CHENNAI: Chennai has always been known for its conservative outlook, and this characteristic, naturally, was reflected in the city’s architecture. Through the 1960s right up to the late 1980s, houses were built to a standard template, and this extended to office buildings too. The façade of independent houses was the same, whether the home was built in Gandhinagar or Royapettah or Rutland Gate. Toilets were almost always outside the house, at the back; it took a long time for the conservative Chennaites to accept and adopt indoor toilets.
Apartment blocks were rarely built by private developers; the only ones were those built by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board.
Office buildings were as unimaginative, with offices usually furnished with steel tables and slotted-angle shelves. Factories were mere sheds.
There were very few exceptions — such as the LIC building, the Anna Nagar tower, or the ECC building. So, on the rare occasion when experimentation was required, designs and materials were got from other cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai.
Faux and more
It was only after 1991, with the liberalisation of the economy, that Chennai’s buildings got a facelift. People began travelling more, both within and outside the country. They came back inspired by things the developed world took for granted — indoor plumbing, efficient electrification, and air-conditioning — and wanted a new and comfortable life. That became possible because once the markets were opened up, new materials were available easily.
More important, people wanted more from their homes and offices. They didn’t want cookie-cutter houses any more. Everyone wanted to have an “exclusive” house and wanted to set a trend.
This was also the beginning of an era when anything from the West became a craze. Take the fad for curtain wall glazing for office buildings, which demands glass to be used in large, uninterrupted areas. In more temperate climates, this makes sense, as it allows light and sun into the building. But in India, where the sun shines for most part of the year, such vast swathes of glass end up creating virtual ovens. That pushes up air-conditioning costs.
There was also a sudden demand for crystal-studded and gold-plated faucets in Indian toilets. Faux elevations, or creating a Greek theme with Ionic columns and tympanums, became the norm.
Ornate interiors with intricately carved wood panels and plaster of Paris mouldings were also much in demand. In short, a ‘designed’ space needed to say it was designed, and owners and designers screamed out loud by using materials and design features rarely suitable for the Indian way of life or climatic conditions.
The scene now
The result: buildings falling apart because the “designer” features are user unfriendly and difficult to maintain. Replacement has become impossible, either due to non-availability or forbidding costs.
This has led to architects and interior designers putting more thought into their creations, and there is far greater maturity in the approach of both owners and designers.
Since designing has become the norm, there’s no longer a need to grab eyeballs. Subtle is in, and spells success.
In fact, the trend these days is to use unknown, “yet undiscovered” designers. Designs are uncluttered and minimalistic, and straight lines and simple, often traditional, finishes, are the order of the day.
Some of this is again because of the economy. An unstable economic scenario has led to owners giving more thought to maintenance costs. Life cycle costs are evaluated before materials are used. Informed decisions are made by both owner and designer.
Environmental awareness has also contributed. Recycled and reused materials are preferred over virgin material. Rubber wood is replacing teak and bamboo is replacing hardwood.
Old spaces and furniture are rehabilitated in place of creating new ones. Technological advances that promote this sentiment are embraced. LED lights, alternative sources of energy like solar energy are now “in” and design often revolves around them.
In a nutshell, good design is no longer exclusive, opulent and dominant.
It is optimal, discerning and socially responsible.
(The authors are Chief Architect and Associate Architect with Chennai-based APRObuild Architects, which focuses on eco-friendly design)