The Transition from Madras to Chennai

Madras was a city of varied history and rich architectural heritage. A confluence of different styles, the city’s architectural palette covers a wide range right from the ancient Chola and Pallava temples to the Indo – Saracenic structures of the British Raj, to the fashionable Art Deco buildings of the 1930s. The city formed a backdrop to a lively exchange between its inhabitants and informed their collective sense of identity.

However, the city of Madras no longer exists. Its architecture is fading from sight, being buried under the incoherent and ill – thought globalised forms of Chennai, a confused metropolis with an ambiguous architectural identity. While vague reminders of the erstwhile city are still visible, it is only a matter of time before they are pulled down in favour of fresh structures of increased commercial value. This is widely seen in areas like Mylapore and Georgetown where a number of heritage structures have been ignored for the time being as owners wait for the buildings to fall due to the unaffordability of the process of conservation and reuse. Along with these historic markers and the rich cultural heritage that they represent, we are also losing the sense of community and urban to the non – place that is the modern world. Is there an effective way to save these structures? Do they need saving? How could they become useful contributions to contemporary society?

This thesis would focus on the Georgetown area and it proposes to study existing abandoned heritage structures and to investigate the possibilities for such structures. This area is suitable for such a study as it presents multiple complexities that are unique to the Indian condition. The project is seen as a commentary on Chennai’s existing urban conditions and the reasons for its present position. It is aimed at creating a model to revive and rejuvenate neighbourhoods of historical importance in decay for community engagement and also to investigate their worth and practicality in contemporary society.

The Need for a Third Space

Chennai is a city that no longer possesses a significant third space for public gathering and dialogue. Initially, before the existence of Chennai as a city, the public space was essentially the street, where it was easy for those inhabiting a particular neighbourhood to interact on a daily basis. This changed with the arrival of the British and the introduction of the idea of a “city”. New public spaces like esplanades and parks were introduced, however, these were controlled spaces for the occupiers rather than the citizens. Thus these spaces were never truly adopted by the local population as they did not identify with them and were ignored with the advent of the Indian Independence. “Chennai, like any other Indian or developing city, in the post-independence years, displayed a nonchalant attitude towards its open spaces, saddled as it was with the pressures of hyper-urbanisation, where unoccupied spaces were either squatted upon by the residents (both poor and rich alike) or developed by the state.” (Arabindoo, 2012)

The only remaining public spaces today are the Marina Beach as well as some religious structures and the multitude of malls that have cropped up in the city in the past decade. Such spaces come with their own restrictions as they exist to engage only certain sections of society, that is, a specific religious community or in the case of a mall, those who buy into the consumerist experience. While such spaces may be acceptable or even arguably necessary, there is a need for centres of active citizenship to exist, where people can come together and exchange thoughts and ideas, irrespective of their backgrounds and social status. However, a democratic public space is not an important part of the urban experience and hence, the city of Chennai is characterised by a sense of detachment of the citizens from their environment.



Arabindoo, P (2012). Bajji on the Beach. In Colin McFarlane and Michael Waibel (eds.) Urban Informalities: Reflections on the Formal and Informal (pp. 75). London : Ashgate.