Building future for a billion voices: the best of Indian architecture in 2022
by Jerry ElengicalDec 30, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Nitija ImmanuelPublished on : Nov 09, 2022
Nirbhay - Nirgun (fearless and formless), said the poet-sage Kabir in 15th century in some of his most seminal songs of devotion. Centuries later, Indian architect Veeram Shah of Design ni Dukaan, inspired by that philosophy, took upon the task of incorporating the paradoxical elements from the formless divine into a project of minimalist architecture, where the visual narrative can only be discernible from within. But is that even possible? 'Enclosure' is an attempt at answering that question.
Veeram Shah discovered architecture as a means of eschewing engineering, the latter a conspicuous professional choice at the time. Influenced by modernist architecture and architects alike, Shah derived his primal creative influence from industry titans such as Le Corbusier, BV Doshi, and Girish Doshi. "My instructors recommended that I go on an observational voyage since they believed that architecture is a juxtaposition of numerous creative mediums such as literature, music, and cinema," says Veeram, who is the principal architect of the Ahmedabad-based multi-disciplinary studio in Gujarat. While Shah doesn't subscribe to any particular style, upon insistence, he settles for 'non-conformist'. "In my work, I apply knowledge that always moves in the direction of the abstract," he says. From grasping the eloquence of Satyajeet Ray's 1995 classic Pather Panchali to dissecting emotions through Hindustani classical musical ragas, Shah turns to assorted mediums of artistic expression for inspiration. Dialling the clock back on his temporary sabbatical, Shah speaks to STIR about a 10-year-long expansive residential project dubbed 'Enclosure' that championed its scale through trajectories of time, and even a pandemic.
Emerging from a context of expanded scenography, the peerless residence commands attention—in scale, form, and materiality. Shah, native to the land, was well versed in its scenography and the site of the building, which is nestled within four-acre verdant farmlands punctuated with fruit orchards. The 2,137 sqm residential design was commissioned with a vague brief that outlined a regular home—four bedrooms, a combined living and dining area, a kitchen, and subsidiary spaces. Having grown up in the remote village of Himmatnagar, the client sought a retirement home that would bring him back to his roots. After working relentlessly for three months on the drawings, Shah received dismissive feedback. "I was completely shattered," recalls Shah. Then came a crisper brief, which Shah relays, “The client explained that he has a private and public life and that we can work with a connecting kitchen and four to five rooms. He didn’t need the house to be elevated. This underlined the humble personality of the owner, which is eventually reflected in the building too.”
Different layers and types of meticulously constructed stone present a mysterious, cliff-like facade to a first-time visitor. What inspired this expansive abode's moniker? The name (Enclosure) was derived from the architecture of the projects that shelter and nurture—the elements that lend the residence its name. The plan calls for the house to be enclosed by a boundary in an organic shape. While 'enclosure' as a term can be quite constricting, the dwellers find freedom within the spaces, owing to the plan.
In my works, I apply knowledge that always moves in the direction of the abstract. – Veeram Shah, Principal Architect, Design ni Dukaan
Rising from the ground, the meticulously designed building is a masterful execution of geological longevity. The site is arranged in a floor plan emulating a grand piano, with two curved and static boundaries, each of which opens up to fleeting entrances. Here, the inspiration came from Corbusier and his paintings with imperfect curves. "How do I create a footprint of 2,137 sqm that has no elevation?" This initiated conversations about transitional spaces dividing private and public areas. The first drawing reveals a continuous curved line that covers the dynamic and a static line towards the corners that separates itself from the curve line. "I drew inspiration from the architect of Auroville, Roger Anger, who advocated 'implied tension' between two opposite ideas that come together to create the tension," reflects Shah.
The curved line ends in the nine-meter-long water tank that is jutted above the building. "In our initial composition, the idiosyncrasies of the water tank were the only elements that emerged from its boundary walls, hinting at an architectural iconography that separates it from its surroundings," he explains. Along with the engineer, the team discovered complex systems for the cantilevered tank, which included numerous revisions, eventually complying with the idea of raising other volumes to reiterate the brief. Finally, the confluence of both lines is where the entrance leads to the water tank, which is adjoined to the edifice and liberates itself from the attachments as separate yet synonymous with the site.
