The architecture of the new Assembly building is a mix of modernity and tradition.

The inauguration of the Tamil Nadu Assembly building is probably Chennai's most exciting architectural event since 1959, all of 50 years after the Life Insurance Corporation building was opened. If the ‘LIC Building' is remembered as India's tallest building when it was built, the new Assembly building will be remembered for the architectural choices it embodies.

When the decision to build a new Assembly building in the Omandurar Government Estate was taken in 2007, a new complex wrapped in old style was anticipated. A functional and grander version of the Valluvar Kottam in the city, a memorial for the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar in the Dravidian style, was expected to be the preferred architectural language of the State government.

Much to the surprise of many, the chosen design from the short-listed three entries with its perforated plain facade without any ornamentation was contemporary in its aesthetic appeal. The only iconic element was the dome at the top. This architecture was a radical departure from the state monuments that were built before.

The intention, as Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi explained in 2008, was this: “From the outside it will have a futuristic look, to signify that the State is staying abreast of the times. At the same time, there will be a courtyard, an extensive use of traditional Tamil kolam art and elements from the Valluvar Kottam, such as the dome.”

Hubert Nienhoff, architect and partner in gmp (von Gerkan, Marg und Partner) Architects, Berlin, the firm which designed the building, echoed a similar note.

Speaking to The Hindu after the foundation stone was laid in June 2008, he said: “From the beginning we have tried to root the building climatically and culturally to the place. We have studied the traditional architecture of the region, but a simple arching back to the past is no more possible. We want to know what works and does not at this point of time.”

This seemingly difficult architectural desire — to have one face looking at the past and the other at the future — has been resolved relatively easily. The sharp-lined, elongated, granite-glass-metal clad “modern box” without ornamentation makes for the “modern.” And the dome on top, the iconic element that evokes the temple car at Valluvar Kottam, stands for the tradition. In addition, kolam, or the geometric patterns unique to this region, inscribed on the pillars, attempts to evoke the traditional aesthetic.

The long façade facing Anna Salai, the arterial road, has been scooped out at regular intervals and the façade behind is curved. The black granite in the outer layer and the yellow metal screen walls in the inner facade may not be a popular colour choice, but gives a chrome and gleaming look — the signature feature of contemporary buildings.

Changes to the design were made to bring the traditional elements into greater focus. The dome was reshaped to resemble the Valluvar Kottam and the 20-storey department building located to the east of the public entrance was reduced by half in size so that the dome stood out as the single most important feature.

This large building spread over 9,31,000 sq feet is organised in a simple fashion around courtyards — a common feature in traditional buildings. Four “functional cylinders” of diminishing size (the original design had five cylinders) help organise the multitude of rooms and various departments into four distinct zones. At the entrance is the Civic Forum or the entry plaza, followed by the Assembly hall, library and conference spaces. The present building has seven floors and rises to 198 feet. About 16, 43, 200 human days have been so far spent in constructing the building.

More In: Tamil Nadu | National