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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

The Need for Contemporary Vernacular Architecture

The world is home to different styles of climate-responsive vernacular architecture. In the earlier times, men built only for their ‘needs’. Their needs were simple and reasonable- food, water and shelter. Their ‘wants’, took a backseat with respect to shelter. Thus, based on their requirements, they made optimum use of spaces and did not encroach on the environment. They were respectful of Mother Nature and abided by her laws. They observed her temperaments and adapted accordingly. As a result, different types of vernacular architecture developed that was unique to every region wherever civilization thrived.


Likewise, the traditional architecture of Kerala developed as a response to the climate and the socio-economic conditions of the region. The sloping roofs and the internal courtyards or the ‘nadumuttams’ are some of the responsive design elements that were developed, to cope with the weather. This architecture typology works even today. The vernacular architecture of Kerala adapts to the changes of the state and is modified as and when required. Even the Dutch and Portuguese adjusted to the ways of the land when they invaded it. They blended both architecture styles to suit their needs in the humid tropical wet climate of Kerala. This approach to architecture is what the world needs right now. To understand that, this article investigates the reasons for the downfall of craftsmen in architecture and the need for responsive design that can be brought about by modern vernacular architecture in today’s world.


Front porch
The Porch at Nambiar House

The decline of Craftsmen in Architecture


We admire the intricate details in historic buildings and commend the craftsmen. A craftsman makes functional and aesthetical decisions, whereas a mason primarily deals only with the technical aspects. A craftsman has a well-trained eye and needs good opportunities to showcase his works. The quantity and quality of the craftsmen have greatly decreased over the years. The construction process was very different in the earlier times. The head craftsman was versed in all techniques and processes involved in construction.


There were very few middlemen between the client and the craftsman. The owners arranged the materials needed for construction and the head craftsman oversaw each stage of the process. Contractors and subcontractors were absent from the entire process. But now, modern architects and designers have little control over the construction. There seems to be a lack of practical experience, and this has them relying on several contractors to get things done.


Craftsman Involved in the Process of Making Athangudi Tiles
Craftsman Involved in the Process of Making Athangudi Tiles

The textbooks also concentrate on the latest building materials and technology. Hence, the architects and engineers of today have limited knowledge of the traditional practices with lime, timber, and mud. The knowledge of the craftsmen is drifting into oblivion as well. The craftsmen and the other labourers deserve recognition for their work.


The Need for Contemporary Vernacular Architecture


As mentioned above, the traditional architecture of Kerala is being replaced with contemporary architecture styles. For instance, brick arches that were used to span openings in the olden days have now been replaced by concrete lintels. Brick arches are more feasible to span wide openings and it is also economic since labour is easily available in India. Consequently, the increased demand for housing and the improved financial status of the people have encouraged them to start looking beyond their needs for shelter. They now want greater comforts, along with aesthetics. This can be achieved through refining vernacular architecture based on these present conditions.


Modern Vernacular House
Huilekere House

Click to know more about Huilekere House


On top of that, many special indigenous techniques of construction can still be used to get the desired result. One example to explain the situation is as follows. In the early times, villagers used to mix pig’s urine with mud mortar. Scientific studies show that pigs’ urine is high in urea, a strong binding agent. The villagers ardently build the traditional way and did not follow aesthetical trends. The fact that they do construction for themselves and not to impress others is why all the structures are functional and site responsive.


But these days, only a handful of designers practice mud architecture, and many of them also aren’t aware of the tricks of the trade. This traditional value system can be revived and the required technical modifications to bring it to up-to-date should be done. A new narrative that incorporates vernacular and modern architecture should be brought into practice. The designs need to be site responsive and need to satisfy the needs of the people. The architects and designers are responsible to bring back sense into modern designs, rather than following western aesthetics. They can play a role in educating their clients and helping them make informed design decisions.


In the end


Architecture has evolved over the years and it will continue to evolve. Designs that are true to the land will remain and modification of the existing architectural elements can accommodate our changing needs. This way, the unique character pertaining to a place can be preserved, without compromising on the needs of the users. The practice of developing a typology that is considerate of both vernacular and contemporary architecture is essential. Instead of impulsively following trends, people should become aware of the functionality and the true purpose of a building.


It is true that the vernacular or traditional architecture of a land serves this definite purpose. Traditional arts and crafts thrived on architecture and some people still keep them alive. The dying craftsmanship along with traditions should be kept alive for future generations to see and learn. The homeowners have also started to notice the difference in the designs between traditional and modern architecture. They have begun to acknowledge that the functionality should not be compromised for aesthetics, and that site responsive buildings are the future. Recognizing the functional features in different styles and being able to incorporate the necessary aesthetic elements in the designs is where the architecture community needs to be headed.

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