The entrance greets the visitors with its cascading play of muted exposed concrete against discoloured kota stone, wood, warm terracotta, and brass. Inside, a central open space (on plan) divides it into sections with different identities and carefully framed sequences. Various rooms and functions are arranged around it, including purely private, public, semi-open-air, and flexible areas. Each section has its own spatial quality, revealing each of its programmatic components. Protecting the house against the region's harsh sub-tropical climate, where the relentless sun is outfoxed only by the equally ferocious monsoons, a variety of openings (round and slender slits) enable a flow of adequate light and ventilation.
To the left of the entrance, there is an informal space for the owner to host and entertain. To the right is the waiting area, which opens to a private lounge. According to the plan, the kitchen is accessible from the public spaces as well as the main dining halls. With the site plan, the aim was to realise the client's brief for the seamless separation of public and private spaces, keeping the kitchen as the central space.
Further in, at the heart of the home, an open courtyard welcomes one to pause, reflect, and absorb the revitalising elements: a Gulmohar tree, an open sky, a swing, built-in benches, and a breath of fresh air. Defined by a third curved concrete wall, symmetrical floating columns probe the concept of creating an intangible idea into a tangible form through the courtyard design.
The kota-floored passageway leads one to the private areas of the house, including the owner's master suite and private areas, with direct access to the dining room and kitchen. The mezzanine floor was a later addition. Shah goes on to explain, "I wanted to create a cylinder that pierces the volume of this space, dividing the room into - the court, a private lounge, and the master suite. The spiral staircase was designed as a sculpture strategically placed to hold this volume together." A brisk walk along the path leads you to the sons' bedrooms on the right, with a central courtyard in between. Located in the west wing of the house, the three guest rooms are separated from this area by a pantry kitchen and outdoor dining space.
A macroscopic view of the vernacular architecture draws attention to the curved areas ensconced as courtyards. "Over the years, we went through a series of landscape design changes to keep a certain bit of abstract sense in how we design these curves. We wanted to capture the cut out with its intangible nature, with a Gulmohar tree that rests on it, creating a frame by itself," shares the architect.
The passageways further lead you to guest rooms and a small pantry on the left, with a serene view of the landscape and courtyard. Keeping in mind the owner’s request for a disclosed, private area, Shah imagined master suites, a private internal courtyard, and a pool.
It is hard to miss the obtuse concrete tube when you are walking past the waiting area. An interesting convex floating cylinder shape-shifting as a mandir piques your curiosity. Initially, the space was constructed without the cantilevered cylinder. "This object was the focus of many discussions with the structural engineer, who wanted to pin it from above or anchor it to abutting walls, and yet we were quite sure that the weight of God could only be borne by the earth," asserts Shah. The outline of faith doesn't appeal to him personally. Shah has always considered creative expression as a conduit for reverence and divinity. Banishing the banal rite of passage for traditional sanctums of worship, the architect created a modern iteration of a sacred Hindu deity, concaved into a slab of solid black granite, specifically selected to highlight the deity’s dark attributes. "Here, architecture becomes a sculpture by itself in a functional space. This is how we could initiate the dialogue of God and the ever-present 'force' through architecture," he says.
Enclosure, a fortress of rugged local materials, is a volume that is treated with carefully crafted lightness. Advocating local ingenuity, the client suggested that the team work with local labour and craftsmen. "Keeping in mind the scale and logistics of the project, it would cost us a hefty sum to transport contractors and materials to the site," shares Shah. For the facade, as an experiment, the studio employed a village contractor to build a sample wall in concrete. Shah further describes the process, "Usually when the concrete is shuttered, there’s bolting; attempting that finish in a remote town was almost impossible. Shuttering on pinewood, because of the pressure, created an organic undulation that warped the texture–creating art in itself." This result was not something that the team anticipated. "Implied imperfection is what I would like to call it. We must use this imperfection and accept it," he responds. This unique textured concrete was then used to envelope the curved boundaries of the property.
Most of Shah's projects follow a synonymous theme—pushing staple local materials to achieve a dramatic visual narrative. Given his penchant for sinuous lines, boring white walls might not seem quite his style. However, cane, teak, brass, and terracotta find their way into most of Shah’s designs. On a visit back home to Navsari, an administrative district in Gujarat, Shah, along with his father (an avid antique furniture collector), documented the antiques in a contemporary spin-off—birthing furniture that eventually led to Design ni Dukaan, which colloquially translates to "a shop for design"’ Creating objects out of curiosity, Design ni Dukaan is an ongoing experimental dialogue between creators—architects, musicians, and artists. "You can call it an inclusive community that celebrates 'the art of creating' by supporting local artists," he says.
