Evolution of Kerala Architecture Over the Years
Kerala has a special distinction of following a model of development characterized by high human development achievements and social equality even at a low level of economic development. Therefore, the performance of Kerala in the sphere of social development is often projected as a model to be emulated. For hundreds of years, buildings in Kerala had been constructed by local craftsmen using locally sourced materials, keeping in mind the climate and the state of the socio-economic relations of the time. This led to the emergence of the unique vernacular architecture of Kerala.
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The use of concrete roofs became popular among the houses of the higher income classes in the 1960s and 1970s. However, with the advent of modern engineering and western influence, we have quickly forgotten what we learned with time and practice. Some of the major changes in the architectural scene in Kerala started in the early 1970s. The land reforms legislation was enacted in Kerala in the 1960s, which conferred ownership rights over their settlements to a large number of poor tenant dwellers under big landlords. The houses that were constructed in these plots followed the local vernacular architecture of the state. The houses constructed as part of the One Lakh Housing Scheme launched by the Government of Kerala also echoed the local architectural styles.
Impact of Gulf Boom
The migration of the Malayalees to the gulf countries started during the 1970s as well. The remittances made by these people were mainly spent on making their dream houses. The so-called “Gulf Houses”, some of which were quite palatial altered the architecture of Kerala. These houses influenced the kind of buildings being built by the inhabitants in Kerala who had no remittance income.
The increase in the price of cash crops such as rubber, cardamom, etc., also hastened the process of the Malayalees investing their savings in the construction of houses. Those who could not afford to build these buildings borrowed money and started to imitate these gulf houses. The manufacturers of most luxury products also connected with the building industry and found a huge market in India. What emerged was architecture which had little relationship with the climate of Kerala or the social and cultural life of the people.
Influence of Laurie Baker
Simultaneously, during the early 1970s, Laurie Baker, a British-born architect, began living and working in Trivandrum. His architecture questioned the kind of buildings that were coming up in Kerala. He introduced sloping roofs, arches, exposed brickwork etc., which were all part of the architecture in our historic buildings. Baker’s buildings were very cost-effective, durable and sustainable. Conventional engineers and architects questioned Baker's architectural style, claiming that his structures would not last more than ten years and were of poor quality.
Time has proved that the buildings designed and created by Baker in the 1970s have stood for the last 50 years, whilst many conventional buildings developed leaks and are being demolished at regular intervals. Today, without giving any due consideration to the energy crisis and various other related issues, we continue to design buildings with glass facades that let in all kinds of heat. Then we become obsessed with air-conditioners to cool the inside.
But Laurie Baker showed that there was an alternate way of designing a building, without employing any contractors, or fancy mechanical equipment. He respected craftsmen and showed us Indians what is Indian in our architecture. The buildings built by the architects and engineers also started following certain grammar of architecture that Baker was advocating. Sloped roofs, arches, verandahs and courtyards became popular, and a new style of Kerala architecture started to emerge at the turn of the century.
2018 Kerala Floods and Climate Change
In 2018, Kerala witnessed one of the worst floods it has experienced. Many thought that this is going to be a once in 100 years event, but it is not so. The UN conference in Cancun, Mexico (2008) concluded that climate change is happening with catastrophic consequences and the various steps taken have fallen short. The sea level is expected to rise between 0.8 to 2 meters by 2100 AD. The scientists only disagree on the amount of the increase in sea level height which is going to happen.
There are many areas in Kerala which are likely to be flooded very often. Stilt houses and buildings have been proposed as one of the solutions to the Kuttanad area, which is below sea level. The Government is planning to put flood shelters on stilts to house the people during floods. What is going to happen to the large population and properties in Kuttanad and other areas with the sea level rise is not sufficiently thought about. When the seawater rises by one meter, the river water will not empty into the sea easily and floods will be very common.
The situation is very alarming. Many of the coastal towns and villages will look very different from what are now. We have to start thinking about these changes and need to have a long term strategy to take care of climate change. To make Kerala flood resilient will be a fifty-year project. Short-sighted solutions, and wait and see approaches can be very dangerous for Kerala’s future. We have to find our solutions for the future and of course, it is a question of the political will and financial resources. After all, prevention is far cheaper than evacuating our people during floods every year.
Western modernity is a consequence of western social, economic and industrial circumstances and it has its own shortcomings. It is neither affordable nor relevant to the economic, social and cultural needs of the rest of the world. The architecture coming up in our cities and towns seems to ignore the issues of climate change and global warming. Instead of building too many skyscrapers, we should concentrate on conserving our existing building fabric, which is cheaper and emits much fewer greenhouse gases, thereby benefiting future generations. The greenest building is one which is already existing and has already made its impact on the environment.
The vernacular architecture of Kerala is suited to our climate, culture and society. The relevance of the concepts and techniques from our vernacular architecture had increased manifold in this era where we discuss global warming and climate change. One has to look into the different dimensions that architecture influences, to avoid its failure. Only then can architecture be truly sustainable, and sustainable architecture is the way forward for a better world.
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