We’ve always captured what the writer has to say about a certain project, or what an architect or designer has to express about his/her own project. For this cover feature, however, we took a backseat, we refrained from asking questions, we let the creators engage in a dialogue with each other and their creations. We became mere spectators to their conversations, understanding the nuances, the observations which otherwise would have never been made. For the first in this series, we approached architects Puran Kumar of Studio PKA and Rajiv Parekh of reD Architects in Mumbai. The projects featured are telling of their creators – the much written about ‘The Mango House’ by Puran Kumar of Studio PKA, and an exclusive sneak preview of ‘The Library House’ by Rajiv Parekh of reD Architects. We bring you the unedited version of their engaging discourse…
THE MANGO HOUSE — IN RESPONSE TO THE CONTEXT
RAJIV PAREKH: Engaging with the Mango House was an amazing experience. But before I elucidate on that, I would like to know your thought when you were designing The Mango House. And when you finished the design process and started living in it, what was your impression? How much of your original intent followed through? In retrospect do you ever think you would have approached it differently?
PURAN KUMAR: The Mango House is a blend of a few of things—it’s a dream. It’s an aspiration that has taken a physical form. But while you are manifesting a dream into reality, you realise that architecture as a weapon is so potent that you can actually convert a figment of your imagination, into a reality that you can live. As far as The Mango House is concerned, it’s set in a vernacular context. It couldn’t have been like a city house. It’s got a very earthy feel to it, it’s got its rustic charm. I didn’t want anything that is more than a village house. At two storeys high, the house allows the branches of the trees to spill over onto the deck, overlooking the pool. Multiple large glass fenestrations line the exposed brick walls, casting reflections of the world outside – flooding the interiors with daylight and shadow trails, allowing the experience to percolate within. Having said that there are space requirements, which is why the volume comes into play. The very essence of the design is taking clue from its context, and in this case, the context were the original inhabitants of the site — the mango trees, around 100 years old! They govern the simple architectural language of the house. In response to the resolute and intricate network of roots, we left them unharmed and unhampered. The house actually opens out to these trees, almost as if they are having a conversation with you, with the house. The Mango House is the physical manifestation of a quest to connect with the natural environment. The essence of design here is the simplicity in thought and expression through the form, material and décor of the structure.
PAREKH: And that’s obvious. The entire house reveals itself to the trees, or the trees reveal itself to the house, it’s how you perceive what you see.
KUMAR: I realised there was no need to shut out the exteriors. They are so much a part of the entire context. that they had to come in. Here, the architecture itself is incidental. The very thought of letting architecture interrupt the experience of exploring the site organically didn’t seem too right. The design responds to its surroundings and makes a conscious effort to reconnect with the natural environment. All the spaces seamlessly transition from one level to the other. The design is just the function of what the site demanded and of course, one’s own sensibilities. The whole objective was to be true to the context, be true to yourself, and hence the organic form, the organic tactility.
THE ETERNAL DEBATE: CLIENT, CONTEXT AND THE ARCHITECT
PAREKH: True. The Mango House is evocative of your design philosophy. And it’s obvious from the moment you walk in. The majestic trees in the verandah, the textural tactility of simple materials like exposed brick, concrete, terracotta and wood, the simplicity of geometry — all of it beckon you to engage with the house. I think you can almost make out that this house is built by an architect for an architect. I think it’s very different when someone in creative profession creates for themselves.
And that comes through in this house, in its architectural language. It resonates with you, with your design philosophy. And that leads me to the next thought.
Would you have articulated it differently—the architectural language—in the same site, had you not been the end user? Would it have changed dramatically, or would you have persevered through with a similar dialogue with the environment?
KUMAR: When you take on a project there are three governing aspects — the client, the context, and yourself (the architect). We as architects have a duty towards the site. I would not have approached this project any other way. To give you an example, one of our recently completed projects — the 5 Elements House sits atop the Pawna Dam. The context is different, and here, you had to ensure that the client had a certain identification. But at the same time, you needed to ensure that you are doing justice to the context. In such situations, you debate, discuss and fight till the end until you ensure that you are ultimately true to the project — not just yourself or the end user. You have to be true to the context.
