GROUNDS KENT ARCHITECTS up the luxe factor in southern India

Anna Flanders meets the Fremantle architectural firm behind one of India’s first five-star resorts in Kerala

27 Jan 2012

Fremantle-based architectural firm Grounds Kent Architects is behind the design of Vivanta by Taj in Bekal, Kerala. Vivanta is one the first major five-star developments in this region of southern India.

Grounds Kent is renowned worldwide for resort design that speaks of the culture and traditions in any given location. A distinctive roofline, that takes its cue from the houseboats of the region gives this Taj Hotels-operated 71-room villa its strong regional identity.

“Using the houseboats as the inspiration for the roof forms was part of creating that identity. The technique is called kettuvallam – it’s the traditional woven bamboo used on houseboats. It’s a very identifiable material and a very identifiable roof form,” says project architect Nick Juniper.

Grounds Kent director Martin Grounds was the architect behind the concept for the roofline when he travelled to the site in 2005. Nick took over the project in 2006 and the firm’s interior designer Michelle Salomone came on board in 2007 teamed up with Perth interior designer Judy Maloney. Expat Australian Made Wijaya, now a Bali-based tropical garden expert, was brought on board as the landscape architect.

The brief was to create a villa-style hotel with associated restaurants, bars and conferencing facilities. Banqueting facilities were a big part of the design to capture the lucrative Indian wedding market in southern India. A destination spa was another major part of the brief.

“Because this area in India is a fairly undeveloped region in terms of tourism, they needed a major drawcard. So, we were asked to develop a spa that would bring people down into the region. Taj has a spa brand called Jiva Spa, but their premium properties have developed Grand Jiva Spas. This development has one of the only Grand Jiva Spas on mainland India,” says Nick.

The 10.5-hectare site was a former coconut plantation that runs down to the ocean and is located on one of the backwater river systems in Kerala, which steered the design of the development due to set-back requirements.

“Once we designed around those requirements the site to build on was actually quite small, which was a challenge. It was also a challenge to produce a property in a region in India that was pretty much untapped in terms of major five-star tourism,” says Nick.

While the buildings are concrete block and painted render, for authenticity Grounds Kent used local materials, such as laterite (a local red stone used in the Kerala region) in landscaping and courtyard walls and local bamboo as the kettuvallam roofing material. Materials were also imported from Indonesia for pool and some room tiling, and merbau was used for joinery.

“The resort’s white walls reference many Indian buildings and were designed as a contrast to the tropical landscaping and fabric, finishes and timbers, which contrast to give a strong sense of India and Indian materials, colours, patterns and textures,” says Nick.

“Landscape architect Made Wijaya brought in some famous Balinese sculptors to do custom sculptures for the hotel. So that was seen as an important drawcard for the design, as well. We have worked with him on many projects and he has a long history of working in India, so the client was keen to have him work on the landscape design and the landscaping is a big part of the success of the hotel.”

When it came to the interiors, most of the interior furniture, furnishings and decorating elements were custom designed using traditional patterns and motifs, including handcarved doors in all rooms, carpets, handpainted murals and fabrics. Interior designers Michelle and Judy brought local craftspeople on board and used local materials as much as possible to capture the essence of the local culture.

“It was about blending the elaborate details that the Indians love with the architecture, so it is all quite classic,” explains Michelle. “One of the biggest areas for us was the spa. We do quite a few spas, but had never done one on this scale. Much like the rest of the resort, we sourced traditional patterns and had local craftspeople carve elements such as stone wall murals with mirror and we had a 4m-high lotus water fountain carved by a local person for the entrance.”

The hotel opened earlier this year and the spa will be launched on Valentine’s Day.

Grounds Kent Architects

gkaperth.com

Vivanta by Taj – Bekal, Kerala

vivantabytaj.com