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Architect Benny KuriakoseBy Andrew Chyne
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Architect Benny Kuriakose is a name synonymous with Architectural Conservation and Cost-effective Architecture. Deriving his early experience working with the legend and his mentor Laurie Baker, Kuriakose has several prestigious restoration projects to his name. He is also well known for his tsunami reconstruction projects and post-earthquake rehabilitation work in Latur and Bhuj. Not to be typecast into any particular slot, the versatile architect has also done some up-market, high-end resorts at one end and care-units at the other.
When did you start your practice? How did the idea come about?
I worked with Laurie Baker for about nine months and then decided to travel to see the other kind of architecture. Meanwhile I started to get enquiries regarding houses to be built in the 'Baker Style'. I did a few projects and then joined the firm COSTFORD in Thrissur where I was involved with the first few houses which COSTFORD constructed.
What is your vision as an architect?
Thirty years ago, when I started the career, I never expected that I will reach a stage a like this. I realised the relevance of my works only as time passed by, when there was more demand for the kind of buildings that I do. In the years to come, I expect that I will be able to do some projects which will be of some relevance to the future. Also I am hoping that I will be able to take architecture to another level, on the lines of what has been started by Laurie Baker.
You have worked on a number of rehabilitation projects at disaster sites. Could you share your learning from there?
The first project that I was involved was in Banegaon village in Lattur District sponsored by the readers of Malayala Manorama newspaper. In this project, we did two model houses in which the villagers chose one. We tried to follow the traditional pattern of their houses but did not follow a grid iron layout. Instead formed a cluster layout for the village. The house was placed in one corner of the plot so that the villagers can expand the house in their traditional way. A compound wall of five feet height, with proper foundation so that it can be converted into a load bearing wall, was given to facilitate easy expansion of their houses.
The next village project which I designed was the reconstruction of the houses in Chapredi village destroyed in Bhuj earthquake. We designed four houses and made the physical models. We had one to one interaction with the villagers and the people chose different models. But later on, the Sarpanch and some others decided on a single model and the village was constructed as such.
Later on, when I had to design the houses and the settlement of Tarangambadi and Chinnankudi affected by the Tsunami, it was decided to make sure that the participation of the community and the house owners was there. We offered different models and actually constructed the model houses so that the people could understand what they are actually going to get. We said 1500 houses, 1500 designs. The sites were allocated to the individuals before starting the construction itself. The houses were highly customised and the house owners had control over the construction process.
Do you think architecture in general in our country is geared towards minimal damage during any disaster?
The situation in our country is quite bad. We have not learnt much from the disasters. Even the houses we have constructed after the disaster has struck continue to have the same problem; many of these houses which were reconstructed in the same location will not be able to withstand the disaster of the same intensity. The problem of providing houses is seen purely as a technical problem and the social and cultural aspects of the community are not taken into consideration in the rehabilitation of the houses.
What are some key points an end user should look at when buying or building a space?
It is easy to meet the physical requirements and most of the designs will do this. What is most important is to taken the design beyond this and that is what good design does. The biggest challenge the building industry is facing today is to ensure the quality of construction. Everybody is interested in quantity and if the quality of construction cannot be ensured, the buildings will not last for long. The cost of maintaining such structures are going to be very high.
How has your experience of working on heritage projects been?
I learnt quite a bit working on conservation projects. The best way of going green is to conserve our old buildings. Also, working on the Muziris Heritage Project, it has been proven that conservation and development can go together.
What would your recommendations be if India is to conserve its architectural and cultural heritage?
The first thing to do is to feel proud of one's heritage. A city without historic buildings is like a man without memory. Conservation is not against development, it is against blind development. The view that we should preserve everything is a romantic one. But at the same time,we cannot allow a process of natural selection or survival of the fittest. The argument is not against development but against the manner in which it is done. It is not against all demolitions, but against unnecessary and avoidable demolitions.
If we allow things to happen as it is, there will not be any heritage to conserve in another 10-20 years. We cannot allow that to happen. We need to interfere. We might have to let some of the buildings go, but I am more worried about what is going to replace those buildings. That’s what makes it scary.
Of all the myriad projects you have worked on, which has been the trickiest one? Why?
Dakshinachitra, the Institute of Palliative Medicine, the Tsunami Rehabilitation Project, the Muziris Heritage Project etc. were the projects which required lot of research. I tried to make each project to be developed in a different way keeping the users in mind.
How do you build cost effectiveness and sustainability in individual housing or commercial projects?
Sustainability and cost effectiveness is very much an integral part of all the designs we do. In fact, these two form the most important factors in arriving at the final design. As Baker used to say, one should ask the question "is it necessary?"
You have also worked on a number of idyllic resorts. What is your approach in these projects?
One should look at the location and try to make each resort different from the others. I try to make the vernacular features and use natural materials while developing the concept of the resort. In a resort, one is looking for an experience and I think people generally like the natural feel.
How would you define your style?
I do not have any particular style. Each of my buildings look different, because the location is different, the climate is different, the materials are different and the clients are also different. I think style is very superficial and it is follow a particular style. But in my designs, I try to go beyond the styles which is usually skin deep.
Who are the people who inspire you?
I learnt the basic lessons of architecture from Laurie Baker. I read "Architecture for the Poor" written by Hassan Fathy even while I was a student. Later on I liked the works of Geoffrey Bawa, Frank Lloyd Wright etc.. I was very influenced by the writings of Le Corbusier.
What drives you?
The realization that I can do better architecture which can improve the quality of life.
What would your dream project be?
It is difficult to do the dream project since in the different stages of its execution, many compromises are being made. My dream project is to do a retirement community project in which the quality of the life of the old people are improved substantially.
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