10 Examples of Vernacular Architecture in South India
Updated: Apr 25
Today’s world is rapidly moving towards energy efficiency, sustainability, combating climate change and embracing the green culture of architecture and buildings. But the trend of being natural and indigenous has been prevalent for a long time, especially in the Indian subcontinent – in the profession it is called vernacular architecture.
The craft of vernacular architecture can be defined as regional construction, using traditional materials and resources local to the area where the building is being made. It originated when, over time, people used natural resources as a shelter, in response to climate.
This architecture is closely related to its context and is made in a state of high awareness of the specific geographic features and cultural aspects of its surroundings. It is built to meet specific needs, accommodate the values, economy, and lifestyles of a specific culture.
It has two major attributes associated with it: tradition and contextualization. Every vernacular architectural example is traditional in the sense that it originates from specific ethnic groups and is a result of a long process over time, always based on familiar forms established by previous generations.
Vernacular architecture has been addressed and revisited in many contemporary architectural practices, playing an important role in today's society, as these buildings provide great bioclimatic characteristics and prove to be real examples of architectural sustainability. India is a country known for observing sustainable living practices as a subconscious way of life.
Therefore it only makes sense that the buildings that they occupy are a reflection of this ideology. South India in particular has a huge range of buildings that encompass and exhibit this philosophy. Let’s take a look at some exemplary examples of vernacular architecture in South India:
1. My First School / Biome Environmental Solutions / Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu
“My First School” is a 31,500 sq.m. campus and was envisioned with a passion to improve the quality of education in the clients’ hometown of Tiruvannamalai. The school was built on a site in the outskirts of the city, surrounded by rice fields and a coconut grove, to reflect its pedagogical philosophy.
The semi-arid climate of Tiruvannamalai meant that shaded semi-open spaces were a crucial part of the design. These shaded spaces are integrated in the building through broad passages. The school was designed to accommodate the local materials into the vernacularity of the school.
Among the materials used were cement, oxide finishes, cement and bricks which were made from local mud, and employed local labour in their making. Most of the classrooms access a semi open space which - either a verandah or a screened balcony. Openings and fenestrations of the building are designed with angled vertical louvers to minimize glare but allow breeze through, equipped with shading devices where necessary.
The vernacular architecture of the school building is brought across strongly through many of these elements and works efficiently to control the climatological effects within the building.
2. Dakshin Chitra / Laurie Baker & Benny Kuriakose / Chennai, Tamil Nadu
In the year 1996, Dakshinachitra opened its doors to the public at Muttukadu in Tamil Nadu. Designed as a heritage village that displays the vernacular way of South Indian lifestyle. It is the project of a nonprofit organization called Madras Craft Foundation.
It was conceived as an outdoor museum to revive the life and environment dwelled by the people of the South. Late Ar. Laurie Baker offered his services encompassing his techniques to the spatial conceptualization of the village. The concept was an evolution of understanding the traditional elements integrated in a contemporary context while sensitively approaching factors like climate, location, and availability of materials.
Architectural spaces such as courtyards, verandas along with elements like jali and pitched roofs speak a language of time invoking a rustic character in the buildings. Courtyards allow light and fresh air into the built form. These have a functional value as they become spillover spaces for various activities during large events and festive occasions.
The intricate system of rafters and beams held by the classic craft of joinery resonate an authentic traditional charm. While exposed brick and stone exude the overall effect, the structural members such as granite columns and stone slabs from old buildings integrate harmoniously.
3. Nandalal Sewa Samithi Library / Anupama Kundoo Architects / Puducherry
Set in a residential area of urban Pondicherry, a new public library building of 268 sq.m. was built for the city in 2018, facilitated through the social organization Nandalal Sewa Samithi. Affordability was one of the most important keywords that defined this project.
Therefore, the library is a construction built in locally made exposed bricks which help the building stand out as a vernacular institutional building among its concrete and plastered, painted neighbours. The roof profile represents the ‘open book’, symbolizing constant progress through knowledge.
The orthogonal walls on the upper floor lean outwards towards the top of the building. This controls the amount of sun radiation that is absorbed by the building. The inclusiveness of this facility is demonstrated by the inclusion of Braille books for the visually impaired. This particular feature is reflected architecturally in the way a Braille typeface is integrated into the building elements to create porous patterns in the brickwork, screens and ceiling. Most of the elements of the building, like the screening elements, roof slab, seating area benches and ledges are conceived in ferrocement technology, which is a convergence of modern technology serving vernacular functionality.
