Monthly Archives: March 2017
Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.
It is not unusual to come across designers and architects who are not supportive of working with natural materials. Of course they vouch by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, are aware that natural materials have lower embodied energy, yet prefer manufactured materials.
This unsustainable approach comes not from an ignorance of the environmental crisis we are presently facing, but from a belief that natural materials do not offer adequate design variations. Quantitatively speaking, this position can be accepted since number of natural materials are less than produced ones. However, the opinion that design potentials reduce is a matter of debate, considering the diversity of traditional architecture we have across the world, which continue to be a greater source for ideas and larger tourist attraction than anything of modernity. Local architecture with natural materials continues to score over any modern idea in terms of perfection, performance and even permanence.
Once recent example is the architectural installation at Kochi Biennale, designed by architect Tony Joseph, from Calicut.
It is both an artistic expression as well as an auditorium for daily events. Built largely with natural materials such as mud, arecanut, jute and coloured fabric, it also juxtaposes with steel trusses with sheets as wall panel and roof.
The structure proves how well it engages with its general location within Fort Kochi and specifically with the briefing from the now famous Kochi Biennale 2016.
Natural materials can empower the designer to engage with regional contexts, thereby be able to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception. The auditorium employs the age-old technique of creating stepped seats using arecanut poles which is enclosed in the hall by textured and patterned rammed earth walls. Steel structure raises from within this enclosing wall to take the metal roof, the internal ceiling concealed by coloured fabrics hung with lighting from behind in varied hues.
As one among the more talked about built installations at the Biennale, this pavilion uses very few natural materials, yet creates a balanced hybridity not commonly seen around. The wall with mud, wood and sheet in a sequence has a more appealing narrative than a mere plastered wall. The steel and arecanut poles as supports for the roof and the gallery respectively, contrast curiously with each other. Internally, the fine texture of the roof fabric hangs just above the rough texture of the wall.
Given all this, why are the natural materials losing out against manufactured materials? It may not be only because modern materials have greater potential in some respects, but also because we are forgetting certain design fundamentals which would enable us to mix and match the local material to create excellence. Design has to do more with designing than a blind application of a technology or a material.
When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.
It is surprising to realise how every one of us, in our own way, is directly or indirectly involved with getting buildings done during our lifetime. It is one activity that most of us cannot escape, which at macro scale may mean commissioning a project or at micro level, just advising a friend about a design option.
In the implementation team we have innumerable architects, engineers, builders, consultants, suppliers, site team and such others, involved in the building construction industry. Our annual output in terms of built-up areas, spread across villages and all towns, is beyond calculation.
It is equally surprising to realise how most of us do not think much before we act. Most of our design and construction are based on a routine practice, endlessly repeated with minor variations therein. Naturally, deep thinking on design parameters like culture and climate are a rarity, resulting in the same faceless buildings being erected across India. While we have large number of practising professionals, paradoxically we appear to have a small number of thinking professionals, which could be the reason behind many non-descript buildings.
This is where thinking architects like A.G. Krishna Menon and K.T. Ravindran become important. Both have a pan-India perspective about how we are approaching designs today and the imminent need to be context specific in our design interventions.
These two senior architects may not be listed as eco-architects of today, possibly ignored by the younger generation.
However, through their selective designs, public talks, academic involvement, explorative seminars and freelance publications, they have inspired a large number of professionals, paving the way for thinking about architecture.
Ravindran’s emphasis on the vernacular and Menon’s observations of the traditional settlements highlight the importance of culture-specific designs. Incidentally, when we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default. These architects with their analytical mind will not summarily dismiss modern architecture, but would suggest ways to blend tradition with modernity. Modern designs can also have green sense, be local and be sustainable.
To that end, one needs to study the design options, their implications and finally choose the most appropriate.
Learning from history
History is too often brushed aside as a matter of past, but architects like Menon and Ravindran, show how we can learn from history. After all, historic buildings have been green buildings not only in India, but everywhere. What we can learn from them and apply in designs today can make our future generations safer.
This process of learning cannot be complete if we study buildings in isolation; we also need to look at how buildings come together creating urban design, heritage zones and religious cities. Such rich contexts have created a lifestyle which in turn has created the contexts. Thus by recreating each other, context and culture have stayed true to a region – its geology, geography, flora, fauna and climate. By their thought process, these architects have proved that to achieve a green future, we need to iteratively study all facets of house, neighbourhood, city, culture, climate and of course living itself.
Many of their designs are based on theories and in turn, they have evolved theories based on designs. Where theory and design inform each other without contradicting positions, there we can find the path to eco-friendly possibilities.