Sunday, December 16, 2007


Hampi stands today as a land where Hanuman lived and where the children of tomorrow will continue to be. Conservationists have worked on this World Heritage site for many years now. George Michell, who has spent more than twenty-five years researching Hampi proposes, in 'Reflections on the Conservation of Hampi' Traditional and Vernacular architecture Seminar, Madras Craft Foundation, Jan 2001 that we focus on the following key problems :

"1. Ignoring the Natural Heritage
Hampi-Vijyayanagara occupies one of the most remarkable natural settings to be found anywhere in India. It is this landscape that gives the site its unique personality, and which demands protection from needless road building, quarrying, sign painting and other acts of destruction.

2. The Site versus the Monuments
No adequate legislation, it seems, is available to protect entire Heritage sites in India, only individual monuments.

3. Lack of appropriate Conservation Guidelines
An overall confusion exists among the archaeological agencies on what constitutes a suitable conservation policy for Hampi. Inpite of a long-standing state government order restraining quarrying at the site, boulders and sheetrock continue to be quarried in order to fashion new architectural elements.

4. No mechanism for Coordination or Control
Archaeological deposits uncovered by the excavation branch are threatened by water, piped in to create gardens by the horticultural branch. The village panchayats have permitted unchecked development around the Virupaksha temple. The Jain ashram has erected ugly and intrusive accommodations on the hill overlooking Hampi, without permission from archaeological authorities.

5. How to constitute an Effective authority
A need for a higher authority to negotiate between the different governmental, religious and private agents that are active at the site. Such an authority would have to be both skilled and empowered.

6. How to conceive a New Heritage Management system
Nothing can or must be done until a comprehensive plan for Hampi-Vijayanagara has been conceived."

Here is a link to another article : Hampi - the Bazaar

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chettinad house

Chettinad is a region in Southern Tamil Nadu that is known for its mansions belonging to the Nattukotai Chettiars, a banking community who had businesses in South east Asia and brought in teak from Burma to build a housetype that came to be known as the Chettinad house.

At a recent seminar at Anna University (Chennai) alongwith Ecole de Chaillot (Paris) in collaboration with UNESCO and ArcHe-S, discussions were held on the conservation and management of the Chettinad heritage.

Mr.M.A.Siddique, who had been Collector of the Sivaganga district until recently pointed out that the main challenges at Chettinad are that the owners of these houses, the Nagarthars have deserted their homes and settled in Chennai or abroad, resulting in the lack of maintenance; the houses are under joint ownership and family disputes have led to further neglect; there is a flourishing antiquity market at Karaikudi which entices the local people to sell the burma teak elements from within the house, that gradually depletes what is left and most importantly, there is a need for the Chettiar community to come forward and make conservation of this architectural heritage possible.

While we focus our time and effort on conserving the buildings, we need to also conserve the processes that have made these buildings possible. We need to find out who are the ARTISANS who did the lime plaster work, who laid an oxide flooring or attangudi tile floor and who made the columns and brackets in wood. Are these skills available and in what measure? How do the artisans source work in a changing urban-oriented culture? Can we link these artisans to potential conservation and tourism-related projects, so that they have a continuous flow of work and a reason to encourage their children to carry forward the tradition. Here is a link to an 'Artisans Resource guide' that is being developed by a community of people concerned about heritage. It hopes to link architects and houseowners to traditional artisans. India still has a large number of such artisans in the many towns and villages all over the country.

In Chennai, the IT parks compete in architectural style with what the west has to offer. However, the people still aspire to have houses that belong to tradition. In Chennai, the architect is increasingly being asked "Can you build me a Chettinad house?" Is this fashion? Is this a trend? Why are people today keen on building a house in Chettinad style? and what do they mean? Do they want a Chettinad mansion with all its grandeur? Do they want a conventional, modern house with only Chettinad columns and the Attangudi tiles? And, what do architects think of when clients say "chettinad house"? Recreating a chettinad house in chennai. Is it possible? What does it need? The more people that begin to want houses that hold an indian identity, the greater will be the effort the architectural community will make towards developing a contemporary vernacular language.

