Studying architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi and later at Pratt Institute in New York, Jacob George remembers being fascinated by the work of Japanese architects Kurokawa and Kikutake. “I found that I could relate to both Japanese as well as Scandinavian design," says George, “and I realized that I had a very distinct preference for that somewhat minimalist approach. Being able to do more with less is a fascinating concept, whether it is designing a multifunctional space with the least number of walls, or suggesting a whole story in a few lines as artist and sculptor K.M. Vasudevan Namboothiri does in his line drawings."
He also believes strongly in concepts such as energy conservation and rainwater harvesting (his Kerala house uses only fluorescent lights, has a one lakh litre rainwater harvesting tank, has virtually no need for air conditioning and systems for waste-water treatment and solar water heating have been set up though they are yet to start functioning).
“I will not design something just because it looks good and serves no purpose, nor will Iaccept something that evolves from the function and looks imbalanced, and justify it by saying that that is what the function demands," he says.
He believes that “form follows function but with a twist" and it appears then that there are many ways of solving any problem and a successful design is one that manages to strike a balance between functionality, simplicity and elegance. “This means," says George, “that the design process is a constant dance, back and forth, between the functional elements and the form."
According to him, traditional Kerala architecture shares some of the vocabulary of traditional Japanese architecture, but lacks much of its refinement and minimalist elegance.
He details three major failings as being “the lack of light and subsequent gloominess of the internal living spaces, the almost total disregard for landscape design and the connectedness of its outdoor spaces to the inside, and the lack of cohesiveness between the interior design and the rest of the construct—areas in which traditional Japanese architecture excel".
So, when he returned to work in India in 1993 and joined Ramesh Tharakan’s Kochi-based architecture firm Design Combine as partner, it was these ideas that he brought to the table. They have also crystallized in the house he has built for himself and wife Nina Nayar, a management consultant, in Kakkanad, 16km from the centre of Kochi. It follows a building system he had been thinking about for several years and one quite radically different from the normal methods used for constructing a house.
“One can’t design a part of a building in isolation. You have to constantly go back and forth between the various elements—the actual spatial design, the structural system, the services—because when changes are made to one, it may have repercussions on another."
The house is a bold and deviant statement, an almost see-through succession of spaces. This was also, as he points out, an opportunity for him to experiment with several of his architectural ideas which no client seemed willing to pay for. Jaikrishan Kokal, a classmate at architecture school in New Delhi and now an interiors contractor based in Pune, feels that this is a daring design that has paid off. “It’s not an easy space to live in and be comfortable with," he says, “given the non-private context in which we mostly live in India."
The sleepy, picturesque village, where George’s father had built a ‘retirement home’ for himself in 1979, was an area of rolling hills interspaced with valleys which were almost all paddy fields. Kakkanad is now a bustling developmental centre, with its fair share of IT parks and Special Economic Zones. On one corner of the still peaceful 1.75acre property that sits atop a hill, George’s architectural essay for himself is a striking contrast to the older, conventional house in which his parents still live, in spite of an essentially simple form. “This is certainly an architect’s space," says P.C. Mathew, an associate at Design Combine. “George has not had to compromise on the architectural language or detailing as he was building for himself, not a client."
Choosing to do away with the sloping tiled roof so typical of traditional Kerala architecture, a good system in the old days of all-wooden structures when the attic kept the houses cool (a wooden roof with a wooden attic is unaffordable these days), the house has instead flat roofs that George is trying (unsuccessfully) to cover with shade netting. It has a louvred vent space all around, at every wall-slab junction. Warm air is, therefore, never trapped at the top, and air circulates along the bottom of the slabs at all times. The roof slab top also has white glazed tiles, which deflect the heat.
The most significant feature of the design is the ‘modular’ system of construction that George devised, in which all walls consist of cement ‘board’ panels bolted together, with a 250mm air space in between, with the outer ones pre-laminated and the inner ones pre-painted. All services—electrical wiring, telephone and video cables as well as plumbing—are housed in the space within the panels, making maintenance and repair easy.
Very little wood has been used. “Kerala weather is not conducive to its use," says George. “We have problems with the expansion and contraction of wood if it is used even internally, leave alone what is exposed to the elements. And no amount of protective overhang is enough with the extremely high winds —we get horizontal rain!" says George. So, he designed stainless steel frames for all the windows and did away with frames for all fixed glazing—a substantial saving in costs.
What about security in the absence of grills? Inexpensive electronic alarm systems ensure peace of mind and the added bonus is that an infrared perimeter system costs about 20% of what would have been spent on grills!
As for the pre-laminated cement ‘board’ walls, they have behaved perfectly through several monsoons—needing just a wipe-down with mild soap and water.
In terms of space, there’s not a lot to deal with. The approximately 1,800sq. ft area includes just one large bedroom and one study in addition to the living-dining-kitchen space, which is a light-filled, almost transparent expanse on the ground floor.
The bedroom, with a walk-in closet and bathroom, is on the first floor, and Nina’s study-cum-office has become a separate block, off to one side of the entrance to the main house. It is linked by an open passageway, so that her colleagues and clients have a different entrance. All these are linked together with a staircase, water bodies and garden courts.
In this project, the architecture, the interiors and the landscape were designed simultaneously, creating the same brushstrokes right through. So the landscape takes its cues from the structure, and has been kept graphic—with just green lawns, pebbles and granite chips for ground cover, and bamboo and temple trees as foliage.
The interiors also reflect the same spirit and use local materials including rubber wood (“which we now realize is not good as it is too unstable") and teak ply—both endemic to Kerala. All the general lighting is indirect, throwing interesting shadows on the coir rugs and bamboo blinds.
Was his own house easier to build after years of doing so for others? Not having anyone else to satisfy did ease the process a lot, but then again, nothing seemed good enough. In an experimental exercise such as this, one also keeps learning… “Nina feels there is too much glare and the vents at the tops of the walls let in too much noise. We are also discovering that the ‘open bathroom’ upstairs is not private enough, especially in the aural context! We are redoing the flooring (the epoxy finish fell apart in six months, but we are still sticking to epoxy) and have found that all the rubber wood closet and cabinet shutters have warped. And, of course, the shade netting on the roof continues to be a structural challenge." And how much did it cost? About Rs30 lakh, including the furniture and bamboo blinds.
People who see and react to the house often call it ‘international’, a label that irks George. “This building has no predisposed style except its own," he says firmly, “one that is born of its very own set of circumstances."