There are many factors that make the Rais’ weekend home unique: the material used, the landscaping and the way in which spaces have been delineated.
For those used to ‘formula buildings’, the textures and tones of this house speak a refreshing new language. Developing a second home outside city limits is a trend that has caught on, especially in the metros. For such people, inevitably caught up in the rush and tumble of daily routine, the weekend home is a special refuge, and an exercise completed after much effort and planning. Raghu and Gurmeet Rai have built their weekend home after much deliberation, having sought out, supervised and even trained workers to work with traditional materials.
For Gurmeet, a conservation architect, the whole process of having this house constructed was also an exercise in experimentation. A staunch believer in traditional wisdom, Gurmeet feels that “we have lost a lot of traditional knowledge due to lack of proper documentation. Moreover, in recent years, all the attention has been focused on new material such as glass and steel. As a result, the production techniques relating to traditional material and people who can render these are hard to find.”
Located in Balia Was village, on the outskirts of Delhi, a little off the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway, the six-acre farmland was landscaped long before construction started. Raghu Rai had set about translating his dream in a very thorough way. Even through the summer heat, he spent a lot of time on the site to make sure that the landscaping would turn out just right. The present profusion of foliage tells a completely different story from the rocky ravines that existed earlier, though the essential character of the land remains.
A stone bridge over a huge lotus pond is a fitting preamble and the landscape sets the perfect mood. The house itself is set atop a hillock, and the varying levels of elevation give it a fairytale character.
For Raghu, the landscaping is a natural response to the land. An inveterate traveller, he brought plants from all parts of the world and then created suitable spots in which to nurture all of them. Spread over the six acres are a variety of fruit and flowering trees and shrubs—chinars coexist with cacti, date palms with peach trees. Interspersed among natural rocky outcrops are stone steps and islands of random seating, and washing over the whole is music through channel speakers.
Centuries of wisdom found in older techniques, material, spatial planning and openings—that has been close to Gurmeet’s heart as a conservationist—has found expression in a different context here. The whole house has been built with stone from nearby quarries, and the lime mortar used in the construction was prepared the traditional way. In this process, lime lumps are flaked and mixed with sand and lime ash. These are then run through a mill till the desired consistency is reached, collected and stacked. If kept wet, the mortar can be stored for two-three weeks. “Lime mortar is not only environment-friendly compared to cement mortar, it gets stronger as it ages, which explains the longevity of our old monuments ,” says Gurmeet. On evaluation, the property was found to be located in seismic zone four, and this meant that the plinth beam and the roof had to be constructed in cement and steel. “These and a few other recent reinforcements are the only instances where we have used cement,” says Raghu.
The doors and windows are spanned by arches framed with stone. This has not only reduced the cost but also taken care of the termite problem.
Finishes, too, have been kept natural, with lime plaster on the walls, coated with lime wash (natural stone pigments have been used to add colour to the lime wash).
The three-tiered plan is punctuated by three courtyards. There is the ‘public’ courtyard, just as one enters the house. A Jain temple door rescued from a 700-year-old temple nearby, defines the entrance. The bedrooms and the dining room open out to another courtyard and this is where the family hangs out. The third is private, attached to the master bedroom and has a water body and stone jaali (grill) through which one can glimpse the garden beyond.
The living room is circular, with a skylight that filters in natural light. The living area is fringed by a verandah, again establishing that constant connect with the outdoors. The house itself is located at the highest spot of the property, and the views from anywhere are a treat.
The bedrooms are on the western side for two reasons, says Gurmeet. “One, for the quality of light that highlights the imagery, of special relevance to Raghu’s world, and second, this is a weekend home in every sense of the word so we tend to sleep late and can do without the morning sunlight. The kitchen faces east and, being the place where the fire burns, draws in all the energy.”
The Rais talk about how the quality of their life and work has changed over the period that they have spent time here. Raghu says he feels that it has enriched his work by adding layer on layer of experience gone through during the process of landscaping and building—“most certainly my newest muse”.
Strengthening the rooted feel, that has been evident in his photographic work, the house is a haven in different ways for all the family members and even the extended family. Says Gurmeet, “From the older generation to the younger ones, everyone can use this space at the same time without getting in each other’s way.”
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