On a warm summer’s forenoon, we found ourselves hunting for the Centre for Vernacular Architecture Trust, Chennai, whose principal architect had consented to spend the afternoon with us as we got to know him and his practice. After some searching we found it, but not without difficulty – this cozy office is truly a hidden gem. Located on the first floor of the principal architect’s personal residence on an inner street, every element adorning its walls was handcrafted with great care out of only local materials.
A man of many words and much wisdom, Ar. Goutam Seetharaman seemed as amiable as his environment – strategically sealed off from the noise of city traffic beneath an auspiciously clear sky. Offering us refreshment by way of cool water from an earthen vessel, he helped us feel comfortable as we began our conversation. What followed next was an hour long dialogue about the practice of Vernacular Architecture, and his journey over the decades as a specialist of the same.
Could you tell us a little about Centre for Vernacular Architecture Trust’s history, and your founder’s vision for the firm?
Centre for Vernacular Architecture Trust, or CVA for short, was founded by Mr. R. L. Kumar. He was initially part of an NGO called the CIEDS collective in Bangalore, a woman’s organization which fights for women’s rights, dowry etc. Kumar was one of the primary members of the NGO. He was a CA graduate and had nothing to do with Architecture.
On his travels, he happened to meet Laurie Baker and was influenced by his philosophies, thoughts and ideas. He also had a few Architect friends who were strong followers of Laurie Baker. That’s how he decided he would become a self-taught architect. Being part of an NGO, he would get many projects and with basic sketches on paper, he worked with contractors to build.
Because he was not of an architectural background, his thinking was unparalleled. He wasn’t thinking along the lines like other architects would; it was more of common sense and questioning. His designs had a lot of meaning because they had a connection with history and how the common people built by themselves. That’s the big difference in how the centre was run. It used to be called a ‘shramik’ and we were pretty much a part of the collective for a long time. After a few years since I joined, due to various reasons, Mr. R. L. Kumar decided to come out of the NGO and that’s when we decided will start a trust and named ourselves the Centre for Vernacular Architecture.
Portrait of CVA founder late Mr. R. L. Kumar (left) and Ar. Goutam Seetharaman, one of two current chief architects (right)
How is CVA today? Any plans of expanding your practice across India?
The principal architects currently are Ar. Khalid Rehman and I, with Khalid based in Bangalore and me in Chennai. We decide which projects we do based on the proximity of site. In the longer vision, as Kumar always had, I believe new architects who join us would carry it forward in their own way. We definitely need more people to do this kind of Architecture. We get many inquiries from North India but unfortunately, we don’t have the time or workforce to execute a project there with proper justice. Ideally, we need more architects who are patient enough to really stick to this kind of work and can toil and learn the hard way, like we did. But today’s generation wants everything fast, so it’s not going to happen easily.
Over the years, how has your style of architecture evolved? Have you experimented with styles other than vernacular?
We try to keep it as vernacular as possible, that being our basic principle. But the definition of what is vernacular really changes with time because we are in an age of globalization. For example, If I need to use a certain marble from Makrana, which has to come all the way from Rajasthan – when you compare that with locally available marbles in the market, we feel that is more vernacular. It may not be precisely 100% vernacular, as you should understand; however big an architect you are, there are various parameters that decide what the design is and how the project is approached. We also have to give adequate consideration to the client’s dreams and needs because we’re building a house where they are going to dwell, possibly for the rest of their lives.
In that sense, yes, we try to stick to our basic principles of architecture as much as possible. For example, if I get a project where the soil structure is good enough for a basic stone foundation to suffice, we would never do a column structure even if the client insists and is ready to spend 3-4 lakhs extra. We work at that basic level of ideology and philosophy, at least.
Natural lighting and exposed brick in the residence for Mr. Rafeeq, Bangalore, 2007
Could you tell us about your approach while designing, as well as one project you’re personally proud of?
Recently, I read a book by Sathguru, of Isha where he describes the proper way to eat –we have to assume that whatever we eat also has life in it and it adds onto your life. That’s how I imagine Architecture and how I deal with spaces. The perspective with which you look at it makes an immense difference – it has to do with the environment, the way the spaces are, the way you manipulate light and ventilation into the house and how the space is treated.
For me, something that is really close to my heart, which I’ve personally experienced is a project we built for my cousin in Bangalore, Krishna Prakash. When you’re open to the elements, it brings in a lot of soul. It’s not just about Architecture it’s not just about art, it has to do with the emotion that you get. It cannot be explained with words, you have to experience it. Only then you will understand what I am talking about.
The main courtyard is the focus point in the residence for Mr. Krishna Prakash, Bangalore, 2007
How popular is vernacular architecture as a style today? How do interested clients seek you out?
10 years ago it was only through word of mouth, we never had a website and not many people will know about vernacular architecture. In today’s world there is a lot of exposure for this kind of work because of the web and media, but when you break down the numbers it’s still very less compared to regular concrete-steel buildings. This is also because of our limited resources difficulty in scaling up. It is non-standard work, as what we build differs from place to place in terms of materials, technique etc. And people always associate this kind of work with low cost, which is not true in every case; it can be really expensive as well, depending on various factors.
