It was the early ’90´s and one of my first Architectural jobs was in Chennai in India. It was a time of recession in the U.K. and just finishing up my first degree in Architecture I was having trouble finding a placement, but a mutual friend put me on to a possible job in India and a few months later I was stepping onto the tarmac of Chennai Airport. Coming from the UK the shock of the sub continent was something I wasn’t really prepared for, with the little experience of work of any kind I had at the time working there only added to my confusion and trepidation. During the first few days there trying to acclimatise, I felt like I was on another planet not just a different continent.
Working in an Office there was a real wake up call, it involved a different approach to Architecture from what I was used to in University. The process of reading background books, studying the site and looking at past precedents was subsumed by the need for speed and the one paragraph brief.
A good example of this was a housing development for a union, which happened to be one of the first projects that I worked on there. They wanted some twenty houses for their members and we had to lay out an area and design the individual houses. There was no money to install electricity from the nearest mains supply, and likewise the only water supply we could get was to install a shared ground water pump.
We couldn’t use glass either, it would just break and be costly to replace I was told. How then to have windows to provide light and ventilation to the inside of the houses? More to the point how the hell would I design these houses at all, none of my training had involved really having to think about budget or what to do in the most basic of circumstances. With all the imaginary art galleries and houses I’d designed none of my Architectural training really at all addressed the reality of the types of buildings I needed to design here.
It was then that the Jali was introduced to me, or the Indian Architectural take on the perforated screen. A jali if you look it up in an Architectural book will usually return lots of results about Mughal Architecture like the Taj Mahal, however in India I soon found out, it is used everywhere for all types of buildings and all budgets. The Jali method then for brick buildings at least is to miss out bricks in a wall to make an opening which will let in light and air but still preserve privacy.
In our housing project making a simple pattern of a window for the main rooms and a strip opening for the ‘bathroom’ allowed us to omit windows altogether. Over the next few months I used the Jali technique in almost every building I worked on, even on higher budget buildings.
Then there was the problem of providing expandable living space, as again the budget only covered the bare minimum. That was also not a problem. I was told to put in a set of stairs up to the roof. This roof space became a secondary bedroom that could could be later enclosed by the family that owned the house if they wanted to.
Nothing about these basic techniques were new but through them I learnt an approach to design and building that really gave me an insight into a much more direct design sensibility. It was the simplicity of what I was required to do that was really confusing at first, but soon I grew to love it. Up to that point Architecture had for me been mostly an intelectual process like writing an essay at school, but in India I grew to love the speed and directness of the solutions we needed to make. I loved going on site and meeting clients and though I can’t say that my experience in India was the time I committed myself to the profession I definitely learnt to stop worrying and love Architecture.
A good starting point for the incorporation of the Jali into a modern Architectural language might be checking the work of Laurie Baker, also I note that the Jali gets incorporated from the most luxury contemporary Indian design, a good example is Out of the Box house by Cadence, to much more humble projects like this prise winning student project in an Indian slum.
For expandable slum design see a great project by Elemental from Chile and their Quinta Monroy project in Iquique. Photo of Laurie Bakers Jali wall by DraconianRain.