Peoples Architecture Commonweal, Chennai

Towards an informed architecture and building practice.

The present day ‘modern’ distress inflicted by ‘innovation’ offers only a fleeting escape amidst architecture that cannot be distilled and built environments that cannot be differentiated. This yearning for a mature, viable society may be met by reclaiming lost responsibilities of unveiling the grammar of traditional practices. Exploring the scope for a radical reorientation of the profession, I recently spoke with Architect Sudhir Kumar to get an insight into the studio’s core concerns which find expression through architecture, research and civic engagement projects.

Based out of Chennai since 1991, Peoples Architecture Commonweal is a coalition of a small group of architects, led by Sudhir Kumar. The studio is invested in the exploration of cultural practices through insights offered by an evolutionary approach towards architecture. Guided by the study of instinctual older approaches to planning, design, and building that are free from the restraint of technological trends, architecture is seen as a means to build more equitable communities by supporting craft and other livelihoods embedded in their local contexts.

With this ambition, Commonweal does not engage contractors, employing only locally-skilled labourers and training local craftsmen in an attempt to rehabilitate relevant techniques of construction that are endangered owing to devaluation by an overpowering dominance of the building industry in the global economy. Sudhir makes a keen observation on the method of practice,

“This labour intensive focus of the group has a natural corollary in that it actively seeks to minimize capital and energy intensive inputs.”

A significant part of the firm’s architectural work includes housing projects and private residences. The approach stems from the understanding that the built form of any region has its own unique narrative – a reflection of everyday struggles and joys, caringly moulded by societies over time. This perception of architecture as an embodiment of a relevant and responsive communal aesthetics in a dynamic context is essential to resist the obsessive corporeality that plagues architecture today.

August Houses‘ Documentation: An attempt to decode abstractions in everyday architecture.

In recent times, practices of sustainability have infamously produced architecture confined to consequences of a scientific rationalism – failing to make necessary socio-cultural associations. The idea of a tropical vernacular architecture was for a long time perceived as a democratic expression of a ‘modern state of mind’ that contributed to sustainable practices of indigenous societies. Today’s want for an erstwhile ethnic fix in urban environs overlooks the aftermath of a large footprint – consuming disproportionate amounts of labour and resources.

The vernacular idiom has increasingly become an international profile of a regional characteristic as opposed to being a framework for an architecture that is at home in its make and setting.

Dwelling on the social responsibilities of the professional, Sudhir stresses that “The role of an architect or any intellectual in the creation of equitable societies is crucial in a nascent democracy where the potential for the participation of individuals belonging to autonomous groups will determine the collective future. And because the very act of creating is inherent to nature of man, the pursuit of architecture in the shaping of communities is far more rewarding than the building of a national identity.”

EWS Housing at Kuthambakkam: 50 typical twin units laid out in a typical grid-iron pattern

A project that illustrates this systemic approach is the settlement housing at Kuthambakkam, a village in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu. As part of a State Government EWS housing programme – Samathuvapuram, a settlement premised on equality, the brief was to design a minimal housing for a hundred families on 14-acre lateritic commons devoid of a single tree.

After much deliberation with multiple agencies of the State Government involved, the initial proposal to implement a guided self-building project with varying levels of input from beneficiaries to further inclusion was rejected in favour of a build and transfer model that was to be executed by Commonweal. The design pitched for a row housing layout in order to reduce building costs and promote desegregation of traditionally antagonistic castes within the community.

The scheme comprises of twin units which are relieved in parts by community spaces with supporting infrastructure and generous tree planting to rehabilitate a degraded environment.

The new layout includes a partly enclosed corner in the verandah, which could double up as a kitchen – supplementing the preferred outdoor cooking arrangement. Additionally, each of these units has a loft and an open-to-sky toilet at the rear of the plot in deference to the conventional location near the entrance. Addressing the lack of privacy that is so prevalent in single-room dwellings, the windows have high sill openings and opaque shutters instead of ubiquitous concrete jalis used in traditional low-cost housing designs.

EWS Housing at Kuthambakkam: High sill openings for privacy.

As a scheme that consciously sought to minimise the use of concrete, it occupies a unit plinth area of 322 sqft [including toilet] which is 50% more than the 215 sqft – a standard adopted hitherto by similar housing proposals across Tamil Nadu.

