cul·ture | \ ˈkəl-chər \
Merriam-Webster defines culture as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group. Whether we like it or not, we cannot evade culture. Our human existence means the existence of culture, whether it be in the form of long-inherited traditions or short-lives fads.
So it is no surprise that architecture and culture are intertwined since time immemorial. As philosopher Edward S. Casey wrote, “The very word culture meant ‘place tilled’ in Middle English, and the same word goes back to Latin colere, ‘to inhabit, care for, till, worship’ and cultus, ‘A cult, especially a religious one.’ To be cultural, to have a culture, is to inhabit a place sufficiently intensely to cultivate it—to be responsible for it, to respond to it, to attend to it caringly.”
If you look at ancient civilizations and cultures, you would find that primitive lifestyles were often in perfect harmony with nature. The tipis of Native Americans were exemplary in sustainable vernacular architecture – The Pawnee and Kaw tribes built impressive earth lodges set on timber beam-and-post foundations, sheathed with thin rails, and then covered with tightly packed earth.
When we consider sustainability in its holistic definition, we find cultural sustainability very much in its ambit. The United Nations Development Program includes social, economic and environmental sustainability as the philosophy’s three core tenets.
History and sustainability
Threats to the environment aren’t new. As far back as the fifth century B.C., the Greek world was completely devoid of trees and this worried people. To reduce the use of wood as fuel for heating and lighting, architects of that age began to design their houses to take advantage of the available solar gain for heat and light through south-facing openings and courtyards. And thus the peristyle was born!
Prevalent in Hellenistic Greek and later Roman architecture, these spaces also housed statues of the Lares – the gods of the household and thus performed the function of spiritual balance in the household. The Roman domus structure served as the larger built form where such a courtyard was situated.
Solar energy in the global west during Ancient times became so important that the Justinian Codes introduced “sun rights”, in order to guarantee everyone the right to access sunlight.
Going back to the Indian subcontinent, the indigenous courtyard is nothing short of a sustainable marvel in architecture. Argued as the Indian counterpart of the Roman Domus, the humble courtyard has been interpreted and appropriated in multiple climatic contexts. In warm humid climates, the tharavadus of Kerala had their ettu and padinaarukettus function as spaces for gathering and act as voids for ventilation and natural light. Or the grandiose Chettinad houses in Tamil Nadu, where the courtyard can literally hold grand functions and marriages and contribute to the passive features of the houses. Or even the courtyards in the pol houses of Ahmedabad, which break the compact, dense units into livable, breathable homes. There’s a courtyard for every season and reason!
I won’t be lying if I tell you that the courtyard is the one architectural feature that unites Indians across the country. The first courtyard houses originated in India and date back to 6000-6500 BC.
Culturally sound architecture is often found in vernacular forms – whether it is the Toda huts of Nilgiris or the grand palaces in Rajasthan. The Toda huts were constructed with local materials and were specially allocated for the Daily rituals. In a typical Toda hamlet, elaborately built huts are part of the dairy rituals and hence are secluded from the rest of the settlement. These huts are constructed of bamboo poles, mud and granite slabs, and house dairy products which are considered sanctimonious by the tribe.
The stepwells of Adalaj were made as spaces to bathe, wash and cool off and witnessed many celebrations too. In such an arid climate, the stepwells maintained a cool 27-24 C since they were situated below the ground level, and were made of sandstone.
But culture is not a historical monolith frozen in time!
We all know that culture pervades us, from the digital art we adore to hate (“my two-year-old niece could have made that!”) to the endless Maya Sarabhai memes we send to our friends. So it is myopic to assume culture as something solely dealing with tradition and heritage – contemporary culture also has its traditions and orthodox social etiquettes. Updating your farcical solidarity about social issues but are these cultures beneficial to the sustainability movement? Or are they superficial?
Sustainability in the age of Instagram and the internet
In the internet culture of fast news and faster fads, sustainability has been a topic hotter than the heatwave in India. And so, like any ‘good’ Samaritan, architects would jump the gun to address these “pressing issues” that need to be alleviated. I am looking at every other starchitect who claims they can solve a problem as systemic as climate change, through their farcical ‘architectural’ panacea. Every other project is sprinkled with vertical gardens and complex aquaponics. Everyone likes to look at lush, luxurious sweeps of exotic plants on rooftops because apparently saving the planet can be a glamorous affair too!
Lakis Polycarpou, in his thought-provoking piece questions the environmental entitlement that older starchitects have, and openly condemns their neglect towards the environment. He further goes on to call out big names like Peter Eisenman and Eric Owen Moss (former director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture) for their abject apathy towards sustainability. I was enraged when I was reading it, and so should you be.
So to iterate my point, we have been a sustainable bunch ever since we got hold of our resources. Our building practices, spatial planning and even aesthetic choices were based on climatic cues, keeping sustainability at its heart. However, it is only in the recent half-a-century that we have begun to forget our sustainable cultures collectively. So to answer the question – it is not whether sustainable architecture can be culturally oriented, but how it has been so for millennia.