Architecture BRIO raises Mumbai Artist Retreat on stilts to survive flooding

Mumbai Artist Retreat is a series of flexible pavilions hosting quaint workshops and residences for artists, nestled within an idyllic palm plantation in coastal India.

by Jincy IypePublished on : May 13, 2021

This compact artists’ retreat sits across the Mumbai Bay in India, evoking the charm of its coastal location in its modest form and materiality, prioritising contextually driven, sustainable architecture. Designed by Architecture BRIO, humble volumes made of steel and bamboo sit nestled within a low-lying palm plantation near a beach, raised on stilts to combat the low soil bearing capacity and the occasional flooding that the site receives. The project faces the shortcomings of the instability of coastal lands and responds beautifully with lightweight modules resting atop stone foundations, modules that can be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere if needed.

Mumbai Artist Retreat is nestled within an idyllic coocnut plantation in coastal India | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
Mumbai Artist Retreat is nestled within an idyllic coocnut plantation in coastal India Image: ©Edmund Sumner

“The Mumbai Artist Retreat intends to become a place where artists can work in a spacious, natural environment, away from the heavy physical and psychological demands of the global metropole. However, with the skyline of Mumbai across the bay, it still feels connected with the city,” share Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt, founders and principal architects of the India and The Netherlands-based firm.

Mumbai Artist Retreat designed by Architecture BRIO is raised to stilts to combat rising sea levels | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
Mumbai Artist Retreat designed by Architecture BRIO is raised to stilts to combat rising sea levels Image: ©Edmund Sumner

Also christened The Other Side Studio, the 150 sqm retreat in Alibag, Maharashtra, is spread across three zones - a workspace, temporary residences, and long-term residences for artists, as well as a canteen. These are placed orthogonally in the grid of the palm tree plantation to outline the site plan. The stilted forms allow the landscape to thrive uninterrupted and independent of the built elements. Multiple outdoor spaces are allotted for relaxing, contemplation and work, while sculptures created in and for the retreat will integrate into the landscape over time. In addition to the studio, the retreat also contains a meditation pavilion and a water-harvesting pond that recharges the ground water table.

Inside one of the workshops where bamboo rafters support the roof | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
Inside one of the workshops where bamboo rafters support the roof Image: ©Edmund Sumner

“As architects with the ability to influence how the built environment affects landscape, can we use building methods to create thoughtful and resilient architecture, that causes less impact on fragile ecosystems? Is it possible to make sure that buildings are future ready, and that they can accommodate rising sea levels?” encompass some relevant enquiries BRIO delved into while designing and constructing Mumbai Artist Retreat.

A passage inside the retreat | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
A passage inside the retreat Image: Randhir Singh

The workshop is the heart of the retreat, and comprises two modules of 6m x 9m each, in a grid of columns spaced at 1.5 meters, with twin roofs that reach a height of six meters. Made of V-shaped beams of bamboo rafters, the pyramids are cut clean at the top to become skylights that are subtly integrated with solar panels to generate power. These openable skylights concentrate sunlight into the centre of the space, and pull up hot air from below, fostering natural ventilation across the workshops.

The pyramids are cut clean at the top to become skylights | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
The pyramids are cut clean at the top to become skylights Image: ©Edmund Sumner

“By shifting the roofs away from each other asymmetrically, the two spaces below are defined more clearly from an experiential perspective. In one of the modules, a storeroom with screen printing equipment creates an additional loft with a workspace on top of it,” says Balwani. The timber slat panels on the exterior keep out rain and provide shade. They can also be unscrewed and placed in the central bay to separate spaces, making the workshops flexible both in terms of scale and program – the panels can convert them into a single large one or into smaller, multiple workshops, an exhibition space, or an interesting mix of all.

The skylight is fitted with solar panels | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
The skylight is fitted with solar panels Image: ©Edmund Sumner

All joints between the various components of steel are designed as nut and bolt connections (not welded), which are easy to manufacture off-site, to reduce disturbance caused by construction on site, and be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere. Steel rods anchor the forms’ columns onto chiseled depressions in large, basalt stone boulders which were sourced from another one of BRIO’s construction projects nearby.

“This method of construction offers the option to reassemble the building on higher ground if desired,” explains the design team. The weight of these anchors the building and prevents it from being lifted due to strong coastal winds. The inspiration came from Ambalama in Karagahagedara, Sri Lanka, public pavilions dating back to the early 19th century - a rest stop timber structure for travellers and pilgrims from all over South Asia that were balanced on stone boulders.

The entrance | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
The entrance Image: Randhir Singh
Stilts embed themselves in boulders that anchor the lightweight structure | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
Stilts embed themselves in boulders that anchor the lightweight structure Image: Randhir Singh

Architecture BRIO was faced with the site’s material limitations and local building materials were scarce and expensive. The building regulations only allowed materials that were temporary in nature, which meant they could not use concrete or brick and stone masonry and hence narrowed down to prefabricated steel, reclaimed teak wood, bamboo, and bison cement board. “The material palette, with its restrained elegance and muted tones, makes for a serene surface against the striking greens of the site,” shares Verrijt. Due to the proximity to the sea and the hugely saline atmosphere of the site, all components of steel were hot dip galvanised, which extends its life and makes it rust resistant.

  • Mumbai Artist Retreat is an art lab that unites individuals of art and ecology | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Mumbai Artist Retreat is an art lab that unites individuals of art and ecology Image: Randhir Singh
  • Conceptual sketch for the studio | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketch for the studio Image: Randhir Singh

To avoid the natural irregularities of Indian bamboo, the layout of the rafters follows a zig zag pattern, which also abets the structural frame’s strength. This framework sits exposed on the inside of the workshops, while its exterior is dressed in a lightweight roofing of cement sheets.

Outlining the intent of the studio, Architecture BRIO says, “The Mumbai Artist Retreat is conceptualised as a community space. It is an art lab of sorts, that aims to bring together art, ecology, and society. It will bring people from diverse backgrounds together to engage in various forms of artistic expression in a creative and critical way. Therefore, the space will reflect the intention of ‘coming together’. Furthermore, it aims to inspire reflection, quietude, creativeness, and belonging. A space where people can engage and immerse in nature and within themselves”.

  • Axonometric section of the workshops | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Axonometric section of the workshops Image: Courtesy of Architecture BRIO
  • Plan | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Plan Image: Courtesy of Architecture BRIO
  • Flooding Diagram | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Flooding Diagram Image: Courtesy of Architecture BRIO
  • Ventilation Diagram | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Ventilation Diagram Image: Courtesy of Architecture BRIO
  • Sections | Mumbai Artist Retreat by Architecture BRIO | STIRworld
    Sections Image: Courtesy of Architecture BRIO

Project Details

Name: Mumbai Artist Retreat / The Other Side Studio
Location: Alibag, Maharashtra, India
Program and Typology: Artist Retreat; Cultural, Landscape, Educational
Area: 150 sqm
Architect: Architecture BRIO
Design team: Shefali Balwani, Robert Verrijt, Sakshi Minocha, Neethi Dorairaju, Shivani Mehta
Contractor: Unique Concrete Technologies
Bamboo Advisor and Supplier: Vinja Constructions
Structural Engineer: Girish Wadhwa
Bamboo Structural Engineer: Manjunath & Co.

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