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Matharoo plays off the rough weight and crude force of concrete against the delicate scale of many elements.

The abstraction of the traditional rooftop chhatri (small shelter to enjoy the breeze) on the terraces; the little stubs projecting from the side walls to hold the ceiling fans in the living room; the slender frame of the square cut-out in a screening wall in the living room—all these are ready examples.

The commitment to delicacy shows Matharoo’s sense of balance between intimacy and expansiveness in interior space. He keeps the total height of the building lower than normal, placing rooms on the upper floor only over areas such as a porch, passageway or toilet, which are themselves lower than other living spaces on the ground floor.

Matharoo deftly juxtaposes spaces of contrasting heights to simultaneously heighten the bigness of tall spaces and the intimacy of the short ones.

Light as an ally

The design challenge Matharoo seems to have set up for himself is of moulding the sombre weight of exposed concrete to the requirement of cheer and warmth natural to a house. Light is a crucial ally in this task.

Matharoo says: “Concrete takes light well. White is too stark. The grey of concrete records the changing colour of the light, but does not itself come hard at you, the way white does." Concrete’s ponderousness requires the architect to consider how it should receive and reflect sunlight. Matharoo sets up interesting play-offs between the two.

At times, the light washing down a wall reveals the sensuous imperfections that remain after the process of casting concrete on the walls. At others, the concrete acts like a dampening reflector that takes away the sting of the direct Ahmedabad sun, leaving only a strong upward glow.

Admitting light indirectly into the house makes climatic sense, as in the bedroom pictured below. Moreover, the concrete walls are also arranged so as to shade each other particularly from the south and east, so that they absorb less heat. The free ventilation of the plan also helps reduce the intensity of the heat.

Two views of the living-cum-dining area

The 4,400 sq. ft house, completed in 2006, is what its architect calls an “open house". It has a bedroom, living spaces, kitchen and dining areas on the ground floor that open into enclosed courtyards. The first floor houses two bedrooms and a family lounge.

“The house is designed to remain open to the outdoor spaces of the courtyards", says Matharoo. “It needs some effort to close the house off from these." Indeed, the living-cumdining room, open on either side to walled courtyards, is refreshingly like a breezeway with sofas. On one side, aluminium-framed, glass sliding doors lead to the courtyard through a veranda.

On the other, it appears to continue into the courtyard without an intervening door. There is a door, of course, but it is not set into the wall, as one expects. Rather, the entire wall itself is a double door.

“In another project, we had built an openable entrance gate of concrete," says Matharoo. “Here, we decided to take that idea forward and turn the concrete wall itself...into a door." Turned into a deep, hollow frame with windows above and display space below, the wall is a dramatic conversation piece after it is discovered. Getting well-made concrete is headache enough. How much more difficult must it be to make it move? The concrete door displays Matharoo’s passion for all things mechanical, as well as the centrality of teamwork in meeting unusual challenges. The moving door—mounted on a customized, precision cast pivot—was the result of the combined expertise of Matharoo, his structural engineer father R.S. Matharoo and engineering adviser, Prof. M.C. Gajjar.

Breaking with tradition: The Patel house does not look like the residence of a relatively traditional family which it actually is. One gets the sense of a possible culture gap between the lifestyle of the family, particularly the women, and the values embedded in the design. Interestingly, Matharoo believes that the openness of the plan has allowed the family to live the outdoor life that its earlier homes did not allow. He also finds that the decision to bring the kitchen into the living space (with only a cabinet partition to screen it) has let the women back into the thick of social activity in the house. If this is indeed true, the house may have achieved something of greater significance than its unusual sculptural and mechanical ambitions.

(Photographs: Joginder Singh)

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