Chennai Architecture

Architecture: From Colonial to Present Times

A rich amalgam of three broad architecture styles marks the evolution of Chennai's landscape as a pioneer in modern town planning and urban development.

Starting from the Dravidian temples and edifices built by the Pallavas to the Indo-Saracenic style, first introduced in Chennai by the British, and finally, to the 20th century steel and chrome high-rises, there is a process of natural growth in city architecture.

The port area also called as Parry's Corner (or Broadway) is the core of the British era buildings.

As one travels away from the port locality considered as the oldest residential zone of Chennai, one is exposed to new-age structures, commercial quarters along with Indo-Saracenic buildings juxtaposed in between reminding one of the colonial past.

European Style Constructions

Some of the earliest constructions based on European styles - Neo-Classical, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance - were done in Chennai as it is the first major British settlement in the Indian subcontinent.

However, these initial buildings served only utilitarian purposes for warehousing, trading and settlement posts.

Over time, these edifices gave way to fortified towns along the coastline.

While Portuguese, Danish and French had come earlier, it was the British who had settled in Chennai for good and expanded their trade.

As a result, the British had made a definite impact on the city landscape with their architectural design after the Mughals reign in the country.

In fact, the East India Company just followed the prevailing European styles like Gothic, Imperial, Christian, English Renaissance and Victorian during the early stages of their administration in Chennai.

Most of the building designs in Chennai were adaptations of those in London where were the handiwork of top architects like Wren, Adam and Nash, among others.

The Pachaiyappa's Hall was modelled on the Athenium Temple of Theseus.

The buildings in Chennai were made with brick and plastered with thick lime with the exterior made to resemble stone-like appearance.

Most of the churches were built on London prototypes with subtle variations. The earliest example is the St Mary's Church at Fort St. George.

Indo-Saracenic Style

After taking over the administration from the East India Company, the British Crown implemented a number of far-reaching measures like the railways and use of strong building materials for construction.

New materials like concrete, glass, wrought and cast iron were used in construction which opened up new possibilities in architecture.

Native Indian styles were assimilated and adopted in the building design giving rise to Indo-Saracenic architecture by the end of 19th century.

Basically Victorian in style, a lot of concepts from Islamic design (from Mughal and Afghan rulers) were infused in this architecture.

A hybrid style called the Indo-Saracenic was created by combining the architectural elements of Hindu and Mughal designs with the Victorian prototype.

Hence, it is not surprising to find gothic cusped arches, domes, spires, tracery, minarets and stained glass in this unique architecture.

F.S. Growse, Sir Swinton Jacob, R.F. Chisholm and H. Irwin were the pioneers of Indo-Saracenic style and the latter two have designed several landmark buildings in Chennai.

The Chepauk Palace, designed by Paul Benfield, is said to be the first Indo-Saracenic building in India.

Other examples of Indo-Saracenic include the Madras high court complex, Victoria Memorial Hall, Presidency College and the Senate House of the University of Madras.

Art Deco Style

The Indo-Saracenic style of architecture dominated Chennai's landscape during the colonial times before the advent of Art Deco style.

After the Indo-Saracenic, the Art Deco was the next design movement to impact the city.

In the early 20th century, several modern buildings for banking and commerce, railways, press and education were established in Chennai by the British.

The architecture for these institutions followed a mix of both the Neo-Classical and the Indo-Saracenic.

The residential architecture was based on the bungalow or the continuous row house prototypes.

From 1930s onwards, many buildings in George Town were built in the Art Deco style of architecture.

Art Deco is a popular international design movement that flourished between the 1920s and 1940s. This design was adapted by cities such as Bombay and Madras with immediate effect.

A long stretch of buildings along NSC Bose Road beginning from EID Parry and a similar stretch at the Esplanade used to have several examples of public buildings in the Art Deco style.

Similarly, the stretch of Poonamallee High Road between Chennai Central and Egmore railway station has a number of Art Deco structures.

The Dare House is a famous landmark at the junction of NSC Bose Road and First Line Beach Road. Built in 1940, this building is presently the head office of Parry's company and reflects the Art Deco style.

These buildings had incorporated modern design and have no external verandahs. But they have provisions for erecting the lift.

Cantilever porches that showcase the potential of concrete are also seen in some structures.

Externally, the stylistic devices such as stepped motifs and sweeping curves used in areas like grilles, parapet walls along with vertically proportioned windows impart a coherent appearance.

Art Deco was followed till the 1950s with the Bombay Mutual building (presently housing LIC) along NSC Bose Road and the South Indian Chamber of Commerce building on Esplanade built during this period.

In some instances, the British combined both the Indo-Saracenic and Art Deco as in the University Examination Hall, the Hindu High School and Kingston House (Seetha Kingston School).

Cinema Theatres, Houses

The arrival of motion pictures in the early 20th century led to a social churn and a number of cinema theatres were built in Art Deco architecture.

Casino and Kamadhenu theatres of the 1950s bear the stamp of Art Deco on its facade.

The Art Deco houses are known for sweeping porches, stepped corner windows, circular windows and rooms and projecting staircase areas.

Until 1950s Art Deco style was followed in residential buildings after which modernism began to express itself in a phased manner in the city landscape.

Agraharam Architecture

The residential areas occupied by Brahmins like Triplicane, Mylapore and West Mambalam sport this unique architecture reflecting the community's aspirations in building style and etiquette.

Called as Agraharam, the residential quarters is made up of traditional houses lined up in rows on either side of the road surrounding a temple.

The row of houses was built in typical Tamil style with four wings meeting at a central squared courtyard and tiled sloping roofs.

Agraharams are seen only in Brahmin residential quarters, especially those in the neighbourhood of big temples.

Modern Architecture

With growing prosperity of people in Chennai and economic progress further increasing the disposable income of middle-class families, new, bold and experimental type of buildings were built in the city from the early 1990s.

Since 2000s, the mushroom growth of apartments has led to real estate boom in the city which has seen both horizontal and vertical expansion.

Economic prosperity has ushered in a new landscape with skyscrapers and gated communities giving a new spin to luxurious living.

List of Heritage Buildings

A number of historic buildings are still being used by the government (for housing its departments), business groups and educational institutes.

Chennai has the second largest number of heritage buildings after Kolkata in the country. Most of these heritage structures are in decrepit condition and in dire need of renovation.

Here are some of the Prominent Buildings:

Fort St. George, Madras High Court complex, Valluvar Kottam, Raj Bhavan, Government Museum, Ripon Buildings, Senate House, Egmore Railway station, Centre Railway station, Connemara Library, Chepauk Palace, Presidency College, War Memorial, Vivekanandar Illam, The Museum Theatre, Higginbothams and College of Engineering, Guindy, and Freemasons Hall.