When we’re in Chennai, all we can think about is the food, music, films, Marina beach and the colourful festivals there. However, this city is much more than this. If we stop by and have a look at the edifices there, we’ll spot exquisite frameworks inspired by early European designs. Starting from the ancient Dravidian temples and structures built by Pallavas to classic European buildings, Chennai has seen a lot of transformation in its architectural style and landscape. Chennai is the first city in India where Victorian architecture was introduced. Every period in its history defines a specific style of architecture and this led to the emergence of specific type construction during that period. Chennai has a rich amalgam of various styles of architecture and here we’re going to list a few.
1) European Style Buildings
When the British set foot in India, Chennai was their first settlement. This led to the springing up of exemplary European designs across the city with initial buildings being used for basic utilitarian purposes. This included buildings like warehouses, settlement posts, etc. The chief raw materials used for such buildings were limestones and bricks. The buildings were made using brick and plastered with thick lime. The exterior was made to resemble stone-like appearances. Most of the buildings were tailored to resemble famous buildings of London that were the handiwork of great artists. The most common European designs were Roman, Gothic, Neo-Classical, etc. Other than Mughals, the Europeans were apparently the only ones who could lay an impact on the landscape of Chennai. The churches there were mostly adaptations of London churches with slight variations. The classic example of European style is St. Mary’s church at Fort St. George.
2) Indo-Saracenic Style
By the end of the 19th century, the British started implementing various changes in the construction style by adopting new raw materials like concrete, glass, cast and wrought iron, etc. this opened up new possibilities. With these strong raw materials, the British started implementing various measures to build facilities like railway stations. The Indo-saracenic style is an amalgamation of Indian and European style of architecture and it also derived inspiration from Islamic designs (Mughal and Afgan). The Chepauk palace is said to be the first Indo-Saracenic styled building. The other examples of Indo-Saracenic buildings are Madras High Court, Senate House, Victoria Memorial, etc. So, it’s not a surprise if we find the unusual combination of gothic cusped arches and domes and minarets in Chennai structures. This amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic designs with Victorian influence resulted in the establishment of various beautiful edifices.
3) Art Deco Style
This global style of architecture flourished in between 1930s to 40s. This style is the mixture of Indo-Saracenic and Neo-Classical. Various modern buildings during that time like banks, media houses, educational institutes were built in the Art Deco style. Many posh localities in South Chennai have huge bungalows built using this art deco style. Other than Madras, Bombay also adopted this style during that era. The buildings that embraced this style were characterized by cantilever porches, sweeping curves with vertical long windows providing articulate appearance. This style highly influenced residential buildings as well. The residential colonies started adopting the row houses patterns and started building posh bungalows in the main localities. These houses and buildings have no external verandas. The Dare House is one such example of Art Deco style.
4) Agraharam Architecture
Agraharam architecture dominated the residential quarters in the areas that were dominated by Brahmins like Triplicane and Mylapore. The roads on the either side were lined up with the row houses surrounding temples. Built in typical Tamilian style the row houses had central courtyards and sloping roofs, reflecting the community’s history and culture. These days Agraharams can only be seen in big Brahmin quarters or few temples.
Post-independence, with the increase in the disposable income of the common household, modern architecture paved its way in the city. From the early 1990s, there were new experimentations with the buildings giving way to bold architecture. With the growth in economy and modernization, the old style is getting extinct and only places where we can smell heritage are the public buildings.
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