Vividly-coloured and shaped like stars, ships, and castles, several churches in Kerala appear to defy one of the basic tenets of architecture as set by the influential American architect Louis Sullivan—“form follows function.”
German photographers Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz noticed these structures during their trips to India between 2011 and 2016 when they were documenting the slow extinction of single-screen cinema halls. They immediately knew what their next photo project would be—churches built in post-colonial India.
After independence, many in the newborn nation were determined to find a unique architectural language and break away from the styles of the colonisers. The Church of Malabar Syrian Catholics in Kerala built its churches to reflect this desire.
“It seems to me that the Syro-Malabar Church wanted to find a new identity by employing an architectural style that was no longer neo-baroque or classical, as in colonial times,” said Zoche. “Obviously the church asked some architects to design these new churches in a more ‘modernist’ way and to give shape to the Christian iconography in the facades. I think this hybrid architecture can be seen as a new interpretation of Modernism and, in some ways, encouraging more modern ways of interpreting the Christian belief.”
Finding a new architectural vernacular was perhaps one reason for the unconventional shapes. Professor George Menachery, a historian of the Syro-Malabar Church, says the Gothic architectural style was quite popular for churches up until 1949. Slowly after that, “the structures started becoming more and more utilitarian and cost-effective,” said the Thrissur-based scholar. “The architecture employed during the 1950s moved away from any classical styles and used the new construction material available to them, like concrete instead of laterite stone and wood, as they used to. They incorporated big rectangular or circular halls so that maximum people could be accommodated, so it was in the facade that they brought in the decorative elements.”
According to Rohan Shivkumar, a Mumbai-based architecture theoretician, these churches designed by local architects don’t particularly adhere to a single style, but can be seen as a hybrid of sorts. “Between the 1950s and the 1970s, there was a turn towards modernism and the cleanliness of modern architecture became popular, even in religious building, such as architect Charles Correa’s Portuguese Church in Mumbai,” he said. “The reinforced cement concrete construction style—(in which) the back of the buildings would almost be barn-like and the front a more elaborate and expressive facade—was equated with the new age.”
The movie theatre and churches project was started by Zoche and Haubitz together, but after the latter’s death in 2015, Zoche returned to India to complete the church series on her own. The series, titled Haubitz + Zoche: Postcolonial Epiphany, is on display at Zephyr—Space for Photography, in Mannheim, Germany, until Aug. 26.
It wasn’t that they were taken by the beauty of these structures, according to Zoche, but it was their “irritating mixture of western and socialist influences and local construction styles” that caught their attention. The first church they photographed was the small St Joseph Church located south of Kochi because its striking yellowish-orange facade of unusual shape and colour captured their fancy. “The typologies of those buildings prompted our interest,” said Zoche, 53. “Their architectural style is not clearly defined. It shows some elements that we were familiar with and others that we simply could not identify. So we were curious to find out more about it.”
Shivkumar believes that, in some ways, modern architecture has always suffered from not being able to connect with the public. “These abstract shapes have a transcendental ambition which doesn’t really translate to the common man,” he said. “What the Syro-Malabar churches seem to be doing is using the popular RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) technique of the time but also (adding) iconography and symbols to communicate the idea of it being a religious building to the people.”
Zoche observes that this hybrid style of architecture is already on the decline—“The Christian communities in Kerala are still growing today and all the recently built churches or the ones under construction that I have seen are reverting to the neo-Gothic style. I could observe a very strong tendency over the last few years to paint the facades in white instead of the vivid colours they formerly used.”
More recently, according to Menachery, the decorative element is again invoking the classical styles. “The architect and the contractors decide what is most profitable or cheap,” he said. “In churches today, you see a simple structure and big halls for weddings and meetings and sometimes there are towers built around or incorporated into the structure of the church, but unlike the Gothic style, these are merely decorative and don’t serve any functional purpose.”
For Zoche, the facades of these buildings are like faces of people. “If you look at them carefully, you can find out a lot of what is lying behind, about the society and the intentions of those who made these buildings,” she said. “With the churches and cinemas in south India, we see the complex cultural processes that took place after Independence. With photographic means I can isolate the buildings from their surroundings and focus in such a way that these complexities become visible in the concentration on the typology. That’s why we photograph these buildings with a certain serenity and severe regard, mostly in the same light and against a clear sky.”