Heritage is this gamut of inherited objects, ideas, culture, and traditions. Not to be confused with preserving or restoring old things, values and ideas; It is often the collective of the tangible and intangible that has been passed on over time. Chettinad in Tamil Nadu is a city known for its wealthy merchants that were once hosted to wealth from across the globe.
But the Great Depression of the 1920s’ led to their gradual downfall. Even the opulent homes crumbled as the inhabitants couldn’t afford its upkeep. The city today, perhaps, resembles a discolored painting. A standalone palace haunts a desolate land with impressive exteriors but disintegrating within. In the case of Chettinad and alike, what does the current time inherit?
The answers are many and multi-layered. And amidst these questions, stands a home in Chettinad that reflects a fusion of traditional cultures, some heritage, and contemporary ideas. The clients wished for a modern home steeped in the cultural essence of glorious Chettinad past. The fundamental elements entailed massing, accommodating an open plan and hierarchy of spaces connected through corridors and projected eaves to house indoor-outdoor spaces.
To combat solar radiation and facilitate cross ventilation, the architects developed a façade skin of terracotta jaalis, that thermally insulates and keeps the spaces ventilated with natural light. Two major light-wells, façade jaalis and skylights engage the interiors in a constant cavort of light and shadow. The lounge on the first-floor made of filler slab, witnesses the play of light and shadows at sunrise, accelerated by the terra-jaalis and skylights endows a fleeting and shifting quality to the interiors through time.
The light and shadow configurations are further complemented by the rustic finishes used throughout the house. Exposed concrete is used on the ceilings, marble plaster on the walls and the floors are a mix of natural wood, Jaisalmer and Kota Marbles and Athangudi tiles. Athangudi/ஆத்தங்குடி tiles are manufactured from a village that has lent its name to the handmade cement tiles, which have been a part of the Chettinad legacy, since the British era. While the decision to use Athangudi tiles is to incorporate a slice of the Chettinad heritage, but the core intent is to procure materials from within a 50-kilometer radius of the site.
Even the terracotta pots used in the filler slabs were made with soil excavated from the site. Similarly, deteriorated trees on site were cut and its wood was used for concrete shuttering.
In retrospection, the house does not imbibe the architecture of Chettinad, if one compares both entities side by side. Not in aesthetics or even the grandeur that the mansions encompassed. And the intent was perhaps never to mirror ‘heritage’ or revel in the nostalgia of the past. But the Chettinad architecture lay the seed of an idea and the architects trailed their journey from the house from thereon.