Architecture and design Life & Style

Why Kerala speaks its own design language

(Clockwise from top left) Designs from Wallmakers, Lijo Reny Architects, Fahed + Architects and Stapati

(Clockwise from top left) Designs from Wallmakers, Lijo Reny Architects, Fahed + Architects and Stapati  

When you read the words ‘Kerala homes’ what comes to mind? A melancholic mansion with sloping tiled roofs, teak wood columns and dimly-lit rooms, like the homesteads in TS Nagarajan’s Vanishing Homes of India? Or perhaps a campy, brightly-coloured, flat-roofed two-storey house, which researchers Caroline and Filippo Osella referred to as ‘Gulf mansions’ in their book Social Mobility in Kerala. Maybe you’ve discovered the goldmine of fantastical, Arabesque homes that the search keywords ‘Kerala housewarming’ throws up on YouTube. If you haven’t seen this yet, try it and you’ll find a trove of over-the-top designs.

Somewhere in between these outliers, Kerala’s architecture and design landscape has metamorphosed into one of the most interesting in the country — primarily in the realm of residential design. Tropical modern design is flourishing here, encouraged by beautiful geography, space to build from ground, and educated consumers.

The dining room at Vinu Daniel’s Shikhara Residence in Pothencode

The dining room at Vinu Daniel’s Shikhara Residence in Pothencode   | Photo Credit: Jino Sam

Inspirations in surfeit

Kerala’s first architects were expert carpenters and craftsmen, referred to as a mestri. They built with a mathematician’s precision and a craftsperson’s talent. But then a generation of professional architects set up shop in the late 70s and changed the design landscape forever — from early players such as Iyer & Mahesh and Chandramohan Associates, to names like Design Combine and TM Cyriac. The industry has grown so much that today the state has close to 40 institutions offering architecture studies and thousands of graduates.

Despite these changes, practising architects face many challenges. This remains a small market — now intensified with competition — and one where the audience isn’t always open to experimentation. Then there’s the cabal-like hold over the national media that big city practices in Delhi and Mumbai have. While there are homegrown Malayalam-language décor publications, most aren’t discerning enough, and scale and the wow-factor of projects usually supersede considerations of quality. Social media has given a platform for many firms to tell their own stories, yet anyone searching for an architect would still find it difficult to get the right sources of information.

Efforts like Instagram accounts @kerala.architecture.design and @design.kerala are working to solve that problem. In early May, architects Haroon Mohammed and Mansoor Anchu Kandan set up the popular handle @design.kerala to present the best of Kerala contemporary design. “If you Google ‘Kerala architects’, what comes up is stale and completely random. But there’s really interesting work going on here and we thought people needed to find out,” says Mohammed, who works at the Rooshad Shroff design and research studio in Mumbai. “It is important to educate people on design; it takes conscious effort.” The spectrum of projects they cover reveals the current design flavours of this state.

Jayadev Kesavankutty plays with wood and light at the Jaisen House

Jayadev Kesavankutty plays with wood and light at the Jaisen House  

A distinct aesthetic

Kerala has strong indigenous design, examples of which still stand like guardians from another era. These are structures identifiable by their lime-plastered walls, interlocking carpentry, sloping tiled roofs (essential to deal with the monsoonal onslaught), columned verandahs, teak and other hardwood elements, and courtyards that bring light and rain into the heart of symmetrical structures. Only the smallest of these homesteads, or naalukettu, remain, but its legacy is strong. It has given a regional twang to newer designs, making it distinct to this place and temperament. Some of the newer residential architecture is reflective of the legacy of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, some of Argentinian Ernesto Bedmar, and certainly the use of brick recollects the work of the late British-born Kerala-based icon, Laurie Baker. And yet, what’s on offer is distinct because it responds to contemporary concerns and lifestyle. We’ve compiled a list of architectural practices that tell these new-age Keralan stories. No fluorescent-coloured homes to see here, of course.

