Reviving vernacular architecture
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.