Transforming Alappuzha’s warehouses

How the town’s historic coir factories are being restored to accommodate art spaces and museums

A wind of change is blowing through the historic coir factories of Alappuzha, past 100-year-old doors, halls and vaulted ceilings. The spaces that once resonated with the sounds of yarn being spun, toiling workers and political uprisings are now gearing up for a major makeover.

“These were once busy spaces but with changing businesses, many sections of the factories are unused and some are in a dilapidated condition,” explains Benny Kuriakose, conservation architect. He heads the Alappuzha Heritage Project, under which factories at Coirfed, Kerala State Coir Corporation (KSCC), and New Model Co-operative Society Building (NMCSB) will be repurposed and turned into tourist spots.

“Architecturally, as these spaces were full-fledged factories, they were well ventilated. By a twist of fate, when business dropped, they became places to store things,” he says, adding that while they will “conserve and design for adaptive reuse, very little new construction will take place”.

A remarkable turnaround

It is interesting to note that in 1975, when Aspinwall first imported power looms from Germany, the industry rejected mechanisation as it would lead to loss of jobs. Now, state-of-the-art machines are being installed in the factories to compete with cheaper Chinese-made mats. Yet there is room for art and culture alongside coir processing and production. Factory timings and gallery hours, labour unions and tourist groups, canteen meals and cafe menus are to soon coexist within these century-old coir processing factories.

Back in the day

  • Home to the Indian coir industry, Kerala accounts for 61% of coconut production and over 85% of coir products. The first coir factory, Darragh Smail & Co, was established by Irish-American entrepreneur James Darragh and Henry Smail in 1859 to manufacture coir floor furnishings.
  • “Minister of Coir and Finance TM Thomas Isaac, who hails from Alappuzha, first mooted the idea of revamping the factories,” says Sajan B Nair, Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Coir Exporters’ Association. The aim was to encourage tourists who throng the seaside town to experience its history, art and culture, and not just the houseboats. “Currently almost 70%-80% of the units [of about 10,000 registered with the Coir Board] are actively in production,” he says, explaining that Alappuzha Port lost business when the Cochin Port opened. “There was a reversal in the fortunes of Alappuzha then.”

The repurposing, explains Kuriakose, is part of an integrated plan (estimated to cost around ₹260 crore) that includes conserving the heritage of Alappuzha, also called the Venice of the East, and will include rejuvenation of its canals and construction of walkways. Unlike the gentrification of Mumbai’s textile mills that became shopping malls, this project, he says, is in sync with the history of the town.

Yarn history and a cafe

Naushad PM, MD of the Muziris Heritage Project, says the collaboration by different government departments — Tourism, Coir, Port — will see 21 museums take shape, of which three will be exclusively dedicated to coir. “A yarn museum will come up at the Coirfed building [formerly Darragh Smail & Co]. The KSCC will house a coir history museum, and the NMCSB will have a Living Coir museum,” he explains.

While preparations for an immersive coir experience are underway, two spaces in KSCC and NMCSB are already experimenting with art — Lokame Tharavadu, an upcoming mega show of contemporary art, will exhibit works, installations and paintings of 268 artists of Kerala.

A steel staircase at the New Model Society Building, introduced in addition to the existing stone staircase.

Kuriakose explains that the principles followed for conservation are being used in revamping. “These were industrial buildings and restoration is being done keeping the existing characterin mind. We are using traditional materials such as timber except in cases where the cost becomes prohibitively high.”

Some of the new additions are a timber bridge in the Coirfed building, which will house the yarn museum, to connect the top floors and make it easy for visitors to move around. A steel staircase at the New Model Society Building has been introduced in addition to the existing stone staircase. And a few doors and windows have been added where the cafe and restaurants will come up.

At Port Museum on the beach, the cafe will be partially alfresco to remain accessible to the public even after gallery hours. Citing the example of Admiral Hotel in Copenhagen, which was a granary before it was converted, veteran conservation architect Ramesh Tharakan says, “Old warehouses can be retrofitted into interesting and dynamic hospitality as well as retail spaces. European cities are replete with examples of such transformation.”

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