For their earlier commissions, they chose a contemporary take on iconic pieces. This was achieved by using materials intrinsic to nature, like brass and teak. Shah is convinced that it is absolutely imperative that a designer works with a material themselves to exploit its characteristics to the best of their ability. To know its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, one needs to dive into its deepest ends. Giving in to inquiries that challenged age-old designs and practices led to the creation of unique, interesting designs that follow a modern Indian aesthetic.
For the interior design, the architect proposed the usage of refined marbles for the flooring, which was swiftly opposed by the client, who then suggested the use of kota, an ode to his humble beginnings. Pushing the simple material to achieve a strong visual impact, Shah created a textural play using kota to create complex yet lively patterns. "When you walk barefoot, there's a beautiful undulation; it's rather interesting," he notes. Sustainable strategies also include natural ventilation and reusing discarded kota tiles from the house. All the waste from the exercise was used to create the golden ratio patterns near the pool.
Employing local labour and materiality has rooted the space further into its context. We probed Shah on the challenges of using limited material and a positive outcome or learning from the experience, he says, "Materials can be explored in so many ways. Even now, I am constantly thinking of ways and means to push wood and brass to explore their scope and range." Aware of the implications and limitations of a technical understanding of materiality, Shah asserts that he regularly works in tandem with technicians, to understand the complexities and challenges. "Having grown with terracotta, in my NEXT projects, I am focusing on indigo as a colour: its usage and textures," he declares.
The building has a refined sense of style owing to its protagonists: scale and light. How did you perceive the reflection of these elements in their domestic contexts? Floating volumes, dramatic skylights, and a brick-red pool all make great focal points in a house. A restricted colour and material palette was used to create the unostentatious facade design: a stronger impact was employed using the concrete juxtaposed against a softer, whiter texture to exude a concealed, private, yet lived-in property, followed by the crowd-puller terracotta that lingers throughout the space, right from the entrance to the courtyards.
"Why not create a terracotta pool?" This question sparked an interesting pool design that became a strong visual focus of the house. Cast in a fiery terracotta, the private pool is reminiscent of a thousand suns emerging right from the sunken pit—a resplendent sight.
The skylights in the corridor and bathroom were inspired by the turrets of the La Tourette monastery designed by Le Corbusier. The elder son’s room is a flamboyant presentation of his collections, while the younger son’s private sanctuary is marginalised by a curved wall. The architect wanted to introduce some vitality to the bathrooms; enveloping them in a grammar of pastel pigments, dramatically illuminated by turret-like skylights. These creative liberties initiate a crisp design language.
I was inspired by Le Corbusier's adage that light gives life to architecture. – Veeram Shah, Principal Architect, Design ni Dukaan
There were multiple collaborators over the course of 10 years, making it difficult to segment the decade into milestones. "It is a collective dialogue between diverse groups," says the architect. However, some landmark blueprints for development included the inclusion of a vibrant artists' loft—a coherently designed collaborative space where the client can invite innovators to work—a mezzanine, and turrets. When asked if he would like to expand upon existing forms after 10 years? "Honestly, at this stage, no," he shrugs. "Like the circle of life, this project had a finite timeline and knowledge it held, for both me and my team. It will only carry the learnings forward from here." Shah and his team grew by leaps and bounds during the ten-year project. "Because I grew with the project, the project grew with me," he says.
What's NEXT in store for Veeram Shah and Design ni Dukaan? "We are constantly aiming to build a strong community and I am regularly in dialogue with my collaborators. The team is working on creating new pieces using different materials and processes. We will soon be announcing the first exhibition that will be the culmination of my 10-year-long practice, and its crux will be the cross-collaboration of practices and nuances," concludes Shah.
Location: Himmatnagar, Gujarat
Area: 23,000 sqft
Year of completion: 2021
Architect: Ar. Veeram Shah
Design team: Design ni Dukaan , Ahmedabad
Picture credits : Ishita Sitwala, The Fishy Project
Interior and Landscape Designer: Ar. Veeram Shah, Design Ni Dukaan
HVAC Consultants: Anjaria Associates
Structural Consultants: Saunrachna Strucon Pvt. Ltd
Contractor: Vastu Engineers
Carpentry: Thanaram Mistry and team, Arbuda furniture
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