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By Zain Mankani Architecture is a habitable art. It is therefore dependent, for its success, on factors that define human comfort – climate being amongst the foremost. In the past, architectural forms have been influenced by the climate of the region, so that as geography changes, new architectural devices appear on the scene. Architecture’s subjugation to nature not only provided for diversity and identity, but also improved human experience by keeping man in close relationship with the elements. The industrial revolution, however, allowed man to adopt an alternative approach by suggesting the possibility of a controlled environment. Air conditioning forces us to turn our backs on nature – or rather, overcome it by creating an alternative environment within the natural one. An environment that is entirely in our control. The result is, of course, that architectural forms gain a kind of rigidity – an unflinching pose that reflects the stagnant, man-made environment inside it. Nature has to be kept out by creating a curtain wall, and yet has to be called in by ensuring that the curtain is sheet glass. Modern architecture’s defining form is hence the glass box. Regional architects, overcome by the grandeur of the Modern skyscraper, and taking for real the title of “international style” bestowed upon the glass-adorned ferroconcrete frame structure have applied the glass box formula locally, resulting in mal-adjusted buildings that not only consume loads of energy, but also deprive us of the layered experience of climatically responsive architecture. Now that the image of Modern architecture has been fully assimilated in our minds, the enthusiasm that has always surrounded the issue of climatic suitability continues unabated (in fact the enthusiasm is itself a phenomenon of Modernism), but the responses generated by this interest have become peripheral. Indeed, the very rigor with which architects today advocate the philosophy of climatic propriety in design is suggestive of the fact that the issue has actually been pushed out of the circle of design proper, so that it is now a separate entity about which one can think consciously. While buildings today are designed as air-conditioned boxes, the responses to the climate begin to emerge once one exits through the main door into the un-conditioned air. Pergolas, screens, and pools of
water appear as appendices to a pre-conceived architecture that can survive even in the absence of these additive elements. No integration can take place when the controlled weather reduces the outside environment to the status of a spectator having no bearing on the functionality of the building. Since design is primarily driven by function, climate-consciousness remains an after-thought. Even courtyards become glassed-out visual treats, and worse yet are indoor courtyards inside multi-storied boxes with plastic plants and a panaflex sky! Perhaps what is overlooked by most architects is the implications of climate-consciousness on the experience of the user. Buildings that are truly sensitive to the issue of weather employ spatial devices in order to create a comfortable environment and these spatial devices enrich the journey through the building. If the experiential superiority of passive systems are understood by designers, a far smaller percentage of the built space may be given over to air-conditioning. Climatically responsive architecture depends largely upon layering of space. One does not enter a building by passing through a threshold, but instead arrives more gradually. The experience is not reduced to two opposing conditions: being outside and being inside, but there are several transitional conditions, so that the experience is more processional. One moves from a courtyard to a verandah to a colonnaded/arcaded inner space, again to a verandah and to a courtyard at the other end. Verandahs and shaded porticos are important passive devices since they serve to cool the air entering the habitable space. Often the incoming breeze is allowed to pass over a pool of water for more effective results. In enclosed buildings, pools and courtyards become visual devices with no functional role to play, nor any imperative usability. Permeability and spatial clarity, both important concepts in Modern architecture are essential components of processional space. In fact, the conceptual framework of the Modern movement, if seen without the glass box icon, is very easily applicable to the climate of Southeast Asia. The dominant concepts of the movement were frugality, clarity of form, space and structure, emphasis on functionality and a dislike of ornamentation. These ideas may just as easily be applied in conjunction with architectural devices designed for passive cooling, as they are to the simple glass-bound steel frame structure that they are
associated with. Indeed, in warm climates, the functionality of built space is closely tied to the ability of the structure to resist heat. A building that achieves this via architectural solutions should therefore be closer to the Modern ideal than one that uses air-conditioning as a crutch to achieve the same purpose. The most potent proof of this notion is provided by the work of none other than Le Corbusier – the most vocal proponent of the Modern movement. If one compares his Villa Savoye, in Poissy France, with his Villa Shodhan in Ahmedabad, India, one may be startled at the manner in which the same principles of design are employed in opposing climatic contexts. Villa Savoye is the quintessential Modern building, depicting Corbusier’s five points for a “new” (i.e., Modern) architecture in the most uncompromising way. (1) The building is raised on pilotis to accommodate the car underneath (the architect’s mascot for the Modern movement); (2) it has a free plan – the load being taken by the columns; (3) the façade is detached from the columns, making it possible to give a large area of it to fenestration; (4) the long window is almost un interrupted; (5) it has a roof garden. But whereas in France, Le Corbusier managed to arrive at the type for the house, which he sought after, it was in India that his talent shone in the way he managed to overcome his “rules” of architecture to accommodate for the harsh climate. The result is an architecture that binds together the philosophy of the post-industrial revolution age, with the demands of the south-eastern climate and establishes a paradigm for all architects in the region to take lessons from. And in fact, those who have learnt, such as Balkrishna Doshi have excelled and furthered our understanding of what may be considered the representative style of the sub-continent. Villa Shodhan is also a cube, like Savoye. But here the façade, instead of being taken up by the long window, is composed into large, deep brise soleil or sunshades, which keep the building in shadows and let cool breeze into the interior spaces. The villa also has roof terraces, but owing to the sunny weather, the terraces are not open to sky but are covered with a thick concrete roof that runs over the roofs of the rooms as well like a parasol. The parasol roof is a particularly effective passive cooling device since it is through the roof that a building gains most heat. This second roof is a thick slab that resists the sun’s radiation. When the radiation does get through, it enters the air pocket between this and the roof of the living spaces and is dissipated by the breeze.