We never market or go up to any clients for any project. Most of our clients find us through our website or word of mouth about our previous projects. Fortunately, we get the kind of clients who want our kind of work. Because of the knowledge and the kind of information available online, they are well-read and know what they want most of the time and it’s easy to build a good relationship with these clients.
What is the work atmosphere at CVA like?
We are a small firm and most of our projects are turnkey. We do very few design consultancies. Even if we get around 20 projects a year, we don’t have the capacity to do that many since we’re are a small firm. In today’s world, the real challenge is finding skilled labour and craftsmen. I am still finding it really tough to carry on this kind of work, and it’s going to be even more so in the future.
We are content with the minimum number of projects per year, we don’t necessarily look at the business part as the main factor. Our firm is run mainly because of passion, ideologies and philosophies. We do not have any kind of lull period; I started working from 2003 and frankly, till now I have never got a break. Whether I do four projects a time or two projects at a time it takes the same time and effort. That’s how taxing this kind of work can be.
How do you find the right craftsmen for custom-made elements?
We have our own team of in-house craftsmen. I’m fortunate enough to come from a culture where Mr. R. L. Kumar and Mr. Murugesan have already set a big team of craftsmen in Bangalore, and I’ve learned from them. After I choose to come back to Chennai, I found it little hard to build a team by myself like that, but sometimes you have to be brave enough to believe things will fall in place. For example, I have personally not done thatch-work before, I have only seen places where it’s been done and learned some theory from Mr. Kumar. But now I have built an office in Uthandi and another project using thatch.
“You talk to the villagers, ask them how they source their material, how they build their houses and learn from them.”
I went to villages and saw how it’s done. For learning vernacular techniques, the best examples are from the villages. You talk to the villagers, ask them how they source their material, how they build their houses and learn from them. I had learned from Mr. Kumar that the best grass for thatch comes from lake-beds, so when I did a project in Tirukalukundram where the site was right next to a lake-bed, I thought of using thatch. In that village, they used only palm leaves for thatch and nobody used grass. I cut the grass, got a team of people and a project manager and we got another team from Mayavaram to do the thatch. Over experience, you get something called a gut-feeling and when I was at the site, I felt they were not doing it the proper way, but I didn’t know how to do it either. There are no videos, no proper text or guidance on how to do thatch-work with that particular kind of grass. I stopped the work and got another team of people who did it well. Now I know two types of grasses available in and around Chennai which we can source and do fantastic thatch-work.
If you have to do this kind of work, you have to be brave and confident enough to experiment. But you cannot experiment on the clients’ money unless they are okay with it. The ideal way to work with Vernacular architecture practice is to be brutally transparent and honest with anybody you work with.
Stone walls with both thatched and tiled roofs in the residence for Mr. Krishna Byregowda, Bangalore, 2011.
Have you faced challenges to the core philosophy of your firm?
We use naturally and locally available building materials as much as possible. That’s first.
Second, we always work with craftsmen whereby the work is done by hand. We try to give importance for handmade craftsman work rather than industry-processed goods.
Project rejection happens once in a while, and not only in the initial stages but sometimes even during the process the clients wish to change the whole project into a column-frame structure. This beats our basic ideologies and philosophies and so it doesn’t make sense to take the project, especially as a turnkey, wherein we have to proceed with it for the next one or one and half years. Frustration, anger, fights – all do come in your way when you’re really passionate about something.
When did it first click that vernacular architecture was your calling?
During my fourth year in college, a senior of mine and I were inclined towards climatic design. I started reading about vernacular architecture to get few ideas about this kind of work. After architecture, the only place I knew where similar kind of work was done was Auroville. I was thinking of going there when I got a call from one of my friends who worked in a similar firm in Bangalore, who referred me to Mr. Kumar. Unfortunately, I was the only architect at the time. It was just me and Kumar. Khalid joined just a few months later as a trainee first after which he joined as an architect.
How would you, as an Architect, define success?
For our kind of firm, I would assume success would have to do with the integrity of what we believe in. For a project, our criteria for success would be how well it can be executed with our strong ideologies, philosophies and beliefs. It is also about the satisfaction of the self, and of the person for whom you’ve built for. It HAS to be both for the project to be a success.
In terms of success for a firm, it’s essential to first understand that the basic building bricks here are the craftsmen. Our biggest challenge is to get more skilled craftsmen and to retain the workforce that we currently have. We can consider it a success if we manage to get the kind of craftsmen we have now from the future generations, where they take pride in the kind of work they do, and don’t feel inferior about their work but rather find it artistic and are happy about it. I don’t see this happening unless we work on a large scale where many other architects also give some importance to this kind of craftsmanship. A person who has not gone to school or who has been a school dropout and has toiled his hard way in the sun and rain to work and be a master craftsman would need some recognition in society as someone important. If some kind of an institution recognizes that and gives them proper certificates, wouldn’t that mean something to somebody? To be a success we have to grow as a society, and more so we have to grow as a team.
Ar. Goutam Seetharam is one of two Founder Trustees and Principal Architects at the Centre for Vernacular Architecture Trust, that has offices in both Chennai and Bangalore. Initiated by the late R.L. Kumar and building on the work of practitioners like Laurie Baker and Hassan Fathy, their practice revolves around promoting the use of locally available materials, traditional building techniques, culturally and climatically relevant building design and developing a vibrant community of crafts persons. For more information, check out their website.