Lijo and Reny: Redefining architectural space in Kerala


Jishnu EN

Reny and Lijo

Lijo and Renyare well-established architects from Kerala’s Thrissur. They have successfully tested a modern language in the state’s architectural arena in the early 2000s. The multiple award-winning couple require no introduction as the photographs of their works speak for themselves.

Talking to mathrubhumi.com, they narrated their journey, philosophy and much more.

Excerpts:

Kerala's terrain is famous for its uniqueness with hills to the east and sea to the west. What are the challenges in terms of terrain and climate you have faced in Kerala?

Lijo: Two places in Kerala, even if they are just 500 metres away, could experience completely different climates. Each location in Kerala has different climatic conditions. For example, Alappuzha has a tropical, humid climate. But Wayanad, Munnar or Palakkad have completely different conditions. When you design a project in Palakkad, you need to design an introverted house that looks inward. If you build large windows to the exterior without adequate shading, it will heat up your house. However, when designing a project in Alappuzha, it's very important to open up to the exterior to catch the pleasant breeze and provide cross-ventilation throughout. In Palakkad, you provide a courtyard, or landscape in the centre and try to ventilate the house through the landscape. These courtyards help in creating a microclimate, different from the harsh exteriors, and help cool the breeze that enters the house.

Architects who are really passionate about their work and invest time and effort into it will take on any challenge. We really enjoyed working across Kerala with its varied climatic zones that offer various challenges. Sloppy sites with complicated climatic conditions are the most challenging to work with and we have thoroughly enjoyed working on several such projects.

Discussions on climate resilient constructions have gained traction since the 2018 floods. Have these impacted your designs?

Reny: We are more aware of the floodplain and flood levels than ever now. Whenever we design a project, we consider that and try to use materials that are resilient. More than the flood, Covid has made a major impact on Kerala. We had been a community fascinated by the exterior form of any building and ignored the importance of the internal spaces. Covid lockdowns have taught us the importance of the internal spaces and how they affect our well being.

There is strong opposition against mining rocks or sand. But they are essential for constructing a permanent structure. Do you follow such discussions? What is your take on the matter?

Lijo: We do have restrictions on mining materials and sourcing materials, which were not a problem earlier. We don't get river sand as easily as we used to and we have to rely on sand from quarries. However, they don't perform as well as river sand. Quality issues such as cracks need to be covered by using better quality paint and waterproofing materials. And we are not sure how many of these materials are tested and proven to be safe for Indian conditions.

One of the solutions to all of this is to shift to steel structures. The unattractive part about steel is that it has to be mined from nature and processed. But it can be recycled. In our studio, LIJO.RENY.architects, we are in the initial stages of using composite structures in our designs. Majority of the structure is steel, while the rest is concrete. We might be able to increase the steel percentage and completely shift to that.

Owning a house is a dream of Malayalis. In your experience, how have the concepts of Keralites about houses changed over the years?

Reny: There was a certain period in the near past when the house was a status symbol, especially for expatriates. They wanted to build something to show people. But I think that has changed. People have started understanding the importance of space and comfort.When we started our practice in early 2000, it was difficult for us to bring in a new language into Kerala because the state was plagued by pseudo-traditionalism. Buildings that are built to look like traditional buildings but that don't act like one.

Apart from shading and protecting the interiors from the elements, sloppy roofs of traditional buildings were also designed to let out hot air. In pseudo-traditional architecture, much of the roof is only a visual element and it traps heat inside. When we started practising, this is what we saw everywhere. We wanted to break free from that, and introduce a completely different language to see if it would work in a context like ours.

We tried to create a contemporary language with large, open, well-lit volumes because we understood the importance of light in architecture. Traditional architecture has dark and dingy spaces. There are several studies regarding the quality of light inside a house and mental wellbeing.We were quite lucky that they gathered momentum and brought about a paradigm shift in architecture in Kerala. People started recognising new ideas. They are no longer adamant about the visual quality of architecture.

However, it is slowly shifting gears into something called pseudo-contemporary architecture. In recent years, youngsters, influenced by the content widely available online, have been trying to recreate the image of contemporary architecture rather than its experience. These buildings look good But they don't perform.

You have said you don't follow any particular school of thought or philosophy while approaching a project. Your works are characterised by the use of plants, light, and simplicity. Are they conscious choices or based on demands of clients?

