N. Mahesh talks about the coffee-table book Amazing Timber Resorts By Architect N. Mahesh, which examines how he has adapted Kerala’s timber architecture in a contemporary setting
Touch wood. Here is an architect who celebrates and keeps alive Kerala’s proud heritage of timber architecture by giving it a contemporary, upscale polish and vocabulary. A chunk of architect N. Mahesh’s enviable body of work is built up of resorts that organically and seamlessly harmonise the indoors and the outdoors. And showcasing his work over the years is Amazing Timber Resorts By Architect N. Mahesh, a coffee-table book, which is a compilation of resorts that Mahesh has designed over the years in different places in India and abroad.
Lavishly produced with breathtaking snaps of the resorts designed by him, the book takes you through their ambience, decor and landscaping; a journey through some of the most picturesque resorts in India, and one in Mombassa, Kenya.
“Last year, during an unexpected two-day break in Ahmedabad, I was trying to make a list of resorts I had designed and it suddenly struck me that they can’t be too many people in India who would have designed 15-plus world-class resorts that are comparable with the best in the world,” he says.
He got in touch with design editor Mridula Sharma and put forward the idea of a book that would compile the resorts he had built. Enthused by the idea, Mridula came up with the concept of a coffee-table book that would trace the legacy of timber architecture in Kerala and highlight how the same principles had been adapted, albeit in contemporary situations, without vandalising forests. The book also has sepia photographs of the traditional architecture of Kerala and some of its elegant buildings along with crisp explanations.
Balan Madhavan and Amit Pasricha, two renowned photographers, joined the team and they meticulously covered the destinations that have made Mahesh a name to reckon with in the field. “They stayed in each place and snapped photographs of the site and building at different hours, including the magic hours of the day to get a total feel,” explains Mahesh.
The work showcases how the buildings have been built to merge with the terrain. Serene backwaters, golden beaches, misty hills, verdant tropical forests and lush plantations provide the backdrop for the resorts that exist harmoniously with its surroundings. Three sprawling residences, which Mahesh calls personalised resorts, eulogise his design language of transforming interiors with images and materials that draw inspiration from tradition.
“I stumbled on our legacy of timber architecture quite inadvertently,” says Mahesh. True, as a leading architect of Kerala, Mahesh’s early buildings, while minimalistic and clean, did not follow the style or the designs he popularises now with evangelical zeal. “It dawned on me that we were ignoring our heritage of timber architecture and making buildings that did not take advantage of our climate and scenic landscapes. There has to be alternatives to mindless use of brick and mortar,” he explains. The first resort he designed was the Poovar Island Resorts in 1999-2000. Located on the picturesque backwaters of Poovar, Mahesh came up with a design that made the best use of local material and architectural vocabulary. “When I design something, I ensure that I keep my client’s budge and needs in mind. I improvised by incorporating thatched roofs, treated rubber wood and coconut timber into the design. Floating cottages, a new completely new concept I designed, gave tourists a new experience,” he says.
If the Lalit at Bakel takes you to the beachside, Zuri at Kumarakom transports you to the serene backwaters and the Vembanad Lake. Ananta in Pushkar, Rajastan, contrasts the harsh landscape with the soft lines and water bodies of the resort while you can feel the mists and the chill of the Tea County in Munnar. Diani Reef in Mombassa adapts the vernacular architecture of the land with pragmatic solutions. With each project, Mahesh seems be reaffirming his ability to evolve and adapt with changing times. Without that buccaneer’s instinct to test new waters, he would not have resigned his government job to pursue a career as an independent architect.
Mahesh was teaching architecture at the College of Engineering Trivandrum when he got the opportunity to work as site architect for Charles Correa’s project to build a resort of the ITDC at Kovalam. Mahesh quit and drew his own blueprint for a new career graph. Over the years, his firm Iyer and Mahesh has built resorts, institutional buildings, hotels and a few select residences.
“There is no marble in any of my resorts. There is no glitter. Many do not even have air conditioning. There is rustic luxury that capitalises on the landscape of the site,” he says.
Many of his resorts have been rated as ‘green buildings’ by internationally approved agencies. “We recycle the timber and use treated timber. None of my projects now uses teak form India. Instead, we use only ‘labelled timber’ from Burma and Malaysia,” he adds.
He feels that it is the exposure gained from travelling that has given him a vision and perspective that have shaped his designs. Bali is his inspiration and its influence can be seen in his many resorts. As he leaves in indelible impressions on tourist destinations, he also felt the need to need to groom a new generation of architects. Thus was started the College of Architecture on the outskirts of the Thiruvananthapuram with a separate chair for timber architecture. As he looks back on his four decades as an architect, Mahesh says he is eager to continue buildings picture-post card destinations that become an experience for visitors.
Amazing Timber Resorts By Architect N. Mahesh, will be released on November 26 in Thiruvananthapuram.
Mahesh is married to Latha. They have two sons, Hemant and Sumanth.
Mahesh and Latha have perhaps the largest private collection of traditional lamps and bells in India. They also have a huge collection of betel nut crackers.
Smell the coffee
Tamara, in Coorg, Karnataka, is Mahesh’s favourite. Built in the heart of a 200-acre coffee plantation, Tamara was visualised to nest in a tropical forest without disturbing the flora and fauna of the location. “The cottages are built on stilts and so do not in any way trample on the natural greenery of the location. The timber was procured from Canada and the cottages were fabricated in China. They were assembled on the site with minimal alterations to the location. The way to the resort was through forests and it was quite a challenge for our workers and engineers to reach the site and finish the work. But I think it is one of my best works,” says Mahesh with justifiable pride. Tamara was selected by Conde Nast Traveller India as one of the top 20 honeymoon destinations in India and has won several awards for its eco-friendly design.