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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

What Can We Learn From Our Traditional Architecture in Kerala?

Laurie Baker used to say, “We should be thinking and designing as Indians, for Indians in India. The buildings I see have nothing to do with the normal life of a Kerala citizen, the climate or the materials available here.” We have a rich and varied kind of vernacular architecture which is beautiful and interesting. Unfortunately, there is no ‘Indian-ness’ in most of the buildings here. I would say we are more western by our way of thinking than by our way of living.


This article speaks about the various traits of traditional Kerala architecture and its relevance in today’s world. The traditional architecture of Kerala was developed according to the climate, local materials, and socio-economic relations. Bamboo, mud, lime, timber, stone, bricks, thatch etc. were used according to the needs of the people and their availability in the state.


Kerala Traditional Architecture Elements


Sloping Roofs


In many of the flat-roofed residences and apartment buildings, the roof is not seen at all. However, the most prominent feature of old traditional houses in Kerala is the sloping roof. The roof overhang is suspended very low to protect the mud or timber walls from rain and other elements of weather, thereby keeping the interiors cool. The carpenters also considered the roof design as the most crucial and critical part of a house. In Malayalam, we even say that I want to make a Koora(roof) meaning I want to build a house.


Padmanabhapuram palace
The Roof is a Predominant Feature in Traditional Kerala Buildings
The roof hangs very low to protect the timber or mud walls from heavy rain
The Roof Hangs Very Low to Protect the Timber or Mud Walls From Heavy Rain

Courtyard


In the olden days, the rich people of all the communities lived in traditional courtyard houses called ‘Nalukettu’. Nalukettus have one internal central courtyard whereas traditional houses with two courtyards are called ‘Ettukettus’. The grandness of the courtyard houses depended on the size and number of the courtyards. Courtyards were also added when the family grew in the joint family system. The internal courtyard had walkways on all four sides. They ensured enough ventilation and natural light for all the rooms.


kerala house
In North Kerala, Two and Three-storied Houses Were Common in the Old Days
Internal Courtyard in a Traditional Kerala House
Internal Courtyard in a Traditional Kerala House

The Prominence of Vaastu Shastra and the Science Behind It


In all the old traditional houses in Kerala, the kitchen was invariably in the northeast corner as the prevailing winds blow from the southwest direction. Most traditional houses in Kerala had thatched roofs and if the roof of the kitchen caught fire, it would not spread to the other parts easily because it would be blown away by the prevailing winds. Ideally, a well would also be close to it. In a courtyard house, the main living area was always in the southwest portion, away from the fireplace.


Cattle sheds and gatehouses were located based on the principle laid in ancient texts. Trees were also planted on each side of the house according to the shastras. In North Kerala, where two or three-storied courtyard houses were prevalent, the northeast portion was a single storey because of the kitchen position. The bedrooms would be present upstairs in the southwest.


Influence of Colonial Architecture


Colonial architecture also had its influence on the traditional architecture of Kerala. But, the changes were gradual and suitable to the surroundings. Many buildings designed by the British included vernacular features, respecting the architecture of the state. A new style of traditional modern architecture began to develop during this time.


But unfortunately, many of the present-day architects and designers do not know that their work is less appreciated by the people who live with it. They may accuse the public of having a lack of taste for the formal qualities of architecture. But one is not very sure of their definitions and can only assume that those qualities are there for the admiration of other architects and magazines.


Napier museum
Napier Museum

Modern Traditional House


The traditional architecture of Kerala is not just a style, but a form of knowledge. There was a concept and logic behind everything. They might have lost pertinence over time, but the response to climate conditions, local materials etc. are still relevant. There is a definite requirement for taking the good functional aspects of traditional architecture and applying it in a modern context. The liking for these kinds of houses would have occurred more as a reaction to the concrete roofed buildings which are in plenty in our cities and towns. But during the last two decades, the sloping roof has come back in the case of residential buildings.


Many of the clients now want to incorporate traditional features in their modern homes. One might have all the modern conveniences in these houses, but they are more likely to feel homely in traditional houses. There are many clients who told me that they are more interested in building the house with natural materials. They say they do not want the usual sheets of glass, marble, etc. They prefer an uncommon modern traditional house that is relaxed, livable and economic. Many of these houses would be two or three-storied. They would like their houses to have an internal courtyard if the area permits. In the case of a narrow plot, certain compromises have to be made.


