by Shefali BalwaniSep 26, 2019
Building a large house on a sea facing hillside in Mumbai is both exciting and daunting. On one hand, the prospect of a panoramic ocean view is thrilling, and on the other hand, another hillside villa undoubtedly adds to the growing clutter of self-important estates in these environs, which not so long ago were uninhabited landscapes.
A project for us starts with sketching, and sketching starts with procrastination. In the ideal circumstances, when our office is offered the luxury to develop a design over a couple of months, holding the pencil to start sketching is postponed as much as possible. Inspiration doesn’t come with a blank sheet. At first, sketching happens in the mind, through asking the right questions, formulating ideas on the project, conversations within the office and understanding the site. Lines, shapes and relationships are drawn in the canvas of the ‘mind’.
The Plantation Retreat started getting defined by a combination of ideas - the idea of the house on the hillside overlooking the Mumbai bay, a lightweight columned structure with a dominating roof profile placed strategically on the land, and a comfortable deep recessed verandah house from which the landscape could be experienced. Our instinct told us that the built form would appear quite significant on the hillside. While conscious of the fact that the landscape surrounding Mumbai is increasingly getting tarnished by ostentatious villas, rather than fighting its presence, we wanted to explore the idea of emphasising the profile of the built form. We looked at the villas built in Veneto, Italy during the 16th and 17th century, as well as the Portuguese chapels of Goa, breaking away from the fortress-like villas and instead opening the space to the landscape, focusing on axiality, proportion and innovative definitions of courtyards and terraces bringing a comfortable scale to its surrounding landscape.
Step 1: When the pressure builds and the deadline is approaching, the pencil becomes inevitable. The first few sketches are about understanding scale and proportion, the impact of a project on its site. What is the footprint of a programme on the site? How does it negotiate the level differences on the site? While the overall mass is drawn in proportion to the site, there is little emphasis on getting the programme drawn to scale at this point.
Step 2: The first approach emphasises the distant views created across the slope of the land. In the first sketches, two ‘barn-like’ structures, perpendicular to each other, are connected on a compact common plinth. At 1:200 scale the programme is drawn quite accurately to scale.
Step 3: A client meeting at this stage informs that three levels are functionally not desirable. Hence, the next sketches are determined by finding solutions, which reduced the design to only two levels. An alternative approach could be to design a long linear plan that hugs the contour and emphasises the panorama.
Step 4: We return to the first idea but avoid the plinth from becoming too enlarged. Two of the five bedrooms are separated from the main building into an annex for guests that is to be positioned away and reached by a short walk.
Step 5: The advantage of a site on a hill is its vantage point. However, the client is very keen to have as much of ground space as well. Something that seems inherently contradictory. The next sketches, therefore, have the plinth that forms the base of the two barns, getting deformed to a ‘hook-shape’. This way, on the higher level a single- story barn is positioned perpendicular to the double-story barn on the lower level. This composition of structures creates a strong silhouette on the hill slope.
Step 6: A series of sketches are drawn in a butter paper sketch book with the help of a 28cm long set square, with 1cm parallel lines and frequently sharpened pencil. We sketch from the back to the front of the sketch book. This way, every conceptual sketch forms the under layer of the next one, suggesting a sort of evolution in the process. A print-out of the contour drawing at the same scale gets referred to, to keep a check on where every floor plan intersects with the original contour.
Step 7: Various sketches explore several ways to functionally re-organise the programme and connect the two barns together. Hiding some behind the plinth reduces and allows an underground ‘secret passage’ between the two barns. The programme, thus, can be visually broken into two masses and at the same time are functionally connected.
My childhood experiences of building underground ‘huts’ with secret tunnels in the forests of southern Netherlands suddenly can materialise in the real world. – Robert Verrijt
Step 8: One approaches the double height barn via a sequence of spaces starting from the road on top of the site, via a landscaped staircase, the platform on the plinth at the first level, and then via a portico. All this while the view is undefined. Only once one reaches at the end of the height portico, one sees the long gabled roof in front and in the distant the beach turning around the bay.
Our experiences in the beginning of our career, learning from the work of Geoffrey Bawa, informed us on the importance of spatial sequencing and taught us techniques on how to build up anticipation. – Robert Verrijt
Step 9: The single-story barn, which houses the two main bedrooms, does not sit comfortably. Ideally, we would like to be able to orient the master bedroom across the view as well. A stone faced, deeply recessed opening in the frontal mass of the ‘gable wall’ brings up experiential associations with Mediterranean hill town homes, which effectively manage to connect the sea with the hillside. This is explored in a perspective doodle on the side.
These kind of spatial fragments of experiences, sometimes experienced first-hand, sometimes learnt through the studies of plans, sections and images by other architects inform the design continuously.
Step 10: The next sketch is a breakthrough. Sacrificing a more dynamic composition of two perpendicular barns, they now get oriented parallel to each other, allowing the master bedroom to look over the distant landscape. Small volumetric, axonometric and perspective studies sketched on the side of the plans visualise its impact.
The idea of a reflective water body in the form of a pool surrounding the living spaces returns. The curvilinear shape of the pool softens the otherwise geometric condition of the plan.
Water is a natural element that belongs to the landscape, but its flat reflective surface belongs to the world of architecture. – Robert Verrijt
Step 11: Drawing the outline of a sequence of spaces that are experientially significant, defines those spaces that are to be heavy and enclosed, and those that are to be light and transparent. This drawing refines the hierarchy in the organisation and materialisation. They become the under-layer of the presentation drawings that will be prepared later in the design process.
Step 12: Suddenly the underground passage also falls into place. By shifting the two parallel barns, pushing the double height space in front, the underground passage can cut across the same axis.
Now it is time to test the scheme in a drafting programme. The layout will only change marginally hereafter. The line drawings often still form the base to sketch on, at a scale of 1:100 or 1:50 to refine the plan.
Step 13: More than anything, models are great tools to communicate but time consuming as against sketches that are nearly instant and, therefore, able to communicate directly and intuitively. Hence, for us models don’t perform the task of ideating and refining organisational systems, the same way that sketches do. Models at the scale of 1:200 or 1:100 present the final design to the client, consultants and construction team. By this time the clients are hopefully enforced in their confidence to execute the project and the consultants are able to visualise the design in 3-dimensions.
Step 14: Our 1:50 sectional models are great tools for discussions with the construction team on how a project is made and how materials and components meet. Ever so often it happens that the model then leads to new insights that results in the improvement of a construction detail.
The project is currently under construction.
Name: Plantation Retreat
Location: Alibag, Maharashtra, India
Area: 1800 sqm
Year of initiation: 2017
Status: Under construction
Design team: Shefali Balwani, Robert Verrijt, Harsh Soneji, Dipon Bose