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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

How to Blend Old and New Architecture

For hundreds of years, buildings were 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 unique vernacular architecture. Kerala was no exception - the hot and humid climate of the state dictated the extensive use of locally available laterite, bamboo, stone, earth, timber, leaves, etc for construction, thus giving rise to beautiful traditional buildings.

The Western Influence

With the advent of modern engineering and western influence, we’ve quickly forgotten what we learnt with time and practice. What we see today is not appropriate for our climate nor for the environment - and there’s a lot to be learnt and adapted from the vernacular architecture of Kerala.

We must look into our traditional architectural knowledge system and adopt what can be accepted and modified by applying 20th-century technology. Blending the old and new architecture is an exercise in preservation. And in that quest, we need not negate all the technological and social advances that we have made. The following article can be seen as observations on the Old and the New Architecture of Kerala, to aid in the design decisions of blending them appropriately.

Traditional Houses in Kerala

If we notice, all traditional buildings are simple structures and nothing is superficially done just for the sake of aesthetics. Aesthetics came into play with both functionality and the honest use of building materials. Granite looked like granite and timber looked like timber, and all the elevations were equally important. In contrast, the facades of many of the modern buildings are a reflection of the bad aesthetic sense. The wasteful use of materials and space ends up abandoning even the basic functions of a house. The layout of a house depended on social and religious customs. The houses of each caste differed according to the social customs and the lifestyle prevalent through the times. Though this has lost much of its relevance today because of the changing social progress, our houses need not all look the same as before. Unfortunately, most of the old buildings are being demolished and when we look into the reasons, it is evident that the reason for demolition is not due to any structural defects but other factors. 20th-century technology must be used to conserve these buildings, making them suitable for modern needs. Constructing a new building of the same plinth area will cost much more than that of conservation of the existing buildings.

The concept of a central courtyard was common in Kerala with the number and size of the courtyards varying according to the owner’s wealth. And for Kerala’s coastal climate, there should be large openings both inside and outside courtyards. But in the old buildings, openings on the external walls were small due to security reasons and social restrictions on women as they had an internal community life.

Central Courtyard
Central Courtyard in a Traditional Kerala House

In all the old houses, the kitchen was invariably located in the northeast portion. This is because in Kerala, the major wind direction was from the South West, and therefore the smoke got blown away from the house. And in a courtyard house, the main living area is in the South-West portion, away from the fireplace. The old buildings had verandahs all around the building. This protected the external walls from rain and direct sunlight, hence keeping the interiors cool. But now, it will be very expensive to construct a verandah all around the entire house, particularly, if there is no definite use for it.

Click to know more about Anand Pushpa Residence

Locally Available Materials

In the olden days, timber was used for the roof as well as for the intermediate floors. The linear nature of the materials used led to simple rectangular plans. But now concrete is widely used. A material can take any form or shape, but unfortunately, we have not made good use of this property. Timber ‘jaalis’ were very common then but now timber has become a scarce material. So, we now use brick ‘jaali’, in different designs, which is cheap and is good for light and ventilation.

Interiors with timber
Use of Timber for Interiors
Entry foyer with lily pond
Lily Pond and Terracotta Jaali at Chitra Rajan Residence

Click to know more about Chitra Rajan Residence

Today, concrete lintels are invariably used to span openings. In the olden days, brick arches were used to span openings. They are very strong and much cheaper than concrete lintels. A major setback in modern times is the lack of participation from local craftsmen in each stage of the construction process. Today’s inadequate education keeps the architect/designer distanced from the actual construction and due to lack of knowledge, they are forced to rely on contractors. There are also some architects and designers who don’t go to the site even once to monitor the construction.

In the olden days, all the processes of construction that happened were under the control of the head craftsman. The owner would arrange the materials at the site and there was no third party or contractor in between them. If we can have the same, simple, systematic organizational structure, like that of a head craftsman heading the construction, then the role of the contractor can be minimized and the cost of construction can be brought down significantly.

To conclude, there are more than 50 million families in India with no proper housing at all. The need of the hour is not high-end technology or prefabrication, but to concentrate on how to wisely use the existing abundant labour and the variety of local materials for construction with the help of modern technology. The principles of both old vernacular and modern architecture must go hand in hand for functional and affordable housing. Only by combining the old and new will we have a scalable solution that solves for both people and the environment.


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