Problems in Conservation of Old Buildings (Nalukettu)

  • The layout and planning of the old courtyard houses depended more on social and religious customs, rather than technology. The houses of each caste and religion differed according to their customs and relations within the society. This has lost much of its relevance because of changing lifestyles and social relationships.

  • The modern style of living is different. Joint families have now become nuclear.

  • The bedrooms were meant purely for sleeping, hence the small windows and dominating darkness. The old traditional houses do not have attached bathrooms, which is a necessity now.

  • In large courtyard houses, the light and ventilation depended on the central courtyard. The women had an internal community life, while the men spent their time in the front portion of the house. Such houses would have a separate entrance hall where the men sat during the daytime and received the visitors. Now, that is not the case.

  • Instead of putting in more windows, the tendency is to demolish and construct a concrete roofed house, which gives the family more status in society. If the old building has rich woodcarvings, they will probably be sold and the money would be used for new constructions.

  • The younger generation is not interested in conserving their ancestral houses which require constant maintenance. The majority of these traditional buildings are not demolished because they lack structural integrity but because the house owners want more modern houses.


Let us now understand the importance and relevance of a modern traditional house through a case study.


A case study of a Modern Traditional House- Vishram House By the sea


The plan of the “Vishram House” by the side of the beach is very simple. Initially, when the plan was done, the first floor was not there, but later on, we decided to add the first floor to capture better views of the sea. The client had some old windows and doors, that were repurposed and used in the house. The two windows used in the staircase area were the leftover windows dismantled from their city house.


The doors came from a house that was pulled down to make way for an office complex. They were eight feet high with a ventilator and double shutters. One was paneled and one was with iron rods. The client had two sets of Chettinad pillars – one timber, and the other stone. We used the stone set, because the timber pillars were ornamental, and did not match the style of the house.


Large Verandah With Athangudi Tiles and Stone Columns
Large Verandah With Athangudi Tiles and Stone Columns

Maximum cross ventilation is given to most of the rooms. The bedroom in the first floor is finished with athangudi tiles, niches and traditional Chettinad windows. The sill level of windows is close to the floor to facilitate a nice breeze even when one is sitting on the floor.


bedroom
A Bedroom With Low Sill Level Windows

Verandah


Large verandahs suited the requirements of the client. So, we experimented with various kinds of mixed furniture styles. For instance, one can even put a bed or a writing desk and do whatever he/she likes in the verandah. If necessary, it can be divided into smaller spaces as well. The verandah gives a relaxed feeling to the residents.


Large Verandah with athangudi tiles
Large Verandah

Courtyard and Roofing


The internal courtyard in the Vishram house ensures very good cross ventilation.


central courtyard
Courtyards in Contemporary Houses Help in Cross Ventilation

We used some of the leftover rafters from a demolished Chettinad house for the roofing. The carpenters were brought specially from Kerala to do the roof of the building. Primarily, we thought that thatched roofing would be a good option, for the large L-shaped verandah. But, we found the cost to be very high and since we were working on a tight budget, we decided to drop the idea and decided to go with timber roofs. The roof in this house overhangs a good amount to protect the walls from the sun and rain.


Modern traditional house
Exterior View

The built-in seat is a feature in most of the traditional Kerala houses. It is becoming common in modern homes as well. The style may change, but the usual ones are- traditional Tamil style seater made of granite, and other contemporary style seater made of timber. Here, we used a traditional Tamil style granite seater.


Thinnai Made of Granite
Thinnai Made of Granite

Conclusion


The changes happening in the architectural scene during the last two decades have been rapid. The younger generation does not seem to be interested in the conservation of old buildings. The engineers and architects have learned from western textbooks as well. They might not have any regard for the traditions of the country. The use of craftsmen has also been less during the last two or three decades.

Therefore, to get out of this present crisis, an architecture typology, like the traditional architecture of Kerala, that suits the environment, climate, and the people should be evolved. The blending of ethnic or traditional styles with modern architecture could also be a possible solution. The spaces in a house should be designed very carefully and there should be spaces which one can choose depending on their mood. Ideally, modern traditional architecture has to accommodate the changing needs and requirements of the residents and as a result, become popular among the people.

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