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Vernacular Architecture ‘A way of life’

Sustainability and eco-friendly architecture became popular in recent times because of the dire necessity, the urgency to fix things that we have damaged in the pursuit, or pretense of development. What then is vernacular? What is it that gives it an edge over green or eco-friendly practices? Does it even have an edge over them at the first place?

There are advocates of this style, preached and practiced by Laurie Bake r, which changed the way architects think. Some reject everything else, some follow it blindly and some just experiment. They try out various ways to see if they can evolve on it, or go back further into our past to see what it was that made ancient building practices so in sync with everything around which your life revolves that it becomes redundant to categorise it into any particular style. The younger lot of architects, the dabblers in this pursuit of the ‘Good life’, believe that it might take a while before people accept this style with an open mind, but brick by brick, they can change that attitude.

Ar Sindhuri saw a kind of senseless pattern in the way buildings were perceived in her home-town Hyderabad with little concern whatsoever given to the fact that more than being a marker of status or prosperity a home is where one dwells. In her search for something that has a meaning and serves a deeper and fuller purpose, she came to learn the vernacular values from Ar R L Kumar who not only found the institution of CVA but in a way was an embodiment of it.

“When you learn what to do by just doing it, there is hardly any risk of being defined by someone else or barely any need to preserve a building as you’re preserving the techniques and art of building itself.” Sinduri

To Sindhuri, Vernacular is when the debate of form versus function ends; form and function are one and the same. Vernacular is difficult to define at one go because there is never any stress on recording, preserving, restoring or documenting. Why? When you learn what to do by just doing it, there is hardly any risk of being defined by someone else, or barely any need to preserve a building as you’re preserving the techniques and art of building itself. What you see is what you get. What you get is what you see. Laying an example for the layman, in a vernacular building, there are no ‘energy efficient’ ACs but an honest attempt at building something that doesn’t use ACs. It is the silent and yet effective call to make culturally relevant, sensitive and sensible buildings.

When contemporary style of architecture was in its inception stages, no one paid attention to its inevitable by-products. So it is but obvious that all these ‘alternative’ eco-friendly techniques of construction are not inventions. Rather, they are the rediscovery of traditions rooted in our culture; not as myths and legends but as time-tested methods and ways of dwelling, building and thinking. Aren’t we in a way what we wear, what we eat and how we speak?

It is thus a little tough to open the eyes and mind of a status-driven society to see what Sindhuri has not only just seen, but also felt and lived in. She assumes the serious demeanour of a determined sculptor trying to chisel a piece of stone into shape. In a commodity oriented society, not everyone goes for simplicity. Vernacular — the use of local materials, local labour, proven techniques that have stood the time of ages — is a process that is sustainable not just after building but during the whole process.

Being labour intensive in a country like India, it sustains too. It is not very surprising then that all the plans are extremely simple, and yet they reflect the user’s sensibilities and way of life. It is not a top-down process so typical of management and planning-obsessed societies. It has an organic way of functioning, consistently, informally and perfectly; no square pegs in round holes. According to social critic and philosopher Majid Rahnema this very informal bond is the immune system that sustains a particular local community against the ‘global engineering agencies’. Just like human beings are not isolated entities and affect each other’s lives, buildings are something that affect their surroundings, thus in turn affecting us too. Sindhuri wants to introduce this element into the flamboyant society that prevails in the city of Hyderabad; not an easy task considering people might not look at the outcome of it but the amount of money that one spends on one’s house. It is a marker of how prosperous you are.

In guise of contemporary style of architecture what we are doing is repetition and imitation. Vernacular is not a style set in stone; every feature has its own stories. It allows you to experiment again and again in the search for perfection but it isn’t perfection itself. People might ask what is so vernacular about cement and steel. In fact, that is the question that haunts most of the people in this line of practice. But it is probably not the finality, it is a way one must follow to ultimately come up with something better. That day might not even come anyday soon. But little by little, what vernacular ideals do to your work is affecting the way you live. And that is what has started showing in all vernacular houses. When people desire to go back to their pasts, they forget that in a country like ours, it is very difficult to escape our pasts because we live in it. And why do we have to think that primitive and ancient are negative terms? Why do terms like ‘cost effective’ and ‘natural’ generate images of houses that are not beautiful and livable?

Vernacular methods have a clear and definite plan to let the individuals grow into the society in a way that is culturally supportive. The consequences would show as social inclusion and surely will be responsible for improving the quality of life of not just the users but everyone involved in the journey that buildings entail. After all vernacular is not just a label for a particular style of building of a set of ideas; it is a way of life.

Nimmy Joshi
Architect, Bangalore

 

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