Indian is famed for the richness and vibrancy of its colour, from the temples, to the clothing and the spices. Travellers to India return with eyes filled with new ways of appreciating the colours of life around us. However one city offers a colour secret that is even more surprising, with colourful buildings that look both charmingly naive and startlingly futuristic. One part Lego, one part Miami Beach Art Deco, the colourful houses of Tiruvannamalai seem to be a totally postmodern puzzle.
Tiruvannamalai is a city in Tamil Nadu, southern India, based around a 9th century temple and Ashram. But amid its traditional architecture is also a high concentration of these domestic buildings typified by bright clashing colours and geometric shapes used for decorative as well as practical ends. Writer Francoise Dorget travelled to the city with photographer Vincent Leroux to investigate and document the buildings for Architectural Digest, and noted the striking resemblance of the houses to the style of Ettore Sottsass, pioneer of the postmodern Memphis design group which rose to fame in the 1980s. The writer notes that many of these buildings date from the 1940s, and suggests them as a clear influence on the witty, child-like designs of Memphis. Images of some of the buildings taken by Sottsass even appeared in an article he wrote in 1977.
Although much of Memphis’ legacy now lives on in large-scale postmodern buildings – think of the candy-striped tower of 1 Poultry in the City of London, or the citadel-style MI6 building by Waterloo Bridge – the buildings in Tiruvannamalai are largely domestic, and designed and built by the families who live in them, right down to the colour schemes. Dorget describes being invited into one of the houses by its owner, “the interior was a staggering and kitsch pile of altars covered with offerings, beds with shimmering fabrics … The computer was enthroned on a piece of furniture with asymmetrical shelves, painted with motifs in the purest vocabulary of the Memphis spirit: oblique geometries, cubes, organisation of colors …”
Who influenced who may remain a mystery, as does the first inspiration for the forward-looking house builders of Tiruvannamalai. But in 1990, writing in Terrazzo magazine, Sottsass himself saluted the spirit of these self-builders. “The people who drew the houses I photographed during my travels seem to me a bit of the stuff of those who sail the open seas of architecture,” he wrote. “I am ready to be a “voyeur” of architecture.”