Tamil Nadu | Auroville architect Roger Anger’s centenary year spotlights the visionary who sought simplicity in design

Neither the founder of Auroville nor the architect was satisfied with Chandigarh’s urban vision as an example of a city of the future

March 24, 2023 09:30 am | Updated 10:44 am IST

Roger Anger was known for individualising collective housing, with rhythmic human-scaled facades and sculptural plasticity.

Roger Anger was known for individualising collective housing, with rhythmic human-scaled facades and sculptural plasticity. | Photo Credit: Dominique Darr

It was Mirra Alfassa (the Mother), Sri Aurobindo’s collaborator, who invited 42-year-old Roger Anger to be the chief architect of Auroville near Puducherry.

In her letter to the acclaimed Parisian architect in 1965, she expressed her joy and no surprise that he had accepted, as she had always felt him to be the L’homme de ce Projet, meaning ‘the man of this project’. Already in 1938, she had ushered in India’s modern architecture period by inviting architect Antonin Raymond from Japan to design the Aurobindo Ashram’s dormitory, ‘Golconde’.

The writer with Roger Anger.

The writer with Roger Anger. | Photo Credit: Dominique Darr

I first met Roger (1923-2008) in Auroville in 1990, and our association grew progressively as he asked me to develop urban design details for specific areas, including the city centre, and later while preparing the township’s approved Master Plan Perspective 2025. With time, our conversations got deeper as I authored a book on him.

Anger, whose centenary falls on March 24, had realised over a hundred high-rise residential schemes in Paris and was known for individualising collective housing, with rhythmic human-scaled facades and sculptural plasticity. His rigorous experimentation spanned architecture’s various scales, from the urban to the interior.

Neither the founder of Auroville nor the architect was satisfied with Chandigarh’s urban vision as an example of a city of the future although Anger admired Le Corbusier’s genius.

Human-centric vision

Instead of celebrating newfound individualism of emerging post-industrial lifestyles, Anger’s visions for urbanism had included the necessary course correction, repositioning architecture and city-making as essentially social endeavours that were human-centric, steering the evolution of human society.

For Auroville, he began by raising the question, “Shall we allow the presence of cars?!” and warned, “Probably in just a few years India will know, same as Europe and the U.S., the major urban problem the automobile is. The reign of cars has conditioned the urbanism of the 20th century and continues to tyrannize it”.

He suggested replacing them with “more hygienic, slow, silent, energy efficient, collectively owned vehicles”. Other radical grounding principles that land cannot be individually owned, and money would no longer be ‘the sovereign lord’ allowed Anger’s team to radically rethink the city as a holistic new organism.

Roger Anger’s galaxy model for Auroville.

Roger Anger’s galaxy model for Auroville. | Photo Credit: Dominique Darr

A three-year-long design process with regular interactions with the Mother resulted in the pedestrian-centric ‘galaxy plan’ that she inaugurated Auroville with in 1968. Two years earlier, Anger had presented Auroville at UNESCO in Paris thus: “It will be experimental by its urbanism and architecture… The task to give a concrete form to the vision of Sri Aurobindo has been given to the Mother: the creation of a new world, of a new society, expressing and incorporating a new consciousness to the work she has initiated… Auroville, then, appears like an attempt to realise, through work and actions in this material world, the vision of Sri Aurobindo.”

Roger Anger (right) at the inauguration of Auroville in 1968.

Roger Anger (right) at the inauguration of Auroville in 1968. | Photo Credit: Dominique Darr

It is serendipitous, or timely then, that Anger’s own birth centenary falls in the 150th year of Sri Aurobindo’s anniversary being celebrated across India, coinciding with India’s 75th year of Independence.

‘Cities as organisms’

Anger’s foresight identified future urban challenges and his visions are now being celebrated globally, beginning with rethinking mobility and ending with restoring human scale and intimacy in the built environment. Last year, his original Auroville model was flown in to New York and displayed at The Museum of Modern Art as “a stunning artifact representing and embodying an equally stunning urban and societal vision”.

The Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2022, themed ‘Terra’, included Anger as a key visionary illustrating new paradigms that have the potential of shifting from a linear growth model of “cities as machines” to a circular evolutionary model of “cities as organisms”.

I was fascinated by how Anger negotiated the invisible and material aspects of architecture, his simultaneous awareness of the big picture and meticulous details. When I stayed at his home in France, and wanted to work beyond 5 p.m., he would insist I stop for the day and either play chess or ping-pong and join him for aperitifs. He promoted discipline and a work-life balance.

Matrimandir in the centre of Auroville. 

Matrimandir in the centre of Auroville. 

He carried a sense of unhurried calm that comes with clarity, focus and conviction, but without an iota of the stress and frenzy that accompany large projects. He remained loyal to the original intent, and insisted on the urban dimension of Auroville. Observing him navigate resistance was perhaps my biggest take-away. It revealed more clearly who he was, and why he was chosen by the Mother.

A man of few words and a sense of humour, Anger was always straightforward. Our most meaningful conversations were through drawings, yet we covered topics from the practical to philosophical, punctuated by his pearls of wisdom. When I was stuck in a design process, he mostly told me ‘be more simple’. On architecture’s aim, he said to transcend problem-solving and manifest a high standard of beauty, as something deep and far from frivolous: “Beauty has the power of uplifting the consciousness, spontaneously.”

I recall also on one of the few occasions where we played chess, he had commented in appreciation of the game, “it is one game, where nothing can occur by chance, you create everything.” These are his most empowering words I carry — the realisation that you create everything.

The writer is an award-winning architect and Head of Urban Design, Auroville Town Development Council.

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