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Links in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) were designed, it seems in retrospect, all at once and the ones that have not been replaced by stacked apartments betray their mid century European roots.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.


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