top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

The Lost Glory of Chennai Architecture

Chennai was the city of Indo Saracenic architecture. Here, the architects got the patronage. Great architects such as Robert Chisholm and Henry Irwin worked in Chennai. Hence, Senate House, Presidency college, Central Station, Mount Road, Buildings along the beach, Old buildings in Parrys and many others were born. However, we have lost many of those historic buildings during the last two to three decades. Chennai is slowly becoming a concrete jungle. Chennai architecture is losing its character or has lost much of its heritage. Which building from the last 10 years can the city be proud of? No building comes to your mind. We cannot be proud of the new IT buildings as they have come up in other cities as well. The architecture in Chennai is fading, and this article examines the reasons behind the decline of heritage buildings in Chennai, as well as recommendations for the future of the architecture in Chennai.

List of Contents

1. Is Chennai’s identity being lost?

Demolition of historical places and buildings is a loss to the people of Chennai. Two places I had visited here – the Moore market and the Spencer Plaza are now very different from their original architectural style. We now realise that the old Spencer building was a huge loss to the city, especially because the shopping mall that replaced it hasn't lasted more than 20 years. Spencer Plaza has lost a number of tenants, and it is possible that this building could become obsolete in the not-too-distant future. The deterioration of the old Moore market was also a big loss in addition to the innumerable number of old buildings which have been lost. The buildings which have replaced them have not added to the design character of Chennai city. At least the DGP building and the Queen Mary’s College were saved thanks to the effort of INTACH, Mr Muthiah and others. Another building on the verge of collapse is the Bharat Insurance Building. We do not know when this building is going to be demolished.

Therefore, it is seen that the bulk of the buildings which change the face of a city are the apartments, office blocks and shopping precincts. However, architectural magazines may not largely cover these projects and they seem to be missing from the architectural awards. Many architects are forced to design to increase the profit margins of the developer rather than for the actual users. This results in low design quality. The elevations of the office blocks have changed over the years, but I do not think that the design quality has changed in a positive direction, as far as the users are concerned. Large-scale projects used polished granite cladding for facades 20 years ago, which was followed by aluminium frame glazing, complete glazing, and aluminium composite panels.

We went after styling rather than functionality. Many of the posters billboards and cinema boards make the city look unattractive. We are never going to learn from the mistakes the western world has committed in the 1960s, by building skyscrapers in the heart of the cities. They have realised their folly and are now conserving the historic buildings in their respective areas.

2. Case in point- Agraharams

Unfortunately, we think that creating these match box-like structures is development. One specific area in Chennai that has undergone substantial changes in its design character is Mylapore. The social fabric of Mylapore has changed rapidly. I think the traffic has become excessive in these narrow streets. Parking has also become a problem there. The famous agraharams of Mylapore seem to be less in number and there are other big bungalows in their place.

Agraharams are row houses with narrow frontage. They have an interior courtyard that provided adequate ventilation for the house. It catered to the requirements of the Brahmin families. These agraharam houses had a relationship to the street, as residents would sit on the front verandah and observe the street scenes.

Now, what is the status of these old buildings in Mylapore? Though several agraharam houses are still surviving, some of them have been replaced with new concrete structures. The number of floors in buildings has increased but I still see some people sitting in verandahs and talking to each other. Is there any renewed interest in this kind of traditional architecture? I think that creating awareness will take some time, but it has to be created.We have lost so many of these heritage buildings. Individually they might not be architectural gems, but definitely, they are part of our heritage.

3. Way Forward for Chennai Architecture

The architecture of Chennai has inspired many of my designs. I have used many elements from heritage buildings for the design of the new buildings. High court buildings, Senate House, Presidency College, Chepauk Palace, the old bungalows, the old railway quarters buildings in Sterling road and even the ordinary small houses have influenced my design concepts and architecture style.

But, once we lose our heritage, it is impossible to replace them. The deterioration of Chennai's heritage is not caused by a lack of funds. More damage is caused when we have more resources. Significant changes happen when more money is available. It is at that time that we get many fancy ideas. It is better for Chennai that we add to the total heritage value rather than subtract from it. This way, people will also realize that they are losing some part of their heritage when the unpleasant concrete structures replace them.

The public, use words such as concrete block, box-like structures etc. They know that the traditional buildings were much more suitable for the climate and perhaps more sustainable. The people who build and design such structures may accuse the public of a lack of aesthetic sense or awareness for not appreciating the inhumane buildings which come up in the city. But I think it is time the architects, builders and developers responsible for the construction take greater responsibility to improve the design quality of Chennai.

We still have many historic buildings left. It is not only the buildings that are important, the settings are also crucial. There are cases of some modern buildings coming very close to historic structures. One of the great follies is to build the secretariat building in Fort St. George. It is not a building that Chennai can be proud of. I hope that the new Legislative Assembly building will be one that Chennaites will be proud of. The Secretariat in Mount Road could have become one, but due to various reasons, this has become a speciality hospital now.

In fact, it is quite sad that our built heritage is being destroyed for erecting new buildings which could have gone elsewhere. I am not against new buildings. But they should not be created at the cost of the architecture in Chennai and our heritage. Architecture is public art. It is difficult to avoid it. It is quite different when you add new concrete buildings in OMR. They are not destroying any historic buildings or adding to the congestion in the city.

3.1 Conserving Agraharam Houses- Prema Mylapore

Prema Mylapore is a two-story agraharam home that was restored and extended without affecting the building's original design quality. The courtyard beyond the dining in the ground floor was retained and sleek metal grill gates establish privacy and at the same time do not disturb the connection of the house with streets. The brilliantly coloured athangudi tile flooring stands out against the otherwise plain interiors. The modest facade and minimally carved timber pillars complement and preserve the traditional design character of this contemporary home.

3.2 Chennai a Culture Centre- Music Sabhas

Chennai could be the cultural capital of India. The art scene in the world has undergone drastic changes. I have seen many people coming to Chennai during December and January to attend the dance and music festival. But still, Chennai does not have a culture centre catering to the demand of such art lovers. Dakshinachitra is the only culture centre, and it is relatively far away from Chennai. We do not have a good exhibition space, theatre performance space, rehearsal place, etc. We still have the old music theatre and music academy. To promote art, we need to have a cultural complex with state of the art facilities that will cater for both local and international shows.


4. Conclusion

It is quite sad that these historic buildings in Chennai are disappearing. What replaces the historic buildings scares me even more. One of the questions I ask the young architects in a job interview is which buildings in Chennai from the last 25 years would they show their friends from other places. They struggle to mention one building and even the general public will not be able to answer this question. It is high time we make changes to the architecture in Chennai and have an iconic building in the city.

Change is inevitable, and the people living in Chennai also need to have their modern requirements. It is futile to take a romantic approach to the problem; instead, we must consider everything in its entirety. The Chennai of my dreams is quite different. Finally, the British architect Graeme Shankland was right- “A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent, and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory”.