In the historical Chettinad region - in Karaikudi and Kanadukathan, the streets lined with mansions are deserted, the houses in neglect. In metropolitan Chennai, people aspire to build a chettinad "vernacular" house on an urban landscape dotted with concrete multi-storeyed apartment buildings and in the Madurai region, amongst the local people, Art is a way of life.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Konkan house clusters

In Coastal Maharashtra, houses in rural areas are nestled amidst the trees and the paddy fields. There is abundant land available to build upon and yet, the houses lie snugly next to each other.

In India, the people who farmed, who fished and who have built their houses with their highly developed skills of craftsmanship always planned a house that was their own but that also belonged to the village. It was only one unit of the many that made up the village street. One house was built, then the next and the next. Streets that were thus formed were shaded from the afternoon sun.

Here, the roofs are built in timber understructure with mangalore tiles. The walls are in brick and verandahs are created with brick arches that offer structural support. The plan of the house is primarily square. The square tiled roof is seen as a common element throughout the coastal villages of the Konkan region.

In a post-graduate thesis in Landscape architecture, CEPT university, Shruti Bhagwat points out that the villages here are ideal watersheds. The village jungle is treated as common property and preserved. Phenomena like sacred groves and bunded water channels that were maintained traditionally are still common in the konkan.

As one passes by Saplak, near Mhalsa, one notices that entire streets are lined with mangalore-tiled houses. This is a fairly prosperous town which has diamond merchants who have artisans skilled in diamond cutting. Saplak is on the way to Harihareeshwar. It is also interesting to study the houses in Mahad, in Chiplun and other parts of Ratnagiri, Raigad and Sindhudurg districts.

In the contemporary context, environmentally responsible design would require that materials and elements of the building be reuseable, wherever possible. The siting process may include an in-depth understanding of sun orientation, soils, vegetation and water resources. We may want to design landscapes to absorb rainwater runoff (storm water) rather than to carry it off-site in storm sewers. The architecture of the konkan coast is climatically responsive, uses a sustainable approach and has an indian identity. It is important for us to know the indigeneous traditions of these regions and to work towards the continuity of the architecture of the past.
Here is a link to a Bazaar on the Konkan coast

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sculpting the house

A space within a house is sculpted the moment the plan is conceptualised. It is the sequence of the many small spaces within the house that link with each other that is important. The place to invite guests, the place to eat, the place to rest for the night, the place to study and the place to ponder and to relax are each important and need to be detailed out differently.

These spaces are defined with the position of the walls and how they relate to each other. It then becomes important to decide what openings will puncture these walls, the window openings that will allow natural light to filter in, the openings that will allow a glimpse into the landscape outside and the door openings that will allow movement of people from one room to the other.

A house has an ‘inside aesthetic’ and an ‘outside aesthetic’. Some people like a contemporary outside aesthetic reflecting an international architectural style with an ethnic inside aesthetic with interiors that reflect indian craftsmanship. There are others who would like an indian aesthetic on the outside with sloping terracotta tiled roofs but are comfortable with a modern interior that reflects their contemporary lifestyle.

A design of a house is most appropriate for each of us when it gives us places to be comfortable in our moments of sharing and our moments of solitude.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Indian Coffee shop

The Indian Coffee House in Bangalore was earlier located on M.G.Road. It is now on Church Street. These pictures were taken before it moved.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Coffee shop, then and now

The coffee shop one went to in the old days was the ‘Indian Coffee house’ or the ‘Udipi’ restaurant that offered the “filter coffee”. Today, indian cities have a variety in coffee shops – the Café Coffee day, the Barista and so on. These do not sell the indian filter coffee. They sell “cappuchino” and “café au lait” amongst other european coffees. The present-day coffee shop is a new kind of space within our interior architecture needs. And, how does one design such a “place to hang out” where the cup of coffee of western origin is more expensive than the filter coffee of indian origin? What do the young users of these new spaces expect?

