on at Somerset House till June 27.

‘Is It a Bird? Is It a Windmill?’ installation

‘Is It a Bird? Is It a Windmill?’ installation

Green interventions

Had it not been for the pandemic, LDB would have had a fun, interactive, two-winged bamboo-and-fabric installation called Is It a Bird? Is It a Windmill? “[Referencing the concepts of flight, windmills, and the traditional punkhas ] it was meant to engage with visitors and play on the idea of clean energy, water, and air,” explains Ghosh. The fun would come through the toy-like interaction: visitors could tug on it and make the wings move (through a pulley and counterweight system).

Ghosh collaborated with architect Soumitro Ghosh (as an advisor) and Bengaluru-based Sandeep Sangaru, who lent his skills as a furniture designer to implement it. “The human interaction brings dynamism to the installation [4 m tall, with a wingspan of 7 m]. It shows the possibilities of sustainable design, and makes you rethink traditional ways of making but in contemporary contexts,” says Sangaru. Ghosh plans to unveil the installation at another location and event in the future.

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