The original church aided by the benevolence of the then Cochin Maharaja was built by the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Christians as early as 1614. The clients approached architect Vinu Daniel of Wallmakers Architectural Consultancy like any other commission with a simple brief – construct an Eastern Orthodox Christian Church that should have originality, grace and character which reflected the centuries old branch of Christianity thriving in Kerala since AD52.
Since the structure has historic importance, architect Vinu Daniel had to stay true to the belief ofsustainability, uniqueness and a concept relating to the Malankara Cross. Surprisingly the head of the church, Catholicos of the East gave an instant approval after seeing the Wallmakers’ design model. He had seen such construction (under the patronage of Parmala Thirumeni, a saint) when he was a child and felt that the same technique would bring out the authenticity.
When a project is flagged off by none other than His Holiness Dalai Lama and has the blessings of His Holiness Moran Mar Baselious Marthoma who heads the Catholicos of the East, it is sure to be one of its kind!
The architects took a conscious decision to retain the original structure as the base and reinterpret the contemporary context by evoking a 2000 year old ancient construction technology called the Nubian technique. This technique perfected by the Egyptians in 2000b.c is to construct a type of curved surface forming a vaulted structure without the use of any support or shuttering. Earthen bricks are laid leaning at a slight slope against the gable walls in a lengthwise vault. Using this technique ensures ecological sustainability since wood, iron or any other forms of support are not required. The earth and other material used to build the structure are procured from the construction site itself and most importantly the technique is an important part of
vernacular architecture since it incorporates traditional practices and aesthetics of earth architecture. Also worth taking note is the fact that in ancient times, the dismantling of the dome used to be preceded by special prayers conducted by the priest. Thereby, the project attempts to balance ideas of spirituality, technique and sustainability.
Additionally, the church is a solid manifestation of the only symbol of the Marthoma tradition called the ‘Marthoma Syrian Cross’. According to Christian beliefs, the ‘Cross’ represents the sacrifice of the savior. This central identity has been used by the architects as a means to embody the spiritual aspect of the concept; where light assumes a dominant part of the spatial logic complemented by bricks without using pictures or sculptures as is the norm.
The church has 13 vaults and a single dome with a span of 7.1m with an oculus on its top to let in light. Compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEB) has been used to build the altar and prayer spaces; the altar being a representation of heaven as per Christian beliefs. The focus of the church is the sinusoidal cross which lets in slivers of light through the horizontal and vertical gaps enabled by the arrangement of the CSEB twisting in and out to stabilize each other.
The construction process involved a careful dismantling of the existing roof while keeping the wall structures intact. These 50cm thick walls however did not have enough strength to support the vault coming on top and therefore additional bracing of the walls was a necessity. After additional bracing of the existing foundation support, verandah vaults were the first step. The arches spanning 2.12m and a height 3.26m are the stable forms holding the bigger verandah vaults.
The verandah vaults are supported by the first step. These vaults shelter the people praying or relaxing on the outer span of 2.65m and height 5.45m. The main vault is the central focus of the structure. Supported by the second step, it consists of 14000 bricks weighing a massive 70tons supported by the verandah vaults which span 3.86m and height 4.02m and a totallength of 12.36m. The portico is a combination of 4 vaults spanning 3.96 and a height of 6.52m fused into a single quadrangular space, made by constructing the diagonal ribs first. The church is capped with a dome of radius of 3.76m and height of 5.6m and is a basic catenary rotunda of thickness 24cm. It has a top oculus to stream in light over the sinusoidal cross. Interestingly, Vinu and his team laid the first few layers of the dome as the masons had never previously done a catenary dome. To complement the materials used, the flooring was done with natural stones like shabad, kota and agra red.