An interview with Eugene Pandala, an iconic, award-winning, eco-friendly architect

A BBC story described architect Eugene Pandala’s work as a glorious return to tradition, deftly adapted to modern-day needs”. Known to be an architect sensitive to environmental needs, Mr. Pandala has found inspiration in vernacular approaches in his native Kerala and has created several beautiful hospitality projects – notably Sarai near Khajuraho and the more recent, spectacular mud structure at Banasura in Wayanad. He has also built residences, a film academy, shelters for tsunami survivors and taken on heritage conservation projects.

We sat down with Eugene Pandala for a freewheeling chat ranging from his influences to how he picks his materials and his advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in the hospitality space. Here are some excerpts.

Palmex India: You work has led to a renewed interest in building with mud with very little dependence on concrete, cement, and glass. Tells us how and why you decided to adopt this earth-friendly approach?

Eugene Pandala: As things stand, sustainable building has become an imperative rather than a choice because the planet is fast becoming unliveable. But back when I was studying in college, I came across a book written by the famous Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, titled “Architecture for the Poor”, which made a lasting impression on me and got me thinking, got me started. That was a lightbulb moment where I understood that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to use concrete and that it was possible to build in consonance with nature. I then began relating these learnings to the architecture in Kerala, where I am from. An old house was being demolished in my presence and had its foundation and walls built of mud. When I was studying in Trivandrum even the hostel building was made with mud. So inspiration was all around, but I had not paid it enough attention before. Once I began observing, I began teaching myself, experimenting. It helped that I grew up in an artistic household; my dad was a sculptor. But I had to wait till 1994 for a good client who was willing to go with this technique and gave me free reign to implement my desire to build with mud.

Who are the people who influenced your thought process?

Of course, my training as an architect exposed me to the contributions of Laurie Baker, the visionary architect. His work embodies a lot of the values I consider important. His buildings are an inspiration – they are built using local, low-cost, plentifully available materials. They establish a relationship with nature, they are not ostentatious, and they are climate-friendly.

Tell us about how your aesthetic is sustainable yet contemporary.

Well, nature is my greatest inspiration. I don’t wish to create showy, boxy structures that stand apart from their surroundings. I prefer ‘less harsh’ looking structures so the continuity is maintained. That is why I like curved walls and organic shapes and materials that mimic nature and blend in. Actually I would be most happy if I could coat the external walls of my buildings with moss, but, of course, that is not feasible!

“A hospitality business cannot be

successful if it is not sustainable.”

– Eugene Pandala

What are some materials apart from earth or mud that you think we should embrace in a big way?

Actually, I am not ‘stuck’ or overly attached to mud. Mud is only one of the many sustainable materials at my disposal. I am waiting to experiment with graphene, strong enough to hoist a grand piano from, and a little goes a long way – an ounce of graphene can be used to cover a field of 2 acres! So it is a highly sustainable material from which to create a shelter out of. I am constantly on the lookout for new materials, and new practices that fulfill the basic principles of sustainability. That is where my passion lies.

In your experience, have your clients been willing to experiment with new materials that are eco-friendly? Do you think this environmental consciousness is catching on?

Well, to be fair, my client, say a businessman cannot be expected to keep up with innovations in the field or know everything there is to know about sustainability. So it falls on me as an architect to guide them and help them make the right choices, based on their original brief to me and their needs. However, I must say that I am not a big fan of expensive certifications, I truly believe that green building can only become truly popular and truly ‘sustainable’ when it becomes affordable for the masses. And that is the need of the hour.

Do you have any advice for those considering starting or expanding a hospitality venture in India?

Any hospitality project in today’s context, cannot be successful if it is not sustainable. Today’s customers are educated and discerning. They travel to learn about a region’s cultural and natural heritage. Travel is more motivated nowadays. They undertake a lot of research before they plan a vacation. And they want to know if the establishment promotes responsible tourism by engaging local people and giving back to the community, or by reinforcing cultural traditions and using natural resources cleverly. A European client, for instance, wouldn’t want to stay in a standard, cookie-cutter hotel if they visit India; they would want to soak in the local culture and would appreciate a holiday in a thoughtfully designed place. So I believe that hospitality businesses must pay attention to these aspects and showcase them well.

We hope you enjoyed reading this interview with Eugene Pandala. We aim to bring you more news from the field of sustainability, hospitality, and architecture on our blog. Please do write to us for more information on our artificial thatch green-roofing solution, Palmex.

Preeti Prakash | Journalist

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