I agree that when you are designing for yourself or building for yourself, the expression is unadulterated. But I say this for architects, for you as well, that our attempt should not be really identifying the project for ourselves or for the client, we should be working for the project, or whatever is good about it and eventually giving it the solution that the client requires. Even if I were designing The Mango House for a client, the expression would have remained very close to what it is now.
PAREKH: The program would have been marginally different, but the essence would have remained the same.
KUMAR: The brutalist approach may have been slightly toned down. And that’s because I could take this approach, but I would have followed the same path.
PAREKH: I slightly differ in my approach to a client. Yes, the site and the context are important. But when it comes to homes, I give utmost importance to the client’s expectations and sensibilities. I believe their home should be a reflection of their personality and lifestyle.
THE LIBRARY HOUSE — A REFLECTION OF ITS OWNERS
KUMAR: Coming to your project — The Library House. It’s just a village away, it’s the same topography. But the basis of your design was not just the context, but the client’s brief and his sensibilities. How did you balance the two aspects?
PAREKH: Absolutely. As the name suggests, the Library House is built for a family of avid readers. And it was built as their primary home. This is where they intend to stay. They love sailing; and hence this works perfectly for them. I wanted this house to be evocative of their lifestyle, of their aesthetics.
Which is why there’s a barrenness to the house, to allow their possessions to inhabit it, and their personalities to come out through the things they have acquired over time, the books they have read. Here, the library takes the centre stage, and the house revolves around the library. Inner courtyards and verandahs form interesting interludes. We are not sun lovers, we need shade. We didn’t have as many trees, but we let the topography guide us. We didn’t mess with the topography; we didn’t flatten it out. There was a natural depression on the site, we converted that into a rainwater harvesting pit. Since we didn’t have too many trees, we started planting the moment we started building the house, allowing the architecture to grow with the landscape or the other way around.
Part of the intent was that the family wanted to use the house even when they are not there. So, it’s demarcated into a family wing and a guest wing, and it’s connected by the living room. I think one gesture that we did differently from projects we’ve done earlier, is the way we positioned the pool. The pool usually tends to be away from the house. But the pool is the space where ultimately the guests and the family congregate. The library overlooks the pool and the living room.
KUMAR: So, you think that the clients have got what they expected of the project, and more importantly, have the architects got what they wanted out of the project? Is it completely aligned to the vision you set out with?
PAREKH: They haven’t moved in yet. But at this point they are thrilled with what they have. But the real feedback comes only a year later. Once you’ve experienced the house completely.
As far as we are concerned, I would say we are 90% spot on. There are certain things we are not happy about, for instance, the grills. But that too is in response to the client’s inane fear for insects. But what supersedes everything else for us as a practice, and specifically for me, is client satisfaction. If the client is completely happy with the outcome, that matters to me the most. It’s okay if someone else criticizes that space, I can live with that. I’m okay with my team’s criticism, I’m okay with my own criticism about the space. But I’m not okay if the client is not happy with the space.
PAREKH: Based on your visit to the Library House, I would love to understand your preception? What do you think was a success and what would you have done differently?
KUMAR: I’ll first talk about what resonated with me completely. The most beautiful aspect of the Library House is that it caters to the requirements of the clients. Which means if it’s a family that wanted certain accents on certain functions, or certain aspects of their lifestyle, then the house has completely catered to that. That’s where I think your design program has been a success. It’s actually given importance to certain aspects of their life, which they didn’t want to short-change or compromise on. The other aspect that I’ll take away from the project is that while there’s an expanse to the project, which is in direct response to the volume that you have on the plot. You have the liberty to go expansive on the spaces. Which is very easy to do because it’s a largish plot. I think the way these various spaces are interconnected seamlessly, whether you move from the bedroom to the living room, through a courtyard, or from the living room to the library, the cohesiveness in design is remarkable.
The circulation or the flow of spaces is seamless, and I feel that the expanse could have disallowed that. But the expanse has been taken in very easily into the space program. I think the lavish bathrooms with the outdoor Jacuzzis, the library and even the swimming pool, every function has been given its due. It could have been any other way, but the way this house has been articulated it’s done perfectly.
