In Kerala, an industrial dump gets a second life as a design sanctuary

NO Architects' new studio in Kerala was once a dilapidated building thought to be ruined beyond redemption
NO Architects's new studio in Kollam Kerala

For a site that was once an industrial dumpyard, NO Architects's new studio in Kollam, Kerala  'cleans up' rather well. "When we first chanced upon it, the site had an 80-year-old building that was in ruins. The land had suffered oil spills [from the adjoining gasoline retailer], there were sky-high piles of construction waste, and barrels of bitumen had been hoarded for the neighbouring national highway. And yet, despite it all, it seemed the perfect spot for our architecture and design studio," recall Harikrishnan Sasidharan and Neenu Elizabeth, co-founders and principal architects of NO Architects, who gave the property a second life.

NO Architects' studio in Kollam stands on what was formerly an industrial dumpyard. This is the site circa 2011.

When it came to rehabilitating the land, Sasidharan and Elizabeth had to start from the ground up, literally. "The first step was removing the toxic substances and mitigating the ecological damage," shares Elizabeth. The building had suffered the same damage as the site where it stood . But its bones were great, and there was promise. And so, the architects performed a careful intervention of peeling back the ravages inflicted by past occupants. 

The entrance to No Architects office is now canopied by a thicket of trees, while the grounds within have been turned into a tropical garden

"We undertook an intense restoration process to reinvent the original architecture," says Sasidharan, laying special emphasis on the word 'original'. True to his words, there isn't a single material here that isn't repurposed. Wooden purlins, roof tiles, windows, doors and ceiling planks were collected from demolition yards and carefully upcycled for the project. And refurbished tokens from the original building–including Mangalore roof tiles, refurbished wood, metal scraps, laterite from dilapidated walls, cement pavers, windows and furniture, and characterful lights and lamps–serve as a reminder of the site's legacy.

Latticed screens on the rear provide unending views of the surrounding landscape.

Today, a pair of mango trees is the last surviving element of the gritty past here. But the trees served as a springboard for something far greater: A lush tropical garden à la Geoffrey Bawa. "We followed ‘The New Wave’ planting movement by Piet Oudolf; a combination of wispy grasses and herbaceous perennials that define the structure, texture and form of the landscape," notes Elizabeth, gesturing to rows and rows of trees and flowering shrubs. That the site is a paradise in bloom is writ large across the ever-evolving landscape, which Sasidharan is quick to remind us "has successfully survived a sequence of devastating floods and the harsh sunlight of the tropics–both a result of global warming." The architects' ambit was experimental, with the addition of unusual foliage and assorted blooms, and various combinations of groundcover tailored to suit marshy and sunlit areas in equal measure.

"Biodiversity was a core aspect of the landscape design and pushed us to think beyond fail-safe species," says Elizabeth. The move was backed by science: To use native plants alone, in an era of climate change, would have been futile. Slowly, the architects introduced nonindigenous variants that would complement the landscape. But the process was laborious. "It took years of research, with some spectacular failures in between, to reach the optimum planting that we see today," says Sasidharan.

The team followed ‘The New Wave’ planting movement by Piet Oudolf with a combination of wispy grasses and herbaceous perennials.

For Sasidharan and Elizabeth, the revival of the site has freewheeled into other interesting territory–including setting up diverse ecosystems for fish, butterflies, birds and small mammals. "We're working on creating fresh water bodies where fish and other aquatic fauna can live in their natural habitat, without complex systems of filtration," says Elizabeth. 

A charming outdoor dining area, a floating deck, and carefully placed seats along the connecting pathways add functionality to the green spaces.

A charming outdoor dining area, a floating deck, and carefully placed seats along the connecting pathways add functionality to the green spaces, while pretty earthenware and land art humanise the natural surroundings.