Shelter by the sea

The collective architecture of the plush beach houses on the ECR speaks of a highly-refined taste and class. Prince Frederick takes a trip down the beach to see houses that blend with the sea and the sand



AS you drive through the many roads that lead you off East Coast Road to the Bay of Bengal, you will notice many a house thumbing its nose at the constructivist, utilitarian, and an almost anti-aesthetic approach that defines urban architecture. Features that repeat themselves with great frequency are meticulously tended gardens, galleries that provide a panoramic view of the sea, balconies that have been corbelled out and balconettes that make the windows stand out. And, all the houses are capped by saddleback roofs with beautifully undulating red tiles, which, interestingly, is the most easily recognisable feature that runs through the ECR. This common aesthetics is in keeping with one of the Coastal Regulation Zone norms that says: “The design and construction of the buildings shall be consistent with the surrounding landscape and the local architectural style.” But whatever uniformity that you find is far from being monotonous. The collective architecture of the plush beach houses on the ECR speaks of a highly-refined taste and class that does not pale on you, no matter how many times you clap eyes on them.

“Beach houses should blend with the sea and the sand,” says Iranian architect Shahriar Dehghan, who has made Chennai his home and the ECR his stomping ground. His creative energies have given shape and style to beach houses that actively respond to their surroundings. “Beach houses should look like they have risen naturally out of the landscape. The building should not deform the natural beauty of the seafront. Be it 1,200 sqft or 10,000 sqft, a garden and a swimming pool are a must in a beach house. Construction of beach houses entails a study of geographical aspects such as climate and wind direction.”

One of the CRZ norms has it that beach houses cannot have more than one floor. Does this restriction stunt creativity? “On the contrary, this norm contributes heavily to the beauty of a beachside neighbourhood. World over, only cities and towns that are free of highrises score high on beauty. Within the city you are constrained to go vertical because of factors such as land prices and non-availability of vacant plots. Along the ECR, you can rise above this restriction. Land prices are relatively low, and those who go for beach houses are invariably people with enough means to purchase quite a chunk of land. Considering all this, where is the need to abandon aesthetics for functionality?”

And aesthetics sells on ECR, even if it comes with a hefty price tag.

“NRIs, expatriates, highly-paid software engineers who work on the parallel Old Mahabalipuram Road and other high income groups are increasingly settling down on ECR. They have the wherewithal to go for forms and structure that are based on Mediterranean or any other European architecture,” says Emmanuel Fernandez of Espana Builders and Developers, who are active on this road.

“Rental business is on an upswing. There are many beach houses that bring in a rent of Rs. 80,000 to one lakh. The demand for rental houses outstrips the supply by a long chalk.”

“With the NRIs showing an interest in ECR, land prices have spiralled. In the last few years, Neelangarai has registered an almost two-fold increase. Not uncommonly, landowners name their price and get it,” says M.M. Ahmed of Mariam and Co.

Norms violation

 As more and more people are bowled over by the charm of living on the ECR, violations are on the rise. It is said that there are quite a number of buildings that fly in the face of the CRZ stipulation that “construction/reconstruction of dwelling units between 200 and 500 metres of the High Tide Level (HTL) is permitted as long as it is within the ambit of traditional rights and customary uses such as existing fishing villages.”

“Thanks to such violations, CMDA notices fly thick and fast,” says Mr. Fernandez.

“As most of those who want to live very close to the sea are generally the rich, it is not much of a problem to them if their piece of property is not approved. They tell themselves `anyway we are not going to apply for building loans,'” says Rozario of Nathan Builders. In point of fact, land within 500 metres of HTL fetches its owner a higher price.

The growth along ECR has not been uniform, but conspicuously haphazard. Says Mr. Dehghan, “Land prices in Neelangarai are higher than they are in Pallavakkam which comes before Neelangarai. But after Neelangarai, land value dips greatly. But when you reach Akkarai, it goes up. The reasons are not far to seek. Neelangarai is a well-planned locality with an excellent layout. The same cannot be said of the other areas. They are characterised by the same shoddy planning that has wrecked Valmiki Nagar.”

Drainage system

 He comes down on the poor drainage system along the ECR. “You do not develop an area by laying roads and then dig them up to lay pipes. It is like putting the cart before the horse. Thorough planning should precede development.”

In many localities along the ECR, water is a sore point. Only bore-level water seems suitable for drinking purposes. And one cannot miss the lack of communion among neighbours. Many feel that they cannot count on their next-door residents for help during an emergency. Probably for this reason, many go for a security cover offered by not less than three dogs. Most of the roads that lead off the ECR culminate in fishermen’s villages. Those living in plush beach houses see in these fisherfolk a ready and willing help during an emergency.

Well, if you count the advantages and the disadvantages of living near the beach, you will in all likelihood find six of one and half a dozen of another. But there is one advantage that tips the scales – peace and quiet. It cannot be gainsaid that beach houses along the ECR provide these in an abundant measure. Longtime residents of Neelangarai, Rukmini Claes and her husband Rene Claes vouch for it.



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