A spiralling subterranean edifice of earth, stone, and debris: 'Chuzhi' by Wallmakers

Blending into a rocky inhospitable site, in Tamil Nadu, India, the home is a collection of whirling forms in precast mud and waste, offering up a model for building in harsh contexts.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jan 14, 2023

Known for their disruptive and trailblazing approaches to sustainable architecture and building with waste, Indian architecture practice Wallmakers, led by Vinu Daniel, has recently completed ‘Chuzhi’ (named for the Malayalam word for ‘whirlpool’), a private residence on a tricky site in Shoolagiri, a village in northwestern Tamil Nadu. Invoking spiral geometries, with swirling beams of precast earth debris, which overlap, expand, interlock, and gyrate down towards the ground in vortex-like fashion, the home is a dynamic new manifestation of the firm’s philosophy of “camouflage architecture,” as seen in earlier projects such as The Ledge. Built in the community of Sanctity Ferme, a hub for organic farming on the far fringes of the city of Bangalore, this residential design project had to tackle challenges on multiple fronts, owing to the given site being placed in an area with noticeably steep and rocky terrain rife with trees and dense undergrowth.

  • The home is located in a rocky corner of Sanctity Ferme, a development on the outskirts of Bangalore | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    The home is located in a rocky corner of Sanctity Ferme, a development on the outskirts of Bangalore Image: Syam Sreesylam
  • The unforgiving terrain of the context made it difficult to build on it, forcing the designers to innovate | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    The unforgiving terrain of the context made it difficult to build on it, forcing the designers to innovate Image: Syam Sreesylam

At the outset, the location and its topography seemed inhospitable to any structure that might take residence there, so much so that the design team have described this exercise as a potential model for how to construct on sites deemed "unsuitable" for building. The plot was itself in a relatively obscure part of the development, along its periphery, with few earlier takers who were scared off by its harsh, uninviting character and limited buildable area. “The client's only requirement was that he wanted a 2BHK residence on the given plot,” explains Daniel, head of the Kochi-based firm, while speaking to STIR. Having recently added another glittering accolade to his collection in the form of the Royal Academy Dorfman Award 2022, Daniel’s flair for defying expectations while experimenting with alternative materials and concepts from vernacular architecture, was perhaps more necessary for this project than ever before, where a good degree of freedom was afforded to him since there was no question of approaching the venture with a purely conventional outlook.

Chuzhi’ is named for the Malayalam word for ‘whirlpool,’ referencing the spiralling structures that constitute it | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
Chuzhi’ is named for the Malayalam word for ‘whirlpool,’ referencing the spiralling structures that constitute it Image: Syam Sreesylam

One more interesting point regarding the project is that it is Wallmakers' first crack at a structure that is bermed into the landscape and built directly onto a rock face. "This thought came after we got a site that was located in a picturesque setting, but with severe terrain. After much deliberation, we realised that most hill stations like Ooty and Kodaikanal are no longer popular destinations because their entire landscapes have been taken over by buildings,” shares Daniel. “People are obsessed with getting the most scenic views from their home but do not spare a second thought for how their buildings look like eyesores upon the context. We were extremely mindful of the fact that we would be the first ones to build on this virgin landscape, so we wanted to hide the building and merge it into its surroundings,” adds the Indian architect.

The project is built into the site rather than on it, representing Wallmakers’ first attempt at building directly into a rock face | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
The project is built into the site rather than on it, representing Wallmakers’ first attempt at building directly into a rock face Image: Syam Sreesylam

From this emerged the two main concepts that anchored the design: the first, involving minimal impact on the landscape, both visually and in terms of its structural and carbon footprints, as well as that of using spiral forms that would originate from the rock bed to compose the building’s layout and partitions. Exhibiting little in the region of a façade design or bold elevations, the structure, on first approach, 'hides' from the line of sight, concealed beneath the rocks that grace the ground level of the site. This choice manages to deal with the first design guideline, where the house sits ‘in’ the site rather than 'on' it.

The spiralling structures have been precast from poured earth and debris, making use of discarded plastic bottles | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
The spiralling structures have been precast from poured earth and debris, making use of discarded plastic bottles Image: Syam Sreesylam

Cast with the aid of discarded bottles, the serpentine members that define the building’s envelope and roof represent Wallmakers’ time-honoured commitment to employing waste as a core material in all of their projects. “The precast poured debris earth composite bottle beams were fashioned from 4000 discarded plastic bottles. Starting from the rock bed, they swirl around the three tamarind trees on the site, trying to let the natural ecosystem thrive as best as possible,” says Daniel. Around site features, the spiral forms deftly twist and weave to shape the main enclosure of the house while wrapping around trees and landscape design elements at its extremities. Coloured in textured brown hues, resembling the rocks seen in the surrounding area, these curled structures display a more angular variant of spiral forms, closer to an exaggerated version of the spiral of Theodorus in their geometric design rather than their Archimedean or logarithmic counterparts, to better reflect the profiles of the rocks they emanate from.

