After spending four decades in the corporate sector, Anthony Raj discovered the beauty and benefits of indigenous architecture, while constructing his own farmhouse. This led him to set up the Centre for Indigenous Architecture (CFIA). “Restless and bored, with the atmosphere of corporate life, I was looking for some diversion. Building a family farmhouse seemed like a good excuse, to justify the diversion of my time and family money. We bought an acre of land, off the scenic East Coast Road (ECR) that connects Chennai and Puducherry, in 2011 and began building the farmhouse,” says Raj, a former executive director at Shriram Group.
Despite having no degree in architecture, Raj developed a passion for the field and began his journey into the world of indigenous architecture. After working with two architects, he was not happy with the design of his farmhouse. “So, I experimented with the design, drawing from my memories of the ancestral houses that I had seen in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa and Mumbai. The lush greenery in the area, inspired me to build something that would be in sync with nature. We used eco-friendly materials and utilised indigenous architectural techniques. Not a single tree was chopped and we found a way to build around them,” he recalls.
Raj says that he grew increasingly attracted to architecture that enhances health and happiness and decided to learn and promote the concept, as much as he could. “I was inspired by the writings of Dr Satya Prakash Varanasi, a former professor of architecture,” adds Raj. In 2011, he quit his corporate life, to set up the Centre for Indigenous Architecture (CFIA). His farmhouse, Arulville, was completed in 2013. “Building Arulville, was a learning experience in the benefits of indigenous architecture. The greatest joy I get, is in walking on the virgin soil barefoot and inhaling its invigorating scent,” he beams.
What is indigenous architecture?
Indigenous architecture, involves the use of climate-responsive techniques, appropriate materials and local artisans, in design and construction. The style of construction, is one that promotes thermal comfort. No trees are cut and new ones are planted. It involves minimal use of cement, steel, paint, glass and other manufactured goods. The spaces are naturally lit and ventilated, to minimise the need for electricity.
Raj and his team employed traditional construction techniques, such as rammed earth walls, unplastered/ exposed brick walls, sloped clay-tiled roofs, filler slabs, terracotta tile floors, oxidised floors, Palmyra joists and louvered doors and windows. “The core building design, is concentrated on two aspects – shading and ventilation. Shading the external walls (up to 50 per cent) from the sun, is needed in the hot and humid climate. Verandahs, designed as buffer spaces, protect the main external walls from direct sunlight,” explains Raj, who is now migrating to the rat-trap bond style of constructing walls. This technique improves thermal comfort and uses lesser bricks and cement, although it is labour-intensive, he shares.
Projects of the CFIA
His second project, was a Vedapatashala in the outskirts of Chennai, where scholars teach and discuss Vedic practices and promote the Vedic life. The campus consists of six buildings and includes a temple, an amphitheater, a lecture hall, a yoga centre, a villa with four studio apartments, a kitchen-cum-dining area, a row house for guests, public washrooms, etc. The campus revolves around the circular amphitheater and blends ancient architectural elements with a contemporary feel. Another project, was an old age home in Mogappair, Chennai, which was commissioned by an NGO. The project, in the heart of a noisy, hot and humid industrial estate, put to test the methods of indigenous architecture in an urban setting. “The building is a creative response to these handicaps and a luxurious home for the aged,” informs Raj, adding that his organisation only takes one project at a time, so that the team members are involved in all the aspect of design and construction.
The CFIA’s mission, he says, is to promote wellness, by constructing buildings using holistic architectural materials and methods. “I plan to empower young architects, through CFIA, to study and collaborate with other like-minded architects and also to research on different techniques. With increasing urbanisation and changes in lifestyle, we are departing from the more sensible, healthier habitats. It is time for architects to demonstrate the benefits of indigenous architecture in urban and even industrial contexts. Our main goal, is to leave the earth as a better place than we found it,” Raj concludes.