Architect T. M. Cyriac, a trendsetter in designing eco-friendly tourist resorts and melding traditional architecture into modern designs, talks about his creative sensibilities

They say that a house can say a lot about the man. Step into architect T.M. Cyriac's well-appointed home in the city and you can immediately draw a few conclusions about his personality and his work. Here's someone who appreciates nature and open spaces: the open plan living spaces seamlessly merge into one another, wall-to-wall windows offer panoramic views, and the extensive, terraced garden marries foliage with stone.

Here's someone who is a big believer in traditional architecture: he's built the house staying true to the old Malayali way of weaving wood into design without making it ostentatious and, yet, has made it elegantly modern. Likewise the traditional wooden ‘chaarupadi' (built-in window seat) attached to elaborate latticed windows, once a mainstay of most homes in Kerala, is a prominent feature of this house.

Here's someone who loves to travel: artefacts and curios, sourced from across Kerala, India, and the world, (especially Bali, his “favourite destination”) are strategically displayed in the house. Here's someone who enjoys reading: his bookshelf is crammed with tomes on everything from art to history to biographies to travelogues. Here's a connoisseur of fine art: artwork by masters, especially Artist Namboodiri, have pride of place in the house...

Are we right, thus far? “Absolutely!” agrees the soft-spoken Cyriac, with a smile. “As long as we are on the subject, I also love listening to Carnatic music [that explains the two magnificent veenas in his living room] and as such, recently, I have also started collecting old AIR recordings. I also collect furniture [that explains the many pieces of restored furniture scattered throughout the house],” he adds.

Signature style

Then again, creativity is but an extension of one's character. And it's no wonder that these very sensibilities come across as Cyriac's signature style. For example, he has adapted architecture to the local flora and terrain rather than the other way around for Spice Village resort, Thekkady; he has highlighted his love for traditional architecture in the design for both Travancore Heritage resort, Poovar, and Coconut Lagoon, Kumarakom; he has lent an oriental flavour to Turtle on the Beach hotel, Kovalam, with elegant artefacts sourced from across Asia, to name a few.

“The roots of my sensibilities as an architect lie in childhood memories of growing up in the village of Ayamkudy near Kottayam, with its quaint church, temple and traditional Central Travancore homesteads. I recall being fascinated by the local temple, with its carvings, naalambalam, chuttambalam, gopurams, chenda melams, processions with elephants, and so on. Now, when I think back in architectural terms, it was a space with a lot of drama happening inside. And isn't that what architecture really is – a space and a drama?” asks Cyriac, who was recently chosen by Architects and Interiors India magazine, an industry journal, as one of the ‘Fab 50 – The Who's Who of Indian Architecture and Design'; one of the few architects in the country today who have the ‘power to change the face of the country' – literally.

Innovative designs

This alumnus of the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, and the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi (from where he has a postgraduate degree in landscape architecture), and who now runs the firm Environmental Creations in the city, has always been a trendsetter. Cyriac is considered a pioneer in designing eco-friendly tourist resorts. Spice Village – said to be Kerala's (perhaps India's) first “well-defined tourist resort” – was his first project after passing out of SPA. He was the landscape consultant for the project and was tasked with adapting the hilly terrain of Thekkady to buildings designed by architect Ramesh Tharakan.

Cyriac, though, is now renowned for his efforts to conserve Kerala's architectural heritage, especially for his penchant for recycling traditional buildings and materials into modern spaces. His first such ‘heritage recycling' project was Coconut Lagoon, which he did while working as a lecturer at TKM Engineering College, Kollam. He dismantled and recycled elements from dilapidated houses across Kerala into luxury cottages, taking up on a concept pioneered by Swiss architect Karl Damschen for Surya Samudra resort, Kovalam. In fact, for his innovative use of traditional architecture to build Travancore Heritage, Cyriac bagged the prestigious designer of the year award (2004), instituted by Inside Outside magazine.

“Conservation and nature have always been an issue for me. I even used to take up environmental issues and participate in nature camps while I was in college so it is but natural that as an architect I explore these avenues. Then again, in a larger context, our entire life was once spent outside and a built form was just a place of rest or at the most a storage area. It's only recently that life has been reduced to the interior. There is thus a critical need, especially in the tropics with its equable climate, to design, integrate and manage architecture with nature,” explains Cyriac.

Firm foundation

Cyriac says that he learnt the nuances of being a ‘green architect' while redesigning his parent's home at Ayamkudy, shortly after he qualified as an architect. “It remains my favourite project to date. It was my first foray into using locally sourced material and recycled structures for construction. I was very involved in the project, learning about each and every aspect of construction from masonry to carpentry and everything in between, and even living on site in the outhouse. It helped me understand that being an architect is not only about designing something spectacular. It's also a lot about interacting with other people, especially skilled workers, most of whom are brilliant at their jobs but who are poor communicators. After all it is about getting your ideas translated into reality. It's thus imperative that architects be people persons,” says Cyriac.