How did we get here?
Visakhapatnam was where I first went to architecture school more than a decade ago, although this attempt to rummage the city’s architecture is a brand new one. After having lived at several locations within India and in the United States, I was overcome by a curious desire to characterize Visakhapatnam’s architecture, if only for my understanding. The curiosity was along the lines of:
- Is there a “right” architecture for Visakhapatnam?
- What are the reasons, if any, for the lackluster state of current architecture?
- What factors should be driving it in the right direction?
- Are there any bright spots offering some insight?
With real estate ownership nearly cost prohibitive for the great majority, how could such poor architectural quality pass muster? What is it that makes us tolerant towards poor architecture when we expect nothing but the best in a TV, automobile or a piece of gold that we buy? Can it all be attributed to just lack of awareness?
I was mainly visiting to spend a few weeks with a sick family member, so instead of planned approach, I chose to set something in motion to see where it would lead. For that reason, this exercise is just the beginning of an attempt. It is by no means meant to be a complete or a scientific treatise on the city’s architecture.
Visakhapatnam began as a fishing village and now after colonial rule, is a major port city and an industrial hub on the east coast of India. A detailed introduction in terms of history and culture is outside the scope of this study, however, Visakhapatnam’s Wikipedia page is a good resource for such information.
A stroll or drive through most of the city’s streets will reveal the casual nature of today’s construction industry, in terms of style or method. Some relatively recent buildings show physical deterioration due to poor construction quality and/or scant regard for the corrosive nature of moist air from the ocean.
Building by-laws are regularly flouted in an attempt to maximize every square inch of built-up space, compromising access to natural light and ventilation. There is a prevalence of a design approach fragmented along the lines of plan design and elevation design. Several apartment buildings mimic greek temples on the exterior with false columns, orders, pediments and sloping roofs.
What does the climate warrant?
Visakhapatnam is a tropical hot-humid climate with little to no variation annually. The humid air when combined with the harsh solar radiation causes profuse sweating which makes even moderate physical activity very strenuous.
Based on personal experience, I can say that early mornings and late evenings do become relatively comfortable because of the diurnal swing, at least in terms of temperature. This especially works well for residential buildings. Design strategies listed in the psychrometric chart graphic show that ‘Sun Shading of Windows’ helps bring comfort 29% of the time, while ‘Natural Ventilation Cooling’ and ‘Fan-Forced Ventilation Cooling’ bring comfort 4.3% and 17% of the time respectively. Based on personal experience again, I can attest to the fact that bearing the heat and humidity become easier under shaded outdoor spaces, even more so when further assisted by wind movement.
Access to and affordability of air-conditioning have great potential to detach us from the practice of including shaded outdoor spaces in new construction for naturally tempering the environment.
Some of the scarce vernacular construction seems to embody climate based passive design strategies. The fishermen settlement by the sea, Pedakondarajupalem, a suburb of Visakhapatnam, is a series of huts with mud walls and thatched roofs. These huts appear as if they are clutching the ground tightly with thatched roofs overhanging on short mud walls.
Thatched roofs project over the walls to protect the mud walls from rain and sun and in the process create an entry veranda that forms a shaded transition from the exterior to the interior. This veranda and the outdoor platforms form the seating for living/socializing and performing other household chores. In conversations with families living in these huts, it was hard to elicit perceived benefits to their way of building as most were in a line to get an INR 40,000 (USD 737) grant to build more permanent housing under the Indiramma Housing Scheme. Their perception could have been – expressing any sort of contentment about status quo with a visiting stranger would put them at a disadvantage in terms of receiving the grant. Some of the houses were already converted to brick-and-mortar boxes using such grants.
Architect Shabnam Patel of Visakhapatnam who has studied this village along with her students, was told by the village residents that they wished to convert to a more permanent roof construction because their existing thatched roofs were susceptible to being blown away during strong winds or storms. Patel believes that if the roof design incorporated a firm structural anchoring to the walls/ground, the vernacular construction can be saved from being converted into placeless brick and concrete boxes.
