Associate Prof. K. R. Sitalakshmi in her talk, as part of Madras Day events, underlines the historical value of heritage buildings.

As part of the Madras Day line-up of events, Studio Palazzo art gallery hosted a presentation titled ‘Architectural Styles of Madras – From the Colonial to the Post Modern' by K.R. Sitalakshmi, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University.

Tracing Chennai's architectural heritage from the British era to contemporary trends in a cogent narrative illustrated by photographs, Sitalakshmi threw light upon the characteristic features of successive styles, each stamped with a unique identity.

Broadly grouped under the heads Classical, Indo-Saracenic, Art Deco, Eclectic, Modern, Post Modern, and Late Modern architecture, the spectrum of buildings forming the subject of study ranged from institutions, administrative centres, monuments, universities, colleges and schools to residences, many of them historical landmarks, which give the city its varied and interesting skyline.

Different styles

The late 19{+t}{+h} century saw significant socio-cultural and economic upheavals that continued into the early 1900s. In the Colonial architecture of this period, the earliest style employed was the Classical, evident in Fort St. George, Binny Building (Warehousing and Trading) and Pachaiappa's Hall. Colonial architecture also began using the Indo-Saracenic idiom that reflected an amalgam of Hindu, Islamic and British influences as seen in the Senate House (1879, Robert Chisolm), and the Victoria Memorial Hall. The latter is reminiscent of Fatehpur Sikri's distinctive architecture, particularly the entrance and chatris.

The Madras Literary Society is a little gem that sits pretty in serene dignity amidst a cluster of protective trees that valiantly shield it from the harsh winds of change. One of the last remaining bastions of leisure, it evolved from the Asiatic Society.

Another heritage building, the General Post Office has a sloping roof with dormer windows, similar to the Padmanabhapuram palace. Many public buildings of the time such as the Central Station featured a clock tower. The ostensible reason was that the British considered Indians to be woefully lacking in time sense and therefore installed prominent reminders in the form of clock towers!

Notable residences of the time include that of Alladi Krishnaswami (Ekambra Nivas, built in 1918 and of historic interest as a part of the Indian Constitution was drafted here) and Sundar Mahal (which until recently housed the Amethyst boutique cafe).

The 1930s to 1950s saw the emergence of the Art Deco style characterised by features such as a stepped façade. Examples include the (later) Bharath Insurance building, Dare House, Hotel Dasaprakash, Kamadhenu and Casino theatres. Curved and circular rooms, another Art Deco giveaway, are seen in residences. Art Deco in turn spawned the Indo-Deco which incorporated Indian elements as evidenced in the Raja Annamalai Manram and the Oriental Insurance office, both designed by eminent architect L.M. Chitale who had earlier worked with H.V. Lanchester, architect of the Umaid Bhavan Palace, Jodhpur.

The post-Independence period, from 1950 to 1960, ushered in a wave of change that signalled modern architecture. The concept of minimalism characterised by functionalism, planar elements and the use of white and light colours to maximize light and space found staunch followers. Commercial and government centres such as Kothari Building, Shastri Bhavan and LIC rose as landmarks. The residences designed by architects Govinda Rao and Vergis Oomen were among the earliest to create an airy, natural light-filled ambience with double height space.

The 1960s to 1980s saw the proliferation of Eclecticism with regional accents. The Valluvar Kottam has a block modelled after the Tiruvarur ‘ther,' while the Rajaji Memorial is surmounted by a crown-shaped feature, an allusion to the crown of Lord Rama in keeping with Rajaji's affinity for the Ramayana.

The Rani Meyammai Hall, Rajah Muthiah Hall and Temple Towers also have regional influences. Traditional architectural features began to be incorporated into modernist vocabulary – a residence by architect P.T. Krishnan is an example of the re-entry into the urban vocabulary of the traditional courtyard concept, characteristic of homes in Tamil Nadu.

From the 1990s, the vaastu concept regained popularity in urban residential planning. A contrasting parallel development was the late modern and post modern style, the latter, a conglomeration of elements borrowed from different styles. From the late 20th century onwards, multi-storeyed office and shopping complexes became increasingly glass behemoths rising to dizzy heights, their structures carrying the unmistakeable stamp of globalisation.

In today's milieu, where urban growth in the heart of the city is left with no choice but to go vertical, heritage buildings are links to a culturally rich past, to be treasured. Sitalakshmi's talk effectively highlighted the salient features of these edifices and their historical value.