Apart from a marriage hall with work sheds and a library, the community spaces include a beautifully laid out balwadi, which also houses a ration shop – all of which are built with stabilized mud blocks from local red earth. A familiar palette of materials and building techniques was chosen based on performance and durability in a hot tropical climate.

The twin unit walls are made of burnt bricks in mud mortar. The foundation and plinth of all structures are built using random rubble masonry, a simple and effective technique well suited to the lateritic soil conditions, the scale of structures and skilled labour available. For doors, windows and roof timber, native species that are naturally termite resistant such as neem and palmyra have been used.

In compliance with a broader cost-effective strategy, the infrastructural planning of this scheme exploited the natural topography to tackle drainage, choosing gravel roads over asphalt. The characteristic terrain of the site was largely undisturbed by leveling only those depressions that would have otherwise caused water to stagnate.

Reflecting on the design intent, Sudhir adds, “The architectural ambience developed is one of openness, incorporating traditional design elements in full recognition of the importance of cultural affinity, symbol, and language.”

The potential to generate maximum employment is what distinguishes the Samathuvapuram in Kuthambakkam from other housing projects in the state.

The project successfully employed an average of 115 local workers (skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled) per day during the 10 month period of construction, generating nearly 28 Lakh Rupees in wages that went back to the community from a total project cost of approximately 99 Lakh Rupees.

Henoc Marceau Residence, Manappakkam, Chennai

Seemingly Commonweal’s private projects have retained a consistent language and appeal. Inevitably, a change in context would reflect a change in the space produced. The idea of context is evidently not limited to a dominant present and the aesthetics and modesty in the production of space have remained intact through the years. Two projects briefly illustrate this quality in the studio’s fundamental approach since inception.

Marie Campage & Henoc Marceau Residences:

Location: Manappakkam, Chennai
Year: 1997-98

Two compact two-storied houses with verandas and covered terraces (initially thatched and subsequently) roofed in pan tiles on brick panels and rat-trap bond masonry in gauged mortar with re-claimed joinery.

Suresh Oliver Residence:

Location: Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram District
Year: 2007-09

The residence is built on the beach with a high plinth and double outer walls rising up to 11 feet per floor with gauged mortar used throughout. Most of the plinth area is covered by pan tile roofs on a native hard wood (Matthi) under-structure and finished with natural stone floors, kiln-seasoned Karuvelam (Babul tree family) joinery and reclaimed wooden pillars.

The resulting architecture is not from regression to a state of an undifferentiated union but is a culmination of a conscious progressive union.

Contributing to active campaigns, the Commonweal’s research and civic engagement is invested in identifying and responding to challenges posed by distorted socio-political relationships such as the implications of unrestrained and speculative urbanization involving exploitation of nature and culture. Choosing a radical way forward, Sudhir emphasises that, “ This kind of praxis necessitates a deep appreciation of context guided by a long-term world-view and a conscious approach in the present in order to cope with the long and arduous journey that it entails.”

In the past few years, Commonweal has been actively participating in fact-finding missions which are entirely hands-on. As part of a mission initiated by the PUCL [Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties], the efforts of the Commonweal team have been instrumental in exposing the illegal sand mining in the Palar Basin of Tamil Nadu in 2013. The final report led to a successful ban on sand mining in Kanchipuram District for a year to start with which extended to four years thereafter. Post-tsunami, the team guided a housing rehabilitation project in the fishing villages of Srinivasapuram and Mullima Nagar, funded by Action Aid [India] and initiated by the Unorganized Workers’ Federation. Built by construction teams that were mobilized by the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, around 188 houses were completed in a short span of eight months from 2007-08.

Currently, the studio is assisting in the drafting of an appeal to the Supreme Court in defence of slums on the banks of the Adyar river in Chennai. According to the State, these settlements are illegal encroachments on public land, whose continued existence poses a grave threat to the city by contributing to flooding of its waterways. In view of numerous instances of mismanagement in urban development that are actually responsible for urban flooding, the Commonweal is attempting to steer focus to the understanding of the hydrology of an urban water body. In the purview of a speedy pace of urbanization and the tasks at hand, Sudhir contemplates on, “The need for an ecologically and culturally sensitive land management system that is immune to legal quibbling over definitions of encroachments and squatter settlements.” ♦

Text: Hrushita Davey with inputs from Sudhir Kumar
Photographs and Video courtesy of Peoples Architecture Commonweal

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