For people looking to own a house in any of our cities today, the options are largely restricted to apartments, and outside city limits, possibly existing (but not very old) bungalows or those to be built on newly developed plots of land. In less urbanized places such as Goa and Kerala, which have had a tradition of fine buildings, there is also the attractive (but never easy) choice—buy an old house and turn it into a new home. Gauri Divan and Vikram Patel, a doctor couple originally from Mumbai, have done just that in Goa.
It probably helped that Divan and Patel are not your usual doctor couple. Patel, a psychiatrist involved in public health research, has founded a public health NGO called Sangath in Goa, and teaches part-time at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Divan, a paediatrician, is also a committed ceramicist.
The couple decided to get their own house after living in rented space for a year, and quickly discovered the complications involved in buying property in Goa, especially if it had to be near an expanse of water. They finally ended up buying an old house—not quite on the river but looking at it from across a narrow road through the trees—just after their son Farai was born.
“There is something to this old house, a special spirit,” says Divan. “Of course, it’s not without inconveniences—you have to live with what you get. At the same time, a new house lacks high volumes, old details and a special character only old houses have.”
The approximately 3,000sq. ft house, built in 1895, was originally a typical Indo-Portuguese building in a village not far from Panjim. Like many old Goan houses, it has a main block of grand proportions which houses the living areas and the bedrooms, and a low extension of service areas and kitchen towards the back. A verandah runs across the entrance wall, and the lobby inside has a formal living space on the left and another living space to the right, now converted into Patel’s study.
As with many renovated old houses in Goa, the service spaces at the back have been converted into bedrooms and a studio. What was a bedroom within the old house, is now the large kitchen-dining space. These inversions reflect the difference in the lifestyles of the original inhabitants of 100 years ago and the new ones.
“Most people are apprehensive about buying old houses,” says Arvind D’Souza, who along with wife Nita was the architect for the project. “We had bought an old house for ourselves that had crumbled up to lintel level—there was no roof left. Having restored that, we were confident about working on this one. Termites had eaten up the roof structure, and much of the floor was broken. The challenge was to keep the intervention minimal, fit a modest budget, and to preserve the spirit of the old house.”
Old and new have been deftly interwoven in architectural elements, such as the ‘closed-box’ of the main house being deftly opened up with a verandah at the back creating its own courtyard. This verandah is the habitable heart of the house, being open to the outdoors but away from the street. Though a new insert, it is an older architectural element. Similarly, the finishes and details too involve a background conversation with local traditions. The windows have traditional shutters of translucent shells fixed into an array of battens, and the flooring is terracotta with Morvi cement-tile borders. Both sets of elements look like they could well have come with the house, which is an understated achievement.
What does it feel like to live in an old house, especially in a village? Divan and Patel say they thoroughly enjoy living and working in this house. Farai doesn’t say much, but does begin to miss his room after a while when away.
There are mismatches, of course, between the culture of inhabiting that this family has brought with it and the one the neighbours have always taken for granted. The modes and rhythms of this family’s life are not always integrated into that of the village. Farai, a single child in a large house of old moods, lacks the companionship only a community of local children can offer. But the comfort and pleasure of that verandah by the courtyard, and seeing the sun and moon rise from the terrace over the master bedroom, are not small things. The urban family breaking away from the city is often in search of nature and the beauty of connectedness with the outdoors, great or intimate. The little contradiction that emerges is between the search for nature and the possibility of community. For this family, the village they are in may be socially further away than Panjim, which is a 15-minute drive away, or other villages where friends reside.
Adaptive reuse, or changing old spaces to fit new purposes, is probably as old as shelter itself. It is probably the easiest eco-sensitive building strategy. When an old house is modified, the waste of existing resources that are a part of the building is minimized. You also use much less quantities of newer materials which are inevitably more energy intensive. You also help conserve, if not preserve, cultural values, even as you propose new ones in step with changing times.
In Divan and Patel’s house, the old street-side verandah speaks of the original inhabitant’s desire for contact with the street. Physically, that verandah has remained, but the new one inside speaks at the same time of the modern family’s need for a private, sociable and open space.
There is also the connection that an old house provides with the past, even if neither the house nor the past is yours. The urban cult of newness can be unsettling after a while. The lived-in look of walls and denims in the city attempts to provide such a connection with a human past, but is self-limiting. The old house is much more truly a lived-in space that can be occupied in new ways, without erasing the old completely. And it comes with stories.
“The guy who used to live here earlier was a bachelor, and a matchmaker. This house had a buzz and people in the village have great memories of parties and events here,” says Divan. Old houses can be haunted with pleasant memories of those who have never lived in it. Could Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space, have been possible to write in the context of a spanking new house, one that did not bear a long accretion of memory?
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