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  • Benny Kuriakose


There is only good architecture and bad architecture. Whether architecture follows one of the styles such as modern, post-modern, victorian or art nouveau, if architecture is good, then it will be timeless.

One of the major characteristics of "good architecture" is that each time you experience it, it will give a different feeling and experience. The old English saying by Heraclitus is very apt here. “No man steps in the same river twice.”

Mostly "good architecture" will not only be timeless but also will be trendy. I will consider the architecture of Ronchamp Chapel, Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Padmanabhapuram Palace Complex as timeless. I have seen Padmanabhapuram Palace at least 300 times and it has been a great inspiration for me in doing my architecture. Each time it gave a different experience. There are not many examples like this.

Ronchamp chapel
Pompidou Centre
Padmanabhapuram Palace

There was a time when we had an architecture style called brutalist architecture which emerged in the 1950s. The word "brutal" also means cruelty. Many buildings built in this style was greeted in Britain (in a bad state) with the word"Brutalist Architecture" especially in the 1970s. There were critics who said that it symbolises urban decay and some called it as monstrous. The movement died down in the west in the 1980s, but in India, we see a lot of projects which can be called Brutalism Architecture.

According to me, it is not as bad as we think. I happened to see the renovated Barbican Centre, London which is considered to be one of the best examples of Brutalist Architecture. The brutalist architecture has undergone many changes. The world thinks differently now.

Barbican Centre, London

In many cities, we can see a lot of skyscrapers which look more or less the same whether they are in Mumbai, Jakarta, Frankfurt or Latin America. The first photo shows the skyscrapers in Hong Kong taken from Wetland Park which is on the outskirts. Many cities in India are also not different.

Many buildings built in the 50s and 60s are being demolished in Europe, USA, etc. The interesting fact to note is that these buildings are not demolished due to structural reasons. Most of the council buildings and apartments are being pulled down. They are trying to correct the mistakes done in the past. In India, we should learn from the experience of other countries and not commit the same mistakes that others have done.

When I joined for my degree course in 1979, the very first day my professor told me that we are going to design concrete buildings that last for 750 years. One of the questions that I ask when I give a talk is - how long will the concrete buildings last? Nobody says that it will last for more than 75 years.

If concrete buildings last only for 75 years, then why do we construct. Our old buildings built with brick, earth, lime and timber last for more than 100 years. But in our engineering and architecture curriculum, very little is being taught about these materials. It is full of concrete and steel.

In 1972, the famous architectural magazine "Architecture Review" carried an article called "Flat Roof Scandal" based on a study saying that one-third of the flat RCC buildings in the UK are leaking. Asbestos which was once considered as a wonderful building material is not being used now. R22 gas which is used for air-conditioning was found harming the ozone layer after so many decades. Many other construction chemicals, paints etc. are found to be harmful after their use for many years. There are many cases of such "technology failure" and it is very important for us to consider these.

The photos show an engineering college which was on the verge of closing down because the concrete has performed very badly in this. I had inspected this building last month.

Spalling of Concrete

Architecture is a product of creativity. If architecture is to be trendy and timeless we should do great quality work. It is important to question what's happening in the architecture field now and not being sound absorbers. The change-makers in architecture such as Le Corbusier,

Money should not dictate what architecture is and this is one of the major reasons that our architecture quality is poor. The buildings that are fast changing our cities like apartments, commercial complexes, IT buildings etc. never figure in the awards list also. The developers and the investors should make a profit, but that should not be the sole purpose. It is the responsibility of the profession to see both ends are met and it is possible to do the same.

The image shows a building which is built along the beautiful riverside, going to be covered with glass completely and hardly has any openings towards the waterfront. I will call this an "architectural folly".

We have been branded as one doing vernacular architecture or one doing conservation. Conservation has always been a major part of the practice that we are doing. At the same time, the new buildings we do have a flavour of traditional architecture and a lot of natural materials such as timber, stone, earth etc. are used. The use of concrete is kept to the minimum.