‘Pastries,Coffee & Conversations’ was designed as a place for young people in Visakhapatnam. The new HSBC building was being built and there was soon going to be an increase in the demand for an already successful home-based bakery outlet in the vicinity. The client’s brief was - coffee shop that was simple and yet different.

The inspiration for the furniture came from George Nakashima’s work. It was designed with inexpensive curved pieces of teakwood that remain when the sides of a tree trunk are cut to make the clean slices for sale. The butterfly joint was used to link the pieces for the tabletop and the chair seat and back. Wrought iron was used for the support for both the tables and the chairs.

The space was envisaged as all-white textured walls with the richness of the polished teakwood and the lighting being the accent. This was a contemporary space because it belonged to the present. It hoped to link the new with the old. The space and the way the light was nurtured were new, the materials came from the past and the detailing was both old and new.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Understanding our Streets

What are the origins of a street?
How is a street in a village different from one in the town or in a city?
Where does a street come from?
Where does it go?
How does a street grow?

How many kinds of streets does a city have?

In a village . . .
When several houses are built near each other,
The path connecting them becomes the STREET

In a town . . .
A popular trading route makes people settle gradually along it
and slowly this becomes a MAIN LINKAGE or street

In a city . . .
When many streets exist already,
further growth of industry, increase in population
results in planning of additional ROADS or Streets

There will be different streets based on where they start or finish and also based on their inhabitants and on the kind of buildings they have; a street leading to a temple will be different from one leading to a cinema hall.

Can an Indian street be enclosed within two parallel lines?
Where will the cobbler sit?
How to accommodate the roadside shrine?
the Paanshop
the Sugarcane juice stall?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Designing a campus

An urban space at any point in time will have a past and a present and its effect on people will motivate designers to articulate it in order to serve better. A theme ‘Tradition & Modernity’ may not be about ‘Historic Preservation’ nor about ‘Styles’ but about ‘Continuity’, about preventing an encroaching alienation faced by us towards contemporary architectural and urban spaces.

Sometimes, it is the juxtaposition of an old building with a new one on the street and sometimes the co-existence of an old shopfront with a new one, both housed within the same aging building that has been part of the street for several decades. Or shaping a new “village” within a city where signs of the old dilapidated one still exist, the ‘urban village’ serving commercial needs in a modern but quaint fashion, as at the Hauz Khas village in Delhi. Even if one is designing a single new building in an existing campus, it must no doubt express what has been before and also reflect the inherent nature of the buildings around it.

What makes some campuses more spectacular than others? Is it the natural beauty; its landscape and perhaps that it nestles amidst the hills? One wonders whether this built environment without the trees, flowers and lawns could be just as special. And if not, i.e. if the landscape does prove to be a very vital part of the campus, does it then establish the fact that the ‘garden’ or ‘landscape’ ought not to be an entity separate from architecture but that the two be treated as an integrated whole. One must nevertheless make a substantial effort to sustain the relationship of the parts. How does one allow for growth & change and express continuity?

What role do landmarks play within a campus plan? Do they add grandeur physically and with their representation in the institute catalogs? Do they provide a sense of place or, render a feeling of security on a sprawling campus? Do open spaces that belong to a large campus also belong to the city? And, how much of the city may belong to the campus; of the streets that enter it and the open spaces that engulf it?

A campus is seen as a place formed not so much by the buildings as by the spaces in between. Is a campus born out of symmetry more difficult to nurture than one which is randomly planned? How does one grow a campus?

Artisans Resource Guide

It is hoped that it is possible to generate the small but precise targeted push that will make the difference to rural building artisans in India, in the nature of the Tipping point phenomenon, which according to Malcolm Gladwell is “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire”

There is currently a directory of master artisans for Goa. There is a need to build up a listing for as many states in India as feasible.

Who can use the resource guide?

Private developers, government tourism departments, individual house owners and architects are likely to use the guide. These are going to be the job providers, the people who will create work opportunities for the building artisans.

