Can the vernacular work in modern settings?

GOUTAM SEETHARAMAN, trustee, Centre for Vernacular Architecture, talks to HEMA VIJAY about preserving traditions

It depends on how we define contemporary outlook. If the structure has to have glass facades, aluminium composite panels and the like, then definitely not. If it is to have a facade with simple straight lines without embellishments, we can arrive at a modern or contemporary look following basic vernacular principles of building. One good example is a huge factory we have built near Dindigul, with laterite walls and stone foundation. Most of the projects we do today follow the basics of vernacular architecture in design and use locally available natural material, with modern amenities inside.

What aspects of vernacular architecture can be best used today?

Simple plans, load bearing walls, use of natural materials for construction... Overall, vernacular architecture is a way of living. Just as idli-sambar or dal-roti can never be fully replaced by burgers or pizza, vernacular architecture of any region will remain till the culture and taste of the people changes totally.

Was Tamil Nadu’s architectural tradition a sustainable one?

Vernacular architecture evolves as a response to geographical, cultural and social beliefs of a region. For instance, our tradition of wall-to-wall construction of houses along the east and west directions, with a series of courtyards, used to cut off entry of heat from the outside. The street-facing thinnai in the front of the house facilitated interaction of the people of the house with passers-by, thereby forming a well-knit society. Waste water from the kitchen and bathrooms were fed to the trees in the backyard...

How cost-effective is vernacular architecture?

In smaller towns, where raw material is locally available, vernacular architecture could save up to 25 per cent of the overall cost. In cities, the total savings could be around 15 per cent. As for running expenses, the introduction of courtyards, cavity walls (predominantly on the western side), high ceilings and other vernacular elements substantially reduces electricity costs by eliminating the need for air conditioners and makes the house cool and comfortable to live in.

What elements from other regions do you bring in?

We build walls with random rubble, mud, unfired bricks, brick and laterite; we cover roofs with clay tiles, filler slab, vaults, domes and thatch. These materials and techniques are part of vernacular building practices from all over the country.

What are the challenges in making vernacular architecture popular?

The biggest challenge is to get trained craftsmen and builders who will take pride in the work they do, like their forefathers did. We should start schools for training unskilled workers in traditional crafts and building techniques, and then provide them with better jobs.

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