Plants peer into the home from the walls while the transparent glass ceiling creates an experience similar to living beneath the tree canopies on site | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
Plants peer into the home from the walls while the transparent glass ceiling creates an experience similar to living beneath the tree canopies on site Image: Syam Sreesylam

The spiral—a type of curve whose connotations have expanded infinitely throughout history—boasts a symbolic significance that transcends barriers between the organic and inorganic at every level imaginable. From the radiating arms of our own Milky Way galaxy to the shapes of mollusc shells, and finally, at microscopic scales, in the double helix structure of DNA, this kind of whorled pattern is omnipresent in every domain of the natural world, representing expansion and growth. Even so, what is even more intriguing about spiral geometries is how they have been utilised by human hands, particularly in the visual arts at varied sizes. In architecture, the spiral finds both structural and programmatic applications, either in building envelopes—see BIG's Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet in Switzerland—or internally, in the form of spiral staircases or ramps, which are generally showstoppers in the spaces they inhabit.

  • The earthy textures of the walls beautifully complement the reclaimed wood floors and furniture | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    The earthy textures of the walls beautifully complement the reclaimed wood floors and furniture Image: Syam Sreesylam
  • Large glass windows look into the surrounding landscape | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    Large glass windows look into the surrounding landscape Image: Syam Sreesylam

In effect, adopting this design vocabulary was a masterstroke to resolve the tensions apparent in the landscape. As a consequence of this choice, the jagged corners of the residence's beams, projecting into the air above the site's incline, turn back in on themselves, winding towards a point at the centre of their curves. The result is a deceptively ordered yet chaotic assemblage of mud architectural sculptures, seemingly chiselled from the rock faces, whose abstracted composition evades attempts at comprehension by the untrained eye. “Although the spirals may look random and chaotic, each one has been carefully planned and designed on site taking different factors into consideration such as: the branches of the trees nearby, how some of the spirals could double up as cupboards or slabs, and ways by which the three sets of chuzhis could join together to become a stable roof structure,” reveals Daniel.

  • Bedrooms are minimalist in design with the same natural palette seen throughout the interior design | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    Bedrooms are minimalist in design with the same natural palette seen throughout the interior design Image: Syam Sreesylam
  • The spiral structures frame and mould cupboards and partitions, with great care given to how their forms interact with the rest of the plan | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    The spiral structures frame and mould cupboards and partitions, with great care given to how their forms interact with the rest of the plan Image: Syam Sreesylam

Beginning as wall segments that shape the building envelope, the spiral forms rise from the ground to seamlessly embrace the flat glass roof surmounting the layout, framed in polygonal panels that echo the angles of the beams. The decision to make the roof transparent was guided by the architects’ desire to create an environment where those residing in the home would have clear views of the tree canopies immediately above them, ensuring the interior spaces are intimately in tune with nature. What this amounts to is an experience of “living underneath the trees” in the words of the design team.

An abundance of glazing brings nature inwards building deeper ties to the building’s context | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
An abundance of glazing brings nature inwards building deeper ties to the building’s context Image: Syam Sreesylam

Moreover, plants peer into the structure at various turns through the plan, from the walls, balcony floors, and open sections of the roof. At their apex, the spiral forms of the roof also delineate seating spaces, which grant stunning vistas of the development. The main entrance located, near the middle of the Chuzhi’s southern face, opens into a vast living area replete with spirals—both on the wall and ceilings of the space. To the east is the master bedroom and its attached bath, which together embrace an adjoining rock face, where the latter's bathing area has an enclosure moulded by the stones that support its structure. On the other hand, the house’s western arm hosts the guest bedroom and bath, opening onto a north-facing courtyard.

Bathrooms have been built into the rock faces themselves, which creates an almost surreal environment within their confines | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
Bathrooms have been built into the rock faces themselves, which creates an almost surreal environment within their confines Image: Syam Sreesylam

Glass walls stretch along the southern and eastern faces of the home in the central living space, allowing clear lines of sight to the building’s surroundings from the living area as well as the kitchen and dining spaces. Despite the majority of the open plan configuration adhering to a simple rectangular footprint, the interjection of spiral volumes at three different points in the layout adds a sense of movement and non-linearity to the overall composition, which features very few partitions for programmatic division.

Floor Plan | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
Floor Plan Image: Courtesy of Wallmakers

Dressing the earthy and bare interior design—which features virtually no embellishments apart from textural contrasts between the earth and glass—the furniture designs on show in the living area range from woven seats to wooden chairs and tables, all in tones similar to the walls. Flooring in all corners of the home, save for the bathrooms, has been realised in reclaimed wood, displaying rich, dark natural grain textures that beautifully complement the colour of the walls and wooden furniture. All in all, Chuzhi’s ties to the context and natural ecosystems around it can be seen in every single detail, whether through its dialogue with its surroundings, its clever retention of all site features, or the many contemplative and almost surreal spaces that it accommodates.

  • Longitudinal Section | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    Longitudinal Section Image: Courtesy of Wallmakers
  • Transverse Section | Chuzhi | Wallmakers | STIRworld
    Transverse Section Image: Courtesy of Wallmakers

When talking of firms that are truly revolutionising the way architects look at building in the contemporary architectural landscape, there are few who can hope to match the incredible diversity of thought and willingness to push the envelope that are immediately obvious in each project completed by Wallmakers till date. As yet another gem in the canon of residential architecture in present-day India that they can claim as part of their impressive and ever-expanding body of work, Chuzhi is an astute meditation on how constraints can breed breaks from the norm, which open up infinite new worlds of possibilities when crafting architecture that rises to be more than just a blight on the natural landscape it occupies.

Project Details

Name: Chuzhi
Location: Shoolagiri, Tamil Nadu, India
Gross Built Area: 2122 sq ft
Year of Completion: 2022
Architect: Wallmakers
Lead Architects: Vinu Daniel, Neeraj S. Murali , Rajesh Khanna

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