Heritage buildings (historic, being preserved) are scattered throughout the city, a list of all heritage sites in Visakhapatnam is available from the INTACH webpage. A building I passed by almost everyday is the 120 year old East Point Railway Guest House.
Note the use of durable stone, the arcade on the lower floor shading the exterior walls, and the shaded outdoor terrace on the upper floor, all tell-tale signs of climate responsiveness. In fact, these features are like a recurrent theme among various historic buildings. I’m optimistic that further investigation into building usage and occupant perception would provide useful insights for modern-day architecture in terms of:
- Climate responsiveness
- Use of appropriate materials and construction technologies
- Relating the building to the street/exterior
It is these precise values that today’s architecture in Visakhapatnam is missing.
As a student of architecture in the late nineties, I visited the construction site for school campus, Rishi Vidyalaya Gurukulam, in a suburb of Visakhapatnam called Boduvalasa. I was already aware that it was nestled in a mango grove, employing exposed brick construction with funicular shell (shallow brick vault) floor slabs. This knowledge prompted a new visit for a fresh look at the finished product in use now, for more than a decade.
The exposed brick results in a permanent exterior finish that ages and weathers naturally. Brick employed in the funicular shell floor slabs replaced a more embodied-energy-intensive steel. My fellow students and I would get goosebumps when we discussed the late architect Laurie Baker’s ideas on open and honest use of materials, specifically his statement on how “a brick wall should look like a brick wall”. It was hard to take pictures of this school campus as the buildings were nestled in between trees. It was one of the goals of the project since planning stages, to blend with nature, according to Anand Mohan, the man in charge of the campus. Mohan’s home on the campus too was built using the same materials and construction methods, on a sloping terrain, creating an interesting interplay between living and sleeping spaces on different levels. A large exposed bedrock in the basement meditation room remains untouched.
[Architectural research opportunity – how is such an architectural approach aiding in creating a better learning, teaching, and living environments (or not) for the students and the teachers?]
In Patel’s house, designed by herself, similar exposed wire-cut brick was used in between concrete framing for part of the building. Moisture seepage issues led her to having the exterior of the brick finished with a weatherproof coating of a brick-red shade. Spatially, within the limited frontage, generous shaded balconies with lowered ceiling spill out of the interiors.
The three recent office buildings in the heart of the city, Mahindra Satyam Development Center, Wipro, and HSBC bank seemed architecturally unremarkable from the outside. I might have made the mistake of judging a book by its cover if there is something innovative/interesting in the building’s interior, in terms of space planning, mechanical/electrical systems, energy efficiency, or interior design.
[Architectural research opportunity – How do these buildings fit in their context and what kind of work environments do they create?]
Partly developed and partly under development are the IT SEZ (Information Technology Special Economic Zone) and Cyber Valley in Madhurawada by the shore by VUDA (Visakhapatnam Urban Development Authority). This is a mixed use development including apartments, row houses, and office facilities for IT companies. These developments seem to have happened on pristine hilly terrain auctioned by VUDA to buyers. I did not glean much background information on the masterplan or the development process but it appears that this development has happened without due regard to land use planning or environmental impact. Several of these buildings are either sparsely occupied or unoccupied. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these buildings were built hastily to save allotted sites when VUDA threatened to take undeveloped land back from those who bought it. Patel wishes valuable tax payer money had been used for a cause nobler than imposing such poor planning on such pristine land. Another practicing architect, with whom I spoke, expressed surprise at VUDA’s practice of auctioning the land.
As I am not an urban planner, I have to take the help of these couple of passages from the 1993 publication Environmental Consciousness & Urban Planning, Tracts for the Times /2 by Mahesh N Buch on urbanization in India within a global context:
Page 22, Land Use Planning: The absence of land use data also means that we plan our cities without any real consideration for the havoc that we are playing with land and the permanent degradation of the environment this entails.
