by Jincy IypeNov 01, 2022
Domestic architecture, primarily concerned with sheltering the social unit—the individual, family or clan—does so by providing security for the basic physical functions of life, like sleeping, cooking and socialising. Within this broad understanding of residential architecture, an endless range of interpretations can be observed, depending on the location, culture, and time period the building is built in. Wildgrass House in the Nilgiris, too, is conceptualised around this question of context in residential architecture.
Designed by Indian architect Soumitro Ghosh of Mathew and Ghosh Architects, the house manifests the asymmetry in design intents between a suburban home in the city, and an interim home in the hills. Located at the foothill of a family-owned tea estate in Coonoor, in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, Wildgrass is a weekend home for a retired couple, whose house, in a gated community in Bengaluru, Karnataka, was designed by the studio’s partner, Nisha Mathew Ghosh, in 2017. Ghosh's design concept emerges from a necessity to maintain differentiation as well as a continuity with his previous project, which although a residential building, differs both in context (city versus hill) as well as program (permanent versus temporary).
The residential design for Wildgrass is informed by the vantage points available on the site, such that the house is segregated into two blocks—one for living and the other for retiring at night—and a common space for socialising during the day in natural light. In contrast, the plan at the House of Stories expresses continuity, amassing all programs within a singular mass of varying volumes. This distinction emerges from a nuanced understanding of the difference in program between a permanent residence and a weekend home—since the latter requires more outdoor spaces with vantages to the hills and forest in its vicinity, as well as allows for a spatial segregation owing to greater availability of land.
Oriented east-west, the living block is a cuboidal, single volume, barn-like space, with a mezzanine on the east, which accommodates the living, dining, kitchen, powder room, and an attic. This cantilevered block, raised on concrete shear walls, provides spaces on its underside for car parking, and is accessed via a spiral staircase as well as a ramp, from the south.
A skylight punctures the gabled roof—just below its pitch—towards the north, to facilitate the entry of north light into the space. On the north and south facades, vertical openings puncture the walls, while on the west facade, a floor length slit window pierces the gable wall, in continuation with the skylight above, which, coupled with a large square window provides uninterrupted views of the landscape outside. Additionally, a Dutch entrance door, with an openable top portion, confronts the expanse of tea estates, placed axially to the bridge that connects the two blocks of the house.
The sleeping block, unlike its counterpart, sits on the ground on a foundation of retained boulders. Accessed via the glass bridge along a north-south axis, from the living block; this wing of the house hugs the ground as firmly as the former appears to dissociate itself, from the same. Across three levels, bedroom spaces are allocated on each floor, overlooking the landscape on the west.
The seemingly arbitrary size and arrangement of the square fenestrations on the facades, is in fact the result of a curated process, guided not only by a prerequisite of clear vantage points, but also by specific functions of the spaces within. Inspired by the primitive Adam’s hut, the sleeping block is reminiscent of the Rudin House designed by Herzog & de Meuron—itself conceptualised around a child’s drawing of a house. With its simplistic form and symmetric gable roof, both the houses are a manifestation of the fundamental image of a house, albeit in different contexts.
At the centre of the Indian architecture, a patio engages with both the blocks. Accessed via steps from the glass bridge, the patio is a common space for gathering and like the two blocks is designed as such to enjoy the valley, tea estate, forest, mountains and the horizon beyond. This space is conceived as the heart of the house and allows for solitary as well as collective engagements between its inhabitants and nature.
Above the patio, a bridge connects the two blocks of the house. This suspended steel and glass box, is also designed to offer unlimited views into the tea gardens and mountains. It also acts as a pause point between the essentially different living and sleeping blocks.
Wildgrass House in the Nilgiris invokes the pre-colonial landscape (forested with an undergrowth of wildgrass) that existed before the colonial intervention of tea estates. Ghosh seeks to conjure this naturally occurring Nilgiri wildgrass undergrowth on the site, which not only survives on little water, but also stabilises the soil through the fibrous nodules on its roots. This deliberate revival of the native Nilgiri is used to landscape most of the compound, including the underbelly of the living block.
The architectural language of the house is a reflection of its local context, both in the interior design as well as the exterior. Hand crafted aluminium has a ubiquitous presence—whether in the gabled roof, with a hand-crimped and folded aluminium cladding or aluminium window jambs, sills, and lintels, and finally in the glass bridge as a structural member. The use of the locally sourced aluminium, in addition to a continuous lime plaster finish on the walls and ceiling bestows a vernacular architectural disposition to the house. Additionally, references to local imagery, like the bison (used on the door handle and lighting fixtures), and the Nilgiri wildgrass invoke a memorable past.
In the 1975 essay, Essai sur l’architecture (Essay on Architecture), Marc-Antoine Laugier introduced the concept of the ‘Primitive Hut.’ Exploring the origins of architecture and its practice, the concept recognises the relationship between humans and the natural environment as the fundamental basis for the creation of architecture. He concludes that noble and formal architecture is a manifestation of necessity and fundamentals, not ornamentation. In this context, the Primitive Hut, according to Laugier, was the highest virtue architecture could achieve. Wildgrass House in the Nilgiris seems to recall this concept of the Primitive Hut not just through its acknowledgement of the native landscape and terrain, but also its restrained interiors.
Name: Wildgrass House in the Nilgiris
Location: Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India
Area: 620 sqm
Year of Completion: 2021
Architect: Mathew and Ghosh Architects
Lead Architect: Soumitro Ghosh
General Contractor: Alpha Coonoor
Structural Consultant: Radins Engineers
Lighting Design: Bison Light, Soumitro Ghosh