chennaimadrasmadras daymadras special

Architecture in Madras – Past, Present and Future

On the Madras Special is a journey of Madras through architecture. Noted architect and heritage enthusiast, Sujatha Shankar shares her thoughts on Madras and its architecture down the ages.Over to her now ..

Ever so often one encounters the question “Where are you from?” Coming from a lineage of South Indian Maharashtrians who moved to Thanjavur four centuries ago, born in Trivandrum and with family in all the southern states even in days of less mobility,  one would actually wonder `Where’?

Growing up and living here since early childhood, it certainly is `Madras’  that is home. Sunday morning visits to browse through rare books in Moore Market, buying craft materials  with my mother in Flower Bazaar, frequent trips with my father to Georgetown and  Triplicane,   receiving or sending off a cousin at the Railway Station,  school and home in South Madras, the annual ritual of seeing Christmas decorations at Spencers  eagerly awaiting Santa Claus… each street  and each building has its memories. It’s a city whose mosaic I find fascinating.

To each of us,  the mere words Patnam, Madras or Chennai bring instant recall of what is etched deep in memory, of certain images in our mind with strong association to its location.

What is it that makes Chennai?
What is a city remembered by?

Is it its landscape?

Is it its people?

Is it the food?

Is it the events, streetscape or the throbbing culture?

In part, it is certainly a weave of all of these but predominantly it is the built form and architecture that form a frame of reference for the city and links people across generations through their common association with a landmark in their perception of the city, establishing a link in time like a string through the past, present and future. It is this overlay of memories that sustains our very beings.

In our everyday life, we experience the buildings and spaces in our city, however we rarely pause to observe. Like Simon &  Garfunkel  would say “people hearing without listening people talking without speaking,”
Most times its also people seeing without looking.

To me, the sojourn away from home to do my masters degree was an eye opener. When I returned, I saw my own city in new light & sharper focus.

In an attempt to explore this architectural wealth of our city’s heritage I’d like to share with you a short documentary film that I made titled `Madras Vision of Day’ named after city’s founder,  Francis Day.It narrates the story of how the city has evolved starting out as villages, growing with trade, influenced by settlers, the British with their major imprint on indigenous concepts. 

Initially the British transplanted pure colonial, Greek & European structures on Indian soil to establish supremacy,  first as  traders of the East India Company and later as rulers. As nationalism and unrest grew in the mid 1800s there was a transformation in architecture,  where local elements were  integrated into Western concepts,  creating the fusion of the Indo Saracenic architecture, a political tool to make the foreign powers appear  Indianised in the eyes of the masses. Then we move to the post independence era, groping with issues of planning and urban development.

Madras has grown since the film, bursting with flyovers, IT Parks, Offices, Hotels, Multiplexes & Malls. Many a flashy highrise has risen on the ashes of the last vestiges of a bygone era, increased mobility has created a demand for faster & better connections through transport & infrastructure.
With multiple modes of transport jostling for the same space, with the pace of life faster than what has been  planned for, the city somewhere has become a Vision gone awry. We tend to think that it is only the job of the government, the city planners or transport planners to shape our cities.
What is it that we as citizens can do to contribute to a better Madras and take it in the right direction? Even if it’s a small piece of the entire jigsaw?

 In the din & rush for everything new we must rise up to protect our heritage.Held in trust for posterity, these are resources that are non-renewable. Clearly we must act as custodians of the fragile wealth by shouldering our share of responsibility to pass it on to the future generations.

A positive step has been that Chennai has been displaying great pride in its Heritage through the Mylapore Festival,  Madras Week lectures, even poetry, music, dance and film. The key is to integrate it into the normal course of life for citizens, builders, developers, industrialists and children who are the torchbearers for the Madras of the future.

An active voice and public participation has saved some of the Heritage buildings like the DGPs office and more recently Gokhale hall and Bharat Insurance building. The City craves a Heritage Act and we do need to push for it.
Not all heritage structures can be preserved if they have outlived their purpose. To breathe new life into old structures, putting an old structure to new use or `Adaptive reuse’ is as `green’ a concept as any.
Just a few examples from outside Chennai  

-Butler Square, Minneapolis

, an old warehouse that has been turned into an upscale shopping centre

-Quincy Market in Boston has transformed into a buzzing square
-Windsor & Eton railway station is a lively hub.
 Madras has its own trailblazers
– Amethyst – an old home functioning as a boutique
–   The Art Deco Ilford House which is FabIndia’s outlet
– Sri Krishna Sweets where we had the opportunity to transform a 100 year old house into a mithai shop  & restaurant. The only structural intervention has been the introduction of an eleva
– The Madras Terrace house  aptly named functions as a space for creative expression, talks, discussions and art shows.


When it makes economic sense, many a structure can be saved from the demolishers with a little imagination.

Aesthetics is another area where each of us can contribute when we are faced with a choice. A danger on the Chennai cityscape is the lack of harmony with the neighborhood. Many cities in Europe even today maintain a harmonious balance with development. Our own Jaisalmer or villages do the same. Old images of Madras display our value for the aesthetic. Then why do we now display a certain megalomania in the `I, Me, Myself, race and  build monuments within four compound walls that have no connection to the neighborhood.

Madras despite the rapid pace of development has managed to keep some oasis of green… the Estuary, the GuindyPark, the IIT, Theosophical Society. Protecting these lung spaces for posterity is imperative for beautiful Madras.
If we pass on a Madras or Chennai to our next generation whose quality is as good if not better than we inherited, we would have done our job well.


  1. Ed Pilolla 19 August, 2011 at 00:29 Reply

    it’s so true about knowing or not knowing the building and space history in our cities. the past seems to irrelevant and yet when one becomes aware of the history, somehow one’s worldview changes for the better.

  2. Sayani 19 August, 2011 at 13:34 Reply

    It’s an awesome post …travelling is mediatation …you come in touch with so many secrets and trully a mesmerizing world unfolds infront you!! very well described 🙂

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *