Deciphering the D.N.A. of the Vernacular; Ar. Yatin Pandya

Deciphering the D.N.A. of the Vernacular; Ar. Yatin Pandya

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Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
photographs: Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.

Deciphering the D.N.A. of the Vernacular: Vernacular as Alchemy of the Place and its People

Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.

History vs. Tradition

‘History’ and ‘Tradition’, misconstrued to be synonyms are popularly understood to be of the past – of the bygone era. However, they tend to be opposites. History may be a dead tradition while tradition remains to be a living history. When something gets obsolete for the changed time and circumstance it dies its own death- and that is History: an embalmed past. As against yesterday- that survives today- is in itself a proof of those values being valued and shared even in the changed times and that is – Tradition: A living past. Tradition is the continuum of the vernacular. Vernacular means native or indigenous. Relating to, or characterising the group of people, place or the period. Thus it means, of the place and for the people. This inherently brings some fundamental attributes and characteristic dimensions of the vernacular. One characteristic attribute is that it has evolved out of the conditions of the place locally and the second attribute is that it has continued to evolve over time. Thus implying, the particularity to place as well as evolution of time. Thus vernacular or traditional is not about Grandmother’s nostalgia or the reverence for the old but it deserves to be understood and admired purely from its own performance perspective.

There are three fundamental performance virtues of the Vernacular/Traditional for which they need to be acknowledged, understood, appreciated as well as emulated.

  1. Timeless aesthetics (having transcended times and remained in vogue)
  2. Socio-cultural appropriateness (having been of the place and for the people)
  3. Environmental sustainability (having evolved in pre electricity days)

Vernacular as an epitome of Timelessness

Buildings last beyond us. It is imperative, therefore, for architecture to remain timeless and not to wear off over time in perceiver’s psyche, memory, association as well as aesthetic sensibilities. Even though functionally obsolete, if six century old step wells continue to inspire awe in totally transformed times of today, it must owe to its spatial qualities that render them ageless – timeless. This in turns owes to engaging aspects of the space that indulges perceiver in to the dialogue of decoding the clues encoded in space by the space maker. Architecture of yester years have ably demonstrated their timelessness by their engaging quality and revered presence even in transformed times. The principles responsible for engaging architecture are:

  1. Disparate visual and physical axis creating sequential unfolding and curiosity.
  2. Architecture as episodical journey with series of nodes and junctures to excite Kinaesthetic perception with ever changing visual construct through changing view points
  3. Integration of nature into architecture to evolve unique combination of time and space every moment as nature is constantly varied and evolving. Time over space does not remain same nor the space over time. Thus time space combination is unique and ever changing every moment. Nature may be in the form of Sun, wind, water, vegetation, landforms or the people and their activities.

Vernacular as socio-culturally appropriate resolution

Another dimension of the vernacular is that being a resolution of, for, by the local people and place, it comes closest to the lifestyles and cultural traditions of the place. Thus, the best fit to day to day routine and the collective codes of conduct. Thus, of values commonly shared by all, there by the least or no conflict of its existence and acceptance in collective parlance. It would have the highest degree of comprehensibility and acceptability. It strikes the immediate bond about the place and people and thereby the sense of belonging.

As local, the vernacular architecture emanates out of realities of the place and aspirations of its people, Also, having evolved over the time it has matured and perfected its responses to the forces of the context. The forces, may they be of nature, climate, construction, resource base or even the life style and socio-cultural traditions. As the place would have been subjected to these forces all the time, it would have found and resolved its solution particular to the intensity, priority, conditions and resource base. Thereby, specific to the place and appropriate to its conditions. Evolution over time also sees that it constantly adapts and adjusts to the subtlety of changed circumstances and therefore is constantly evolving and does not remain stagnant. While it also maintains the continuity by keeping the constants which have remained unchanged.

As it has evolved around the local circumstances and conditions it remains unique to the place and people. This lends product the character and identity of the place. The issue is not that how different it is from the other, the issue is how much particular it is to the local context. Each region or the context evolving the resolution specific to its conditions and demands would inherently result into diversity, variety and uniqueness. Pluralism (freedom of interpretations), Tolerance (simultaneous coexistence of apparent extremes) and Assimilation (fusion of diverse values) characterize India, its culture as well as architecture. Eclecticism is evident and inevitable, but as articulated throughout the course of traditional Indian architecture, it has been mature, pleasing and effective, since emulation and assimilation of newer thoughts were creatively regionalised to become integral to the context.

