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Trivandrum - Indian Coffee House

Trivandrum, India
Indian Coffee House, Trivandrum, 2012.
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Indian Coffee House, Trivandrum, 2012.

Indian Coffee House is a restaurant chain in India, run by a series of worker co-operative societies. It has strong presence across India with nearly 400 coffee houses. It has been a hub for Communists, Socialists and liberalism movements for generations. Thus it has played a very important role in Geopolitics of India as most successful political movements began from here. Many governments have been formed by the people who regularly visited here. The Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum was designed by architect Laurie Baker.

History of Indian Coffee House

Coffee had been grown in India by native Indians since the 16th century. However, the concept of coffee houses began to gain a little popularity in the 18th century in Chennai (Madras state) and Calcutta. However, as part of the racial discrimination policy of the English rulers, native Indians were not allowed into these coffee houses, which were mainly During the late 1890s, the idea of an "India coffee house" chain was formed.

The India Coffee House chain was started by the Coffee Cess Committee in 1936, when the first outlet was opened in Bombay. In the course of the 1940s there were nearly 50 Coffee Houses all over British India. Due to a change in the policy in the mid 1950s, the Board decided to close down the Coffee Houses. Encouraged by the communist leader A. K. Gopalan(AKG), the workers of the Coffee Board began a movement and compelled the Coffee Board to agree to handover the outlets to the workers who then formed Indian Coffee Workers' Co-operatives and renamed the network as Indian Coffee House. A co-operative began in Bangalore on 19 August 1957, and one was established in Delhi on 27 December 1957.

Architecture details

The Indian Coffee House designed by Laurie Baker is one of the most recognizable structures in Trivandrum. The entire building is conceived as a continuous spiral ramp, with a central circular service core and with dining spaces provided on the outer side. The form of the building is thus unconventional & bears Baker’s trademark jaalis(perforated walls) to let in light & ventilation. The building is well proportioned, a cylindrical brick-red spiral continuing for a couple of floors and then terminating in a smaller cylindrical volume on top, giving the structure a very asymmetrical balance.

What one needs to appreciate is Baker’s masterful intervention on a very small plot in the middle of a busy urban area. The solution to the design program is bold and unusual, yet, one which successfully integrates all the elements of the program and one which creates a comfortable and interesting dining experience. Most of the people who see this building are automatically drawn into it due to curiosity. On the inside, Baker has successfully solved the programmatic requirement of providing eating spaces by creating modules of built-in table and seating, with an individual table and its two benches placed on an individual horizontal platform. Thus, on the outer side abutting the external jaali wall, there are continuous horizontal platforms incrementally rising in height along with the slope of the spiral.

The walls are made of exposed brickwork which has been painted over – white on the inner side & brick-red on the exterior. There are no windows – jaalis serve to bring in plenty of light & ventilation, ensuring that the interiors are nice & comfortable. The table and the seats are built-in. The table consists of a concrete slab fixed to the wall & with a semicircular taper on one side. This slab is resting on a small brick arch which serves as the legs. The seats are again interestingly designed and accommodate 2 people comfortably on either side. The seats of adjacent tables are abutting back to back, but are at 2 different levels to accommodate the slope. The seats are again made in brickwork and are finished with block-oxide on top and the backrest. The remarkable thing about these built-in furnitures is that Baker has designed them so very precisely ergonomically that they are very comfortable to use, inspite of being so simple.

There is a circular service core in the centre, which consists of 2 concentric circles. The inner smaller circular core is a narrow vertical shaft open on the top, with openings at different levels. This shaft provides ventilation to the central areas and works on the principle of Stack effect, a very simple but effective solution. Around this circular core are the service areas, especially the toilets & handwash. The kitchen is placed on the ground floor and has a separate service entrance.

Now although the building is unique in design, there are a few functional issues. Due to the placement of the kitchen on the ground level, it becomes difficult for the serving staff as they have to continuously climb up and down the ramp to place the orders & then to serve the people sitting on the upper levels. Thus, they in fact ask the customers to occupy the lower seating first before going up the spiral. Also, the slope of the ramp is a bit steep, which contributes to a slippery slope which sometimes results in a few falls. Yet, one cannot deny the ingenuity of Baker to come up with such a design solution in such an urban context, creating a memorable building.

*some of the text above has been taken from the blog, "Architecture Student's Corner"*