Related Publication

Hidden hands - Masterbuilders of Goa

by Heta Pandit. Published in 2003 by Heta Pandit & The Heritage Network

(Research conducted under the aegis of the Homi Bhabha Fellowships council)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

the need for an artisans' directory

There is a growing demand for people skilled in traditional building technologies. The need for these indigenous skills is mainly in three areas : building of private “heritage” and “ecotourism” resorts; in the recent government program with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on ‘Endogenous’ or ‘Rural’ Tourism and in private “farmhouses” or independent “ethnic” houses that the elite urbanite has begun to build. Since this trend of building with traditional materials is now substantial, it is felt that this may be an appropriate time to add a catalyst to this development.

The reasons for supporting indigenous craftsmanship are – one, to strengthen livelihoods; two, to fill the increasing void in contemporary architecture in india, which is at present adopting a modern, western architecture and three, indigenous technologies use a sustainable approach to natural resources.

The Endogenous Tourism Program has been initiated in 36 craft-based villages/towns all over India. It is jointly supported by UNDP and the Govt. of India. These projects will showcase traditional arts, culture and heritage at rural and semi-urban locations. The state departments of tourism are being encouraged to provide a built-environment that uses a vernacular vocabulary. Therefore, not only will the employment opportunities increase in crafts and tourism-related activities, but also for people skilled in indigenous technologies.

People in the urban areas are buying small tracts of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city where it is permissible to build a “farmhouse” – a shelter to enable a person to carry out his farm activities. This however is being used by the urban dweller to build for himself a weekend retreat. This urbanite is being influenced by the heritage resort concept and farmhouses are mostly built using local materials and local building skills because the “pucca” structure or permanent house in concrete slab is not allowed.

When there is enough patronage and a market available for indigneous skills, the first step may be to connect the artisan to a project and the second step to train or contemporise his skill and to supplement it with other skills such as marketing and opportunity recognition. If a “pull force” can be generated instead of a “push force” it is anticipated that the artisan will re-skill and re-train himself according to the demand.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Jaisalmer and pre-cast construction

Jaisalmer as a city, as urban fabric, is in total harmony with its soil, its terrain and the lifestyle of its people. A city in yellow stone, a sculpture that emerges out of the landscape. But, Jaisalmer is a man-made sculpture of small well-designed parts. The parts that make the harmonious whole are the key to the urban fabric that one sees today in Rajasthan.

It is a system of carved elements - stone slabs, beams, columns - pieces put together, the putting together - a carefully pre-planned process. Stone carvers - the artists, the artisans working in groups to deliver the pieces as required, with every piece cut, carved, to make a railing, to turn it to make a junction or to break the monotony of a symmetrical façade.

Stone blocks cut and carved to make an arch, a doorway, a jharokha, brackets that support a circular jharokha, brackets that are radiating out from a point and therefore vary in their sizes, but must be carved to precision to take their place away from the courtyard of the carver's house, in the walls of the palace.

And today, centuries later, can Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi boast of a harmonious city fabric inspite of the progress made in construction technology? Should we not rethink about the city as a whole and apply the technology to the whole rather than to a part, a sole building? We make individual buildings with our technological inputs. Can we not energise our entire city system which may produce a building that reflects the common ideology? Can we use stone again? Can we carve again? We can, but perhaps at greater expense and therefore we may look for a less expensive alternative.

Can precast concrete elements take the place of stone slabs, beams, columns, brackets, railing? If we were to analyse the system of building in Jaisalmer and devise thereon a system for use today, we will perhaps have an answer to a better city fabric woven into the other townscapes and reflecting the current mind structure too.

Urban morphology in India has been studied before. Architects and planners know today how courtyards, streets and built-form come together to make Indian cities. Contemporary Indian architects are designing townships for industrial empires. Many of these reflect the Indian norms for City Planning, yet the built-form is a collection of units that are in concrete, and sometimes alien.

If we could merge the appropriate technology being researched and practised in some parts of India with these early canons of planning to generate urban patterns of relevance and create an aesthetic that one can relate to, we will again have cities and townships that we can be proud of.