Whatever we do have to be sustainable from the environmental, social and economic point of view. Whatever said and done, the buildings make an impact on the environment, but the design shall always try to make the impact the minimum. This is what we are trying to do in our design now.

Click to visit the project.

Click to visit the project.

Timber is the most sustainable building material in the world. I have been using timber extensively in our buildings for almost three decades. My knowledge in the conservation of buildings and the timber as a building material helped me to do more buildings with timber.

Timber can be recycled and it can be grown again. We have so much wasteland available where the trees can be grown. I am not for cutting down the forests and using them for construction. Trees have the ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and they store carbon inside the building. If more and more timber is used in buildings, then it is good for the environment as carbon dioxide is not emitted into the atmosphere. If timber is allowed to decay or burn, then the carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere.

The need of the hour is to use more and more timber in our new buildings, without cutting down our forests, thereby reversing global warming and climate change which is happening today.

Click to visit the project.

Click to visit the project.

Ho Ho Tower which is a 24 Storied high building is taking shape in Vienna.

Once completed, it will be the tallest timber building in the world. As much as 76 per cent of the building is built with timber. It will house a hotel, apartments and offices. Protective coatings have been given on top of the timber elements which have been exposed.

Caroline Palfy, Managing Director of the Real Estate company Cetus Bau development said, "I keep getting asked whether our timber resources are jeopardised by the current timber boom in the construction industry. In Austria, forests produce 30 million cubic metres of timber a year, of which 26 million cubic metres are logged. The remaining 4 million cubic metres remain in the forest, continually increasing timber stocks. In other words, 1 cubic metre of wood grows back every second and thus the timber used for the entire HoHo Vienna project will have grown back in our country's forests in only one hour and 17 minutes."

Timber and its byproducts will become common in the coming years as a building material.

Ho Ho Tower

Architecture should touch the lives of people. It should be human and improve the people’s living. We did design 1500 houses for fishermen in tsunami-affected Tarangambadi (Tranquebar) 15 years ago. We did try to customise each house by allowing them to choose different options, setbacks, materials etc. Two books have been written about this housing project.

Quoting from the book titled "Architects and Post-Disaster Housing: A Comparative Study in South India" by Dr.Gertrud Tauber of an interview by her with a fisherman of Tarangambadi, "We were lucky that this architect worked on our project. Many things are well done. However, there are some things that could have been done much better. For example, the orientation of the bathroom and the toilet. They should not face the neighbour's house. We had to build compound walls. And there is the quality of construction which is, in some cases, poor; better of course than in many other villages that we saw, however, not always satisfying. Who I would like to build my house with? I would call this architect again if he would like to plan a single small house. I would tell him about the toilet and the quality. But I think he goes for big projects in cities only. So, I would call the mason."

This leads to the question of whom does the profession serve.

Click to visit the project.

Architects design for the rich in society. In the US, less than one per cent of the houses are designed by architects. In India, the percentage will be even lower. Today, global architecture is peopled with “starchitects” who specialize in mega projects for the global elite.

The penetration of architects in the housing market is undeniably tiny. While the vast majority of small architecture offices do residential work, the majority of architects work in large firms, which do almost no residential work.

There are many architects who debated on how architecture could be used to transform society by providing housing for workers, improving public health, and fostering social solidarity. There are 50 million families without anything which can be called home in India. When I passed out 35 years ago, this number was 25 million families and the building profession has allowed these numbers to grow every year.

It is very important to bring nature into buildings. There is more need for natural light inside the rooms than ever before. There should be more cross ventilation. The buildings shall be protected from direct sunlight by having overhangs, verandahs and courtyards rather than depending on artificial methods of air-conditioning.

Click to visit the project.

Click to visit the project.

Click to visit the project.

#Lectures #SeminarTalk #Conservation

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