When architect Pankaj Vir Gupta talks about trying to simplify the diagram of life, I immediately understand what he’s talking about. It’s an overcast day, yet light seems to fill the living room of his home in New Delhi’s Asian Games Village, which he shares with wife and work partner Christine Mueller, also an architect, and son Param.
A combination of circumstances, including the desire to live and work in a charged environment, brought them back from the US to India. The two had studied architecture and worked for several years there, setting up their practice, vir.mueller architects, in Boston in 2003.
Architect Vir Gupta on five things to keep in mind when renovating.
/Content/Videos/2008-07-10/0907 Vir Gupta for web_MINT_TV.flv
The decision to return home was a big one, and not easy. Summer holidays at home are one thing, relocation in terms of life and work, quite another. But the challenge excited them, as did the prospect of the new environment in which they realized they could do work that they would both enjoy and find fulfilling.
One of the greenest enclaves in New Delhi, the broad avenues inside the Asian Games Village complex belie the unremarkable facades that characterize the original buildings, built for the participants of the Asian Games in 1982.
Once the Games ended, the complex took on another, somewhat impractical life, as housing for government officials and guest houses and residences for public sector undertakings. And so, more than 25 years later, there are few private owners, accounting for the lack of remodelling and reinvention—Vir Gupta likes to think that his house and a few others could become prototypes for the neighbourhood, encouraging others to think creatively.
In restoring and re-energizing the nearly 1,700 sq. ft space, they had to almost totally reconfigure what existed (see before and after plans), but kept the new plan true to the major structural walls of the old space; in a few cases, new steel reinforcing beams had to be inserted. As Mueller says, “One of the most challenging experiences was being architect, client and contractor—all together.”
The old living room has given way to a large, airy kitchen—“We wanted a convivial kitchen with lots of space, where our friends could stand around with a glass of wine while we cooked.” The living-dining area is dominated by large windows on the south-facing side, where a solid wall once was, and a glass door on the same side leads to a small, open to the sky courtyard (the previous owners had had it covered up) on one side and an organic garden (that provides everything from lettuce and celery to mint, curry leaves and lime) on the other.
Outside the master bedroom, a quadrangular bit of land in the midst of surrounding houses used to be everyone’s junkyard. It has now been cleaned up, new hedges and trees have been planted, and a badminton court that can be used by anyone is in the planning stage.
A simple agenda to “fill the space with light and use as much natural craftsmanship as possible” led to the Rs60 per sq. ft Jaisalmer stone floors, with furniture designed and built by Vir Gupta and Mueller when they were in graduate school (Vir Gupta at Yale and Mueller at Harvard), and also mostly built on site while the reconstruction was going on—“we’ve both always been interested in detailing and found that in India it’s easy and affordable to find someone to translate and construct our ideas for us”. An irregularly shaped piece of wood forms an interesting dining table and two old doors that “we found at a harbour shop in Cochin” are casually propped up in the entrance lobby, works of art awaiting a return to their original function.
Vir Gupta talks about “an integrity of material and craftsmanship in the art of making architecture”. These are qualities that he and Mueller have tried to bring to the varied body of work they have done so far, ranging from a residence on the Bay of Bengal coast and a library for collectors of Persian manuscripts in Massachusetts, to community toilets in Delwara, Rajasthan.
In their own home, the simple and clean spaces are, on a smaller scale, a reflection of what they believe in. After six years of living and practising architecture together, their aesthetic sensibilities seem pretty closely aligned. “We wanted our home to reflect the warmth of our books, our art, our love of nature,” says Vir Gupta.
How do architects build their own homes? How do they apply their learning, filter from their varied experiences, translate their dreams? Because a home is, at the end of the day, a coming together of all this. Do they look back and say, “If I had to do it again, I would not do it any differently?”
But if they feel, as Vir Gupta says, that the life lived in it is both “privilege and pleasure”—affording him and Mueller, among other things, a 10-minute walking commute to work and the possibility of getting back home for a quick lunch with their son—then one must conclude that the exercise has been worth it.
1. The living room. Sofas by Cassina, lamp by Artemide, wood stove by Morso, steel and leather lounge chairs by Max Gottschalk, mahogany and steamed beech coffee tables by vir.mueller architects.
2. The dining area. Oil on canvas by Jangad Singh Shyam, woodcut print by Josef Albers, steamed beech and steel dining table and chairs by vir.mueller architects, powder-coated steel pipe sculptures by vir.mueller architects.
3. The study is small but the large glass windows create an illusion.
4. The new kitchen, which was once the living room.
(Photographs: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)