It has spices, it has quiet…

Kumily has places that sell spices, it also has places that sell food and some quietitude. The restaurant at Ambadi is well-frequented by foreigners. Ambadi is a hotel which was built more than 20 years ago and is designed by Laurie Baker. Set amidst the forested area of Kumily, it is built in exposed brickwork and roofed in mangalore tiles.

It is an architecture that knows the culture of Kerala and the people of Kerala. One wall is crafted with brick and stone that make a portraiture of a Kathakali dancer. The rooms have verandahs that are themselves protected by tree canopies. A performing art form that is also now a building art. It lends the façade a textural quality.

Another part of the hotel has a longer verandah that uses for a railing, a mix of unshaped wood from the jungle nearby and a more orderly motif in teakwood. The old trees have been preserved and perhaps more planted. Sunlight filters in through the branches which rest comfortably, sometimes on a wall, sometimes on a window overhang. Here, one does not say, ‘this is building, this is landscape’. They came together and grew together.

Ambadi has also architectural detailing of an exquisite nature. There is the staircase that speaks of the hours of dedication of an artist in wood, there are the carved windows in wood that may have once been part of a tharavad. Laurie Baker often recycled doors and windows into his projects, from houses in Kerala that people chose to demolish to build a lavish, modern home. In this part of Kumily, as in many other parts of Kumily, you see the trees and you hear the birds. You take back with you the smell of spices and the touch of silence.

Café Italiano & the Badam tree

After you have been in Varkala a few hours, you walk along the cliff wondering which restaurant to have your first cup of coffee. How does one know what place has the best view, the best coffee and the best price? And then, there is the music or the silence to choose from. The first day, you try one place for coffee, another for lunch and yet another for dinner. You begin to savour each cafetaria and each restaurant a little at a time. Some you walk into a second time and yet another time perhaps. You find that a shaded place to sit with a good view of the sea is the most popular combination.

At Café Italiano, the shade comes in plenty, with a badam tree being the centre of place. The floor of the café is covered with sand. The tables are simple wooden ones and the chairs are cane. There is the outdoor eating space, with tables under the badam tree and there is an indoor eating place, with tables at a timber and tile-roofed verandah.

And, is there a design element that is a key to Café Italiano’s success as a space? It is just the badam tree. It is the natural shade from the sun that this ‘God’s own country’ restaurant offers you with your cup of coffee. There are the terracotta murals along one side of the café. The murals do add to the aesthetics of the place. The sign that says ‘Café Italiano’ is a strong element and an important part of the design.

The “light and no light” that Louis Kahn speaks of is so much a part of this café with badam tree. When ‘Design for Tourism’ follows ‘Designing with Nature’, it creates a built-environment that has serenity and delight – the two elements architecture can bring to our lives.

what is good design

Is it colour?
Is it the natural light that permeates a space?

There’s the sun, there’s sunlight
There’s the wind and the windsong
What building, what design
Makes them a part of our lives

Is it the inner courtyard?
Is it being in conversation with the landscape?

Is it the spaces inside a building?
The spaces outside the ‘space you live in’?
The spaces between buildings?

Is it less money, more square feet?
Is it available only in Greece?
Is it “what is good for them” is “good for me”?
Is it just white, and some light?

Is it “small house + small garden in posh locality”?
Is it “newly constructed, fully furnished flat with cupboards”?
Is it “house with 24 hours water and good vastu”?
Is it 2 Bedrooms+Hall+Kitchen in 800 sq.ft.?!

Is it Simplicity?
Is it “putting the look together”?
Is it all history now?
“Please give me a good elevation” what can it mean?

Is it detailing?
Is it adding the personal touch?
Is it creating an ambience?
Is it why the newspaper stand is what it is?

Is it the random plan of the vegetable bazaar that “works”?
Is it the roadside shrine that “belongs”?

