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Ancient lessons

The moon and Mars are future sites for architects. Lessons learnt from building on Earth would be crucial for building the cities of tomorrow there, writes Prakash Chandra.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2006 02:15 IST

The official 9/11 memorial in New York is coming to life where the World Trade Center once stood. It incorporates a trio of skyscrapers that will flank the 1,776-ft tall Freedom Tower — the tallest building in New York, symbolising the undying spirit of her people. Architects have drawn the tower’s form from the structure of a rotating spinal column — like a tennis player in mid-serve.

It is not just physiognomy but fields as diverse as maths, physics, music, cosmology, and of late, ecology, that have inspired architects. The snow domes of the Canadian Inuit and the medieval European cathedrals are all based on the same geometrical principles that the modern world is only now discovering.

Some of these ancient building techniques are revolutionising architecture. For instance, engineers find dirt an excellent alternative to glass and steel for making tomorrow’s homes. Dirt is not only, er, dirt cheap and plentiful, but also inexpensive to heat and cool. It is also strong enough to hold up under extreme weather conditions — just look at the Great Wall of China.

Sustainable architecture is the new mantra in an eco-conscious world where natural materials are used and waste recycled into nutrients. The result: ‘green’ buildings like the Habitat Centre in Delhi, which minimise their negative environmental impact. The roof of a covered walkway at Cambridge University combines the use of three technologies — photovoltaics, electrolysers and fuel cells. Sunlight is converted into electricity, which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen runs the university’s carbon-free buses.

But flawed buildings can make you sick. Everything from the floor to the roofing may contain chemicals that emit toxic fumes. Plywood, pressboard and other manufactured woods emit formaldehyde, while the stone used in concrete can release radon. In the late Seventies, due to the global oil shortage, changes were made in building design and construction to save energy. Many workers in these buildings, however, experienced health problems that came to be known as ‘Sick Building Syndrome’.

The moon and Mars are future sites for architects. Lessons learnt from building on Earth would be crucial for building the cities of tomorrow there.