Reviving vernacular architecture in India

Kiran Keswani
31 March 2004

What is Vernacular architecture?

Vernacular architecture can perhaps be defined as architecture born out of local building materials and technologies, an architecture that is climate-responsive and a reflection of the customs and lifestyles of a community. It is different from traditional architecture in that contemporary architecture can also be “vernacular” if it is generated from an understanding of local materials and indigenous methods of building. “Traditional” architecture must necessarily belong to the past as it bears within it traditional values of living and building.

Vernacular architecture often merges with its surrounding natural landscape, simply because it takes from that very landscape, the earth for its walls, the wood and leaves for its roof or the stone from a rocky terrain. The vernacular forms for building are those that have existed in the region in their primitive forms, a sloping roof surface to bear the rainfall, a circular house form to combat cyclonic winds, a mud roof that keeps out the heat of the sun, a wind tower that catches the cool breeze, or an inner courtyard that makes the shaded open space.

Vernacular does not aim at good aesthetics, it aims at comfort and in its use of natural materials to achieve that comfort, it comes about to be also an aesthetically sound architecture.

The decay
Where do we today see Vernacular forms in our built-environment? One would expect that our villages and small towns have the vernacular architecture that we aspire to study and to learn from. However, there has been a decay of vernacular architecture in the villages. If one walks into a village street today, it is lined on both sides by houses that are built with concrete.

These are mostly flat-roofed structures that use RCC columns and beams, brick walls plastered with cement and RCC roof slabs. This is what is termed as Pucca (brick) house. In the recent past, the Sarpanch or head of the village who was the most affluent in the village had a pucca house, in which the village took shelter during a cyclone or a flood. He had travelled to the city, he knew what was possible, and he could afford to have the building materials for this better building transported to the village.

Today, there are many people from the village who work in the larger town or city to be able to support their families in the village. The dream of almost every such man is to be able to earn enough so as to one day build a pucca house for his family. The comfort of a house that is protected from the rain seems to have taken precedence over the comfort of a house protected from the sun.

Pucca houses are invariably hot to live in the summers, but they do not have leaking roofs. The maintenance of a traditional, vernacular house was enmeshed in the daily ritual practices of the household. With changing lifestyles and a fascination for all that is urban and western has brought down the interest in local customs.

We do not stop to think about why the threshold is yellow, we do not know this is the yellow of the turmeric that kept termites and insects away. Ritual continues in the form of a yellow painted threshold that performs no function other than decoration.

A lack of understanding of materials and their usage has led to a slow decay of vernacular architecture in our rural areas. The villager aspires for all that an urbanite has and the urbanite for all that the westerner does. We have stopped responding to the needs of our climate, to the need for a balanced ecosystem or to what is affordable and therefore appropriate.

The resurgence
Simultaneously, one sees a resurgence of vernacular forms in the urban areas. These are forms that are borrowed sometimes from an India n village in Rajasthan, sometimes from the Kerala landscape. In the city, we call them “ethnic”.

There are “crafts villages” with shelters built of mud-plastered walls, roofs of grass and thatch. Whenever the “crafts mela” happens, craftsmen are invited from the villages to display their wares. There is a “Food Court”, which is a relatively new tourism concept. It has food stalls around an open space, like an India n bazaar. These are also built using “rural” materials. There are traditional decorative motifs on mud walls, gateways that borrow simultaneously from palace architecture and rural house forms.

Surviving Vernacular
Why are vernacular forms disappearing from the India n housing scenario? In the cities, we all live in houses and apartment complexes that use brick and concrete. These are low in maintenance and symbolise a “modern” way of life that tries to imitate the west.

There is a need for a Vernacular architecture movement in India, which will focus on an evolution of built-forms and materials based on the needs of an India n in the past to the needs of an India n in the future. Only when there is a step-by-step evolution will we create an architecture that is appropriate. Today, cement has broken this evolutionary process. An intermediate solution is needed in the use of materials, technologies and spatial hierarchy.

Learning more
Architecture schools in India need to emphasise a study of vernacular houses and street patterns. The 5-year architecture program offers only two sessions on Vernacular architecture. There is a need for a curriculum that allows the students to visit villages and to understand the responses to climate and local materials that were developed in the indigenous ways of building.

Today, almost no documentation exists in India on the architectural heritage which is fast disappearing. Old timber and clay tile houses are deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. The lack of maintenance comes also from a decline in respect for the way of life that generated this habitat. However, there is much to learn from researching and documenting the houses in our villages and old towns.

DakshinaChitra, a project of the Madras Craft Foundation in Chennai has reconstructed and reassembled 18 vernacular houses from the four southern states of India. These houses from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are an encyclopaedia for architecture students. They can be explored individually and collectively along with the archives that was generated in making these houses possible.

This year, DakshinaChitra is conducting a series of workshops for students of architecture. These are 4-day workshops that offer lessons and interactions on traditional building materials and techniques. This is one step towards developing appropriate habitats, a resource base that can support the work of NGO’s and government organisations working in the field of housing in India and in Asia.