As an architect in India, having spent half a decade learning about the importance of 'context' (and the multitudes of it present in every part of our country) it would almost feel blasphemous to discredit the ingenuity of India's traditional vernacular architecture. Despite the limited technology and resources they were built with, traditional structures seem to have succeeded in offering rational solutions to the harsh climate and nuanced culture of India. Now that modern buildings appear to be failing us in more ways than one, architects have started turning to the past, looking for lessons in sustainability and regional identity.
In traditional societies, people lived and built their shelters in harmony with nature. Their strong sense of cultural identity and passive responses to climate still provide profound lessons in environmentally sound and regionally relevant design. With such a rich cultural past, Indian architects often have a hard time striking a balance between cultural identity and modern necessity. If the conventional architecture styles, which have been refined over centuries, have handed us the blueprint for a near-perfect building, why are contemporary architects trying so hard to be original? In the true spirit of vernacular, the 'architecture without architects', should architects have the courage to be redundant for the sake of the people they are building for, and the planet they are building on?
The discussion around context often revolves around the cultural history and geographical conditions of a place, which seems logical. Throughout the past, a building's geographical context determined its design. But another critical aspect that we tend to overlook is its context in terms of 'time'. Any piece of architecture reflects the era it was built in – the extent of technological advancement, aesthetic preferences, social and cultural beliefs and user lifestyles of the time play a significant role in governing design decisions. This phenomenon is true for both modern and traditional forms of architecture – traditional buildings represent a certain era in time just as much as they represent a certain geographical region. By this rationale, the homogeneity that came to represent modern architecture, and is seen as one of its most significant shortcomings, is nothing but a reflection of the time it was built in. The advent of globalisation had an extensive impact on the way we perceived the concept of regional distinction. The world was now a 'global village', and began forming a collective architectural identity, not unlike the planning and aesthetic homogeneity found in the architecture of a traditional village. The underlying flaws of this approach occurred to modern Indian architects later, but those with technical and creative prowess can still find ways to overcome them if they wish to.
Architects from the past did not use local materials because they intended their building to look quaint, rustic, or have a natural aesthetic. It was merely an obvious result of using the materials, techniques, and craftspersons available to them. This freedom of choice is what distinguishes our present from the past. The late 20th century saw contemporary architects being spoilt for options, and having an unprecedented sense of liberation from their geographical limits. This freedom to build anything anywhere, says Pakistani architect Nayyar Ali Dada, "has led to the erection of some senseless, ignorant structures. However, I would say that freedom is still better than dogmatism." By saying this, he warns against the nostalgic recreation of traditional buildings just for its sake. The literal copying of traditional elements such as domes and chajjas without due consideration to requirements in the name of 'authenticity' is as mindless and lazy an approach as the literal copying of western skyscrapers without regard to the local climate.
The question regarding traditional practices is not whether or not we should follow them, but when it makes sense to imbibe them and when we need not. The problems being faced by today's architects are different from the issues traditional architects had to address. Rapid urbanization, overpopulation, scarcity of land and limited natural resources are some of the major problems that the world is dealing with today. We cannot expect these to be tackled through conventional practices of low-rise development, spread-out planning and the use of rich natural materials like stone. Changing family structures, lifestyles, and urban living costs have drastically changed the average Indian family's requirements of a house – the typical vernacular courtyard house has become out of reach even for the upper-middle class. There is no architectural precedent from the past to impart lessons in building high-rise apartment and office buildings sustainably. But if we can skillfully combine the knowledge, materials and technology available to us, we might be able to set a modern precedent for future generations to learn from.
The imitation of traditional architecture, whether positive or negative, has been carried down to present generations in an unquestioning, almost doctrinaire way. But if we can objectively extract wisdom from traditional principles without falling into the trap of romanticisation, it can help equip us for the future. Vernacular architecture's innate qualities of building in response to climate, the environment and the people, are principles we must continue to hold close to us. However, the quest for improving materials, techniques, and ideas should never end. If a parametric shading device can resolve the same problems as a jaali (if not more), is it fair to hold ourselves back only to indulge in token traditionalism? This is not to say that traditional elements and features must be done away with. The architect should be able to make a choice about what is best for each particular design, without being afraid to make an unconventional one if necessary.
Like all other disciplines, it is inevitable for architecture to go through change and transformation in a world that is constantly changing. A nostalgic recreation of the past arrests growth, but the tendency to entirely ignore traditional wisdom has also proved to be harmful. To honour our past, we need to understand its most profound teaching – building habitable spaces for the present, without indulging in or worrying about symbolism. If we have the technology to create buildings that actively produce more energy than they consume, why should we settle for those that only passively respond to the environment? A new building, built with the most immediately available, energy-efficient materials, appropriately responding to the local climate, and holistically serving its user's needs, is the most sincere response to the lessons of tradition. It wouldn't matter for such a building if it is difficult symbolically 'modern' or 'traditional'. Renowned architect Chitra K. Vishwanath, known for her commitment to creating sustainable built environments, conveys the modern architect's dilemma when she says: “How do we articulate our works to be contextual, without being nostalgic? This has been a complex, innate struggle, each of our projects have gone through. But, architecture succeeds if it is inclusive and people-centric, innovative and technologically sound.”
As architects, we must learn not to settle for what has already been achieved, and continue our quest for better and more efficient building practices. The means and ends of architecture are constantly evolving, which is why architecture itself must strive to progress with them. The future cannot flourish without regard for tradition. However, tradition cannot live on without being adapted for the future.
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Rashid, Mamun, and Dilshad Rahat Ara. “Modernity in Tradition: Reflections on Building Design and Technology in the Asian Vernacular.” Frontiers of Architectural Research, Elsevier, 3 Feb. 2015, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095263514000715.
Salman, Maha. “Sustainability and Vernacular Architecture: Rethinking What Identity Is.” IntechOpen, IntechOpen, 16 Nov. 2018, www.intechopen.com/books/urban-and-architectural-heritage-conservation-within-sustainability/sustainability-and-vernacular-architecture-rethinking-what-identity-is.
Heynen, Hilde. “Architecture and Modernity.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, http://www.mom.arq.ufmg.br/mom/02_arq_interface/1a_aula/Architecture_and_Modernity_A_Critique.pdf
Sanjana Aggarwal is an innovation consultant with an academic background in architecture. She loves discussing design and its influence on the world, and has a thing for researching and writing about unpopular opinions. Instagram: @sannaaaaaa_