by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
When we talk about Kerala architecture, the emphasis is primarily on the vernacular practices associated with the temple architecture, residential architecture (Nalukettu, Ettukettu, etc), and the traditional Vastu Shastra principles of the southern state of India. However, for a Keralite, like myself, who was born in a two-century-old ancestral home in Kerala, and lived surrounded by the traditionality of the South, Kerala architecture goes beyond the theoretical explanations found in architectural journals and books. If I were to define the architecture of the region, the first thing that comes to mind are the verses from poet Vallathol Narayana Menon’s Malayalam poem, which roughly translate to, "The world is my home. The trees, grass, and worms all come together to form my family.” Personally, the soul of Kerala architecture will always be the relationship people share with nature. However, with the evolving nature of architectural practices, this relationship started blurring into an architecture that simplifies design interventions by employing vernacular materials, having courtyards, forming sloped roofs, and natural light and ventilation. Amid exceptional projects that reinvent ‘traditional’ on their own terms, the architecture I grew up with seems largely absent. Drawing from these familiar architectural entities of God’s own country and reintroducing them in modern times, Kerala-based architectural firm Archidobe designed their recent project in Palakkad called Sanctum of Harmony.
As the name suggests, the built structure is a sacred place where gods, humans, and nature coexist in harmony. When the client, a professional Kathakali artist and music teacher approached the Indian architects, the brief was to create “a structure that opens a gateway to the realm of arts and architecture, of an age where nature was worshipped as gods." Anchoring every stage of its design and implementation in this principle, every element of Sanctum of Harmony goes back in time, to navigate the evolution of the relationship between art, nature, and architecture.
The project rests in the small town of Palakkad, within the premises of an already-established Sadanam Kathakali Academy. “In the wide campus, we found the client’s deep connection with a banyan tree. Thus, that large banyan tree provided the cradle of our thought process, on what the purpose and identity of the structure should be,” share the architects. In form, inspired by caves—place of origin for gatherings—Sanctum of Harmony ebbs and flows in a tunnel-like structure, adorned by dramatic arches. The architectural form, thus derived, also aims to host the branches of the banyan tree in the years to come, to send across the message—"everything belongs to nature."
Owing to the client and region’s inclination to Kathakali, the architectural design of the space also borrows from the classical Indian dance, of the story-play genre of art, thereby reinstating the traditional link of architecture with performing art. The history behind the formation of Koothambalams could be an interesting anecdote to reminisce here. “The curves and ridges in the structure reveal the story of ornaments, costumes, and figures used in the Kathakali art form,” add the architects. The material palette of the project comprises hurudees brick and jaalis, further adding an element of drama to the design.
Talking about the detailed thought behind shaping the form from arches with brick architecture, the architects narrate, “In the design process, careful deliberation was given to reduce the number of lines in the plan, yet creating a stacked volume inside-out. Having to build an intricate form needed a rigid and stable structural format, at the same time using lesser tools, materials, and workmanship, which paved the way for arches. Arches were erected using ‘hurudees'—porous bricks made of clay—intentionally to integrate the harmonious pattern of voids that are extending radially to infinity of the surrounding. Each arch is made on top of the spine arches, so as to minimise the need for shuttering and providing a reference line throughout, enhancing the outward flow of positive energy originating from the sanctum.”
Sanctum of Harmony is a project that paid tribute to our ancestral practices of architecture and an initiative to promote pragmatic approach.
While creating a sacred space that doesn’t confine to one particular activity, but remains a place of devotion towards any living or non-living being, Archidobe has brought life back to a dying architectural typology of the region. Though historically, these kinds of small sacred spaces were mostly owned by ancestral families—in modern times, they fall under the realm of religious or cultural artefacts. Borrowing from memories of the past, in current times, will these spaces be perceived as symbols of religious sacredness or will they have a renewed identity that reconnects human beings to the nature around them? Under the banyan tree, against the backdrop of subtle chants and mild winds flowing from between the branches, Sanctum of Harmony is a good place to start a conversation on what comes NEXT in the architectural history of Kerala. Can it transcend the limited ‘principles’ of what is known as traditional architecture and define a new chapter for Kerala architecture?