In the last 60 years, no building project in the city has stirred the imagination or demonstrated the importance of design

Are there public buildings in this city that we can be proud of, that are worth visiting or showcasing in postcards? The truth is, not many. The list of worthy civic buildings in Chennai is as short as a lizard’s tail — and includes only buildings from the past: Senate House, Railway Headquarters, Museum Theatre and so on. None of the recent ones qualify for a place on the list. Why is this city architecturally poor?

In the last 60 years, no building project has stirred the imagination, demonstrated the importance of design and increased awareness about the need for quality public spaces. If at all there was a moment when the city got excited over a new building, it was in 1959 when the LIC building was built.

Situated on Anna Salai, the building was way ahead of its times: bold in concept and daringly innovative. This well-proportioned box with creative glass windows refused to conform to mediocre trends.

In contrast, the buildings that followed were pathetic clones. It is not surprising that to date Tamil films only show the LIC building as the representative icon of the city. The fact that no other building has displaced this image of the city in the last five decades, says it all.

Good buildings enrich a city’s cultural capital and many cities carefully invest in them. They go beyond producing pretty objects to look at and value the potential of architecture to create places that enable social interaction and produce a sensible environment.

There are many ways to create better structures, but what is fundamental is the will to desire architectural excellence.

At the moment, such a will is not visible in Chennai. Take for instance the newly constructed Police Commissionerate building on Poonnamallee High Road, or the redesign of Rajarathinam stadium or the MRTS stations – they are not worthy additions to the city. If arch-like elements slapped on the façade of the Police Commissionerate disappoint, the non-descript Rajarathinam stadium depresses.

Many cities in the world take their buildings seriously and have a well thought-out architectural policy. They look at architecture as a matter of public interest and even guarantee it through legislation. Many local governments compete to set an example not only by caring for their heritage structures, but also by consistently building good new buildings.

In Chennai, the capacity of government designers, going by what we see, is not promising. In such a situation, one of the ways to ensure that better buildings are built is by calling for architectural competitions. When this suggestion was made to a senior government official sometime ago, he referred to the new legislative assembly complex and dismissively said architectural competitions produce such disastrous results.

What he conveniently glossed over were the restrictive conditions that were placed in that competition, which prevented many architects from participating. Neither did he have anything to say about the lack of public discussion or the selection process. The problem was not the idea of a competition, but the manner in which it was conducted. Rigour, professional approach and transparency are critical.

Private commercial buildings are not any better. New buildings with glass curtains wrapped around concrete slabs and aluminium boxes that look like oil cans front Old Mahabalipuram Road and Anna Salai. A refreshing change can be ushered in by the government, which is one of the major builders in the city, by re-looking at their choices – innovations will have a cascading effect on the city.

It would be worthwhile to recall one of the European Union Councils resolutions on architectural quality. Without any ambiguity, it places architecture as “a fundamental feature of history, culture and fabric of life” and foresees that modern buildings “are the heritage of tomorrow.”

Will the government change course?

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