Benny Kuriakose: ‘We need to think beyond the green building’

Vernacular architecture and local contexts are more relevant in buildings today than ever before, says renowned architect Benny Kuriakose.


“There is no such thing as traditional or modern architecture; there is just good architecture and bad architecture,” says renowned architect Benny Kuriakose, cutting completely through the popular debate about how our cityscapes are often caught between serving industry and the 1.2 billion people who inhabit our country versus preserving a very uniquely Indian way of building with “character”.

Kuriakose is one of India’s foremost conservation architects: he started off his training days, “outside the office” as he calls it, working on demonstrating cost-effective building techniques under the tutelage of  the famous Laurie Baker in 1984. He has since built and restored some significant heritage landmarks in cities like Chennai and Kochi including Dakshina Chitra and the Fort St. George School, worked on tsunami reconstruction projects in Nagapattinam district and post-earthquake re-building works in Benegaon (Latur), the largest institute for Palliative Care in Kochi and several other resorts and homes that embrace the idea of sustainability through resource-efficient  traditional techniques. Kuriakose is known for his fine ability to explore the architectural vocabulary through cost-effective techniques that are appropriate to the environment and local cultures.

We caught up with Benny Kuriakose over an email interview to understand the relevance of sustainable design and construction in modern times:

1. There is much talk about sustainable building design and appropriate technologies in building in cities. And a lot of it seems to be based on cookie cutter definitions from the west. What is sustainable construction in an Indian context?

Following green ratings, which are set for a country like the US, is not entirely relevant in India. There are thousands of buildings in our villages, which used much lesser energy in construction and utilise much lesser energy to maintain than many of these Platinum-rated buildings. What we need to have is Indian sustainable architecture and not an import. Otherwise we will be making the same mistake we did when blindly followed the western style of architecture without giving any consideration to Indian climate and local materials available.

Chandramandapa. The first space for Kalaripayattu in Chennai, constructed as a tribute to dancer Chandralekha.  The raised roof allows for a greater air flow. It takes advantage of being on the seaside, to compensate for the absence of air conditioning, but provides natural coolness that is vital to all performers.

Look at all modern buildings in Beijing, Brazil, Berlin and Mumbai – they look the same. Instead of adapting an alien architecture to suit our conditions, we adapted our lifestyle to suit these buildings.

A building has to be sustainable from an ecological, economical and social point of view. It is finally the long term interests of the people which is important. Sustainable development is not anti-development, but is against uncontrolled development which serves only the short-term interest of a minority of the people. The answers to what is sustainable building will be different, depending on the physical factors such as climate, land availability, local building materials and the social and cultural factors.

The Institute of Palliative Medicine in Kochi is centre for terminally ill patients and also houses the World’s largest Palliative care volunteer network. The patient wings are all single-storeyed and the administrative wings have 2 storeys. All roofs are at different heights, giving the space a unique look.

2. There are 2 popular notions about sustainable buildings in India: a. That it is costly and niche. b. That it is a throwback to the old – ancient looking, awkward structures. Your thoughts?

People in Indian villages have been able to build sustainable buildings all these years. The present trend in architecture of using glass facade and abuse of concrete without making use of natural light is definitely not the solution. The solution lies somewhere between the way of our ancestors and this modern school of building. It isn’t possible to go back several years – we have to adapt our knowledge and common sense to design buildings which will have no negative footprint on the environment.

Dakshina Chitra. The crafts village, built and restored by Benny Kuriakose, reflects the beauty, traditions, innovations and the continuing evolution of South Indian arts and culture.

 

Now, the poor villager wants to imitate the city dweller and he also wants a ‘modern’ building, knowing fully that it may not be suitable to the climate. When you design a sustainable building, it has to satisfy one’s needs, not his status symbol.

3. A lot of your work has been in vernacular architectures…

The vernacular architecture is more relevant than ever before. They are built with local materials using much less energy. It is important to understand the principles and logic of vernacular architecture in order to understand the relevance of this in the present day context. Unfortunately, our engineers and architects are not taught about the core of vernacular architecture. The result is that we see so many style imitations that do not have a local grounding.

Mangalam Heritage Home is a simple, traditional home in the temple town of Thirupugalur. Its authentic traditional design is due to Shanta Guhan and Benny Kuriakose.

4. How do you approach sustainable design in your projects?

I do not have any particular style or way of using materials or techniques. The sustainability aspects of my buildings will vary from one another. It is impossible to design a building which is 100% sustainable. We will have to use materials such as cement, but we can limit them. I use mostly natural materials.

Timber remains one of my favourite building materials and I use it extensively for my projects. Timber is considered to be an eco-friendly building material; as long as natural forests have not been cut down to source it. By using timber in the buildings, you are not burning any fossil fuel, but you are locking the carbon. Growing more timber in its place will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And it is a reusable and renewable building material.

Vishram, Chennai. A farmhouse just outside Chennai, Vishram leverages the natural environment around the house through its sloping roofs, positioning of the rooms, large courtyards, a traditional pond and uses recycled timber extensively in the Chettinad architecture style.

 

I use recycled timber in spaces where I can get access to it. Also, I use timbers that are not normally used for building construction, such as palm timber and other lesser known species. Buildings with timber roofs are generally thermally comfortable.

I do not see a building in isolation. In addition to the initial costs, the maintenance and life cycle costs are also important.

5. Urban living is synonymous today with highrises. Is sustainable construction still practical?

What we need more of is “green living” or even “greener living” rather than green buildings. The kind of high rise buildings which are coming up in our cities is not the answer.

Everybody might be thinking that our generation is not going to get affected, it is only the future generation which is going to get affected. In this case, everybody is going to get affected, whether you are rich or poor or whether you are living in US, Europe or Asia. If we do not take the right steps now, the future is going to become even worse. We will be forced to change our ways.

 Any home can be called a green home, when it is suitable for greener living.

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more

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  • Rajesh K

    Excellent article. I wish all architects thought like him, rather all people were sensitive to nature, like him. A man can wish, right?