Benny Kuriakose, Benny Kuriakose & Associates: The vernacularist

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Benny Kuriakose, Benny Kuriakose & Associates: The vernacularist
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Benny Kuriakose, Benny Kuriakose & Associates: The vernacularist

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Benny Kuriakose, Benny Kuriakose & Associates: The vernacularist
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There is wisdom in the vernacular. But does this knowledge offer something more than feel-good nostalgia? Are traditional buildings models for low-impact architecture that must be emulated?

Benny Kuriakose certainly thinks so. A prolific practitioner from Chennai, India, whose firm, Benny Kuriakose & Associates, champions vernacular-inspired architecture, he deems that traditional knowledge is a pathway to sustainability.

His portfolio includes conservation, hospitality, and housing projects. The vast majority of his buildings are in peri-urban or rural settings and tend to be low-rise structures set in natural landscapes. His work is a conduit for the materials and crafts indigenous to a region.

Episode outline

00:08:06 A vernacular-inspired approach to sustainable design for India
00:09:08 “I’m taking inspirations… or learn from the past or how people built. And those buildings were built using local materials and according to the local climate. And there was a more human nature in architecture — in the vernacular architecture.”
00:16:39 “We should not take a blind view that everything vernacular is sustainable. I don’t have such a view.”
00:27:36 “One important aspect of sustainability buildings has to be durable. If your building lasts only for 25 years, it is not sustainable. We look at the life cycle cost.”
00:30:16 Built projects
00:33:36 “What they need to create is buildings which will give peace and happiness to the occupants.”
00:43:30 Celebrating the rural and unhurried
00:45:44 “Earth will strike a balance when the rural and city divide will be the minimum — which is possible. So we are still thinking of mega, mega projects in cities, whereas we are neglecting the villagers.”
00:48:01 Becoming Benny
00:54:00 “It is important that you do what you believe in. It’s important that you have a vision and a concept. Money will follow whatever you try to do. You should be change makers — that is very important.”

Summary

In this interview, Benny says he was first inspired by the late British-Indian architect, Laurie Baker, who is celebrated for his frugal and eco-friendly properties. He also credits Shri Appukuttan Nair, a retired civil engineer who specialised in traditional Keralan buildings, as a major influence.

His enthusiasm for the vernacular, however, was fuelled later, while exploring India. He would eventually earn a master’s degree in conservation, yielding the skillsets and professional qualifications needed to launch his career.

His design approach today is marked by an emphasis on place. Climate and site, culture and craft, and the use of local materials are all central to his creations.

Benny Kuriakose designed the Quiet by the River resort to blend into the environment with a palette of natural materials sourced from nearby.
© T.P. Naseef, Benny Kuriakose & Associates

In the Quiet by the River resort (Kerala, India), for instance, Benny uses recycled timber and locally sourced stones. By promoting local craftsmanship, he aims to foster the employment of tradesmen whose skills might otherwise be lost one day.

In Vishram by the Sea, Kuriakose uses Athangudi floor tiles from a village in the Chettinad area of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
© Rajiv Menon, Benny Kuriakose & Associates

Another development, the private residence Vishram by the Sea (Kerala, India), relies on natural ventilation and daylight to curb energy dependence. The impact is further mitigated through the use of recycled stone columns, reclaimed doors and windows, and eco-friendly handmade Athangudi tiles.

The DakshinaChitra Museum is one of Benny’s rare urban interventions to date. This project, some 28 years in the making, is situated in the heart of Chennai (Tamil Nadu, India) and consists of a cluster of new and reconstructed buildings.

The DakshinaChitra Museum offers interesting interfaces between indoors and outdoors, softening the impact of the tropical sun.
© T.P. Naseef, Benny Kuriakose & Associates

In addition to showcasing regional architecture, the museum premises are a compelling network of public spaces, verandas and courtyards, with interstitial retreats between buildings popular with the museum’s visitors.

The importance of interstitial spaces is underscored in the DakshinaChitra Museum, offering room for social interactions and cultural events.
© T.P. Naseef, Benny Kuriakose & Associates

Any building that ignores the local context cannot be sustainable, insists Benny. He makes the case that sustainability in India must transcend the trend towards Green certification, which he considers to be a transplant from the West. The country’s future lies in reconnecting with a Gandhian way of thinking and acting.

Benny Kuriakose is an advocate and teacher who invests time in sharing the virtues of village life.
© T.P. Naseef, Benny Kuriakose & Associates

The conversation with Benny pokes at some of the contradictions inherent to adopting a vernacular strategy in contemporary India. Does he install air conditioning if a client requests it? What does he make of the urban pressure to always build higher, denser, to accommodate the legions who embrace the city?

Here, Benny proposes a thoughtful calibration between traditional ways and modern norms. Urbanites, he contends, are drawing resources away from countryside communities all around India and his work is his attempt at reimagining life in the villages. It may seem labour-intensive on the surface, highly customised, even antithetical to many of the low-impact structures cloned quickly and to scale today; but by slowing the process and leaving an imprint of the maker, he aims to remind us of the underlying humanity in every building act.