The Malabar Group headquarters, Tony Joseph’s residence in Kozhikode, and the architect

The Malabar Group headquarters, Tony Joseph’s residence in Kozhikode, and the architect  

Tony Joseph | Stapati

Kozhikode, Kochi and Bengaluru

Joseph set up practice in his hometown, Kozhikode, in 1989, after finishing a series of working stints in the US, Delhi and Bengaluru. “In America, I worked with Charles Moore and I was influenced by his ideas of regionalism,” says the 59-year-old. His award-winning practice created a benchmark by merging traditional architectural elements like wooden roof structures within contemporary layouts. In his projects, both architecture and interior design fuse organically — he uses contemporary art and locally-designed furniture to fabulous effect in projects like Mandalay Hall, the hotel in Fort Kochi. Stapati’s other major works include early projects like the Kumarakom Lake Resort, and more recently, the pop-up auditorium for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. At the headquarters for (jewellery moghuls) Malabar group in Kozhikode, he’s followed the lines of the hill-side so the corporate park seems to disappear into the background. Details: stapati.com

Architect Fahed Majeed and the Abwab Pavilion in Dubai

Architect Fahed Majeed and the Abwab Pavilion in Dubai  

Fahed Majeed | Fahed + Architects

Kochi, Bali and Dubai

Majeed, 42, is an optimist and a risk taker. He is known to spend as much focus on the smallest elements of a large project as the larger concepts of the smallest one. Because of which the firm has flourished in scope and accolades, most recently as a winner of the International Award for Sustainable Architecture Awards 2018 for The Abwab Pavilion — a temporary structure built for the 2017 Dubai Design Week using recycled materials such as mattress springs. The firm thrives on the diversity of its team, and the differing views that come up as a result. “All projects are analysed in an expected perception, which is subsequently dismantled and rebuilt with a fresh perspective,” he explains. “This rebuilding can be achieved for any design at any scale. We work on ideas that are socially relevant, deemed to stand the test of time, and meld them into visually-connected spaces that are evocative, integrated and functional.” Use of technology for practical ends, mixed materials, and intelligently-designed spaces are hallmarks of his studio. If in one project he has created a roof system that is two large aluminium wings that give the impression the house will take flight, then in another he's repurposed old terracotta roofing by stacking them up to create walls. Details: fahedarchitects.com

The Shikhara Residence in Pothencode and architect Vinu Daniel

The Shikhara Residence in Pothencode and architect Vinu Daniel  

Vinu Daniel | Wallmakers

Alternative, avant-garde. Daniel, 39, heads one of the most unusual practices in the country. The little over 10-year-old firm — with no office and its members working in makeshift places, such as restaurants and project sites — has become well known for the architect’s stance on practice and design. In his asceticism, he is reminiscent of the legendary Laurie Baker and “devoted to the cause of using mud and waste as the chief components, to make structures that are both utilitarian and alluring”. In an interview with beautifulhomes.com last year, he said, “Debris [anything that has been produced, used and then discarded] is the raw material of the future.” For instance, in the Shikhara Residence in Pothencode, rubble and fragments extracted from the site were revitalised as construction material to make fundamentals such as walls. Visually, the residence looks stark, recalling Brutalist architecture almost, but in its spirit it is extremely thoughtful, bringing little that is foreign into the site and rebirthing what may have gone to waste otherwise. Details: wallmakers.org

Windows and courtyards at the Jaisen House and architect Jayadev Kesavankutty

Windows and courtyards at the Jaisen House and architect Jayadev Kesavankutty  

Jayadev Kesavankutty | Stirvi Architects

Kochi

Kesavankutty’s standout capability is detailing and innovations on traditional architectural features, such as the window treatments in his recent project, Jaisen House. In old Kerala homes, windows had wooden shutters, but the 37-year-old, who’s been practising independently since 2009, has updated it with a more contemporary shape and used it almost like a piece of functional sculpture. He says his work is “a modernist take on the past, stripped of decor and rigorous in method, but with charm because of the subtleties followed in the treatment of every detail”. The most important accessory in his projects is natural light itself, sometimes embellished and other times controlled by the architecture. “All emphasis is in creating an atmosphere and the experiential qualities associated with each space,” he says. Details: @jayadev.architect on Instagram

(Clockwise from top) A drawing of the Biophilic Villas, Lakshmi Residence in Chennai and architect Jacob George

(Clockwise from top) A drawing of the Biophilic Villas, Lakshmi Residence in Chennai and architect Jacob George  

Jacob George | Metaspace

Kochi

George, whose career spans over 35 years, is an icon for younger architects — not just for his minimalist projects, but also for his polymathic abilities in other realms of design. He is the creator of the acclaimed Rethm (rethm.com) high-end sculptural speaker systems, which are considered a collectors’ item. The 63-year-old, who has always had a design-conscious clientele, is now “focussed on rethinking how houses are conceptualised, designed and built”. To this end, his newest project, Biophilic Villas, considers technology, the well-being of the occupants, and the ‘net-zero’ principle of construction. Still at the drawing stage, this intelligent housing project proposed for Bengaluru and Hyderabad will offer residences that are “pre-fabricated” — a popular sustainable option in many developed markets and often at the cutting-edge of home-technology innovations. “This is about customised and yet mass-produced housing systems. While all the parts are factory produced, the clients will have the ability to choose from multiple options, starting with the plans, all the way to interior finishes and levels of incorporation of intelligent user interface systems,” he says. Such buildings haven’t really been explored in India, and certainly never with a high-design focus in the residential segment. Details: meta-space.in