Lijo: When we started our career, we wanted to test the waters with a completely different language in architecture. That doesn't mean creating a language from scratch. Taking ideas from what we have understood and using the visual library or experiential library in your brains, we tried to create what could work well for present times and lifestyle.

One of the first projects that we did was my brother's house and it was quickly successful because it was noted. A news channel had just started a programme on architecture and my brother's house was the inaugural episode. The same year, we won the IIA state award for excellence in architecture. People started taking notice of it. Then it was easy for us. We were lucky that we did not experience the hardships architects usually go through. People gave us the freedom to interpret their dreams and aspirations in a language that we were experimenting with. We have been practising Biophilic designs for more than a decade now and this connects with our clients easily.

Inflation is affecting the construction industry. Do you make compromises to manage the cost of production? Or do you leave it to the engineer who oversees construction?

Reny: The Ukraine war has done real damage to the construction industry. After the war started, the prices of most metal elements, and other things shot up. The covid and other geo-political matters have also affected the construction industry. The rumours of an imminent global recession is also adding to the fire.

As a general rule, we don't do more than five projects a year. Because the quality of projects is paramount to us. We were doing more than 40-50 projects a year earlier. We realised that quality, not the number of projects should be the focus. So we started reducing the number of projects. We want to further reduce that to maybe one or two projects a year. Most of the projects that come our way are from clients who want us to experiment on them. They know the kind of energy and effort we put into each project and the uniqueness we bring to it. Inflation hasn't affected us as much since we can keep the bar lower or higher while we experiment. There is flexibility.

Two institutes from Kerala featured in the top 20 of architecture education in India, as per NIRF ranking. The state government has been focusing on higher education. Do you have any recommendations for architecture education in the state?

Lijo: Some of the institutions in Kerala are doing extremely well at the national level. But there is a lot of room for improvement. Unfortunately, there is no balance between institutions that perform well and those that don't. Students don't know which one to pick.

Media has celebrated architecture as a glamorous world. A lot of architecture programs on TV put the architect on centre stage. And there is a lot of material on the internet as well. Due to these, students come to believe that architecture is an easy and glamorous space to be in. But they don't realise it is one of the toughest courses. The number of hours one needs to work as a student is immense. I've spent sleepless nights trying to understand the subject. It will take a lot of energy and effort. Most of these students who join architecture don't complete the course. I don't have statistics but I believe it is around 30-40 per cent. People who complete the course often get into web design, interface design, app design, product design, visualisation, photography,etc. Very few per cent actually stick to the core field. A few make it as competent architects.

I don't think it is easy to teach architecture. You must put in the effort to learn architecture. What is taught in college is only the tip of the iceberg of what you really need to know in order to succeed in architecture.

Thrissur is comparatively a low-tier city for you. Why did you choose it? Ever thought about relocating?

Lijo: Thrissur is our home town and the first major project came from this city- my brother's project, which gave us a break- are the reasons why we decided to stay here. We have never been attracted to big cities. Thrissur was the right place for us to practice. We never considered relocating.

Nowadays, with all these technological advancements, you can actually practice from the remotest places. As a matter of fact, we are managing all projects from this small place. Moreover it's only about 5 of us, including Reny and myself, running the studio. During Covid lockdowns, we also managed projects, outside Kerala, even without visiting the site. So, I think where you are right now does not matter at all. At least for us.

It takes some courage to put it out that you don't consider vastu. My assumption is that even high-class customers would prefer vastu. Has this cost you anything?

Reny: People who are really concerned about quality spaces to live in are not worried about Vastu. At least the educated people in Kerala know what vastu is and the limitations it brings. We don't really convince anybody to come out of their beliefs. We don't offer our services to those who want Vastu involved. We believe that vastu is a state of mind. It works only if you believe in it. We would rather use what is known to us, to the maximum, than go behind the unknown ignoring the known.

An installation by Lijo and Reny

What is the chemistry between you two? How do you share work and help each other?

Reny: Despite the fact that Lijo and I have similar interests and tastes in design, we are both very distinct persons. Skills that we bring on to tables are completely different. We make an effort to fill the gaps the other person leaves. We work together, brainstorm, and even argue while refining the concept during the design process. One of us details the project, and the other person comments as a critic. And during the discussion that ensues, the most potent idea survives.

And once the design is formulated, one of us takes the initiative to handle the rest of the project. That person will communicate with the client from then onwards. In spite of the fact that one person leads the project, both of us internally discuss its refinement at every stage.

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