Published: 13th January 2021
How Thomas Oommen has opened the minds of architecture students to Kerala's intrinsic building style
Thomas Oommen is on a mission to appreciate post modern architecture in Kerala without comparing it to designing styles and traditions from the West or other parts of India
For students and architects in Kerala, architectural modernity is always ‘elsewhere’, explains Thomas Oommen about a documentary he made almost 6 years ago. In his own words, "The history of Indian modern architecture is largely told from the perspective of the Delhi-Chandigarh-Mumbai-
A second generation architect himself, Oommen is now in his third year of PhD research at UC Berkeley. In 2014, the 35-year-old directed a documentary titled Beyond The Woods with his friend Prahlad Gopakumar which follows the life and work of his father Professor Oommen Thomas, a graduate from University of Kerala’s first batch of architects and Head of the Department of Architecture at College of Engineering Trivandrum. The message it carried was the urgent need for the state to recognise its own brand of modern architecture and to celebrate it. In the following years, the documentary has been screened for architects and architecture students in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode.
Thomas Oommen, Architect
Oommen says, "Today, my research is focused on two things. One is to separate geography from our approach to learn architecture and to focus on structures, instead on whether it's from Egypt, Paris or Thiruvananthapuram. I'm also studying how basic structures like houses are designed and built in Kerala. The thing is, nobody really studies Kerala architecture or takes it seriously. The idea behind the documentary came to me when I led a few individuals through a tour of Thiruvananthapuram city many years ago. There's so much that people don't know about the history of our buildings."
The hour-long documentary takes us through their attempt to highlight architectural artefacts, the sources of local modernities and the use of local language to study colloquial influences in architectural discourse. After completing his Master's in Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, Oommen returned to India where he taught the discipline to students at an institute in New Delhi. A lot of what has influenced his approach to Indian post modern architecture and the way it is dealt with came from these experiences where he interacted with enthusiasts.
"Architecture has to be learned to be appreciated," he says. "Just like it is with modern art, you need an eye for it. And this eye is not the one with which you see things on the surface, it is in your mind. Think of a painting that is entirely in black. Anyone who doesn't know anything about it would see nothing special about it. But if you understand the context and era within which it was painted, you would know why it stands out. If someone tells you why something is built in a certain way, history adds context. And architecture is not an easy subject to learn, like wine you get better at it the older you get."