The reality of poverty – the necessity to reduce building. Architecture assumes those bare minimal built-forms, such as the unicellular thatched mud huts of Banni, that spell out the simplest and least physical shelter needed most at night when one is helpless in sleep. Community gatherings are not held in a large enclosed hall, but under the branches of a tree or on a modest set of platforms and steps. The first tendency of an Indian urbanism is thus to build less, in other words to generate a ‘non-architecture’.
The wise response to climate – in the hot and humid Indian tropics, it is more comfortable outdoors than inside a closed box. Compelled to take activity outside, space around the minimal built form is utilized to its utmost limits: sleeping, cooking, washing, studying all enacted directly under the sky. The ‘maidan’ (ground), chowk (square), ‘barsati’ (terrace) and ‘kund’ (water tank) manifest a palette of places that celebrate being in the breeze and the sun. The second affinity of an Indian urbanism is thus in the ‘energizing’ of open-to-sky space, in ‘possessing’ the ‘void’, more than the ‘solid’.
The cultural homage to myth – in India where the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ are perpetually intersected by the ‘sacred’, physicality is more supernatural than real. Hence a tree is never just a tree, rather the abode of a sacred spirit that guards its environs; a mountain is not a mountain, but the dwelling place of a God. This deepens the notions of ‘genius loci’, and hence an ancient tree in a village centre is catalytic enough to incept a shrine under its branches. The shrine may transform into a larger temple, the temple catalyse the making of a campus, and in time, incremental accretions nurture the organic inceptions of entire towns. Thus the temple city of Madurai traces back to an ancient finding of a simple stone ‘lingam’ (phallic symbol) in a forest, and the story of the city is in fact that of the semantic influences of a people’s perception to a rather fortuitous phenomenon.
Indigenous patterns of place-making, whether in India or elsewhere, stir the dialogue about a ‘cultural’ urbanity. Like the Dogon settlements of Sudan, the mud towns of Yemen and the Houseboat communities of Shangai, they transcend the desperate terminologies of the ‘vernacular’ and the ‘sustainable’ and simply celebrate a commonsense that recognizes the myth-laden kinship of the social and the ecological, of Man and Nature.