Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 8-11: Kochi

On January 8th we travelled to Kochi, which, with Ernakulam, is Kerala's largest metropolitan area. Kochi proper is an old port city, situated at the entrance to a natural harbor, one if India's largest:

Traditional "Chinese" fishing nets on Kochi harbor.

Fish are apparently considerably less abundant in Kochi harbor these days, so the nets serve more as a tourist draw than anything. In fact, tourists can try raising and lowering the nets themselves:

For several centuries European powers saw Kochi as a strategic location for controlling the spice trade, hence the city has a strong European influence. Jewish traders reached the city nearly two-thousand years ago and settled in Jewtown (yes, that is its real name) where they built the first Synagogue in India. The Jews were followed by the Arabs and Chinese and eventually the Portuguese who built a wooden fort and constructed a number of cathedrals:

A spice factory in Jewtown. Unfortunately we visited on a Sunday, which is a holiday for most workers:

In one of my favorite moments of the entire trip: while eating lunch (quite literally the freshest fish one can ever eat; selected from a platter of recently caught specimens) on a pier in Kochi harbor, a pod of dolphins swam by, albeit too quickly for me to grab a photo.

We ended the day with a Kathakali dance, a form unique to Kerala and one of Kerala's main cultural exports:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The COSTFORD Model: Eco-friendly low-cost architecture

Our exploration of Kerala has been focused on the architecture of Laurie Baker, founder of COSTFORD. Baker developed unique design elements and construction techniques that minimize the financial cost and environmental impact of buildings.

Baker's buildings are site-specific: they reflect topographical and climatic conditions in their location.

Preservation of natural conditions (respecting topography, not disturbing groundwater, preserving existing flora)

Visual connections to exterior:

Courtyards are ubiquitous in Baker's buildings:

The engineering and construction of Baker's buildings are also eco-sensitive. Foundations, walls and roofs are often reinforced with construction-grade bamboo instead of structural steel.

Roofs: cement, which has a high financial and environmental cost to produce, is only used for reinforcement, otherwise terra cotta slabs are used as filler.

Walls: locally-sourced adobe bricks are arranged to maximize structural stability with less material:

Architectural elements of his buildings are eco-sensitive in their material and design. Baker employed materials with low embodied energy (energy used to produce and dispose of), local materials and recycled materials:

His buildings maximize energy conservation through site planning (for example, using the south Indian science of vaste shastra, the "science of building," which dictates good architectural design similar to Chinese Feng Shui). Baker's buildings also use passive cooling, alternate sources of energy and day lighting. Elements of water conservation and waste recycling are also visible.

Overall, Baker's architecture is not only practical but attractive:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Padmanabhapuram Palace and Kanyakumari

From January 2nd to 3rd we travelled to Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, the city at the southernmost tip of India.


On the way to Kanyakumari, we visited Padmanabhapuram Palace, the former home of the Princely State of Travancore's royal family. The palace is a huge complex of buildings with striking examples of traditional south Indian architecture.

Virtually every architectural element of the palace is ornately detailed:

The shape of the palatial buildings is reminiscent of a pagoda, however I wonder if the shape is religious or practical (to keep out rain for example?)

More detailing; each of these 90 flowers is different:

Incredibly ornate exterior:

A view of the entrance to the palace:

Palace roofs:

Some rooms are under renovation:

A view of the dance hall from upstairs. Women would watch from this screened balcony to enjoy the show without drawing the attention of the audience below:

Other buildings in the palace complex:


Monday morning we woke early to catch the sunrise. The hotel was conveniently east-facing but the sky was inconveniently cloudy. Still it was satisfying to finally see the Indian Ocean in daylight. I can now claim to have seen three of the world's major oceans!

Fishermen on the beach at Kanyakumari:

We began the day with a journey to the southernmost point in India, the Vivekananda Memorial Island. The island contains several temples, as well as a memorial to one of India's most celebrated philosophers, Swami Vivekananda. Below is the memorial itself:

The rocky islet below is officially the southernmost point in India. Incredibly, the next landmass across the sea from here is Antarctica.

A view of the island:

Monday, January 3, 2011

January 1, 2011

Opened the new year at Kovalam Beach on the Arabian Sea. I can now claim to have seen the three major oceans of the world.

Itinerary for January 1st:

Visit the Laurie Baker Centre (LBC) for lectures and tour.
Visit Self-employed Women's Association (SEWA) paper factory

We attended a lecture on low-cost construction technology outlining affordable materials and technology drawn from Laurie Baker's architectural philosophy. There are an impressive multitude of ways to save costs on construction projects if all elements of the building are considered. This includes not only the types of architectural features but also the the building process, type of materials (bricks, mortar, cement, mud, etc.) and the lifespan of materials. The Laurie Baker philosophy of architecture seems to be "use what you have."

We were lectured at the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies, a campus designed by Baker and the COSTFORD team. The main building was originally built for an Indian-Canadian homeowner:

The campus occupies the site of a former quarry, which has since been largely restored into a tropical forest habitat:

Having seen several restored quarries in North America of similar age, the rate of regeneration is impressive. The difference in the growing seasons is remarkable:

Nearby is a rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) plantation where latex is collected for refinement into rubber:

Our final stop of the day was the Self-employed Women's Association paper-making facility. Here, paper items are handcrafted from recycled cotton fibre and newspapers, mixed with dye and pressed to produce colorful paper used to make notebooks, cards and boxes. SEWA's factory is also located in a building constructed by Laurie Baker and the COSTFORD team.

December 30-31, 2010

December 30th

Visit to Centre for Development Studies campus in Trivandrum for lectures and tour

The CDS campus was designed by British architect Laurie Baker and constructed between 1973 and 2008. Baker pioneered an innovative system of architecture using local knowledge and materials and his own logic to construct low-cost and eco-sensitive buildings.

Baker's architecture is undeniably unique, but also attractive. Our first taste of his buildings was at the CDS campus, which was entirely designed by Baker and his team of architects and engineers in the organization COSTFORD.

Some examples of L.B.'s architecture:

Curved walls provide structural support with little material:

Screen-like walls enable airflow, natural cooling, and let in light while not requiring glass.

Tiles fill the space between reinforced concrete beams to save costs:

December 31st

Visit Mithraniketan for tour and lectures
Tour of Karimadom slum redevelopment by COSTFORD
Visit to Chalai Bazaar
New Year's celebrations at Sagara Resort ("COSTFORD Hotel")

Mithraniketan consists of a historic royal home and a next-door building reconstructed by COSTFORD.

Some photos of Mithraniketan:

The Karimadom Colony is a slum in Trivandrum currently undergoing redevelopment. The state government attempted smaller-scale redevelopment in the early 1990's with limited success. The new COSTFORD homes appear to be an improvement.

The Karimadom Colony:

Early 1990's redevelopment projects:

The new COSTFORD homes:

Some other photos taken from the 30th to 31st: