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Introduction: Tamil Nadu was one of the first British settlements in India. The State is the successor to the old Madras Presidency, which covered the bulk of the southern peninsula in 1901. While it is known for its intricate temples, it is also home to some ancient techniques of using local materials. The state has a rich heritage in terms of design, ranging from the eclectic and eccentric architecture in Tiruvannamalai, to the beautiful handmade athangudi tiles in Chettinad.

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, near Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Design, like all forms of art and culture, is inherently political and is reflective of power dynamics that exist in the daily lives of everyday people. In this article we aim to highlight some of the local materials that are unique to this state, how small towns in this state have inspired trail blazers and how young designers take inspiration from history in their modern designs.

Post Modernism Inspiration: Tiruvannamalai is a spiritual epicentre, with colourful homes in asymmetrical shapes, juxtaposed against the brazen Indian landscape. While many of these homes may not have intentionally been built to aesthetically provoke, the architecture of this bustling South Asian city greatly inspired one of the most radical founding fathers of Postmodernism, Ettore Sottsass. The iconic pepper mills and corkscrews that Sottsass designed for Alessi in 1989, were born out of the 1988 furniture exhibition “Bharata,” leading to a collaboration with Indian craftspeople, which subsequently inspired Twergi’s turned wood object series.

It is not widely known that this architecture was a key influence on the Memphis Group postmodern design style.
An exhibit displaying some ceramic artwork by Ettore Sottsass

Athangudi Tiles: While athangudi sounds more like a place name than an option for floor tiles, today the product has made both the place and its tiles famous. Most of the designs are inspired from the Victorian tiles in England and are made in the Athangudi village of the Chettinadu region in Tamil Nadu. The traditional mode of production continues till date, maintaining a legacy and grandeur. 

Athangudi tiles are ecofriendly handmade floor tiles , named after Athangudi, the village where they originated and are made.

Athangudi tiles are basically cement tiles like mosaics, but unlike the machine pressed and produced mosaics, they are handmade over glass surfaces. To appreciate Athangudi tiles, it is important to understand their modes of production as well. Athangudi tiles do not incorporate ceramic, marble, or vitrified components in the making. Since these tiles are entirely handmade, they use eco-friendly materials that are readily available and don’t require the precision of a machine.

The mix of cement and coloured oxide in a liquid slurry state is individually poured into patterned moulds upon a glass piece. A thin layer of local sand is laid; the tile is then filled to three-fourth inch thickness with cement, sand and small stone aggregates or jelly to get the tile.

Athangudi Tiles are made by a unique process in Tamil Nadu.

 The manufacturers believe it is the local soil which imparts the tiles their character and easy to create the beautiful patterns. The local sand’s high laterite content means the tiles will never lose their shine, even with use over time. It is then cured in water for a minimum of 21 days and readied for laying. Geometric and floral patterns in red, blue, green, and grey, are common. While manufacturers usually use template-based patterns, they may also create free-hand designs. A complete Athangudi tile usually consists of smaller tiles put together.

The proportion is very important in the tile making process since the wrong proportion can create cracks in the tiles. 

The Athangudi tiles are low maintenance on one hand and the sheen improves with time. The Athangudi tile price range starts at Rs. 60 – 65 per sq.ft. including the labour cost for laying. They are easy to install and these tiles are also very durable for decades.Used in the right place and context, Athangudi tiles are among the sustainable solutions ahead of us.  You can explore the aesthetics of this tile in a modern context in the homes designed by architect Benny Kuriakose.

Various designs are possible and it is left to the imagination of the designer. 

Sustainability: Sustainability is a large and often misunderstood term, and when clubbed with design, one is left wondering what they are dealing with. Sustainable Design is a larger-than-life concept, a way of life, a changing pattern of use, not simply a fad to get behind. Multiple designers and design students continue to struggle with the question of how one can achieve this. The success in many projects undertaken by designers in this state can be attributed to their ever changing perspective.

The Sustainable Livelihood Institute is a unique initiative by the Government of Tamil Nadu- It is the only Institute of its kind in all of South Asia offering Sustainable Livelihood Capacity Building solutions. 

One such individual is Aravind Manoharan, a civil engineer by profession. He specialises in buildings that are constructed using traditional techniques and locally available materials. One of the most interesting construction techniques has been the one he used to build a home for his uncle in Tamil Nadu’s Tirupur district. The 3200 sqft home is being built using jaggery and egg whites.

Aravind Manoharan lending a helping hand during the construction process.

After conducting a series of interviews with local villagers, he found that jaggery acts as a great bonding agent while the use of egg whites in the plaster gives the walls a polished look. These were materials that the locals had been using themselves for many years. The engineer realised that he did not possess the knowledge on how these materials were to be integrated in the construction process. So, he roped in some of the masons he had spoken with earlier, as they knew how to go about building the structure. These men, in turn, passed this information to the other masons working on the project.

Plantain leaves are used between the wood and the brick in order to prevent termite attacks

The walls are made using conventional bricks but in place of cement, they are made out of a mixture of lime mortar, sand, jaggery, crushed kadukkai (yellow myrobalan) and water. The plastering on the bricks is done in five layers and this helps in ensuring the breathability of the building with more oxygen inside.The first base of plastering is done using a mixture of lime, sand and water. The second and third layer is plastered using a mix of water, lime and crushed kadukkai. The fourth layer comprises lime, water and talcum powder while the fifth and the final layer, it’s a mix of lime and water again with egg whites. 

Egg whites being mixed into the plaster

The use of local materials and labour reduces your ecological footprint. With the right exposure and knowledge, ancient techniques can still be used in more contemporary design. Chennai based Midori architects, lead by Suraksha Acharya embodies this concept. Designers are now turning to eco-friendly materials which are available locally in their quest to build cement-free, sustainable homes, there is no doubt that this trend in construction is here to stay.

The Aero Hive, my Midori Architects is a breathing entity. The breath of this building transpires through vertical diaphragms in the form of green sky atriums that behave as lungs, performing the intake of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide. 

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