The Space In-Between

This house outside Mumbai in India is, says Jagan Shah, a refuge and a retreat. Designed by Studio Mumbai, the house communes with the natural world, a refuge from the chaos of the nearby city.

04 Nov 2013

It is the magic of dwelling as man in the world that, if our gestures of dwelling – what we call homes, houses, residences – are friendly to nature, then nature will rise to receive us and give us a place to dwell. So it is with the Utsav House, where the architects have created a dwelling place rising from a micro-habitat of water and plants, its architectonic expression delineating a space, capturing a piece of the rugged, undulating coastal landscape and domesticating it. The house is both colonising the space and territory as well as satisfying a need in their client to find escape from the stresses of life in Mumbai.

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As this piece is written, the principal architects of the Utsav House – Bijoy and Priya Jain of Studio Mumbai – are winning acclaim for their installation In-between Architecture, inspired by Mumbai, at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s now closed exhibition 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. Seen together, the house and the installation represent the complexity of the conversation the Jains are having with their audience. At the V&A, they inscribe a “compact space” within an expansive courtyard by creating a wall that is itself a home. Their Utsav House is a compaction of landscape itself, capturing space within a rectangular composition of walls. Making walls is an abiding interest and creative preoccupation in Studio Mumbai’s work. The wall both evokes the primordial act of marking space, with a staff or a line, and also supports the spatial composition that originates from these lines, passes through them and rests against them.

In the installation at the V&A, the classical Cast Courts are inscribed with a wall of Mumbai’s urban space. In doing this, Studio Mumbai have transformed the vocabulary of form – itself somewhat colonised by rationalism – into a radical affi rmation of how space is produced, how materiality and use defi ne an economics and a culture of living. It’s as though Studio Mumbai is getting right into those larger-than-life classical artefacts and revealing that each occupies, produces, and is space. To mark the ground of the V&A, named after the defi ning rulers of the British Empire, with a gesture of Mumbai (Bombay), as it became after the British departure, is to construct a deep structure that converts the architectural image into a work of sculpture.

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Studio Mumbai’s ‘in-between’ architecture derives from their sustained interest in designing serene and comfortable spaces, to “examine notions of refuge and retreat” through architectonics. Each individual is the centre of an emotional need for privacy and solitude, and architecture provides a solution to those needs, both for the family of eight residing in their interstitial wall in the V&A, as well as the single owner of the Utsav House, seeking a comfortable space for the community of friends and family, and a place to view the landscape and myriad skies.

It is natural that the fi rst clients for Studio Mumbai were other people who were also seeking a refuge from Mumbai and had cast anchor in the Alibagh area, where most of their design-build commissions have been located since they started practice in 2005. Alibagh is a happy circumstance created by the geography of the Greater Mumbai region, which has created a protected coastal belt – Mumbai is built on a peninsula agglomeration of islands and reclaimed seabed – located a stone’s throw from the southernmost tip of a bustling metropolis. Take a ferry from the British Crown’s famous landing place on Indian soil, the Gateway of India, and in three quarters of an hour you are across the Vashi creek at Mandwa, where a new jetty makes you gently transit to an opposite environment: space, leisurely pace, few vehicles and the sound of a sea breeze in the trees.

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It is to reach this space, this place for inhabitation, that the owner of the Utsav House regularly journeys across the Vashi Creek, often with friends and family. For him, the house is quite literally born from an act of inscription. Having discovered through close life experiences that the science of Vastu Shastra1 does indeed have some bearing on his life, he insisted to his architect that the building and its parts must be oriented correctly to the land. Recently, unhappy with the way that the driveway to approach the house turned anti-clockwise, he acquired an additional acre of land on the north-east corner of the site to build a new clockwise approach to the house. This decisiveness of the client in dealing with the vastu and the accommodating design philosophy of the architect, free of dogma yet anchored, has done the house good. The dialogue between client and architect is reflected even in the choosing of a name for the house: Vastu – literally, thing, edifice – and Utsav – celebration.

And the house is a veritable celebration, a vindication of the value that society attaches to communion with the natural world. At every nook and corner of the house, there is the inescapable presence of nature. The air flows easily through each and every space; the light filters into every space through a variety of openings and coverings, falling screen here, a slatted window there, and a louvre elsewhere. Rainwater is calmly directed off the master bedroom terrace into a trough above the living room, cascading down into a fishpond through a hole punched through the roof slab. Brimming with crystal clear water, the swimming pool inspires the act of reflection – in addition to good old-fashioned fun. The sounds of water add a sparkling freshness to the home environment, just as the play of light adds variety and beauty. Trees and shrubs occupy the horizon in all directions, at times against a background of stone masonry, at others through the gaps in the walls where the interior spaces flow out into the landscape.

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The distinctly Miesian play of wall planes is expansive enough to meet the need for escape, yet contains the home like a fortress, rooted to the site and surroundings. The built form, a carefully designed composition of rooms and open spaces, is designed to serve up the experience of a home, with the most significant emphasis on materials. The meticulously cut stone work, the tekton at his elemental best, the lengths of natural wood, the reinforced concrete, used only where justified, the signature cement floors… are all executed to achieve what architect Christopher Alexander called “the quality that has no name”. The celebration is that masterful play of forms in light that excited all modern architects, the house as a machine for (eco-sensitive) living.

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Perhaps the vital condition for modern architecture is that it should be original, a sum of collective experiences, but never constrained by history; respectful of the site, but transcending its limits. Studio Mumbai knows its modernism well. In fact, it personifies a recurring fact: that a new architecture takes root in critical practice, the architect pursuing a truth that is both personal as well as social. These architects, masons, carpenters and all – Studio Mumbai – have created a value chain that begins with good design and results in sustainable shelters, in satisfied clients and, maybe, a better reputation for that muchmaligned modernism.

Studio Mumbai
studiomumbai.com

Photography: Helen Binet
helenebinet.com