Sustainability means nothing if we all live in machine-made boxes in the sky.

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with a recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with a recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:04:48 “…he was mostly known for cost-effective building or low-cost buildings…”
LOW-COST HOUSING TECHNIQUES” | Civil Wale
00:05:20 “…but very common in British country style architecture…”
British Architectural Styles” | Boha Glass
00:05:59 “…I did not learn about any of these vernacular architecture techniques…”
Sustainability and Vernacular Architecture: Rethinking What Identity Is” | IntechOpen
00:25:52 “…I mean he said it in 1909 in his book called ‘Hind Swaraj’…”
Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj : A Summary and Centennial View” | Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal / Gandhi Book Centre
00:34:19 “…That’s why the Arts and Crafts movement came even…”
Arts and Crafts movement” | Wikipedia
00:46:05 “…I’m not arguing for something which Schumacher said, ‘Small is beautiful’…”
Small Is Beautiful” | Britannica
00:04:17 “…Then a chance meeting with Laurie Baker brought me into the architecture…”
Laurie Baker” | Wikipedia
00:06:51 “…I came across another mentor of mine called Shri Appukuttan Nair…”
Renovation of the Koothambalam at Kalakshetra Chennai / About Shri. Appukuttan Nair” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates
00:07:12 “…which is founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale…”
Rukmini Devi Arundale” | Britannica
00:25:45 “…I mean Mahatma Gandhiji said that…”
Mahatma Gandhi” | Wikipedia
00:46:05 “…I’m not arguing for something which Schumacher said, ‘Small is beautiful’…”
E.F. Schumacher” | Britannica
00:06:30 “…I toured […] across Kerala looking at traditional buildings…”
Kerala” (India) | Britannica
00:07:00 “…He has done a theatre in one of the Bharata Kalakshetram University…”
Bharata Kalakshetram” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates
00:13:44 “…like in Rajasthan, for example…”
Rajasthan” (India) | Britannica
00:13:53 “…but not in a heavy rainfall area like in Assam…”
Assam” (India) | Britannica
00:20:37 “…I practise based out of Chennai…”
Chennai” (Tamil Nadu, India) | Britannica
00:20:53 “…It’s OK for a climate in… like in Munich or London…”
Munich” (Bavaria, Germany) | Britannica
00:20:53 “…It’s OK for a climate in… like in Munich or London…”
London” (United Kingdom) | Britannica
00:21:33 “…whether it is in Latin America or Jakarta or Berlin or anywhere…”
history of Latin America” | Britannica
00:21:33 “…whether it is in Latin America or Jakarta or Berlin or anywhere…”
Jakarta” (Indonesia) | Britannica
00:21:33 “…whether it is in Latin America or Jakarta or Berlin or anywhere…”
Berlin” (Germany) | Britannica
00:30:21 “…So let’s start with the first one, Quiet by the River resort…”
Quiet By The River Resort” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates
00:35:56 “…When you see Mahabalipuram temple or Khajuraho temple or Brihadeshwara temple…”
TIMELESS BEAUTY OF THE SHORE TEMPLE OF MAHABALIPURAM” | Times Travel
00:35:56 “…When you see Mahabalipuram temple or Khajuraho temple or Brihadeshwara temple…”
Temples Of Khajuraho” | Indian Culture
00:35:56 “…When you see Mahabalipuram temple or Khajuraho temple or Brihadeshwara temple…”
Brihadeshwara temple” (New South Wales, Australia) | Wikipedia
00:36:23 “…There’s another project where this is very apparent: the Vishram by the Sea…”
Vishram by the Sea” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates
00:38:40 “…The one project that kind of feels bigger and much more urban is the DakshinaChitra Museum…”
Dakshinachitra Museum” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates
00:48:27 “…after finishing my doctorate for my year in IIT Madras…”
Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras)
00:05:07 “…So he was doing buildings with exposed brickwork…”
A Symphony in Bricks: Remembering Laurie Baker’s Legacy” | Issuu
00:06:16 “…He made use of the filler slab…”
Filler Slabs: Material and Advantages” | The Constructor – Civil Engineering Home
00:18:32 “…you just put some traditional timber column, Chettinad columns…”
History of Chettinad Pillars in Tamil Homes” | NYK Daily
00:31:06 “…We use quite a bit of the recycled timber…”
Timber recycling” | Wikipedia
00:37:24 “…The flooring is very similar to the Victorian tiles…”
Victorian and Edwardian Geometric and Encaustic Floor Tiles” | The Building Conservation Directory
00:37:36 “…We call it Chettinad tiles or Athangudi tiles…”
Everything You Want to Know About Athangudi Tiles (Chettinad Tiles)” | Benny Kuriakose & Associates

There are no products and technologies mentioned in this episode.

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Managing editor
Kruti Choksi

Communications executive
Sana Gupta

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown | Phlogiston

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