What are we to do with our incredibly rich architectural heritage? The smaller parts can be showcased in museums. Monuments such as the Taj Mahal have the benefit of protective laws. But what of the hundreds of small houses scattered across the country in which many crafts (and traditions) have converged? What can we do to prevent these being dismantled and sold at weight, volume or piece rate?
Cyriac T.M., an architect based in Thiruvananthapuram, practises a solution to this problem that also answers the need of the tourist industry to provide guests an “authentic” local ambience. Since 1994, when he designed Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom (a CGH Earth resort), Cyriac has perfected the art of buying old houses that are up for sale, dismantling and reassembling them as villas in heritage resorts.
The Travancore Heritage, with 85 rooms spread over 9.5 acres at Chavara, 23km from Thiruvananthapuram, is one such project. It won Cyriac a national design award in 2004. Estuary Island, at Poovar, farther afield, has fewer recycled elements and is smaller, on 3.5 acres and with 71 rooms, 30 of them in a three-storeyed block.
Both are unusual attempts to combine the best of old and new architectural values. The Travancore Heritage’s design revolves around the architectural heritage of South Travancore.
Estuary Island, on the other hand, has an enviable location on an estuary that it faces and can be reached only by boat. Both point to a range of complexities that Cyriac’s practice engages with.
Estuary Island: The design is more contemporary
He clarifies that the houses he chooses to transplant “are already on sale. We don’t prompt anyone to sell his or her house. Usually, the houses that are on the market are not in use. Their owners prefer to live in a new building on the same property. But whenever I find an old building that is special and must be preserved, I try to get the government into the picture.”
Looking around The Travancore Heritage, you wonder if there are any old buildings that are not special. You also realize that it is almost impossible to recreate the special character of old buildings, such as the old palace housing the reception lobby, in a new construction. The low slope of the roof, the way the rafters fan out from the apex, the elegant profiles of rafter ends and the exquisite wooden screens and trellises that combine grace with efficiency—these are difficult to fabricate from scratch today. The juxtaposition of old and old, or old and new, is always tricky.
At The Travancore Heritage, there was the challenge of taking houses originally built on flat land, and placing them together on a sloping site in a way that maximizes the sea view, while also responding to the trees and other vegetation on the site.
Meanwhile, the typical Kerala palace housing the reception lobby leads to a restaurant pavilion that has been sourced from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. The ensemble holds because Cyriac has brought together elements that share core architectural values even if they are from different traditions.
A basic harmony is achieved by matching the scale and dimensions of recycled elements. Cyriac forgoes the option of attaining complete authenticity, and, more interestingly, he shows off the old elements. No beautifying or unifying polish is added to any of the wood. Newer elements, such as the low walls on which the old partitions are mounted (to make rooms slightly higher than before), are painted white.
“Reversibility is an important principle in conservation,” says Cyriac. “If someone wants to dismantle and return these houses to their original state, that is possible since the old and the new elements are visually distinct.”
The unwillingness to “dress up” heritage and the refusal to submerge its identity in a new ensemble point to the architect’s regard for the architecture he recycles. It also points to confidence in his own contemporary sensibility. The old houses that are now guest cottages at The Travancore Heritage come together in the landscape in ways unknown on home ground. Occasionally, a building gains from a change of site, as a more favourable location deepens the right shadows and emphasizes, for instance, the “floating” character of a particular roof.
Each cottage resembles a small traditional dwelling. The traditional darkness of interior spaces is preserved, courageously so. Partly, that is because of the external wooden screens and also due to the architect’s deliberate refusal to bring in more light than strictly necessary. Such restraint is possible due to the compensations of a small but comfortable sea-ward veranda that the house comes with, as also the occasional open shower and bathroom court added at the rear, which lets the garden in.
But, of course, however beautiful they may be, it is not always possible to transplant old houses. So, in designing Estuary Island, Cyriac has attempted to shape new buildings around old values, without recycling dominant elements such as roofs and partitions. The only old elements here are the doors. Inside, there are wooden railings everywhere, with cut-outs of palm trees and other motifs. This light-heartedness in detail becomes a counterpoint to the “monumental” nature of the block itself, and also complements the more earnest approach to conserving the past that is evident at The Travancore Heritage.
Each approach has its advantages. The recycling of entire structures saves valuable buildings, retains the architectural flavour of the past, producing at the same time a contemporary environment that is profoundly engaging. The other approach, as at Estuary Island, is quicker (it was built in eight months), cheaper, avoids turning traditional habitats into casual entertainment for tourists, and allows a more contemporary sensibility to come into play.
But the idiom of Estuary Island never approaches the delicacy of The Travancore Heritage. And so, neither approach alone is the final answer.
Cyriac doesn’t believe that the strategy of recycling is the best way of conserving valuable heritage objects, especially buildings. However, since India does not yet have a strong societal or governmental commitment to conserving everyday architectural heritage, at least this ensures the physical integrity of valuable old houses. In these times, it is the market that is promoting one popular way of architectural conservation.
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