Diu, Guzerate, India
The historic city of Diu maintains a stable urban unity that has marked it practically since it was first established, even though the initial core around the Catholic houses of worship and the administrative buildings is somewhat disfigured. Various early buildings are in ruins and rampant urbanisation with new uncharacteristic neighbourhoods has ‘invaded’ territories once exposed to the European city landscape and now at risk of decharacterisation.
Some clusters or neighbourhoods nevertheless remain stable, though also affected by the replacement of buildings of acknowledged architectural quality that marked the city’s identity by others out of sync with the urban unity.
The turreted house associated to volume(s) with patios and terraces will doubtless be the typology of choice, perhaps the one that best expresses the vernacular architecture of this place of syntheses and meeting of cultures, here refined and also disseminated. Methods, construction technologies and especially ways of living associated to the house’s expression configure a specific identity for this typology strongly marked by Islam, although Hinduism also had an ancestral and vigorous presence in the city, so there were mutual influences.
The turreted house is identified by the fact that it rises over the others from a square base volume, though in a later phase some also become longitudinal by adding rooms. The closeness of the houses marked by this typology in the block unit is one of the most significant aspects of urban expression. Sometimes we move through mazelike byways leading to dead-ends surrounded by turrets. Only two different urban clusters include this typology, respectively next to the Market and the old Customs-House Square, pertaining to wealthy families, and the smaller houses of a lower social condition next to the western gate.
These tower houses, from the Mediterranean port tradition, earned the label ‘ship-lookouts’ in the Atlantic islands and some Portuguese ports. In Diu they are also associated to the maritime life and function as indispensable sea observation towers.
In the old neighbourhood next to the market a number of tower houses survive such as the one pertaining to the Bhasabur Grina Parsiwada family, a perfect example of an aristocratic Hindu house in Diu. The space is duly arranged from the entrance hall where visitors are received, with the house’s intimacy protected by successive spaces. On the ground floor, the patio(s) regulate(s) part of this hierarchy, mainly domestic activities, also enabling ventilation of the rooms. Until a few years ago one of them housed the cow (which supplied fresh milk). In the continuation of the atrium, the turret marks the house’s main core, and to that end the walls, ceilings and principally the imposing wooden beams are adorned with delicate colourful paintings. The most curious thing about these turrets is their intermediate floor, with a 1.10 metre ceiling height between the ground floor hall and the master bedroom, used to store cereal. It functioned as a drying space, with cross-ventilation via screened openings. Its location above street level also protected it from rodents and other pests. The ‘sculptural’ staircases have high narrow steps up to the floor’s trap door. One last foot-size step in the corner marks the ‘lookout’ room’s threshold.
The terraces used to dry spices and other products also serve to collect rainwater and communicate via floor-level openings through the low walls separating units. These houses are raised on white limestone blocks; the floors are constituted by large wooden beams holding up slabs of the same plastered and sometimes paved stone. The street door, like some of those inside, is grilled, forming delicately wrought square patterns; the one at the entrance has small brass pendants. Noteworthy outside are the upper frames or baldachins, replete with elaborately wrought Hindu compositions; curiously, some examples built in the mid-20th century also include art nouveau reinterpretations. These doors, like other aspects of this typology with or without tower,
were transferred to Mozambique Island, where an important colony of families from Diu settled.
The Diu tower house also has a diffuse European founding identity present in some observed examples, namely in the house included in the 15th century Santana Convent and in the small fort at Patelwadi. In both cases, the tower organises the construction in defensive terms, for they are located at elevations offering clear views over the territory. At the convent, the site is coordinated with the city’s fortress as an important lookout point for keeping vigil against possible corsair attacks.
Another notable type is that of the Hindu houses with strong European art nouveau influence, which represent a significant part of Diu’s 20th century architectural and historic identity. The cultural miscegenation and respective stabilisation of a certain formal grammar led to an exhuberant period whose physical presence is almost solely situated in the Bairro da Porta district on the west side of the city. Houses with two or three floors have verandas and porches profusely adorned with friezes, balusters and figurative relief work, abstract and realist, besides elements of Oriental/Hindu composition. There are patios with exuberantly decorated columns and lintels, and separated balconies with fine filigree work attached to the façades, as well as elegant porches marked by eaves and hanging wooden ornamental bands. Inside, these houses maintain the typological tradition and almost always have a patio, even though they have assimilated some spatial nuances, mainly vis-à-vis horizontal and vertical circulation. The rooms and halls are profusely adorned with modern art blending with traditional oriental art and furniture meant to accompany the architectural expression.
Doorways in this neighbourhood can be quite exceptional: on the one hand they are as solid as a fortress, yet on the other they are marked by delicate lacelike decoration, both in the wood and the porch frames. The bright colours combine in a capricious play of tones, accentuating the street presence. These houses belong to rich merchant families that currently live in Mumbai; almost all have been closed since Diu joined the Indian Union.
This vernacular architecture combines various sources, probably empirical and sometimes ingenuous. But it nevertheless endows this place with a new source of identity by reinventing the ancestral local urban architecture from the standpoint of modernised formal language and the introduction of new scales and harmonies. It also imposes a typological revision, acting to catalyse a new and ultimate period of socio-cultural change.