Monday, May 11, 2015

Pushing his Creative Limits

Vinu Daniel is one of the most promising green architects in Kerala today. His Umbrella Pavilion at the recently-concluded Kochi Muziris Biennale received plaudits

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Vinu Daniel by Ratheesh Sundaram; beer bottles form an arch

Some years ago, Vinu Daniel met the singer KJ Yesudas in Chennai. When Yesudas came to know that Vinu was an architect, he asked the latter whether he could build an eco-friendly low-cost home for a poor family on the banks of the Periyar River, near Aluva (28 kms from Kochi). Vinu agreed.

But two months into the construction, Vinu ran out of the money that Yesudas had given him, through the latter's Divya Karunya Trust. He was reluctant to ask for more. And there was an an arch in the drawing room that had to be covered with glass. “Glass is expensive,” says Daniel.

It was then that he came up with an innovative idea. He told his workers to go and collect empty beer bottles, at Rs 2 per bottle, from the local bars. Finally, 700 bottles were used to cover the gap. “This was the first time I used waste materials for construction,” he says.

Vinu hit the limelight a few months ago, when he made a pavilion at the Aspinwall House, the main venue of the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Made in the shape of an umbrella, the walls and the sloping roof were made with a mix of chicken meshes, concrete, and jute sacks.

Lightning struck for Vinu, when one of Britain’s greatest artists, the India-born Anish Kapoor, stood in front of the pavilion, and said, “This is a unique structure and has a wonderful scale.” Then he hugged Vinu and his team members one by one.

Indeed, Vinu is one of the unique young talents working in Kerala today. His recent work, the St. George Malankara Orthodox Syrian church, at Mattancherry, is also striking. It is made entirely of mud and has large arches, and curved staircases. But it is the design above the altar that stuns because of its simplicity. Vinu made a gap in the brick wall, in such a way that when sunlight streams in, it looks like a cross. “I was inspired by Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s Church of The Light in the city of Ibaraki, Osaka,” says Vinu.

Vinu’s life changed when he met the greatest green architect of Kerala, Laurie Baker (1917-2007) in December, 2004. Baker told Vinu, “When I see a plot, and if there is a coconut tree in it, my only desire is how do I save the tree and make a building on the plot. It takes 10 years for a coconut tree to reach its proper height. Why harm a tree which has never harmed you? Nature should be respected at all costs. Every piece of land has a story. And we should retain that story.”

An inspired Vinu completed his architectural course at the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, and spent a year at the Auroville Earth Institute at Puducherry. “I learnt how to make buildings with mud,” says Vinu.    

And people noticed his work soon immediately. His high point took place when he was featured in the ‘Architecture in India’ book, a prestigious tome brought out by architect Rahul Mehrotra, who is today Professor of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

At the book launch function, in 2008, Rahul showed slides of Vinu’s ‘Valsala Cottage’ in Mavelikara, and said, “This kid is doing amazing creative work. You will rarely find art, function, sustainability and integrity all together in one design. But it is all there in this cottage.” 

An elated Vinu, who was in the audience, realised that he was on the right path. “My aim, ever since, has been to keep pushing my creative limits,” he says. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

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