The punctured façade is still more admirably used as the face of Southeast Asian architecture in the Textile Mill-owner’s Association (TMA) building. In the TMA, Corbusier turns the entire façade into a screen of concrete fins angled to draw in the breeze, and set with plantation. The large, angled perforations of the screen converge into one multi-story opening where the entrance ramp rises up to meet the façade, forming a grand entrance. The free-plan concept is also here more visibly indicated by the use of cylindrical volumes for the internal rooms. These are perceived from the outside as a playful composition of platonic forms contained inside a permeable cube. Permeability, and clarity of form, space and structure remain the essential parameters of the architecture of TMA. That Corbusier conceived the space to be processional is indicated by his use of the grand ramp. One does not move from outside to inside by crossing the threshold. Instead, one proceeds towards the building gradually, navigating a long ramp and slowly rising up to meet the building proper. When the threshold is in effect crossed, one enters a kind of transitional space, which affords only a slightly greater degree of enclosure. And from here the garden at the rear is visible through another screen. The enclosed rooms sit within this transition space as the culminating point of a layered space. Corbusier’s approach here is significantly different from that employed at Villa Savoye where the interior and exterior are treated as two conditions cleanly separated by a sleek façade. This separation is partly due to the fact that Savoye is a prototype depicting the art of living as conceived by the architect. It is a machine. A product of the industrial age, that needs to suggest its man-made quality by isolating itself from the environment. But it is also in part due to the fact that the cold climate of France does not lend itself to processional space. The elements are to be shut out rather than progressively subdued. Processional space, while inferred at the TMA, becomes the essence of another of Corbusier’s villas at Ahmedabad – Villa Sarabai. The Sarabai house is composed of a series of vaulted roofs set upon thick brick walls. The living space exists between the vaults, and standing at the entrance, one has an uninterrupted view through this to the thickly vegetated garden at the back. Entering from the fore-court one chances upon the interior without stepping over any threshold, and passes through to the backyard with equal ease. The roof garden, one of Corbusier’s most favored and strongly advocated rules (possibly due to his abhorrence of the claustrophobic attic in traditional European architecture) also finds unrestrained expression at Villa Sarabai. The vaults hold earth that allows for a
plantation almost as dense as that in the garden below, with the result that the upper and lower gardens are seen to merge into one entity. The earth-filled roof, as well as the thick walls keep the living spaces cool and the permeability of space allows the breeze to pass through freely, providing the much-desired cross-ventilation. Starting from the rigid, polemical stance expected of one who is setting out to bring about a revolution, Le Corbusier modifies his approach to arrive at the inclusive designs he achieves at Ahmedabad. He is able to do this because of his ability to integrate the context into the design. It is this integration that is a pre-requisite of contextually appropriate architecture – whether the contextual factor is climate or any of the other aforementioned factors. The question: What is an appropriate language for the architecture of this city? is still open today. Some architects look at the historical precedence, defined by colonial architecture, in the hope of finding the answer. But this context too is dealt with in a superficial way. Slapping stone on the face of a building does not make it classical/revivalist or contextual. Instead one must ask how the elements and proportions of colonial architecture may be integrated into contemporary design. A cue may be taken in the way that Romanesque architecture influenced the architecture of the Chicago School. Le Corbusier was particularly adept in taking elements of vernacular architecture and using them as integral components of his design. The thick brick walls and the vaulted roofs of Villa Sarabai bear testimony to his eclectic approach. There is nothing to stop us from arriving at similar answers, by taking elements from within our own context without treading outside the fold of Modern/Post-modern architecture into the realm of the archaic. For time is just as important an aspect of context as any spatial factor, and it would be just as acontextual to design something that belongs to a bygone era as it would be to use the semiotics of an alien culture. Our context is replete with elements that are willing to be modified into a new vocabulary – one that allows them to retain their use and familiarity, while giving up their obsolete technology – but only if we are willing to take lessons from these fine examples around us. END
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