Vernacular as environmentally sustainable resolution

Vernacular- as an outcome of yesterday – i.e. pre electricity day, it becomes the most worthy reference for ingenious environmental comfort through resource optimization and climate responsive built form. Pre dating the era of industrialization it had the least or no dependence on neither the mechanised services nor the electrical gadgets for the environmental comfort. As a result onus was on the built form to create maximum climate comfort with minimum effort and without mechanised services. Indian vernacular therefore evolved some strategic responses of the built form to combat harsh vagaries of weather within frugal resource base. Thick wall mass for insulation (for both warm as well as colder climates); multi tiered roof for hot air escape and cross ventilation; jaali- perforated screens- for light, view and ventilation without the ingress of heat, haze and glare; skylights for diffusion of haze and glare; tripartite windows with upper ventilator (warm air escape), middle shutters (view) and lower shutters (breeze ingress) for diurnal, seasonal as well as activity based adaptations through its permutations and combinations; courtyard for light as well as ventilation; overhangs and protruding envelope profiles for mutual shading; and multiple use of open and semi covered spaces were some of the many nuances evolved by the vernacular/traditional built forms in India.

In India we are lucky to have history as lived in tradition and the diversity of its geographic conditions and socio-cultural milieu to offer tremendous amount of variety and vitality. Architecture truly as the alchemy of time and place. We could learn from this repository of knowledge and the traditional wisdom to find our directions for tomorrow. Architecture that inspires from yesterday and aspires for tomorrow…

Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert

Bhungas of Kutchchh are a fine example of human spirit and symbiosis between man and nature. Situated amidst harsh natural conditions the dwelling form has evolved into environmentally sustainable, technologically earthquake resistant, culturally appropriate and aesthetically pleasing. Scarcity of water, unending expanse of sand and desert, extreme temperatures between seasons and very high diurnal variation, lack of vegetation and paucity of building material characterise the region. Yet, the house form remains most evolved and appropriate to culture climate and construction. It uses the most local material – adobe – as sun dried bricks or the wattle and Daub construction for building the wall. The roof is made up of the local grass- Khip. Choice of material is ingeniously combined with effective techniques of construction as well as the engineering of form. For example cylindrical wall form with tapering section renders it stable and resistant to lateral stresses such as wind and earthquake. Wide base, stiffening of walls at plinth with curbing, small apertures for door and windows, low slenderness ratio and stiffening of jambs with wood frames as well as conical roof with spiral braiding of rope render the structure, even though built of kutcha material, strong, durable and even earthquake resistant. While, many new constructions recently build with arguably stronger materials perishes against the wrath of nature in earthquake of 2001, traditional Bhungas stood unscathed.

  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert <br> photographs: Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    photographs: Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert  <br> photographs: Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    photographs: Ar. Yatin Pandya, Footprints E.A.R.T.H.
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
  • Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert
    Bhunga: Celebrating life amidst adversities of desert

Conical roof of local grass also remains insulative, yet ventilating roof. Breathing roof. As the vegetation is local, from water starved area, it naturally has fewer leaves in the stem and therefore comes out as smooth and free of knots rendering it long lasting against decay and rotting. Thick walls of mud are as it is least heat conductive keeping interiors cool. The effect is further pronounced by thickening of the peripheral mass from within by way of built in storage. Small openings, their lower placement closer to floor as well as jaali like form help the cause and aid the velocity of air and its micro cooling.

Local white clay and mirror inlay help reflect the light to maximum for brighter indoors even with smaller window sizes. These mud mirror works lend identity and personalisation to each unit. Overlaid with symbolic overtones of the pattern and motif they manifest the cultural ethos of their inhabitants and social traditions. Externally as well these units are rendered with natural earth shades. Embellishment is an outcome but in essence it is assertion of the place and people. Architecture is exalted with human spirits and it celebrates life rather than getting timid by the adversities of context.

Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’

Ahmedabad has remained a city of paradoxes where traditional and modern have remained mutually complimentary. Pols of Ahmedabad are lived in heritage and visually, socio- culturally as well as environmentally most sustainable neighbourhoods. Pol houses- the traditional quarters, lived in comfortably even today, remain the classic model in passive cooling strategies. Deep narrow courtyard houses attached in a row along longer edges and activities split on three floors not only provide reduced exposure to external condition but also make effective use of the land resources. It achieves up to 2.7 FSI within only three floors which is one and half times more than legally available density even in a high-rise building in Ahmedabad today. With compact built form more units get connected within short travel distances and service lengths.

  • Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’
    Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’
  • Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’
    Humane and sustainable living environments within labyrinths of Ahmedabad ‘pols’

The internal courtyard modulates Sun while combating glare and filtering light. It also provides for ventilation to all internal spaces of the house. Courtyard is also the continuous volume connecting different floors of the house in visual and sound terms. Courtyard has underground water cistern to harvest rainwater from the rooftops. This provides adequately for entire year’s drinking and cooking water needs of the family. Traditionally having been built in lime these cisterns become stronger foundations as they oxidise with water. Lime plastered tank also provide anti bacterial layer and help keep water clean for longer.

Even windows resolved as three part combination provide for Light, view and ventilation. Top hung part over lintel remains ventilator for evacuating hot air, middle operable shutter provides for view and communication link, while the floor level openings remain inlet for cool air. Jaali type of windows in lower floors modulates light by cutting down the glare. Small aperture help increase the velocity of incoming cool air and having compressed through small aperture and then released makes it further cooler. Small holes also render window secured for privacy as it allows full view from inside of the outside but not from outside about inside.

The upper floors project outwardly to provide for overhangs and shelter wall surfaces from solar radiation. Even closely packed units create mutual shading conditions. Activities split over floors give sheltered environment in lower floors for daytime use while escape night radiation in upper sleeping areas at night. Even furniture like swing not only remains multiple use elements but provides evaporative cooling of body perspiration.

The sum total of these has been that the typology remains in use since over five centuries and needs no air conditioner for environmental management even today. These neighbourhoods are also intense with social interaction and vitality. Morning to evening streets unfold range of activities from daily chores to neighbourly gossips to playground to spontaneous bazaar. During festivals they become celebration grounds further intensifying strong social bonds.

All of these in addition to intricately carved wooden elements and facades render them truly awe inspiring and timeless. Each house is a unique combination of handcrafted yet mass produced building components, such as column, brackets, gokh, windows, doors, railing and wall panelling. This renders each house unique in terms of its identity and yet congruent in terms of collective street. A lesson in pluralistic living environment. A flexible typology which for past six centuries have been suitable living quarter equally for the rich and the poor, Mill owners as well the workers, young and the old, Hindus or the Moslems. A wholesome living experience where being there matters.

Step well an epitome of sustainability with timelessness

Hot arid zones, with near desert climate, are characterised by harshness of extreme environmental conditions and frugal resource base. With no perennial rivers and ponds evaporatively losing precious survival source – the water – a smart and sustainable resolution evolved has been the step wells. A small hole dug in the ground up to first aquifer, running around sixty feet below ground, provides for precious survival resource to habitation without undue evaporative losses. Steps reaching up to water offer access to water. A functional- utility device to fetch water, however, through its architecture exalted to become social node and shrine. Constructionally it is a five to six storied structure with retaining walls in stone, braced with column and beam frames to strut them from caving in. However, spatially the step well remains one of the most profound architectural experiences. The clues for movement, inherent to the space are revealed sequentially. This gradual unfolding of spaces creates a sense of curiosity within the onlooker and involves them in the process. A dialogue is established between the subject and the onlooker through mutual process of encoding and decoding of messages and thus making the entire process interactive as well as the discovery very personal and intuitive.

  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
  • Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness
    Step well – an epitome of sustainability with timelessness

Each step reveals only the next while the subsequent flights of steps and water remain concealed by platforms from the cone of vision. With such changing visual frames the descent of five floors reinforces the perception of enclosure along with the decreasing intensity of light. The space progressively feels vertical, cosier and confined. The timelessness is attributed to its freshness offered by the variations of visual frames as well as the integration of light/nature where the sun is the constant variable as it changes position and intensity from morning to evening and from summer to winter.

As a subterranean architecture it provides natural insulation through earth mass, in an otherwise hot dry – desert like climate. These cool platforms become resting spaces for the travellers. For women fetching water they become interactive platforms for socializing. This offered a chance to chat and relieve stresses and thereby transforming a mundane routine in to an enjoyable event.

With various other associations such as ablution to water world and journey to the womb of mother earth, these wells also assume the status of a shrine. These associations are conjured by the water related motifs recurring in the carved relief. Nourishing physically as well as spiritually it communicates beyond its functional and structural dictates. The sum total of the experience is sensorial as well as spiritual.

Can we learn our lessons from such experientially driven architecture for instilling timelessness in contemporary architecture when unfortunately more often than not new constructions fail to earn even a second glance…