Aruna V. Iyer visits Chennai’s oldest apartment block, whose residents once had a clear view of the sun rising over the sea

t was the time when Chennai was still pattinam to the people in rural Tamil Nadu; a place that symbolised lot of money but little water, large buildings but small hearts. Featuring the city’s first high rise apartment, a scene from K. Balachandar’s ‘Pattina Pravesam’ depicts two migrant villagers discussing the Old Tower Block in Nandanam:

“It cannot be one man’s house. It must be many relatives living together.”

“Probably they built their homes here and there, then brought them here and stacked them one above the other!”

The Old Tower Block was built in 1966 by Tamil Nadu Housing Board’s City Improvement Trust, says Sudhangan, a senior journalist and a Tamil writer who lives in the building. “The concept of high rises and tower blocks were new and often given the cold shoulder by a conservative society that preferred the individual house,” he says. Completed on April 18 that year, the Old Tower Block was nine storeys high and cost Rs 30 lakh to construct. It was the tallest building of its time, coming up before the iconic LIC building on Mount Road.

The apartment block occupies a massive space of 14 grounds and comprises 48 flats. It was inaugurated by the then Minister for Industries R. Venkataraman. Tamil Nadu Housing Board engineer Gnanavadivu had executed the project.

The building consists of 16 three-bedroom flats, each measuring 1,700 sq ft, the monthly rent for which was pegged at Rs. 450 back then. The remaining 32 flats were two-bedroom, measuring 1,200 sq ft each, with a monthly rent of Rs. 350. Today, the respective rents are Rs.5,740 and Rs. 3,540. The ground floor originally provided for 17 garages, three shops, a restaurant, a nursery school and a ladies recreation club. But only the garages and three shops were eventually set up.

The apartment block was built to accommodate foreign delegates attending the Indian International Trade Fair that was held in early 1967. The idea was to allot the flats to members of the public on conclusion of the fair.

“But after the Fair, the Housing Board found no takers for the flats, save five. Since then, the remaining flats have been allotted to government employees on transfer to Chennai, and to people like me who applied for a house under the public quota,” says Sudhangan.

There were several apprehensions about living in a multi-storey building back then, according to Kesu, one of the oldest residents, who has been living in Old Tower Block since 1967. “People liked to live close to the ground and found the idea of living at a height intimidating. They felt land is more valuable as it appreciated more than an apartment; and the investment required to buy a plot and construct a house was very little compared to the returns on the property,” he says.

But the earliest residents of Old Tower Block discovered the advantages of living at a height: they were privy to a landscape they term mesmerising. “The Adyar River, which was yet to die of pollution, flowed in full force along the building,” says Kesu. Fishermen on catamarans, migratory birds, the occasional fox at the nearby Kotturpuram swamp, and the view of the sun rising over the Bay of Bengal – these were common sights. Today, of course, taller buildings block the view of the rising sun.

The design of the building is unique and valid even today, with features like large ventilation ducts, huge lobby spaces and ample lighting – things hardly found in new constructions. It is poor maintenance that is the primary complaint of Old Tower Block residents.

Today the building is an island in a sea of activity – no longer ruling the city’s skyline. Like a deposed king, no longer powerful but retaining the stately grandeur – draped in a silence and serenity that belonged to the sixties.

Correction

This story featured about the Old Tower Block in Nandanam. Inadvertently, a picture of the New Tower Block had been used instead of the Old Tower Block. The error is regretted.

Keywords: TNHBOld Tower Block

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