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The Choice of Building Techniques: Stabilized Mud and the Politics of Self-Reliance

Monday, May 1, 2023 at 12:15pm

Uris Hall, G08
Central Campus

Talk by Curt Gambetta (Architecture, Cornell University)

Beginning in the late 1940s, scientists, building professionals, and technocrats embraced cement-stabilized mud (also known as “soil-cement”) as an easy-to-use, economical alternative to pukka concrete and fired brick house construction in India. But for those who made use of it, stabilized mud was more than the mere sum of its technical advantages; rather, it was a technology of the self. Echoing debates about the “choice of techniques” in development economics, engineers, scientists, and other critics of state-led development in the 1970s asserted their ability to choose building techniques that they deemed appropriate to rural India rather than accept the industry-centered imperatives of centralized development planning. At the same time, they hedged that labor-intensive technologies such as stabilized mud would induce self-reliance among rural populations by incorporating underemployed individuals into a wage economy while providing them with low-cost building materials for housing. However, though intended for rural builders, stabilized mud gained traction only by the 1980s and 1990s, as upwardly mobile middle-class house builders in cities sought to build a house of their own. The lecture will approach this history through the activities of scientists associated with ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas), an erstwhile research cell at the Indian Institute of Science founded in 1974. Through oral history and ethnographic observation of stabilized mud training workshops organized by ASTRA alumni in Bengaluru, it will show how liberalization-era institutions and ideologies of self-reliance recast technological choice as constitutive of a risk-bearing subject.

Curt Gambetta is a historian, designer, and Visiting Critic in the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University. His approach to architectural history is interdisciplinary, bringing historical research about material worlds into conversation with ethnographic fieldwork about their making, wasting, and reuse. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in the History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism at Princeton University. Titled Mold House, Mud House, Marble House: a cultural history of substitution in late colonial and postcolonial India, his dissertation concentrates on practices of material substitution in housing and their changing socio-political milieu, ranging from swadeshi to Import Substitution Industrialization and liberalization era ideologies of consumer choice and value addition in global markets. Prior to teaching at Cornell, he was the Peter Reyner Banham Fellow at the University at Buffalo-SUNY, a teaching fellow at Woodbury University in Los Angeles, and a resident of the Sarai program of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi, where he was involved in several initiatives in new media and urban studies. He is a senior editor of Attention audio journal and co-edited a 2012 issue of Seminar about street life and politics in Indian cities.

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Architecture, Asian Studies, South Asia Program



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