Traditional Affinity and architect-designer Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil

Traditional Affinity and architect-designer Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil  

Nikhil Mohan and Shabna Nikhil | Thought Parallels

Kozhikode

Architect Nikhil, 40, and designer Shabna, 30, say they want to “stitch tradition and modernity together” in their projects. The work of this six-year-old firm is very much in the vein of the type of language that architect Ernesto Bedmar creates in his tropical modern work in Singapore. With the use of contemporaneous material like glass, the spaces this couple designs are open while focussed inward — such as blended rooms with different functions, but placed around courtyards the way old Kerala homes used to do. “Material choices come down to how you use it,” says Nikhil. “If you can use it judiciously, then something like glass is sustainable, flexible and therefore very useful.” In the project Traditional Affinity, steel, wood, brick, concrete and glass form a partnership in a space that feels rooted in this place but in a brand-new form. Details: thoughtparallel.com and @thoughtparallels on Instagram

(Clockwise from top) The Skewed House, The Regimented House and architects Lijo Jose and Reny Lijo

(Clockwise from top) The Skewed House, The Regimented House and architects Lijo Jose and Reny Lijo  

Lijo Jose and Reny Lijo | Lijo Reny Architects

Thrissur

From minimalistic retail to experimental residential projects, this firm (set up in 2005) is one of the most impactful in the state. Looking at architecture through the lens of art, nostalgia isn’t for this couple, Lijo (43) and Reny (39). “We’ve always considered ourselves ‘architects by profession’ and ‘artists by passion’, and this has helped us see our projects beyond just being mere buildings. While taking inspiration from the past is fine, replicating images for the sake of nostalgia can arrest growth, we experiment with new languages for the region,” says Lijo. In terms of design, that means this practice’s residential works look like installations on the landscape. Every project has a standout element, like the breathing screen of The Breathing House, the geometrical buildings that make up The Skewed House, and the latticework of The Regimented House. Details: lijoreny.wordpress.com

Architect Roy Antony and the Alankar House in Changanasherry

Architect Roy Antony and the Alankar House in Changanasherry  

Roy Antony | Roy Antony Architects

Kochi

Antony, 53, has approached his recent (and hallmark) residential project, Alankar House in Changanasherry, with the sensibility of a poet. Structure, symmetry and shadows are the ambassadors of this home, which the architect, who’s been practising for almost 20 years, calls “monastic” for its shadow-play and quietude. He has reflected on the past by controlling the light that comes from the act of opening the shutters, just as people once did in a traditional home. A ritual that never gets old. “For me, sustainability means creating something in which generations are able to find joy,” he says. “I’m not trying to create a deliberate style but respond to projects and spaces as they present themselves.” In Alankar House, light also dictated the need for innovation. He created a recipe of cement-emulsion-and-putty for a smooth, unpainted, wipeable surface, just so the light is reflected in a particular way. Details: @royantonyarchitects

Architects Vivek PP and Nishan M, and projects in Kottakal and Calicut

Architects Vivek PP and Nishan M, and projects in Kottakal and Calicut  

Vivek PP and Nishan M | De Earth

Kozhikode

If melancholy is the signature sentiment of Istanbul, then Kerala is heavily scented with nostalgia. De Earth captures this perfectly in their projects, signatured by the creation of architectural elements such as laterite indoor bathing tanks, wooden pillars and courtyards, all recalling an older way of life. This multidisciplinary firm led by 38-year-old architects Vivek PP and Nishan M are quite emphatic about their past-forward design language, saying, “We take pride in our history and heritage. Context built our identity.” Founded in 2004, many of their projects — like these residences in Kottakal and Calicut celebrate — quintessential Keralan experiences like heritage, tradition and rain. Details: deearth.com

Manju Sara Rajan is the editor-in-chief of beautifulhomes.com

*Jayadev Kesavankutty’s name was erroneously printed and has been corrected.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 12:26:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/why-kerala-speaks-its-own-design-language/article31875421.ece

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