A breath of fresh air

A breath of fresh air

A bit like their governments, people get the houses they deserve. This is the half-joke architects often console themselves with, when yet another client commits design hara-kiri in the face of good advice. But the house designed by architect Dean D’Cruz for the Narayanan family in Goa suggests that the other half of this joke reveals an old truth: Every house reflects the spirit of its occupants.

The two-bedroom, 1,500 sq. ft house on a hillside plot of about 5,500 sq. ft, near Vasco da Gama, cost under Rs12 lakh to build. That is not low cost in the standard sense of the term. But it is low enough for Commander T.R.A. Narayanan and wife Janani to be smiling often. An inexpensive house is fine. But to have one designed by one of the best architects in the country is quite another. As it happens, the Narayanans have got both.

D’Cruz’s polite rejections of bungalow commissions testify to the fact that everyone (except a client) knows that even luxurious villas make little economic sense for a medium-sized design office. But he was intrigued by the Narayanans’ requirement for a house in sync with their lifestyle, on a sloping site, at less than a third of the total cost of a typical urbanite’s weekend house in Goa. His response was a graceful design that hugs the slope of the hill, within the stipulated budget.

Many of the houses designed by D’Cruz, who is greatly influenced by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, have the rough charm that “exposed" construction materials give to buildings. Though unplastered brick or stone and unpainted or unpolished wood are not really “traditional" elements in India, they fit in well with the natural and cultural context of Goa. Of late, D’Cruz has moved towards a more contemporary look, with a balanced contrast between raw and plastered surfaces, a “solid" built mass and apparently “floating" roofs. This design, however, is open-ended in the best possible way. It accommodates the idiosyncrasies of its occupants, the slightly wild greenery beyond the plot, a bit of sky here, and lots of breeze.

The Narayanan house is also unusual in more than one respect. To begin with, it is not a “product" that was completely “finished" in the architect’s office. As the unpainted external walls suggest, it is more a work in progress, as befits a seriously doing-it-themselves family.

Narayanan and Janani run a community newspaper for the town of Vasco da Gama, their older son has just graduated in fine arts and, at 18, the younger son, out of junior college, is a keen origamist with a book on the subject already to his credit. No wonder, then, that busy hands in the Narayanan family have directly shaped many touchable details.

A bathroom door has an inspired take-off on the traditional oyster shell panelling of Goan windows: a cascade of used, overlapping compact discs replace shells to create a dazzling panel. Inside, father and sons have rigged up the basin tap to be operated by turning the accelerator of an old scooter. It looks like nothing in a design magazine. But it works. The water flows and the joke holds.

The design itself is simple. A modest living zone—including a living room contiguous with the open kitchen—occupies the central level. Half a floor up is an unenclosed study-cum-workspace and the boys’ bedroom. Half a floor down from the living space is the master bedroom. The garage is tucked under the children’s room and is directly accessed from the road.

Each space—including the kitchen—opens out onto either a patio or a veranda. The varying elevations somehow come together as one harmonious whole.

The rough woodland spirit of the hillside finds its way into the architecture, too. The veranda railings are in coconut wood, and the woodwork of the garage door under the master bedroom provides a touch of rawness to the geometry of the walls and spaces.

True to the story of this house, the decision to retain the slightly twisting coconut timber lengths just “happened". It was a cheap solution especially welcome near the end of the building process, when funds had started drying up. D’Cruz had originally suggested that the Narayanans explore a railing that incorporated a bit of origami. However, no durable and exciting idea emerged.

Meanwhile, a small entrance pavilion had already been built with coconut wood. The wood looked good, and the old carpenter assured the Narayanans that it would also last. So, it found its way into the veranda railing, was not polished or varnished, just treated with linseed oil, which also deepened its tone subtly. The raw feel of the wood imbues the design with a frontier feel, very much in keeping with the character of the site.

Unusually for people who are not trained engineers, the Narayanans derived great pleasure from the actual building process. This is in no small measure due to their love of doing things as a team.

D’Cruz himself has also been a keen collaborator at all times. Commander Narayanan’s background in logistics would not have hurt. It probably helped the family manage the process with minimal heartburn. It certainly freed them to enjoy the skill and agility of a 60-plus carpenter scampering across the sloping roof.

It has also kept them close to the ground in terms of detail. Janani is particularly happy with the polished kadappa floors: the rice powder kolams she loves to draw stand out beautifully.

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