Ask any local or visitor and he will tell you that Chennai is a city where tradition and modernization coexist, where women in silk sarees wearing jasmine flowers walk side by side with women in ripped jeans and funky sneakers. The city’s landscape exhibits the architectural evolution over several centuries and what we see today is an assortment of styles comprising of ancient Tamil temples built by the Pallavas, the Indo-Saracenic form that pioneered in Madras during the colonial era, and the twentieth-century skyscrapers. The architecture of Chennai grew around the English settlement of Fort St George and slowly expanded to include the surrounding towns and villages.

Chennai, being the first major English settlement, initially witnessed several constructions in Greek & European designs. The growing nationalism during the 1800s began to reflect itself on the architecture of the city. Native Indian methods of construction were imbibed into Madras’s architecture. Thus leading to the origin of Indo-Saracenic architecture towards the end of the nineteenth century. Victorian architecture borrowed largely from the Islamic architecture of the Mughal period and was primarily a mixture of Hindu and Mughal design elements (arches, central domes, and colored glass. Today, Chennai the capital city of Tamil Nadu is one of the largest municipal economies of India and is well connected to most destinations by road, rail and air. Besides, the city has a growing number of rapid transport systems, metro rails, IT Parks, Offices, Hotels, Multiplexes, and Malls. Despite its urban chaos Madras has managed to preserve its lung spaces. The Estuary, Guindy National Park, IIT Madras, and the Theosophical Society are examples of Chennai’s rich greenery. European colonists brought in architectural styles such as the Neoclassical style, Romanesque architecture, and Gothic architecture into the Indian subcontinent. Although several European colonists, including the Portuguese and the French, influenced the architecture of Madras, it was the British settlement that left a lasting impact on the city’s architecture. Starting with utilitarian structures, factories, and warehouses several types of buildings such as public buildings, educational institutions, churches, and bungalows were built during this period. Most of the buildings were constructed based on London prototypes. One such example is the Pachaiyappa’s Hall in Madras which replicates the Athenium Temple of Theseus.

Indo-Saracenic Architecture | Architecture of Chennai

Indo-Saracenic, also known as Indo-Gothic, was a revival architectural form of the nineteenth century, it sought to mimic classic Indian architectural techniques, including the Rajasthani architecture, the classic Maratha designs, and architectural marvels of the Mughal era. The overall layout of the buildings constructed using the Indo-Saracenic concepts shared similarities to the contemporary buildings built in Neo-Classical and Gothic revival architecture. The Southern Railway headquarters, the Ripon Building, the Victoria Public Hall, and the anatomy building of the Madras Medical College are examples of Indo-Saracenic-style structures built in Chennai.

Architecture of Indian Cities Chennai- The Detroit of India - Sheet1
LIC building ©

Art Deco

Art Deco often referred to as Deco, is a technique of architecture and design that originated in France just before World War. It blended modern architecture with fine craftsmanship. Art Deco represented luxury, comfort, and belief in social and technological growth.  From the 1900s onwards, many buildings in George Town were built in the Art Deco style of architecture.

Architecture of Indian Cities Chennai- The Detroit of India - Sheet2
Victoria Public Hall ©
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Art Deco architecture ©

Agraharam Architecture

Some residential localities in Chennai such as Triplicane and Mylapore have several houses built using the concepts of Agraharam architecture. These designs comprise of traditional Tamil style row houses with tiled sloping roofs constructed around a temple or a square courtyard.

An Example of Agraharam architecture ©
An Example of Agraharam architecture ©
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Temple Architecture ©

Urban Planning in Chennai | Architecture of Chennai

After Independence, Madras experienced a boom in modern infrastructure. The construction of the LIC Building in 1959, the tallest building in the country at that time, represents the transition from the traditional lime-brick construction methodology to concrete column structures. The presence of the weather radar at the Chennai Port, however, prevented the construction of buildings taller than sixty meters within a radius of ten kilometers. As a result, the city could only grow horizontally, unlike other metropolitan cities which showed a significant vertical expansion. However, the southern and south-western regions of Chennai are witnessing vertical growth with the construction of skyscrapers and buildings with about fifty floors. Chennai is divided into four parts: North, Central, South, and West. North Chennai is primarily an industrial area. Central Chennai is Chennai’s commercial hub and includes a prominent business locality, Parry’s Corner. South and West Chennai, previously residential, are fast becoming commercial and are now a growing home to several businesses. Chennai city has a Cartesian grid layout. Many areas along the western stretch of the city were planned development efforts, mainly Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar, and Anna Nagar. Several areas south of the Adyar River, including Kotturpuram, Besant Nagar, and Adyar itself, have been developed only since the mid-1960s. The city of Madras is still expanding rapidly along the Old Mahabalipuram Road and the Grand Southern Trunk (GST road) Road in the south and towards Sriperumbudur in its west.

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Madras Port in 1996 ©
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Chennai Central station ©

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.