Page 80, Conclusion: City planning, theoretically, is the science and art of developing urbane settlements, as distinct from the crude and rustic. It is not merely a mechanical exercise in planning roads, sewers and drains, or building massive structures. That would happen, and does happen, even in the absence of planning. But sensitive planning creates an aesthetic environment in harmony with nature.
Most of my friends from Andhra Pradesh who live abroad are software professionals, so I understand that when fully utilized, the job creation potential of such IT related development can be enormous. During economic growth, development is inevitable. But how much of it do we actually need and where? Is it sustainable? Does it adequately take environmental impact and natural resources into account?
[Research opportunity – Considering there are three colleges in Visakhapatnam that teach architecture and related disciplines, a dissection of the masterplan would make for a great thesis/dissertation project for the local students.]
I personally experienced the consequences of water scarcity during my recent month-long stay. The apartment building where I stayed received its daily supply of potable water from a privately operated tanker, due to lack of reliable municipal supply. Several buildings had their own groundwater extracting infrastructure on site but either our building did not or the groundwater table had receded enough to warrant supply via a tanker. This tanker too seemed to supply hard groundwater extracted elsewhere.
Such water scarcity seems counter-intuitive in a city that receives 37 inches of rainfall annually. Harvesting rainwater is not currently prevalent but there is precedent for this practice in the remains of the 2000 year old Buddhist complex discovered in Visakhapatnam in 1978. Rock-cut cisterns, possibly to harvest rainwater are evident in these remains.
[Research opportunity – What practices and policies are responsible for Visakhapatnam’s water issues? What are some potential solutions? How can architecture help?]
Scheduled power outages are a part of lifestyle for the residents of Visakhapatnam (as is the case with rest of India). During my stay, power was cut thrice a day, 1.5 hours at a time, in the morning, afternoon and in the evening (totaling 4.5 hours a day). Our daily activities such as cooking, washing, watching TV, and sleeping were planned around these power cuts. Upper middle class and the rich obviously rely on battery backups and generators but they seem to be a minority.
Living in the West, one gets to read regularly about the huge summer 2012 blackout in India, 300 million Indians with no access to electricity, and coal industry scandals. “Not being able to produce enough power has absolutely been the single biggest bottleneck for economic growth,” a major newspaper article quotes an expert.
There is a great need for architecture that takes climate responsiveness and passive survivability into account.
[Architectural research opportunity – How can Visakhapatnam’s architecture respond to the immediate energy context and the broader energy issues facing India?]
Considerable real estate in Visakhapatnam, as in the rest of India, is the second or third property of the owner, often an investment, not a necessity. To quote from Environmental Consciousness and Urban Planning again:
Page 60, Land Use Planning: Throughout India it is a common phenomenon that escalation in land values has no bearing whatsoever on the increasing population. Whereas population might have doubled or tripled within a given period, land prices would have escalated by 50 or a 100 times.
And sometimes, no matter how good the building on a piece of land, selling price only takes value of the land into account. This makes me wonder – As a culture, do we value the investment potential of real estate more than being able to create beautiful built environments for ourselves to live, work, play and learn in? Are our material needs surpassing our spiritual needs?
As far as creating awareness is concerned, it is upon us architects to educate clients about the positive impacts of thoughtful and sustainable architecture and urban planning. There is an urgent need to create built environments that inspire, educate, conserve and provide comfort. When I think of this, Kenneth Frampton’s idea of “Critical Regionalism as a decentralized mode of cultural resistance” comes to mind.
[Architectural research opportunity – How can architects facilitate a culture shift in which architecture can achieve its greater purposes?]
In Visakhapatnam, like in other developing Indian cities, infrastructure development is lagging far behind the rest of the development. The setting needs as much attention as the architecture.
To read other posts and articles by Ramana, visit the home page of this site.
Disclaimer: All criticism emerges out of love for Visakhapatnam and a desire to see it become a home to good architecture. Opinions are being shared in good faith and no disrespect is meant towards any individual or organization. Information sources are identified wherever possible. All photographs were shot by the author except where credited otherwise. Looking forward to your comments.