by Jerry ElengicalAug 04, 2022
A succinct correlation between architecture and sculpture has underlined, even dogged, the pedagogy of 'utility' in architecture. Either one of the vast disciplines seems to have a fond propensity for the other, with perhaps the former's reliance on the latter tipping the scales, as they continue to draw from each other and shape each other quite literally. However, while sculpture, more often than not, ends up finding its allegiance in art, architecture seems to have maintained its near perpetual fascination - and aspiration - in acquiring sculptural proportions, with the 'pillar' of utility marking a hazy distinction. In a conversation about her latest work with Mumbai-based Samira Rathod, the founder of her acclaimed practice Samira Rathod Design Atelier, I was brought back to enquire this dynamic relationship, the sculpture in architecture, and whether buildings, as verbs, were constructed or sculpted. Free from the aforementioned pillars, the House of Concrete Experiments by the architect, set in the foothills of Deotalai in Zirad, Maharashtra, manifests as an edifice that is representative of freedom, solitude, solidity, tectonics, and above all, experimentation.
For the atelier, the design of the house and the overall intent emerges as an interpretation of the imperative tenets of sustainability, and sustainable design and architecture particularly. Its most direct implication is the house’s rather peculiar looking form, a result of a meandering footprint that carefully moves around a plethora of existing trees on the site. This remarkable achievement renders the home as a sanctuary sensitively ensconced within a mango orchard and the proverbial lap of nature, even if that meant fragmenting the overall mass of the house. Function is found even in this fragmentation, as the final spatial program of the house comprises a large, unitary studio space with just one bedroom for the couple.
The central mass of the house is set-out against the edge of a sunken courtyard, transformed from an existing depression on site - another instance where site responsiveness holistically guided the formulation of the residence design. Two additional guest rooms are stacked in a separate building as an annexe to the main house, separated by open courts, and dotted with extensive yet austere landscape design features.
Apart from the bared concrete edifice of the refuge, the sculptural notion of design carries inward in the form of freestanding walls and structural elements that do not follow a rigid grid, or a semblance of repetition usual for concrete framed structures. The interiors emerge as a spacious haven–a large column free space topped by a flat concrete ceiling–with no internal walls to hinder the flow of the space, according to Rathod, who claims the feat to be one among the many eponymous experiments that concrete enabled her to carry out.
Another aspect wherein the sculptural aspirations of the house are manifested are its somewhat unitary materiality in cast concrete, facilitating the very act of sculpting in continuation - or reduction. The otherwise planar external facia of the house is disrupted by three large, obtusely angled, sloping overhangs, cantilevered in concrete from the mass of the house. Showcasing exemplary, defiant structural design, the overhangs too have carefully scooped-out volumes through which light escapes onto the ground, essentially leaving the cantilever to be supported along a reduced length of structure and reinforcement. Additionally, the slabs and their positioning is meticulously considered to offer shade for external movement around the house.
The next avenue for material innovation and shunning ostentation happens to be with the walls of the house, also its primarily structural supports. Ranging between 450mm to a full meter in thickness, the walls prove to be voluminous 'culverts', carrying small ducts within them to circulate cool air through the house, while also accommodating recess windows that aid in waterproofing. The expanded thermal mass in turn aids in passive cooling, furthering the sustainable aspirations of the house.
A tactile experience is complementary to the sensory engagement the interiors seek to provide, embedded in the very being of the concrete walls constituting the house. The continuing sense of experimentation with concrete extends to the composition of these walls, with the main house’s thick walls being cast in concrete using debris from the site - stone chips, broken bricks, and even large pieces of waste stone enshrined within the house’s envelope as a relic. Along with reducing the overall quantity of concrete used, the additives lend a certain rough texture to the wall when grinded and finished, elevating the tactility. In contrast, the guest block is cast in pink concrete, the blush being a result of the added brick powder. Specific textures and character are introduced in the cast walls by using different methods including debris cast concrete, waterjet concrete, and form finish concrete, augmented with pigments.
The floor on which the ensemble rests is conceived as a large artwork in itself, resembling a blown-up thumbprint. The patterned aesthetic is achieved by using recycled stone pieces, cast in the concrete terrazzo floor. The tactility of the walls and the playful patterning of the floor, along with the luminous furniture that breaks the monotone of the concrete is accentuated by light that forms myriad avenues to seep in and illuminate what could otherwise be an overwhelming if not intimidating space. Apart from the windows, concentrated near the ground and whimsically sized, the skylights of the house - varied and morphing in form from one to the next - succeed in the architect’s intention of "literally playing with light”.
Sans the semblance of a fixed pattern, grid, or essentially repetition - every successive avenue, both in design and exploration of the final product an un-encountered one - the House of Concrete Experiments rather earns its name, bearing particular fondness with the architects who named it. The nomenclature, in addition to transparently describing the intent and conceptual bearings of the residence, brought me to ponder upon its duplicity. While being, in its essence, a series of experiments with concrete materialised, the house also stands as testament to the same experiments, now concretised in a piece of architecture, lending a finality to the sculptural aspects of it - to the trials and tribulations in the process of sculpting architecture that a distant sight makes oblivious.
Name: House of Concrete Experiments
Location: Alibaug, Maharashtra
Architects: Samira Rathod Design Atelier
Project Architect: Jay Shah
Civil Work (Architecture): Jog Infrastructure pvt ltd
Civil Work (Interior): Mortar Construction
HVAC: Nova Initiative
MEP Consultancy: Hydrotech Consultants
Stuctural Consultant: Studio Struct
Furniture: The Big Piano, Mahendra Doshi, Great Estaren, baro
Project Management: Girish Bhadra