A coffee-table book on timber architecture of Kerala, a project of Iyer& Mahesh, will be published by Rupa

Mediaperson Mridula Sharma and photographer Balan Madhavan are turning storytellers with a coffee-table book on the story of timber architecture in Kerala and its present place in the State. The book, which will be published in May by Rupa, is a project of city-based architectural firm Iyer & Mahesh.

Says architect N. Mahesh: “Kerala has an excellent legacy of timber architecture from which we derive inspiration and knowledge. Our Bible is the Padmanabhapuram Palace.” He says proudly that resorts designed by him over the last 12-14 years are eco-friendly buildings that judiciously use seasoned and chemically treated timber. The book, says Mahesh, will showcase the use of timber as a main interior and exterior component.

“Wood has been a fundamental construction material in Kerala’s traditional and vernacular architecture for centuries. And the State had master carpenters who were renowned for their skills in devising ingenious methods to build palaces and places of worship that have stood the test of time,” explains Mridula, who has worked with several leading magazines on design and architecture.

She fell in love with the State and its architecture when her husband, an officer in the Indian Air Force, was posted in Kerala in the late nineties. One of the usual tourist trails took her to Padmanabhapuram Palace and she was mesmerised by the palace, most of which has been built without a single metal nail to hold its many beams and pillars. “Since then I have travelled extensively all over Kerala, writing about interiors, houses and resorts. I was there during the building of the Poovar Hotels when they were constructing the floating hotels. After we returned to Delhi, I kept in touch with Kerala through my many friends and contacts here. During a trip to Delhi, Mahesh showed me brochures of his work at a resort and that was when it struck me that a book on the timber architecture of Kerala would be a good idea,” says Mridula.

The book will document the use of timber for various purposes and then trace its use in modern architecture in 12 resorts designed by Iyer & Mahesh. Ace photographer Balan has already shot photographs of certain buildings in Kottayam and the ancient mosque at Thazhathangadi. “Kottayam district has some of the best preserved examples of vernacular architecture in Kerala. We photographed some of the old warehouses and houses on the banks of the Meenachal. Historian M.G. Sasibhooshan told me about a temple at Thalayolaparambu, Kottayam, where the murals are remarkably well preserved. I plan to click those pictures too, as the book also covers how the architecture and crafts of Kerala were influenced by local culture, lifestyles and beliefs. Then we go on to Kozhikode and Nilumbur,” says Balan.

The photographer says he wants to chronicle how, once upon a time, timber from Connolly Plot in Nilambur used to be felled and the logs of wood left in the Chaliyar river to float down to Kallayi from where it was taken to Beypore to be turned into the majestic Uru and Pathemari (different kinds of boats) that used to set sail from the ports in Malabar. “Kallayi was once the second largest timber market in the world. The teak in Coonnolly Plot are some of the oldest in the State. The book explores how timber was an intrinsic part of the structure of life in Kerala and was not just used in houses,” says Balan.

However, use of wood decreased sharply as timber became prohibitively expensive. Moreover, the disintegration of joint families and rise of the nuclear family and economic pressures saw many proud traditional houses go under the hammer to make way for concrete blocks. That was when architects like Mahesh came up with innovative concepts that used timber sensibly for upscale resorts. Through his timber resorts in India, Mahesh proved how use of timber could be eco-friendly and economical for upscale resorts that catered to tourists from Western countries who wanted “rusticity and luxury”.

“We incorporate ethnic architecture with vernacular features in resorts where many Westerners come for an ‘earthy’ holiday. For instance, most of our upscale clients want to avoid air conditioning in the rooms of resorts and so we go back to the naalukettu concept and water bodies to bring nature indoors. This is the kind of ‘soft architecture’ that is sought after in tropical places such as India, Bora Bora, Langkawi and so on.”

In addition to our timber legacy, the book will showcase resorts designed by Mahesh’s firm and three residential buildings, including his house.