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Climatic Context in Modern Architecture

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 South-
east 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 South-
east 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