From the outside, the Nairs’ home in a quiet Gurgaon avenue looks like an amalgamation of materials and styles. Which it is. But as you enter, it’s the scale of its central volume that commands attention. Architect Rajeev Agarwal’s design started out as an experiment to create a building that would generate and sustain a unified sense of space. To achieve this, he introduced a conical volume which runs through the three levels of the house.
“Usually, on an urban site or in a row house, the sense of space starts fragmenting or gets broken up into the rooms as one enters. So, my idea here was to have a central volume that would unify all the ‘fragments’,” says Agarwal.
Though this central space wasn’t meant to be a contemporary rendition of the traditional courtyard, he admits that courtyards in traditional design served a definite purpose and to that extent, the “drum”, as he calls it, has turned out to be a design parallel.
Anoo Nair, who after two decades of corporate life has turned to photography, and Nilu, an IT consultant, wanted a house that required minimum maintenance, a design that would reflect individuality, and be built, as far as possible, with natural materials. Most of this has been achieved.
There are many striking things about the design, but the singular aspect really is this inverted conical space that seems to pierce through the whole plan. This space can be experienced differently at each of the three levels.
At the ground or the entrance level, it seems to be a combination of a courtyard and an atrium, and this effect is further accentuated by the design of the staircase. The staircase treads are made of steel and wood and are fixed to the wall at one end while the other side is suspended by tensile steel cables.
Throughout the house, a limited palette in terms of colours and accessories creates a minimal, uncluttered look.
All the bedrooms have bay windows with curtain glazing. Covering two levels and juxtaposed with timber columns from Kerala and a timber deck, the glazing imparts a unique look, especially to the façade.
The three levels of the house—basement, ground and first floor—appear to be a continuum because of the conical gradation that runs through. And while it looks visually interesting, the “how” of this drum is equally intriguing.
“I made a grid plan as I would have for a regular house and then pierced the centre with a cone,” says Agarwal.
But the real challenge, besides the structural innovations that it required, was to keep the space as a dynamic and changing entity.
Given its overpowering presence, the details of the wall angles, textures, colours and finishes were crucial. Getting the perfect angle was the acid test. “Too little would have been meaningless and too much would seem contrived,” says Anoo. It wasn’t easy and was redone twice.
Crediting the Nairs’ patience and fortitude to keep the experimentation going, Agarwal says he owes a lot to their interest and enthusiasm, which sparked off the synergy.
Lighting and its effective control have been done successfully. At the top of the conical space, a ribbon of glass bricks allows in a controlled amount of natural light, and keeps it adequately lit during the day. At night, cold cathode lighting concealed in a trough simulates the diffused daylight. Together with the angle of the walls and the stairs leading in two directions, this transitional space also acts as a foil to all other adjacent spaces, as they all look out and open on to it.
All across the house, whether in the colours used, textures or materials, it is a combination of two things: At the ground level, which has the public areas and a guest room, exposed brickwork contrasts with white terrazzo flooring, walls are in a combination of exposed brick and fine plaster, and the exterior finishes are a combination of Gwalior sandstone and polymer-based wall finish made of crushed natural stone.
The layout moves in a semicircular pattern around the conical circumference of the drum: The living room is segregated from the family lounge by a differential floor level connecting to the bar and from there to the dining room and finally to the kitchen.
Looking over the bar counter and through the view framed by Kerala pillars, the outer wall face of the drum holds niches for knick-knacks as well as books. The service entrance and utility areas have been neatly tucked away along a corridor that leads to the backyard. An interesting and imposing wooden screen keeps the generator unit out of view, leaving free the rest of the lush grassy patch.
The master bedroom and study with its luxurious bathroom suite is generously proportioned and, even though the Nairs’ teenage son has been allocated independent recreational space in the basement, he still has a bone to pick with the architect on the size of the bathroom of his bed-cum-study on the first floor.
The walls have been painted white—lighting is kept concealed—and left clean of any fixtures but for Anoo’s photo-artwork, his new-found passion. “No, it wasn’t a latent talent that my corporate career crushed,” he says with a smile, “it happened because the pictures I used to attempt would print so miserable (if they printed at all) that I just had to teach myself to get it right.”
And, seeing what’s on the walls, it’s hard to believe that this is someone who has been into photography for just over two years.
Besides the overall design of the house, what also really stands out is the consistency of detailing, even in areas removed from public view. Whether it is something as mundane as the gaps between the stone slabs on the façade or the gentle curvature of the wooden doors along the circumference, it has all been thought about and executed carefully and comes together harmoniously.
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