The Tryptic Note’s second summer destination takes us a bit further. We explore the mountains, valleys and lakes of Kashmir, India, also known as “Paradise on Earth”. While breathing in the fresh mountain air and drinking glacial water from rivers, we couldn’t help but notice the architecture of the region. On first sight, the buildings in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir look like they’re in transition. They appear as if they are either being constructed or torn down. It doesn’t take long to understand why. The city is only just recovering from a deadly flood that submerged a large part of the city in September 2014. This incident comes up in conversations a lot, be it with your concierge, the handicrafts seller or your shikhara (small kashmiri boat) driver.
This is a city where life happens in equal measure on land and on water. Its economy is mainly driven by tourism and one of the highlights is the Dal Lake. It is not uncommon to see signs that say ‘Dal lake is our identity’ and pleas to save the lake from pollution. The Dal Lake (18-22 square kilometers in surface area) houses more than 1000 house boats, with smaller shikharas offering rides around the lake to tourists. Some of these shikharas have been converted into floating handicrafts stores and cafes, which allow tourists to shop and enjoy a steaming cup of kahwa (kashmiri green tea) without taking a step outside the boat or even stopping. Apart from the lake, there are magnificent Mughal gardens and the old city to be experienced. And it was these narrow alleys of the old city that caught our fancy.
The buildings in the old city showcase the traditional architecture of Kashmir, in all forms and stages. Most of these buildings have been modernized, most commonly by adding CGI sheets to the sloping roofs. In other cases, mud flooring has been changed to tile or brick buildings have been demolished to be replaced by concrete structures. The climate of Kashmir can be described as harsh in winter, summer and monsoon. It is also an area susceptible to earthquakes which are unpredictable. This calls for a building system that is insulating and structurally flexible. The materials used in traditional construction include stone, mud, brick and wood. These are all locally available, which can normally be sourced from the same site or some place nearby. This may have been a result of difficulty in transporting materials long distances over steep slopes or treacherous terrain common in the region.
Traditionally, there are two main building systems: Dhajji system and Taq system.
Dhaji Diwari is a type of mixed timber and masonry construction. It consists of brick masonry interlaced with a well laid out timber framing with diagonal bracing that provide a direct path for seismic loads.
Taq system is a masonry construction with heavy, horizontal timber bands and has a large number of windows in between these load bearing piers
In both these kinds of construction, the walls are lightweight, which helps withstand ground settlement.
What has been observed in Kashmir is that, traditional buildings are repaired with modern methods without proper understanding of its effect, which is invariably weakening the structures. Peoples’ aspirations for modern lifestyles together with rising prices for materials like durable wood are the main reasons for this shift. Only people with limited resources opt to retain their traditional homes. However whatever repairs these structures require are done with modern materials. This result in the slow loss of the regions built heritage and also poses direct threat to the residents in the form of destruction by natural calamities.
Another issue that needs to be addressed, which can be observed anywhere in the world, is the slow decline in the availability of skilled labour for local construction. Yes, modern materials can be mass produced and help with faster construction but local methods cannot be completely overlooked. It is of utmost important to retain traditional knowledge especially in a country like UAE where the local community is in minority and they live in a fast evolving society. For example, where in the UAE can we find experienced areesh builders? We have always emphasized the need to learn from vernacular building techniques and integrate them into modern design. It is almost always a system which has been optimized over time to suit the local context. Therefore, ‘vernacular architecture’ will always be ‘sustainable architecture’ to an extent.