I think the expression of architecture is a sum of its layout and form. And the other aspect happens to be the way it’s expressed, by way of its materials, by way of its details. If it were me, I think I would have gone a little more organic, little more vernacular. This home could have been anywhere, but when you have a location like this, I think I would have derived a lot more from the context. Today you don’t have the plants, but five years down the line you will have the trees. I think the whole aspect where the architecture grows with the site, with its environment has to be taken into account. I think the softness or the adaptability of architecture to its surrounding or future surrounding needs to be taken into account.
I also feel that some of the elements which need not have that much of space allotted to it, you’ve chosen to stretch it, give it more space, only by virtue of the fact that you have more space to play with. Whereas, I would have been a little more conservative about it, and I’m saying conservative in a positive sense. It’s about the way you preserve.
PAREKH: I think the ‘stretch’ also came from the fact that we come from an urban setting, where space is a luxury. So when you have the space, then why not take the liberty. In fact, the bar that we have on top was actually an afterthought. Because once the site started developing and we climbed up, I realized there’s no ocean to be seen anywhere. But what’s beautiful is that we get the treetops. And that’s the beauty of rural living, even though we didn’t have too many trees on our site. It’s a lovely roof to inhabit.
KUMAR: Coming back to The Mango House…it’s been written about, it’s been awarded…let’s just say it’s been exposed. But what was your impression? How did it resonate with you? And how would you approached it differently.
PAREKH: I made a conscious choice to not read about it before I came there. I wanted to make my own impression. My first impression of the site was you sitting at the Verandah. The trees all around you. As you correctly mentioned, the trees are the heroes of the site. And the justice you did to them was not to mess with them. It takes a certain amount of restraint to do that. I think that was brilliant. The second aspect that stands out is that it’s very open When we came there all the windows were open.
It’s about tropical living, it’s about wind funnelling through. There’s good amount of cross ventilation. It’s not about air-conditioned living.
KUMAR: The windows are always open, from the morning to the night and that’s how the house is lived.
PAREKH: True. Your choice of materials is very sturdy. Like you mentioned, there’s a seamless connection between the indoor and the outdoors. That’s the kind of interaction with nature you expect. In terms of the two things that I would have done differently. For me, the details matter. When I deal with exposed bricks or concrete, I have my concerns. As much as I love the rustic, organic feel, I would still question the ease of maintenance – humidity, fungal growth, seepage, etc. It’s got to do a lot with the way I am. I’m allergic, I’m obsessed with details, and that reflects in my architectural expression. I would have been a bit sceptical about using these materials.
In terms of the architectural expression, I think I would have built around the trees. I’m almost imagining that the trees coming out and my bed is next to it. We did another house in Alibaug where we tied the tree back, built the roof and let the tree come into the house. I would have gone a step further…where literally, I would be tree hugging. It might not have worked for me personally. But if I were you, I would have definitely explored that aspect.
KUMAR: To give you a feedback on that—the east, the south and the north—the three trees are part of the house. The big tree on the north died sometime back– it was a massive tree, and the porch of the house was built in and around the tree. In the kitchen, the tree grows into the deck, in fact, you’ll find the mangoes on the deck. And the south tree actually caresses the roof. In the monsoons you can’t sleep, because it doesn’t let you sleep. The biggest one stands a little apart…
PAREKH: And it does its job spectacularly.
KUMAR: That’s the beauty of architecture. While it is very subjective. There’s something underlying about it that we need to learn from anything and everything, anybody and everybody around it. And you should be open to listening. To me architecture is about self-absorption. I think it’s important to do that, recognize what resonates with you, what’s good about it, but be definitely constructively critical about it.
PAREKH: Like you said, we thrive on criticism. I think what we are doing here is great, I think it’s great that A+D thought about having this dialogue. It’s different from featuring a project, which is always all things great. I think it’s nice to acknowledge your mistakes and learn from it.
KUMAR: I agree. When A+D approached me with this idea, I thought why not. With this story maybe we can set an example with the young ones to take criticism in a constructive way, or maybe even in a demolishing way, but understand that it’s up for people’s opinion.