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Hathigaon literally translates to 'Elephant Village'. Architecture is lot more than just service from
human to human. When we talk of spaces for communities, it generates an empathy extended
towards every being, as in this case elephants.

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At such a juncture of contextuality, architecture deals empathetically. As Rahul Mehrotra, Founder of

RMA Architects, the creators and deployers of this housing project, rightly said: Our country certainly
should not unthinkingly adopt western ideals when it comes to an architecture competition and instead
look for local solutions. We dont need your glass buildings and your eco labels in India. Thus, the
design and deploy process was collaborative.

The process, we must highlight, begun with the state-governmental initiative of identifying such a
setting and showing immense interest in its preservation. They floated a country-wide design
competition with careful analysis of the context and stakeholders. The competition was won by RMA
Architects, and they made no further delay in moving towards the project with care. Mapping out the
environmental conditions of the site, added by the degradation from sand quarrying, the architects
seek assistance from the government on various bureaucratic levels.

At the grassroots, the mahouts were involved in a conversation that spanned across many decades of
profession and inhabitation, a knowledge that is timeless and unique. A lot was learnt through such
participation, especially about the elephants and the necessities for their well-being. The dwellings
were completely reworked, with socio-economic and environmental constraints considered. To create a
sense of belonging in the mahouts, they were further involved in the design efforts, so much that each
of their housing cluster is expected to be spatially transformed by the mahouts themselves in
personalized ways over time.

The mahouts provided the designers with a paradigm shift in the view point of necessities like the
community-shared spaces, veterinary clinic and essentially, the man-made pond. The overall zoning of
entire site was done in a way such that built spaces could be clustered in ways that they dont hinder
flow of water naturally across the landscape.

The participatory design doesnt stop here. An extensive tree plantation program was carried out
together with seeding the site to propagate local species, another effort to keep the harsh sun away
from tropically-proliferating elephants. All this was carried out at an extremely low cost, using local
labor and craftspeople. This portrayed the importance of closely knit collaborative work, taking
community into consideration.

While the effort was of building a village from scratch, the incentives and new location were
incomparable to the previous conditions. And to make it success and sustainable - it was important
that landscape design made mahouts settlement cohesive right where they have lived since time
immemorial. In the entire process, movement patterns and postures of elephants were also looked
into, before creating simplified unhindered spaces for their resting and revival after long day of work.

The thread that links this multi-level collaboration is water. It was imbibed that the beauty both
tangible and intangible could be restored, and made sustainable, by making water the prime design
element. The architect has focused on creating a tropical environment for the elephants, with the help
of water bodies, routes and forest cover.

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The small dwellings are of 200 square feet. These are arranged in sets of four, wrapped around
communal courtyards. Large courtyards and pavilions supplement the small spaces that are allocated
in the budget for the essentially low-income housing project. These connect the small housing cluster
and thus add cohesion. The courtyard becomes part of the living space. All the houses have
electricity and running water.

The limited budget available to construct the housing led to use of simple building techniques and
common materials available on site local stone masonry walls. The distribution of the plan and
volumes of the built spaces provides an effective response to the need for a high level of natural
ventilation and passive cooling. Light corrugated metal roofing and open MS (mild steel) framing is
used. The elephants feed is stored underneath, insulating it from the harsh sun of Rajasthan.

So clearly the first step was to put the lake in place. Once revived and ready, it was imbibed as one of
the most important components of the entire strategy.

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Contextuality of the project is inevitably strong and hasnt been ignored by the architect. The idea of
regenerating the water resource in the dry climate of Rajasthan required deep thought and expertise
in landscape design. There is a perceivable visual change in and around the site under threat within a
span of just couple of years.

Water - Connecting the mahouts and the elephants

image: RMA Architects | all rights reserved


RMA Architects initially did a careful data analysis of the site based on the ecological patterns of
abiotic components. The topographical knowledge provided a certain pattern of development that
would allow the entire site to be developed in an accretive as well as an open ended manner. The
housing units are organized in clusters and situated on portions of the site that are not used for the
landscape regeneration. Such a holistic approach was welcomed by all the stakeholders. The built
fraction and the unbuilt components were equated and correlated through common understanding of
site potential and landscape system integration. The site was articulated through an instrumental
engagement with ecological processes.

Elephants, even if involved in a chore that was economically instrumental to mahouts, were given
back their pure/natural habitat an approximation through landscape infrastructure, rather than
flux of built barriers. The selection of species for multi-storied vegetation is derived from the larger
region, more specifically based on the ecosystem of the Aravali ranges. Zone-wise interpretation of
the vegetation, such as the definition of the perimeter and microcosms of grasslands and wetlands,
are characteristics that modulate visual access to the elephant habitat. The root system of the
indigenous plant palette stabilized the topsoil layer in this erosion-prone site (due to the extensive
sand quarrying).
The estimated annual water requirement of this habitation including drinking, irrigation and bathing
(for the elephants) is around 150 million liters. Here, the first thought could have been to source
water from the closest perennial/man-made source. But to reduce external dependency, design
initiatives encouraged the retention of the surface water and its recharge. This shows the importance
of context, and the will to not keep it ignored. A series of large, interlinked reservoirs at the central
low-lying region of the site were fed by a network of vegetated swales, punctuated by retention basins
and larger ponds. Such a landscape design of humility with the rest of the ecosystem was successfully
worked out by RMA Architects