Society

Makeover of a mill: Iconic Lakshmi Mills is now a public space in Coimbatore

From the past to the present An old mill is thrown open to the public

From the past to the present An old mill is thrown open to the public   | Photo Credit: M Periasamy

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All efforts have been made to retain the soul of the iconic Lakshmi Mills even as its old structures have been converted into a contemporary space

For Aishwarya Pathy, it has been a labour of love. Converting the iconic Lakshmi Mills, founded by her great grandfather G Kuppuswamy Naidu, into a public space for people of the city to enjoy has been a challenge that she has enjoyed tremendously. “As a family, we wanted an urban centre where one could hang out. So many people have worked in these mills, over generations, and have such a connect with this site. That is the reason we want to still call it simply ‘The Lakshmi Mills’ as it has always been known.”

That, and the fact that she herself has so many happy memories of playing here made her determined that the project’s core was the need to connect this place to what it was historically. Aishwarya spent days and hours ideating and planning ways in which she could keep the soul of the old place on Avinashi Road intact, yet make it contemporary. She came up with a commercial centre with outlets like Croma, Zudio and Westside making their home there with more shopping projects coming up in the next few months.

The art on the wall
  • Independent artist and muralist Poornima Sukumar, who is known for projects where art and activism come together in public spaces, was commissioned by Lakshmi Mills and St+art India to do the mural on the east wall.
  • “This mural has a very different stylisation,” she says. “Lakshmi Mills did not want it to be overpowering and had a specific colour language. Obviously, we wanted to do something in the old tradition of weaving, spinning and textiles, so it made complete sense to depict the the journey of the thread from the time the cotton is harvested till it turns into fabric.”
  • Poornima worked on the grafitti along with Vikas Burman, Pradeep Barman, Shraddha Katti and Coimbatore-based architect Udhaya Vauhini. Udhaya who is researching on the industrial heritage in Coimbatore, says, “Public spaces have become so impersonal. Here is an old mill that is transforming into a mall and eventually people may forget it was a mill originally. It is such a beautiful place. The windows we see inside are typical of mills. They are easy to fabricate, last long and bring in the light.” Udhaya says this grafitti project excited her because “the art creates a trail of thought that will remind people where their roots lie.”

Artist Poornima Sukumar painted the east compound wall

Artist Poornima Sukumar painted the east compound wall   | Photo Credit: M Periasamy

“I love the architecture; it would have been a shame to destroy that original look and style. I wanted to keep the distinctive industrial feel,” she says. “When people come in, it should make them wonder why certain things in the structure are the way they are. Why are the windows a certain way, why the cross beams, the stacks...,” says Aishwarya

Lakshmi Mills was set up in 1910 and some of the standing structures date back to the 1930s. While in use, the unit had spinning, weaving and bleaching departments employing over 1,500 workers; both men and women. The unit stopped production in 2008 when operations were shifted elsewhere. Today three structures (built in the 1950s) house the shops. “But this place is going to be much more than just shopping,” Aishwarya is quick to add. She has plans to hold farmers’ markets, pop-up events, music and theatre events. She points to the small amphitheatre getting its finishing touches. At the far end, there will be container cafés. “There will be plenty more,” promises Aishwarya’s brother Aditya Pathy too, who is immensely proud of the way Aishwarya has given shape to what they had envisioned as a family.

“As cities grow, community spaces are getting harder to come by. It would have been only too easy to give it up to glass and concrete. What differentiates this site is that it retains that history. The buildings are of different vintages and from different time periods. We can see that in the materials used in the structures, the plans and so on...” says Aditya who has also spent many happy days at the mills when they were functioning. He feels it is particularly significant for his family to open up this place as Coimbatore is a fulcrum of textiles mills and Lakshmi Mills holds a proud position as an old and important centre.

The old north lights that have been retained

The old north lights that have been retained   | Photo Credit: Pankaja Srinivasan

Aishwarya also has plans for a museum. “We want to have photos, old machinery parts, may be a record of the names of people who worked here, and fragments of fabric woven here. Architecturally, explains Aishwarya, there were challenges. Cable and exhaust trenches had to be filled with gravel before the flooring was laid. The condition of the walls were fine, but the existing lime plaster had to be replaced with cement plaster; the existing roof with its north lights and its original trusses were retained...

In keeping with environmental concerns and responsibility, Aditya made sure an effective rainwater harvesting system was implemented. Two diesel tank pits were converted into collection tanks and 32 percolation pits were created to collect the roof and surface run off water to recharge the underground system.

In service to society
  • The newly refurbished Lakshmi Mills urban complex was conceived as a place for the community to enjoy an outing in the heart of the city. With the city having grown rapidly over the last decade, urban spaces in the centre have become non-existent. Thousands of people once worked in this textile mill on this historical site and today the complex is providing employment to several. On this large parcel of land, is planned an ambitious development in phases to become centre of activity in the city, says S Pathy, CMD, Lakshmi Mills.

“The existing building is very robust with 380mm wall thickness. The brickwork is sturdy with heavy MS roof sections. We have worked with the existing plinth. It works beautifully and we want this place to grow organically. The east side compound wall along the parking area has a colourful depiction of the story of textiles from farm to fabric. The original vertically adjustable MS windows, which are no longer manufactured, have been retained on the wall with the graffiti,” she points out.

The plaques that tell you what went on inside

The plaques that tell you what went on inside   | Photo Credit: Pankaja Srinivasan

Also original are the plaques. Beautifully orange with rust they read ‘Weaving, Preparatory Sizing and Warping, 1950’, ‘Baling Press and Packing 1953’ and ‘Cloth and Yarn Godown, 1950’. One can almost visualise the employees trooping in and making their way to their places inside. Any of them who visits here will surely recognise the sequence of windows and the north lights. A granite slab outside has a brief history of the mills inscribed on it.

The Lakshmi Mills urban centre on Avinashi Road is open from 10.00 am to 10.00 pm

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:49:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-iconic-lakshmi-mills-now-becomes-a-public-space-for-the-city-of-coimbatore/article30402285.ece

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