Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Happy Independence Day!!

Since tomorrow is our Independence day, I thought of making a list of things that architects (and mostly me) would love freedom from.

1. Those *$#%#$%% Byelaws!

I understand why municipal authorities make building byelaws. They want to maintain a certain minimum quality of buildings and having some basic guidelines is usually a great idea. Sadly, these have mutated into a monstrosity that nobody has had the foresight to change with the changing times. They are archaic, unreasonable, non-contextual, non site-specific and do not take into account a million technological innovations that have taken place since they were first written on papyrus. My pet hate - setbacks! Why the hell do we need to leave setbacks? Some of us architects are smart enough to decide how much space we need to leave around a building and possibly the best judge of that on a particular site.

2. Irresponsible Contractors

If you ask me, the biggest hurdle to making a great building is not having a great client(although it is a prerequisite) and not being the best designer(i am sure other people have this problem) but getting it built to a certain quality! Anyone who has tried even the smallest of home projects will agree that the toughest issue is trying to make people understand the notion of quality - It requires a shift in attitude and cant be done overnight. Good contractors understand that quality matters and Great contractors have people at site who understand that quality matters. It is definitely top-down approach and like i said, the attitude of the actual person working at site is the most critical component of getting the job done right.

3. The CAD Monkey Approach

I often say this in college(I teach at my alma mater) that designing & drafting are two very different things. There are so many times during a day when I sketch out something only for it to be handed back to me as a print with a thousand things wrong. The problem is not that there is a lack of drafting skill or a lack of comprehension of what was required. The problem is that the importance of the end result was lost in the translation of the medium. While the discussion was happening on paper, there are ideas and mutual understanding. The moment the CAD screen comes up, the lines are simply an abstraction of the issue and take precedence. The reason of why the drawing has to be made gets lost in the actual making of the drawing. I struggle with this in office occasionally  but as employees slowly understand what is required from the drawing, their design skills improve to match their drafting skills. Drawing is only what is required to communicate design.

4. Delhi's Unbelievable Traffic

Do you live in Delhi? If not, then you simply won't understand. Let me tell you what I did today. I started off in Vasant Vihar, went to Anand Niketan(1km), then ITO(18km), Sunder Nagar(6km), Defence Colony(3km), Kailash Colony(4km), Panchsheel Park(6km) and back to Vasant Vihar(8km). One of our senior site supervisors is off for the week and I thought I might have a look at some of the ongoing projects in the city. I actually thought I could cover some more, but by the time we reached mid-way, I cancelled some of them. Let me give you a summary of the distance travelled, time actually spent in site review and total time spent from start to finish. I travelled all of 46km, spent a sum total of 4hours 40minutes in meetings(of which 2hours and 45minutes were in one long one) and was out for 7hours and 30minutes. That's a 2hours and 50minutes on the road to travel 46km. Admittedly, I was driven around, so it wasn't personally stressful and I did get some sketching done in the back, but really! What a colossal waste of everyone's time.  

5. Technology that Acts Up

As architects we spend a whole lot of time in trying to make things better. We  take time to design spaces well, even going so far as to simplify construction details so that things are easier to build. Why can't everybody do their job properly? I hate it when technology that is working just fine for 6 months suddenly decides that some TLC is required. Printers, Phones, Networks, Software - you name it and something related to it is going wrong as I type this (Ctrl+S) Why cant things simply work the way they are supposed to? I understand that things grow old and malfunction from use/abuse, but then we must establish a reasonable period of how long a product is supposed to last when we buy it. If HP told me that the printer is going to be tip-top for the first year(the warranty period, how ironic), may act up from year 2 to year 4 and thereafter may simply pack up without warning, I probably wouldn't be very upset when it happens. Be predictable please.

That's enough of a wishlist for now. Have a good weekend(those of you who are deviously going to take Friday off) and Happy Independence Day!


p.s. I made that graphic from a pictures of our projects and was pleasantly surprised with the result so its going on the home page of our website for the day.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

De Stijl House, New Delhi

The legacy of early modern domestic architecture in Delhi is hard to fathom. Apart from the odd home built by the master architects post-independence, houses in the capital follow a distinct pattern, almost like a vernacular tradition was at work. The stately houses of Sunder Nagar & Golf Links in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) were designed, it seems in retrospect, all at once and the ones that have not been replaced by stacked apartments betray their mid century European roots. Long horizontal lines of projections shade ribbon windows and are interspersed with large blank volumes. The structural slab is not expressed on the elevation and there is always a strong horizontal balcony thrust out, testing the limits of the concrete. The parapet line runs unbroken around the buildings and even the staircase is visually tucked behind it; this line visually connects all the houses along the street.

The contemporary situation is very different. Developer-driven apartment blocks have completely overtaken most of urban Delhi as well as the local context. These apartment blocks typically occupy the complete permissible envelope and then embellish the peripheral walls with whatever is currently most fashionable, whether it be unsustainable wooden panelling or florid mouldings and cornices. The resulting urban condition is one dominated by forced facades that are 50ft/15m tall, punctuated only with unusable, authority mandated three feet balconies and large expanses of inoperable glass with little or no protection from the climate.

The hallmark of the original De Stijl House, the Rietveld-Schröder House (Utrecht) was to make a building that seemed to be composed entirely of surfaces and volumes that were gliding past each other, dissolving the boundaries of inside and outside. It was inspired by the early 20th century art movement, which helped spawn the modern movement in architecture. The early houses in Delhi were an offshoot of the same movement, albeit a little customized to local conditions. This is the modernist legacy that is referred to in this house.

The owners were originally residents in the LBZ and wanted to incorporate their large art collection in their new home along with the requirement of additional living arrangements for a family of two generations. Situated directly opposite an earlier project designed by AKDA (Transformation, 2010), they chose to frame the views to the same mango tree that shades the earlier house. The project was designed with three distinct zones- a ground floor apartment, a basement gallery space for the daughter’s art collection and a duplex apartment on the upper floors for the owners. The terrace is partially enclosed to provide a small studio space and an alfresco dining area and the rest is left open as a garden. Landlocked by party walls on 2 sides, large skylights punctuate the terrace, bringing light to the floors below. There is a large courtyard that can be looked into from the formal living areas and a smaller one brings light to an internal stair for the upper apartment. A stepped arrangement of verandahs on the north corner brings light and green views to the lounge areas on all floors.

The interiors are finished in muted tones of white. The regular dark tones of local wood finishes were eschewed in favour of the blonde, honey coloured quality of oak wood and a similarly light cream coloured stone has been used to create a neutral, yet domestic backdrop to the art on display. A structural wood stair, dramatically lit from below, descends to the basement from within the house. On the terrace, a deep verandah opening onto the garden makes a relaxing space for evening dining. The walls are raised to avoid the unsightly views and the only thing that can be seen is the sky.

The facade is the most important element in trying to create a reference to the original De Stijl House. The brick box is established as a primary volume which is then punctuated with openings. These continue the same theme, with various elements first being designed as a composition of horizontal and vertical rectangles and then given contrasting material finishes. A long window is designed in the vein of Mondrian’s paintings, a composition of rectangles and squares in various proportions and colours. A large horizontal balcony thrusts out of the centre of the building on the upper floor, shading the large ground floor window and providing an outdoor space for entertaining. The parapet line is reinforced with a thick grey band that also projects from the facade to disconnect the stair volume from the rest of the building. A round column on the corner, detached from the wall behind, supports this projection as a structural expression. Holding the entire composition together is the large square window of the master bedroom on the top floor. Brick, Grey Granite and Exposed Concrete were chosen for their longevity and colour.