Rural Architecture: let’s not ignore it anymore!

“India lives in its villages,” said Gandhiji a long time ago. Today 67% of the population lives in rural areas. Like many other aspects about rural India, Rural Architecture remains an untalked issue. But today, when cities are exploding with overpopulation and villages are losing their identity due to insensitive interventions; we seriously need to talk about it. And not just talk but work on it as well.

The noted architect Norman Foster says “Architecture is an expression of values.” It took me a long time to understand what values. Somehow I happened to visit villages of tribal Jhabua. It is then that I can genuinely appreciate his words.

Architecture is everywhere, all around me, but ‘values’? The shining glasses, the concrete columns, the Mahals and forts say the story of influence, interference and power but not values. Then we see a space — a thatched sloping roof of Palash leaves, standing on a structure of stem and sticks. This space which in our terms could hardly be called a building, is built with so many emotions and serves life-sustaining functions. And when we realise this, we understand architecture as an expression of values.

In India, the study and scope of architecture — like many other fields of design & innovation — stays limited to city boundaries. I shouldn’t be surprised when one of my learned batchmates says we should focus on urban population and problems. He feels that rural India doesn’t require our attention, and it should grow as it grew for decades — in the neglected state.

The rural architecture of India is the only pure form of Indian architecture surviving. Everything else was a subject to interference and influence, but rural settlements still thrive with the approach of ‘for human’. While we talk of sustainable buildings and subsequent architecture, there are already millions of sustainable buildings in India. It is in rural architecture that we see the beautiful face of the intrinsic relationship between architecture and society. The walls not only create spaces; they also store the memories of culture, traditions and values, being transferred uninterrupted from generations to generations.

I would have partly agreed with my friend. I would have accepted that let rural architecture grow on its own — naturally, especially when we see where forced growth has led its urban counterpart. But, my concern is the infiltration that is reaching the rural areas. The systematic demoralisation of indigenous traditions by colonial outfits damaged the process of natural transfer of knowledge. A similar thinking encroached mentality of ‘educated modern Indians’ post-independence. It has dampened the confidence of villagers in their wisdom, and slowly ‘urban-like’ buildings have become a status symbol.

Even the limited conscious efforts that are put into rural architecture care little about rural sentiments(for example — PMAY-G). This direction of approach which comes from city schools and experience is disastrous than amounting to any worth.

Though realisation should have dawned on leaders right after they took the reign of India’s future after independence, at least now we should change the way we comprehend rural India. It is now that we counter the emotion of the line “67 % of the population still lives in rural area”. Well…there’s Nothing wrong in living in rural India. Instead, we should focus on how this population continues to prosper in rural areas. Now that cities are seeing inhuman expansion due to the influx of migration; this has become more important than ever.

It has also become important because more kinds of services are reaching to rural areas — roads, electricity and maybe gas pipelines in future. This exposure poses a threat to the rural nature of settlements. If responsive design solutions are not provided, the villages shall be lost to become a haphazard mess of suburban architecture.

We can start with architecture, and it doesn’t begin with intervention. It begins with involvement. The rural architecture of India needs to be preserved for its austerity and humanist approach. The study and scope of the architecture need to be aligned with 67% of the population.
It can begin with me, you or this generation, so that India continues to live through its villages — the places where architecture can be found as an expression of values.

[ All the pictures are self-taken in Jhabua. The article is based on experience and my understanding of ‘Rural Architecture: Address by Habib Rahman in a seminar on architecture, 1959. Source: https://architexturez.net/doc/az-cf-168643 ]

Mostly from experience - of tribal Jhabua, and the struggle of learning 'selfless passionate dedication for people'.