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New Goa of old


The town of Hobson’s Bay in Australia may appear to have little in common with Goa. But while the lifestyle and culture may be worlds apart, architecturally the two share a pivotal guiding principle. Or at least, they should, according to several Goan architects.

Hobson’s Bay has guidelines for its heritage areas that ensure new developments “do not distort historic evidence of heritage places.” The recommendation is to create spaces that are “contemporary but sympathetic.”

A troop of Goan architects who make up the task force advising the government on land policies, now say the same historically-sensitive guidelines should apply in Goa too.
Architect Arvind D’Souza says: “Our lament is that there is no legislative or social awareness. In most new structures the interpretation of traditional architecture is gimmicky rather than real. Slap dash arches and shell windows are imitative at a very shallow level.”

More visible than the traditional wood and laterite houses hidden amidst foliage are faux Goan-Portuguese houses, villas, apartment blocks and gated communities, particularly on the coastal belt.

In the absence of guidelines, activists say that crumbling old houses are being replaced by condos with little room for aesthetic interpretation of the Goan style – which Gerard da Cunha of Architecture Autonomous, defines as a result of the “first sustained encounter between the East and the West.”

Experts find elements of Konkani style from pre-Portuguese times, especially in religious buildings, combined with Classical Italian features, notable in facades and plinths, overlaid by romanticism in the 19th century. According to da Cunha, Goan architectural identity has much to do with its “hot and humid” climate and it is the unique way of life that has led to indigenous architecture.

A simple road trip around Goa will familiarise you with houses that open into courtyards with built-in seating – the balcões – and rarely on to streets, welcoming visitors into their homes while adhering to privacy. Dean D’Cruz, a native Goan and architect, says: “The key aspect of traditional Goan architecture is its scale and relationship to the streetscape. The front of the building facing the road, being the most important, is treated with formality. But as one moves through the house, spaces and rear elevations start becoming much more informal.”

Consciously or unconsciously, a usable verandah is retained by most new homes even today. In Hindu homes you would find an angan and a Tulsi shrub. For fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani’s house in Goa, D’Souza created an angan. “It’s a contemporary house with an internal courtyard because he wanted to see the rain falling in the house,” says the architect.
Goa’s houses are characterised by climate-related elements. High plinths prevent rising damp, corbels protect from the rain, wraparound verandahs protect from the monsoon, steep roofs allow for fast drainage, and openings at floor level and in the false ceiling along with courtyards induce ventilation. The other staples of Goan architecture are Mangalore tiles and country tiles for roofing, with even new constructions favouring a slanting roof.

Materials are also very particular to Goa. Many swear by laterite instead of concrete walls as thermal transmission is reduced and therefore coolness is increased. D’Cruz, who is on the government’s task force for land use, says: “Laterite is still a sensible material to use – as it does not use any industrial processing; does not need to be transported great distances; is labour-intensive in its extraction and encourages the local economy.”

Other local materials found in older homes include shell lime and river pebbles, making place for rounded rather than edgy architecture. According to da Cunha: “Rivers were dredged for shells – from which good quality lime was produced for mortar and plaster.”

One feature that has made the transition from traditional to new developments is the use of colour. Developers and home owners have no hesitation in painting their duplexes or row houses orange, lime green, mustard, maroon, lavender or yellow. Traditionally, Goan houses were painted with natural dyes – mainly red oxide, yellow ochre and indigo. D’Souza, when he shifted to Goa more than a decade ago to a restored old home, says he was often asked if the house was a chapel since the outer walls were painted white. He says: “There was a Portuguese dictum about only churches being painted white.”

Inside the house, China mosaic flooring, graffito borders on wet plaster, mythological themes in frescoes were common.
Nilaya and Laguna Anjuna by Dean D’Cruz, Loulou’s Panchvati, Arvind D’Souza’s work for the Goa Marriott and the Torda SPCA centre have all contributed to keeping the aesthetic alive, with useful add-ons.

For instance, while older houses relied heavily on wood, D’Souza believes that new options are required. “Wood, tiles and rafters are not good for air-conditioning. Today, a structural frame made of concrete works better.”

D’Cruz, whose Nilaya is characterised by wide open spaces that bring in the tropics, says: “While traditional Goan architecture links with the outside through its balcões, verandahs, framed windows and courtyards, there is very strict definition of inside and outside. The old architecture may look very pretty, but its general response to basic issues of light and ventilation is very poor. Contemporary Goan architecture needs to blur this line and provide a better integration with the outside – especially in this climatic region where simple shading provides comfortable space.”

Gerard da Cunha created his own set of guidelines when he worked on the award-winning Jindal Vijaynagar Steel Plant. These included: unique identity; climatically comfortable; safe for children; built largely with pre-fabricated systems; flexible in planning to cater for expansion and change; modern with use of state-of-the-art technology; visually interesting with streetscapes; urban in character; and inspired by the region.

Keeping in mind the character of the state, buildings should be “no higher than a coconut tree,” says D’Souza, citing an old Portuguese by-law.

Excessive use of glass, leading to overheating and consumption of power, construction of high-rises and buildings that do not take the rains into account seem to be the major concerns. In Hobsons Bay, guidelines include specifying ridge lines, roof springing line, verandah levels, window-sill levels and fence heights. D’Cruz says: “The footprints of these buildings should not be large, especially in residential developments and the FARs definitely not above 50. The sloping roof, an important element, can be used more innovatively to allow for channeling hot air escapes and directing views.”

But what is best is not always tied to rules. D’Souza, who restores heritage homes as well as making contemporary ones, says he feels he has done a good job when people “feel that they are in Goa, but they don’t know why.” 

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