The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Seeking the language (reasons) for an appropriate architecture

In the context of finding that all elusive architecture that belongs, while it addresses both regional needs and global aspirations, we often find the built around us are compromises.
Village House fore court near Nurthyang, Meghalaya
The new found Green rush has thrown up various building solutions to achieve a version of buildings that are responsible to the environment. But are they? Just glance back at the past 50 years or so, and we see a transformation of our urban scape. Roll back another 50 and the differences are glaring. As a parallel exercise, venture out about  50 km from wherever you are in the city and you start seeing examples of a building tradition that seem vestiges of a past in the context of this rapidly changing urban form. Should we construe that the past, which continues to exist even today in subdued forms are passe, and not relevant?
Apply the same filters of assessing their environmental impact from today's green building perspective on them, and we find that they occupy a category that is difficult to emulate.... in other words, as green as it gets. On an other thread look at urban developments across the country and across the world and all this new architecture seems related... country cousins aspiring to follow a trend.
So why do we continue with this inertia of propagating this borrowed architectural model? While it is not hard to see that they do reflect a growing global community, it is difficult to trace a path of transformation, a rationalised process of closure of (or change from) what was, on to the emergence of a new urbanity. Any acceptable change, is a process of evaluating the reasons for change, adopting new ideas that satisfy the reasons for change and discarding those that don't apply, in the process effecting a familiar (understandable) transformation.
Let us look at some of the traits/requirements of the traditional buildings that occupy one of the sub regions of India.
Let's start with the obvious one, climate-  At a macro level, India demands a tropical architecture (with regional variations and exceptions).... an architecture that is designed to keep the insides of the building cooler... not letting heat creep in. However, there are various sub requirements of doing the same....
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a region of high humidity
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a high rainfall area
  • keeping the insides cooler, but in a dry and arid area
  • keeping the insides cooler, but tackling a saline and corrosive air
  • keeping the insides cooler, but managing a high glare factor.
Surely, the solutions and the resulting architecture would vary for each of these situations.

New Wood construction house at Malkota, HP
Add another trait layer, natural resources-  the western ghats (Kerala, coastal Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra have laterite rich reserves, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have rich granite reserves, Andhra has limestone and a variety of slates, Rajasthan has innumerable sandstones and marbles, the north-east is an explosion of a bamboo, cane and other grasses, Most of the Central and Gangetic India has quartzite, sandstones, Himalayan architecture is a mixture of adobe, slate, and wood. Bricks made all across India, were traditionally of different sizes, shapes and hues... reflecting the soils of the various regions. Carpentry skills vary where timber use was prevalent. True, there was a difference between Institutional and the vernacular.... but the vernacular was even more rooted. The vernacular sees employment of the most local and prevalent of skills that are associated to the natural resources of the region, a building system that is rapidly renewable, and materials for construction that can be carted from nearby. The building methods were kept simple and used no polluting energies... only human, or animal.

We see ourselves stepping into another trait, culture and building traditions-  In traditional buildings, we see people and culture entwined with the architecture. We see the work of artisans and crafts persons, and not merely contractors. Wonder why? There connect between the crafts person, his craft and the region from which he hailed was umbilical in nature. Every region's buildings reflected a stamp left by the craft persons who worked on it, that was unique. Such craft also reflected a connect with both the natural resources strengths and the climatic attributes of the region. For example, the stone jaali work of Rajasthan and the hot-dry central northern plains, play the dual role of both providing privacy to women inhabitants and cooling hot air as it swept through these stone screens. The Internal courtyard reflected the private usage of an inner-outdoor space and also ventilated the stale air from the rooms surrounding it.The tiny earthen and wood habitations of the Himalayas reflected both the outdoor culture of it's people, and also kept the inner spaces warm at night. The densely packed urban conglomerations of the northern plains indicate the need for shade in the streets. Similarly, the loosely stacked homes in coastal Tamil Nadu demonstrate the need for air to circulate freely to tackle high humidity.

We see that all these aspects of climate, natural resource strengths, cultural needs and building traditions result in a multitude of architectural styles and sub-styles uniquely linked with the sub regions of this country. So what about the architecture of today? More and more, we are accepting trends, dimensions, expression and material thrown up by a global community, rather than seeking a honest (honourable) transformation (connect) vis-a-vis our building heritage. Why? Maybe in this age of quick-fix solutions, when we continue to seek for that elusive language of architecture that would be deemed appropriate, we actually seek reasons to a part of this emerging global village... uninterested in the consequences of this change.

Where do we start if we were to design an architecture that is appropriate to place and time (place representing natural resources, skill sets and culture, and time representing the changing cultures and new aspirations)? We could start by asking questions like these:
  • What building material groups would I choose to ensure that the building gains less heat? (Doesn't a predominantly glass facade defeat the basic premise of that choice?)
  • What building form would I employ that addresses other climatic attributes of the sub-region like humidity, rain, etc?
  • How were current uses of the building addressed by traditional counterparts, and are they relevant today from a socio-cultural point of view?
  • Which natural resources are available for me to employ sustainably, or more honestly, with lesser environmental damage? For example, excessive laterite mining for construction in the western ghats is today an environmental issue..... so what would be the alternative?
  • Do I have a responsibility towards current livelihoods linked to building traditions? How do I employ those valuable skills?
  • How would I balance the issue of glare and the desire of a more social people, without compromising on heat gain?
  • Traditional vernacular architecture occupied a minimal resource/skill footprint, and a near zero carbon footprint.... Since a large ecological footprint is undesirable (within this 'climate of change'), then how small a footprint can I make?
  • .... and more!
What is more dangerous when exaggerated? Global aspirations negating tradition and the associated identity, or, negotiated change. Choose wisely.