There are so many answers to our question
Perhaps, good design is . . . an answer to our “needs”

Maybe it is not the elevation, but a good plan, that transforms into space and light
Maybe it is about several families of plan before you arrive at one
And yet, good design is only what you think it is…

Life from its past

At Varkala, there are two distinct lives that the town leads. It has a life from its past, a life that belongs to the people of Kerala who have lived here for generations. To this life belongs also the 12th century Janardhana Swamy temple. And then, it has a life of the present, a life that belongs to the tourists. This is the life Varkala inhabits on the cliff. The beach and the bazaar belong to this life. The Sea, however, belongs to Varkala’s past and to its present. The Sea belongs to the fishermen. The Sea also belongs to the tourists. When the tide ebbs, there is a momentary silence. It is a moment in the sea of time, when people see Varkala as they want to see it.

The people of Varkala come to the temple for their daily prayer. Some come from towns nearby to offer their gratitude for prayers already answered. A few tourists visit the temple to know Varkala in its entirety. One climbs a few steps to go up to the temple. There is the sanctum sanctorum where the local priests perform the daily puja. There are the open spaces around it where others wander. There is a tranquillity in the temple grounds. As one walks back to climb down again to the town, you see the town in a different light. The town seems quieter from here. You also see the temple tank and the ‘Sree Padmam Garden restaurant’ that overlooks the water and the coconut palms beyond – a place where tourists become for a while a part of Varkala’s past.

Periyar lake and the morning mist

It was a long walk to the lake. The sun had just risen. The morning had only just begun. The road winded up and around the jungle trees. It was a wide road. Every once in a while, a car went by. The ‘boat landing’ was 4 km away from Kumily town. There were signboards that said “Tiger land, No horn” The bamboo rustled. You knew the breeze was walking too. The cluster of trees parted and a deer stood there. Only for a moment.

That morning, the lake was there with the mist. Maybe, every morning was the same at Periyar. The boats were there. No people. Slowly, people began to arrive. There was a choice of “upper deck” and “lower deck” tickets. The information centre in stone walls was a nice space to be in. Monkeys sat on the trees and in the cafetaria. There were guards. Nobody spoke. People began to wander around and watch the birds.

It was time to climb the boat. We moved into the waters. There were the trees on either shore. Tree trunks, small and large. It was a sculpture park on the waters. Each sculpture bore the same signature. It was an unknown artist. The dam waters had flooded a once forested land. The trees were very silent. The boat moved. People looked. Periyar lake and its sanctuary had become a part of our memory, of our lives.

CYMA hall in Alleppey

The CYMA hall is an old, traditional building. It is located in a quiet and peaceful part of Alleppey. It is Kerala’s first public auditorium built for staging dramas.

"This hall was constructed for the common man’s use, without any aid from government agencies. It all began in 1920 when some men came together to form an organisation called the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA). It included writers, scenic designers, costume designers, stage technique experts, make-up and lighting artistes, amateur actors and theatre directors.

The construction was started in 1926 and the hall was completed in 1934. The building has a magnificent arcade. There are twin columns and horizontal mouldings. The arcade has on its either side, two semi-hexagonal rooms that is a style based on Venetian architecture. The roof has mangalore tiles in the Kerala style."

As you begin to walk towards the hall, one cannot but be touched by its serene grandeur. As you continue to look at the sunlight that falls on its walls and the patterns that the carved wooden fascias make, you notice a large newspaper clipping pasted on a wall across the road. As you pass it by on your left, you realise it has a photograph in black and white of the very building you admire on your right. The half page article is written by an architect, George Kochupurackal. It is from here that you get your information on the history of the hall.

In India, when you walk into the Golconda fort or into the Konark temple, there is a standard blue painted board with white text that describes the monument in front of you. It is often about the history of the building or the fort and sometimes about “this is a protected monument” Here, in Alappuzha, there was a building that young men strove to build many years ago, historical events took place here in addition to their dramas and so many years later, someone wrote about it. A few weeks or months later, someone pasted the story about building and people on this very street. As strangers to the city, you see, you read and you become a part of the collective memory of the place.

Looking at the 'everyday'

April, like a child writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets

Rabindranath Tagore
in 'The Fireflies'