As thousands drift in and out of the sprawling campus of the Madras High Court, whose boundaries are defined by Prakasam Road and Rajaji Road, few may stop to take note of the marked architectural features of this building, whose courtrooms, chambers and corridors have heard it all — eloquent arguments, murmurs of dissent, and pronouncement of landmark judgements.
According to a Madras High Court publication, it was in October 1888 that the construction of the present High Court building commenced based on the plan and estimates drawn by J.W. Brassington, who was the consulting architect to the government.
However, it was Henry Irwin, who later went on to become the architect of structures such as the Law College, the Bank of Madras headquarters and Egmore railway station among many others, who oversaw its completion.
When the construction was completed in July 1892, the cost was estimated to be Rs. 12,98,163 as opposed to the original estimate of Rs. 9,45,000. The elaborate art work and decorations which adorn the building were carried out by teachers of the School of Art.
K. Kalpana, conservation architect, calls it one of the biggest and most architecturally embellished structures in the city. “No other structure can come close to it in terms of scale and detail,” she says. Despite being ornate and elaborate, no compromise has been made on functionality and sustainability.
“Though it was built in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, the elaborate jaalis, and arcaded corridors instead of trabeate, linear ones are indicative of Mughal influences,” she says. Though buildings such as the small causes court were built in the same style, none can match the main building when it comes to the architecture’s play with lights and shadows, she says.
The structure, she says bears several exquisite features such as the exposed brickwork, patterned tiles on the walls and flooring, solid, polished doors and windows, stone detailing in the in-fills, fanlights, which are semi-circular glass panels above a door or a window, and masonry domes with intricate patterns.
Many doors, she says, have two parts, the inside is made of glass, and the outer doors are louvers, so that the entry of light can be manipulated.
“The way in which the court halls are arranged reflects a strong sense of order, symmetry and hierarchy of space. From small bare staircases to larger open-well staircases to extremely interestingly-placed spiral staircases, the architecture is extremely rhythmic and rich in detailing,” she says.
The architect seamlessly blends several architectural influences, in what could have otherwise been an incongruous mix of elements. “Despite incorporating so many design elements which were in vogue in the late 1800s, it is not a disorderly mix of elements,” she says. The architecture, she observes, drew from European principles of design and was modified to suit our climatic conditions; hence, the huge verandahs and courtyards.
“The processes and principles of renaissance architecture such as symmetry, rhythm in design, and proportion were transferred here, though 200 years later,” she says.
The artistic embellishments such as the carved chairs and tables in the court halls, the woodwork in the building and artistic interiors of the court halls, remain intact to this day. A heritage committee has been set up to suggest measures to preserve and maintain this historic structure.