A talk on Sustainability and Conservation

Benny Kuriakose talks about 'The Muziris Project' in Kerala, at CEPT's FA Lecture Series, 2017
by: Sudarshana Babu
23 February 2017

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Benny Kuriakose started his career in 1984. He received basic lessons in architecture under the guidance of Laurie Baker. He received his doctorate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He is known for his designs for public buildings and transplantation of buildings in the Kerala Section of the craft village known as Dakshinachitra in Chennai. Recent architectural works include the Muziris Heritage Project, The Springdale Heritage Resort in Vandiperiyar, design of tsunami affected villages of Chinnangudi, Tarangambadi in Nagapattinam District and Harishree Vidyalaya School in Chennai.  Kuriakose has authored the book ‘Conserving Timber Structures in India’ and is one of the editors of the book ‘Guidelines for the Preparation of a Heritage Management Plan’.

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A video recording of the lecture is available here.

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Benny Kuriakose shared details of ‘The Muziris project’, which has been under process for the last eight years. He began by sharing the history of Muziris, an ancient seaport and urban center on the Malabar Coast. Muziris holds 3000 years of history of Kerala and is known to have welcomed to India three new religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is known to have exported important commodities such as black pepper, spices, pearls and diamonds. Apart from stone toilets and old timber structures, this place has revealed remains of skeletons that are presumed to be from the battle in which the Dutch defeated the Portuguese. Vasco Da Gama has also touched this historic seaport. Kuriakose concluded on the place’s history by anxiously remarking, “such rich history and no awareness about it”.

Having stressed for long on the importance of conserving the heritage of Muziris, Kuriakose took a collective decision with the Government to conserve it before everything is lost.

“It is not just a conservation project, but an enquiry into the history of Kerala”,

 

he remarked. The site in question is spread over an area 150 square kilometers. The project began with measure drawing in detail existing historic architecture such as the Krishna temple, the churches in the area, the Mahadeva temple, the Jewish synagogue.

The project also thrust on the importance of educating the future generations about the history and heritage of Muziris. Kuriakose approached the project with conservation development, which in turn helped in adding to the place’s infrastructure development as well. One aspect of this project that aroused curiosity is ‘Sustainable Tourism’. The project aimed at a holistic concept of sustainability that includes sustainable means of construction, sustainable means of travel by promoting bicycle tours, water taxis, which also opened  livelihood opportunities for the local people. These measures can effectively subsidize the local people.

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This Conservation project says a “NO” to land acquisitions or five-star rated hotels. It aims at preserving the beautiful existing landscape, while attempting to support the local lifestyle of the people in Muziris. “Every hardcore part of the project was done by us and not outsourced,” he said. “Kerala as we know is famous for its beaches, back waters, forests, monsoons but this would be the first instance where it will also be famous for a conservation project” Kuriaokose adds about the project that has been declared as the First green project for the government of Kerala.  He showed pictures of the site before conservation work began, and how it was transformed into the proposed idea with boat jetties, information centers and canteens at almost each heritage building in the area. The provision of toilets, the most basic and essential addition, used up a major chunk of the budget (almost four crores). Efforts were also made to make buildings handicap-friendly, as best as possible.

One of the conserved sites was the Palium Naliketu, a house more than hundred years old that was transformed into an exhibit of traditions of rich Nair families. “It’s not just a museum but a place that tells stories, ” he remarked about the Nair house. Another, the Paravur synagogue, is a museum which talked about the history of Jews. The project also revitalized the old Kottapuram market without disturbing the daily life of the local

 people. Kuriakose stressed on the importance of bonding and working with local people over a project like this, calling it a valuable design strategy and a tool that helped him bring the community together to call it “our project”, and inculcate in them a sense of responsibility. Newsletters were published in Malayalam to spread awareness among the local citizens about this project that also got support from UNESCO.

Raising a question to the audience “So what is the most sustainable take on a conservation project?”, he answered that reusing instead of demolishing is one of the most sustainable steps one can take because it not only reduces 60 percent of building material required, but also reduces labor by 15-20 percent. A reduced usage of fuel in travel leads to reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Limited intervention in construction process leads to careful and restrained infrastructure development, thereby preserving the Greenfield land. He ended his lecture with the note,

“Heritage is an economic asset. No smart city can shine by neglecting its own heritage and history!”

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