4. Little Green Café / Made in Earth / Bangalore, Karnataka
The Little Green Cafe is located on museum road, in the heart of Bangalore City. The cafe was conceived to be an “urban oasis”, where the most honest expression of natural materials and green, sustainable living could come together.
Natural materials like lime and clay plasters in a tadelakt finish, together with chemical free paints render each textured surface. Large expanses of the metal windows lined with planters customized for the cafe bring in natural light. The wood used for shelves, furniture and ceiling is up-cycled teak wood. The flooring towards the counter is polished local black kadappa stone, with the intricate brass inlay put together by craftsmen of the city.
Special attention has been taken to keep the energy consumption of the cafe to a minimum. Additionally, there is a passive air cooling system as an alternative to air conditioning. Each material in its natural form, with as minimum a transformation as possible, comes together to give a comfortable, healthy, and uniquely handcrafted surrounding. Upcycling and recycling of materials, while enabling local labour, resources and craftsmanship is what vernacular architecture is at its core, and this cafe reflects the philosophy of the modern vernacular model in its finest form.
5. An Architect’s Office/ Mozaic / Alto Porvorim, Goa
The ‘Mozaic’ office is a simple building, sitting at the edge of a forest in Goa. To pay tribute to the context, the building looks out into the surrounding greenery and gains natural light from it, blurring the boundaries of inside and outside. The lower level of the building consists of two studios attached to gardens and has an overhanging double height amphitheater space. The forward walls of the studios can be mechanically lowered to form see-through floors.
The roof of the building is a single south facing plane intended to mount solar panels on. A lower layer of the roof provides an air gap for hot air to run through and escape. On the RMP roof sheeting are also mounted fine water sprinklers which spray the roof intermittently to cool it during the summer months. It is thus able to do without any air-conditioning. The office design is a humble attempt to respond to a desperate need for a green and vernacular approach in all architecture, developing a need “to preserve the earth’s resources and natural wonders in it.”
6. Banasura Hill Resort / Eugene Pandala / Wayanad, Kerala
Banasura Hill Resort is a sprawling 35-acre eco-friendly nature resort in Wayanad District of North Kerala, India, nestled amidst the mountains of the Western Ghats. Built using mud excavated from the very site that it stands on, the resort is a fine example of rammed earth architecture, and a glowing tribute to vernacular construction methods.
"Earth" architecture was chosen as it caused the least amount of ecological damage while blending with the micro environment around the site. The various structures within the resort complex are also constructed using mud excavated from the site. The main building is two-storeyed and made entirely out of mud, with a roof of bamboo and coconut palm fronds. Tribals from the nearby Kurichiya village played a significant role during construction, contributing their expertise in building with mud.
Within the resort is a restaurant, coffee shop, conference hall, ayurveda spa, library, play area and gym. Mud plastering over cement has also been employed in a couple of these facilities. The resort makes optimal use of environmental resources. The design itself contributes actively to energy conservation. The thick earthen walls provide thermal insulation, keeping the interiors cool during the day and warm during the night, eliminating the need for artificial air-conditioning.
7. Chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour / architecture R/T / Mashem, Goa
This chapel built among the landscapes of Mashem, Goa spreads across 570 sq.m. of built area. The building is rife with natural stone textures, and blends well with the surrounding vegetation and hilly slopes. There is ample natural lighting that both highlights the chapel, and lights the interior spaces and surfaces.
It creates a phenomenological experience within the structure and the prayer hall. The chapel has been built in a very environment friendly manner. The entire hill slope has been conserved and the rocky hill slope was integrated into the building by using it as a key feature of its interior space. Additionally, the texture of this natural structure has been left undisturbed both inside as well as outside the building. The use of stone as a primary element for structural support and the adoption of vernacular load bearing systems of construction are exemplary of longevity and sustainability. Basalt stone has been used for all load bearing masonry, along with laterite, which is indigenous to the site. Basalt is also used in the masonry of the entrance flight steps.
The entire building which scales a height to more than 9m at some places was built using this stone in a load bearing system of construction. Besides its aesthetic appeal, basalt stone has seven times the strength of concrete.
8. Kottayam Company / STAPATI / Kottayam, Kerala
The Kottayam Company Project has revitalised a former 150-year old residence into a restaurant. The project converts the site’s ancestral house through adaptive reuse into a restaurant that resonates with the local population of the neighborhood. This process involved rethinking the spaces to accommodate the building’s new functions.
The intent was also to preserve the essence of the building while bringing in a distinct identity. A choice of materials such as MS sheets, glass and cement were made to create distinct minimal highlights that sit delicately with the existing structure. Simple wireframe furniture was selected to maintain a sense of lightness.
The smooth polished cement floor extends through the spaces binding all the elements together. It is also used as a finish on the new walls. Bringing in ample natural light was also pivotal to the design. Minimal number of changes were made to the structure by removing a small segment of the original roof and parts of the walls. All the existing walls that were retained were kept intact in their natural finish. These original textured brick walls were left exposed to contrast with the new finished cement flooring and walls. This adds character to the space, highlighting the past and the present of the matured building.
9. Shreyas Retreat / The Purple Ink Studio / Bangalore, Karnataka
Designed as a ‘Retreat within Retreat’, the 20,000 sq. ft. Shreyas Retreat spa block is an architectural ‘insert’ at a well-known yoga retreat in Bangalore. The vision is planned as a sustainable model, focusing strongly on the connection of man in the realm of nature. The architects have used local and sustainable materials like kota stone, brick, clay jaalis and wood to make the block as close to nature as possible.
The spa block utilizes the adaptive approach with each unit fitted to the purpose it serves. Jaalis in the rooms and semi-open areas offer screening, ensuring spectacular views from the inside while protecting the privacy of the occupant of the room. The structure’s porous cell has a private open to sky lounge space, bringing in natural daylight into all spaces. The aesthetic feel of the space is organic with natural light washing the exposed walls and ceilings with light and shadows. The spaces are further held together with hand crafted jaali screens, solid wood doors and openings which merge the interior and exteriors.
The landscape merges the geometry of the surrounding paths to form buffer zones for the guests, which create smooth transitions between the different spaces of the building, and also offer a beautiful play of light.
10. Institute at School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada / MO-OF / Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh
The School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada, is designed in an attempt to become a platform for debate, exchange and dissemination of knowledge. It draws on the ideologies from Brutalism as a response to the extreme climate, and positions it contextually in Vijayawada. The large volume is punctured by voids, creating a rhythmic play of light and shadows which allows the building to breathe, allowing for hot air to dissipate.
The building is divided into three levels that serve the different purposes of the institution while breaking down institutional hierarchies. Spaces that engage in activities that take place in the afternoon time are clad with local Tandur stone which increases the time lag for solar-heat gain and controls the temperature. The materials are stripped to their raw form, with the fair-faced concrete, local tandur stone, Corten Steel and fly ash bricks ascribing a natural character to the building. Passive energy systems are incorporated into the design via courtyards that enable cross-ventilation.
The open spaces are also planned in order to activate measures to reduce active solar heat gain like utilizing North sunlight while blocking harsh solar radiation from the South. The building thus creates an interactive community learning environment nestled within its cultural context with a keen focus on environmental sensitivity.
Vernacular architecture establishes a relationship between people, climate and architecture. It demonstrates identity and sustainability. It reflects time, place and culture. The sustainable approach that modern and contemporary construction chases after already exists in vernacular architecture. The constructions involved here are simple and can easily merge with nature. It is less costly as the materials are locally available, hence the transportation costs get reduced. It is an architecture that encompasses the peoples' dwellings and other constructions, relating to their respective environments and resources, usually built by the owners or the community, using traditional techniques.
The important features of vernacular architecture are durability and versatility. The basic goal includes producing functional buildings. Vernacular traditions exist for different climates and cultures. It keeps our traditions alive. Vernacular architecture is shaped by a vast variety of elements from history and the rich vibrant culture. This subset of architecture makes up an integral part of buildings as a whole. These examples of architecture are the result of local ingenuity and are significantly more socially conscious and sustainable than some more elaborate builds. There is a lot to be learned from and admired about these traditional building styles and methods.
If we have missed any notable examples of vernacular architecture in South India, please comment them below!