Changing urbanscape of old Chennai

A certain obsession of mine has led to compulsive explorations of streets deep inside Chennai’s old localities. Target subjects are usually cliched, but not so cliched heritage homes – ones that are not documented by heritage enthusiasts and those that do not fall on the maps of heritage tours. Each expedition has almost always led to the discovery of nearly extinct vernacular marvels. Set in a contrasting fast-paced environment, these masterpieces serve as a reminder of a forgotten art of living.

It is not hard to imagine that there was a time when the streets were filled with such fabulous houses. Houses with verandahs made of slick Burma teak or mortar columns of the classical Corinthian order, rosewood staircases winding up to the upper floors supported on Madras terrace roofs, facades symbolising statuses of the owners, embellished with arrangements borrowed from vernacular, Middle Eastern and European style of art.

DSCF1210-blogMulti storied structures that today stand in the place of the old timers appear to be coded with a divergent kind of DNA and bear no likeness to their ancestors. An observer may hastily conclude that this contradiction is a result of a drastic transition in aesthetics and construction methods to match our constantly changing yet enslaving lifestyles. But for most residents, this transition is what Biologists would call an Evolutionary Stable Strategy, in this context, it’s a strategy that ensures social relevance and financial security.

DSCF1167-blogInteractions with residents led me to understand that there are three main reasons why people are bringing down their old residences and replacing them with modern multi storied ones. Firstly, one has to have a deep personal or emotional connection with the house and a good financial backing to afford the upkeep. Materials and skill required have long become extinct and are not easy to acquire today.

Secondly, modern construction promises a faster build, more built up area in the same space, and additional income in the form of rent. Advances in the field provide a faster build by removing the hassles of bringing varied materials together and allowing them sufficient time to cure. To appreciate the difference between construction methods of then and now think about trying grandma’s elaborate cooking style yourself versus making Maggi 2 minute noodles. More built up area is made possible by replacing the wood, brick and mortar components with concrete. The result is a superior load bearing capacity that supports multiple levels of living spaces, increasing the total space utilisation to twice the number at the least. Technology has also provided ways to control air, light and temperature eliminating the need for space intensive concepts like verandas and courtyards. In many ways a new construction holds the promise of creating, in a short span of time, an asset that serves as a secure shelter and a source of rental income.

Thirdly, People feel the need to stay relevant to the times and prefer contemporary living spaces. No one wants to stay invested in demanding relationships for life, just for the sake of satiating momentary desires to relive good old times.

Suggested reading

Evolution of vernacular construction versus modern urban housing. Design Innovation and Craft Resource Center, CPET University, Ahmedabad.
The origin and evolution of a unique housing pattern in Kerala. By Sharat Sunder Rajeev.
Beginners guide to Greek architectural orders. Khan Academy.
Mumbai’s Art Deco heritage. By Aditi Mukherjee for
Can the vernacular work in the modern settings. By Goutam Seetharaman for The Hindu
Abodes from forgotten history. By Ashvita Foundation for the New Indian Express.



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One thought on “Changing urbanscape of old Chennai

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  1. Very nostalgic and very worrying. I hope these legends survive and showcase themselves to the coming generations.
    Thanks for the article Arjun. It’s very moving and more efforts are to be taken in this area.

    Liked by 1 person

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