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Reinventing Vernacular Traditions

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The ancient history of India comprises thirty centuries of human culture and progress. The vernacular buildings have delivered many examples in which the knowledge of techniques has been explored to its full depth. The built landscape of India over a period of time has successively absorbed varieties of cultures and creative impulses. External forces like the Mughals and British not only shaped Indian history but had a clear effect on the buildings as well. As a result, the space making crafts associated with each time frame show distinct narratives which become important source of knowledge today.

Interior architecture

During the last few decades, India witnessed political, cultural and social transitions which were highly influential in shaping the myriad discourses on the interior architecture front. Globalisation, coupled with emerging design professionals who sought newness in their work, resulted in a highly pluralistic architectural landscape. Sigfried Gideon has very interestingly explained the dilemma we face today in balancing the past, present and future. In one of his lectures he says, “…every generation must carry both the burden of the past and the responsibility for the future. The present is coming to be seen more and more as a mere link between yesterday and tomorrow… present, past and future are not chopped off from one another but merge into one uninterrupted fabric… the pattern of human life is composed of threads leading from the past, interwoven with others formed by the present. Strewn between these- still invisible to us-lies those of the future” (Gideon S – The Beginnings of Art).

Ideas of sustainability

With the emerging issues and ideas of sustainability and green building practices being discussed all over the world, India too is not lagging in discussing such issues. But often when it comes to building practices in a country like India, the idea of sustainability also dwells into innumerable solutions available in our very backyard. The vernacular traditions of India have evolved over centuries of practice and are proven to be self-sufficient and reliant.


The built landscape of India has many a time shown a local resistance to external and global flows impacting the interior architectural practices. This could be seen in the work of practitioners who were committed to ethics of vernacular traditions and craftsmanship and its relation to socio-cultural forces. The practitioners believe that craft being an important component of our vernacular architectures, needs to be taken forward for future generations, and the livelihood of the craftspeople should be maintained in parallel to the mechanization. The most important aspect of such approache is its association with the locale, envisaging long term sustainable practices.

A holistic approach

In a country like India with very ancient urban traditions, the forms of architectural expressions involve accumulated yet diverse cultural overlays. If one equates the building practices in the traditional environment to the ones in the time of globalization today, both are strikingly contrasting in many respects. The contemporary architecture of India today, as distinguished from the autonomous traditions of its ancient past, has to be seen as the built expression of an interaction between a global culture and the acute sense of place. If one tries to draw a very simple analogy understanding the built form and the various factors that helped it to manifest in the real world, the differences are enormous. If we look at the traditional set up of the building practices, there were essentially three components involved i.e. Crafts & Craftspeople; Material & Techniques and the User & the Society. Apart from these three, there now exist many other factors which directly and indirectly influence the built form, like: Inclusion of a designer; Bye-laws and Rules of construction; external forces: westernization, globalization; technological advancements; role of consultants: lighting engineer, HVAC Consultant; limitation of time etc.

Sustainable, green, eco-friendly are much discussed buzz words surrounding architecture practices today. What we may fail to realise is that sustainability is nothing new in the history of our vernacular traditions. Our own hand crafted structures have been guidebooks for sustainable and energy efficient models of architectural practice.

The need of the hour is a holistic approach where there is an equal weightage given to each role player. Crafts people and locally available materials need to be placed parallel to technology and design for ensuring a sustainable building environment that ensures lesser resource exploitation and longevity of the built form. And such a situation is not merely hypothetical. While on one hand, there are architecture practices largely dealing with modernism in the nation, there is also the integration of vernacular and traditional building idioms that has started as a counterpoint to modernism.

Learning from the vernacular idiom

There has been an eradication of involvement of crafts in the built form treating vernacular traditions unfit for the newly designed spaces, making the role of craftsmen almost nil or using them merely as skilled labour to execute the designs disconnecting their knowledge with their practice. But now many architects and designers do realize that there is a whole database of learning to draw from the traditional and vernacular environment. They are approaching the vernacular in various ways. The exclusive detailing of joineries, construction methods and material usage earlier only prevalent in traditional buildings also add richness to the buildings today. The resource bank of motifs, patterns, visual compositions too have found places in our contemporary environments. Various practitioners have interpreted the idea of sustainability, traditions, heritage, conservation, technology, culture etc. using diverse means of our rich vernacular built landscape.

The idea of reinventing the vernacular idiom could also be seen as an extension of the sustainable approach towards architecture where there is an amalgamation of traditional techniques with modern ethos. The challenge becomes not to merely repeat the traditional methods of construction, but to reinvent them looking at the present realities of the space. This way, one not only sustains the traditional architecture of the region but also makes it highly relevant to modern day socio-economic context.


One of the very notable examples of such an approach is Shaam-e-Sarhad, an eco-tourism resort initiated by Hunarshala foundation in order to retain and revive the traditional building skills of the people of the region. It was a conscious attempt to bring the skills and knowledge of the craftspeople to a broader level where they could be recognized and appreciated. The entire built landscape is constructed using the locally available materials with the community participation and involvement, thus creating a self-sustained environment. There is an attempt to revitalize the entire region by starting an inclusive tourism where the community itself is benefitted with such initiatives.

Raas in Jodhpur by Ambrish Arora is another distinct project, where the entire resort harmoniously blends with the existing historical buildings. The pattern designed for the façade decided during the initial explorations of the project used a mix of both hand and machine techniques. The panels were made using the locally available stones and used the concept of the double skin façade to reduce excessive glare and heat gain during summer combining the idea of traditional skills with energy efficient design.

Tree of Life Resort in Jaipur by Nimish Patel prefers the traditional methods of making and construction than the new ones; there is continuity in the working style of craftspeople who are employed for their skill and knowledge of the material. The idea of involving community and sourcing the material within the radii of the region makes this project a noteworthy step in sustainable architectural practices.

Located in the Malabar region of Kerala and built with laterite stone blocks that are carved out from the ground or hillside nearby, the buildings in Banasura Hill Resort blend amicably with the micro environment and landscape around the resort. The vernacular style of building has been adopted and this enhanced the overall structure by developing it with the neighborhood and increased its aesthetic appeal. The entire building is built using earth and other locally available materials.

Bamboo symphony in Bangalore by Neelam Manjunath uses bamboo craft with a fresh approach towards the material. Each detail has been worked out within the material by a joint collaboration of the architect and a few master craftsmen. This is a completely new development of bamboo as a material and its craft where this project shows what all could be the possibility of building with bamboo as one of the prime materials of construction. Also the idea of sustainability is referred to here, where the architect elaborates how the use of bamboo has helped to reduce many hazards which a modern construction material is bringing today.

Wall House in Auroville by Anupama Kundoo is one such project where the entire building bases itself on usage of locally available eco-friendly material and craftsmanship that departs from the traditional buildings. Though nothing has been imitated from what existed earlier, sufficient references have been taken from vernacular architecture to create a new language in terms of working style, framework and methodology.

Such projects are initiating new ideas in the field and are motivating many young architects and designers to dwell into similar approaches while designing. While the seed of thought appears to have just been sown, the trickledown effect is becoming increasingly evident. It may hopefully mark the beginning of another phase in Indian architecture where the rich vernacular traditions evolve to suit the modern context.

Rishav Jain is an Interior Architect and Independent Researcher. He works as an Assistant Professor at Faculty of Design and Research Associate (Craft and Technology) Design Innovation and Craft Resource Center (DICRC), CEPT University, Ahmedabad.


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