THE MUSIC ACADEMY, Madras, is an eighty-year-old institution devoted to the cause of Carnatic Music. In 1957 it commissioned G.M.Bhuta and Associates, a Bombay based firm of architects and engineers to design a 'large auditorium to seat 1500 people' which would pay special attention to the acoustics of the hall so that 'the real voice of the musician could be heard by all without the use of microphones'. Modern architecture in India was undergoing a sea change during this period influenced by Corbusier and his designs for Chandigarh and some of his iconic buildings in Ahmedabad.
In 2006 when we were asked to evaluate the facilities, it was close to being totally dysfunctional and in need of major up-gradation starting from the interior of the hall, lighting and sound systems right down to the stage facilities and public areas. Toilets were inadequate and in a woeful condition, and most crucially, fire safety systems were non- existent.
Retrofitting work started with the addition of a new set of toilets to serve the balcony and upgrading the existing toilets to current standards. The makeshift cafeteria which was once in front next to the car park during the music festival was shifted to a space on the side of the hall and established permanently in an area created by demolishing a variety of defunct structures. The traffic flow and parking area were rationalised and a wide pedestrian space was created in front to handle the overflow from the lobby. Internally, the auditorium seating, air- conditioning, the sound system and lighting consoles were upgraded and relocated. Subsequently, the stage itself was enlarged by removing redundant utility spaces and other facilities - including the stage lighting - received a make-over.
Visually the most important task undertaken was the redesign of the main lobby. The large and airy two-storey lobby with circulation spaces at various levels was an exciting transition from the inside to the outside especially if one could imagine the walled in garden it was intended to open into. However, this imaginative dovetailing of spaces, while being typical features of Corbusier's designs, had its own practical limitations in that it was inadequate to shield the lobby from wind and rain. The obvious choice was to cover the spaces between the columns unobtrusively, with glass retaining the original character and friendliness of a transparent lobby visible from the street. The original panels of jalis which remained in structurally sound condition were restored and retained in two locations. The lobby interior, once austere, had a beautiful Cudappah stone floor which needed only minor repairs and re-polishing to recover its old quality. The walls which had been covered by miscellaneous signs and defunct wiring and piping were stripped bare and and panelled with rough sawn timber to match the natural stone floor. Corbusier was also an accomplished artist of the modern school and was known to introduce colour and his own works of art in his designs. That Bhuta was under his influence could be seen further by the fact that his original drawings show a long mural running all the way across the facade on a fascia that now bears the name of the hall. To make up for this we strove to bring some colour into the lobby. The reds and yellows that Corbusier was wont to use would have distanced the building from its South Indian moorings. The search for appropriate colours ended with the purple and golden yellow shades of the famed Kanchipuram sarees which share a common tradition with Carnatic music.