Where have the pillars gone?
The first human shelter would have been made of a thatch roof supported by four tree trunks cut to the required height, the earliest form of our modern RCC columns!
What are the important elements of a building? It is a question that anyone may answer: foundation, floor, walls, doors, windows and roof. The answer appears correct when we look at the buildings, each one covered by a wall. However, buildings did not begin this way. They began with pillars and roofs, and not with walls and windows. The first human shelter would have been made of a thatch roof supported by four tree trunks cut to the required height, the earliest form of our modern RCC columns!
The size of the covered area would have decided the materials, which together would have influenced the quantity of consumption and durability of the structure. Here we notice how construction systems, materials, costs and life cycle were the earliest determinants of architecture. They continue to be so.
Expansive with columns
During the development of design ideas and the changing notion of shelter, walls gained prominence, reducing columns to the back seat. While walls create a room space, the space is actually enclosed within but the spaces created by columnar constructions are visible and expansive, creating a sense of largeness. Columns not only support the roof, but also add beauty to the building, as in Chettinadu houses of Tamil Nadu or Theravadu homes of Kerala.
Traditionally many natural materials lent themselves to be used as pillars — stone, brick and wood being the most prominent. Invariably carved and decorative, these pillars would welcome any visitor home, being in the front of the building. The pillared verandahs cost little, but provide sheltered area for a range of activities. The internal court would have corner pillars, ensuring open planning for the rest of the home. Even a multi-storey palace or pilgrims’ choultry would have many pillars at each level, ably supporting the floors.
Living patterns have no doubt changed, but the time-tested relevance of pillars has not. Somewhere down the line, we seem to have forgotten how to use pillars. No wonder, today building elevations exhibit no pillars, but have a dozen of them within even a small house.
Replacing walls by pillars actually works to our ecological and economical advantage. Pillars reduce material consumption, as could be seen in the traditional courtyard homes with minimal walls. While allowing roof-level shelters, pillared structures do not stop air and light, as could be seen in any large temple complex. Goan ‘balcao,’ Kerala ‘mukha mantapam’ and rural Karnataka ‘jagali’ are all illustrations of simple shaded shelters created by rows of columns. Open sheds continue to dot our towns, housing anything from cars to cattle, besides being garden pavilions.
An ornately carved pillared construction could be costly, obsolete and near impossible now, yet a variety of material and design options continue to be available to us, for a judicious blend of walls and pillars.