A protective cloak wraps around the studio; a security device for an open-air office
Any self-built studio by an architect becomes either an ideas laboratory or an observatory of concerns and tropes governing the practice. Tadao Ando’s Osaka studio comes to mind or, closer to home, Sangath, the architectural studio of Balkrishna Doshi in Ahmedabad. Matharoo Associates once worked from river-facing premises in central Ahmedabad but, after almost 25 years of practice, needed more space. This new building, which Gurjit Singh Matharoo designed, builds on his earlier projects, realising several of his ideas, themes and principles.
Matharoo’s practice came of age fairly early, riding on critical acclaim and recognition (including winning AR House for his House with Balls, AR Jul 2010).
He set up his studio in the 1990s and rose to fame with his first public building (won in competition), the Ashwinikumar Crematorium in Surat. The decade also saw economic liberalisation in India, setting it on a course of high growth and new wealth. From the 1980s there was a prevailing fad for neo-traditional kitsch in many aspects of urban Indian life including architecture, now patronised by a globally aware middle class. Several discerning Indian architects were not immune to its charms. While interest in Modernist architecture was on the wane, minimalism was not yet fashionable.
‘Any self-built studio by an architect becomes either an ideas laboratory or an observatory of concerns and tropes governing the practice’
In such an environment, Matharoo leaned towards the language of High Modernism. Studying architecture in Ahmedabad, home to canonical works by Le Corbusier, Kahn, Doshi and Raje among others no doubt played a role. A more definitive influence was Matharoo’s two years in Locarno as a young trainee where he was inspired by the Swiss Tendenza movement with its simplicity, rationalism and use of materials in their true form – particularly high-quality bare concrete.
Matharoo’s spaces are often function-neutral; a device he commonly uses is a rectilinear clean, well-lit space that can be programmed for a variety of purposes – the living room of the House with Balls or the guest rooms in the Jain Dharamshala or an architect’s studio. He addresses structure (preferring long and narrow to minimise the span) in a way that logically strips down the space to the bare minimum, and then endows it with light and air – a considered economy that drives all his projects. For his new studio and weekend retreat, he moved to the Ahmedabad outskirts.
The location informed the brief and the design emerges from a rational response to the site. A rectilinear block in fair-faced concrete stretches from one end of the site to the other, dividing it in two. The mandatory margin to the north is transformed into a sunken pool that collects rainwater, doubling as a swimming pool. To the south is an open lawn whose visual extent stretches beyond the site. The entry is via an elevated platform on the north-west corner with a seating area in concrete accessed by a curved ramp.
The core of the long narrow building is a double-height studio bookended with ancillary and service spaces on two levels. The basement is for experiments on car design, while the sheltered terrace is an extra activity space used for student workshops. The terrace also accommodates storage and air-conditioning units. The original design had one more storey of studio space – this was scrapped as a better use of budget and space requirements prevailed.
‘Matharoo’s spaces are often function-neutral; a device he commonly uses is a rectilinear clean, well-lit space that can be programmed for a variety of purposes’
The building is constructed of parallel concrete walls, 150mm thick and 6m apart, supporting concrete slabs at different levels. Portions of walls, structurally non-essential, are left as large rectangular openings fitted with sliding glass panels. The studio has regular work spaces with a discussion station in the centre. When inside, there is a feeling of openness and connection to nature on both sides. A wooden stair leads to a narrow ledge on the mezzanine that functions as library. Light is brought in at floor level by lowering the ledge over the glass screens. Low-level seating, when viewed from below, forms a gigantic graphic scale. Another scale, embedded in the concrete edging, is the result of finely crafted formwork imprints.
For Matharoo, the choice of concrete is pragmatic rather than ideological or aesthetic. The concrete structure doubles up as an enclosure, leaving the rest as openings for innovative fenestration. He believes concrete to be the most economical material in the urban Indian context and, in specifying fair-faced concrete, he ensures better construction as defects can’t be hidden. Not only does this allow the true nature of the material to speak for itself, but it also does away with any need for plaster or flooring.
‘A protective cloak made entirely of galvanised steel is thrown over the building, wrapping around it’
A protective cloak made entirely of galvanised steel is thrown over the building, wrapping around it. Considered in cross section, this creates buffer spaces on longer sides and a terrace. This wrap-around is in three sections: a barrel-shaped roof of corrugated sheeting overhanging the terrace, a curved screen of fixed louvres on the north – shielding the pool and casting dappled sunlight on the water – and lastly, screens on the south side, top-hung by scissor brackets and equipped with moving mechanisms that work with counterweights, making them swing upwards to desired levels: when open, the studio space connects with the open lawn; when fully closed, the screens stay vertical and secure the building.
This lattice-like cloak appears quirky and alien-like from the outside. However, it works well in tropical heat and as a securing device for a largely open building. Inside, it not only creates comfortable conditions but also a visual delight due to the quality of diffuse light and its link with the nature outside.
‘Certain ideas are examined repeatedly, certain practices are preferred, pared down, removing all that can be removed’
Matharoo revels in the intricacies of moving parts. He has a mechanical bent of mind and a well-honed sense of structure.
No doubt, growing up with a father who was a structural engineer has been a constant presence. In his practice, there is always continuing research and in-house development of working details, the fabrication of moving parts and innovative hardware. He is a constant tinkerer. Here too, the screens, moving or fixed, are a feat of complex fabrication in galvanised steel. They allow constantly changing light to animate spaces on either side of the studio. It is here, in the residual spaces, that the delight of the building can be experienced.
The House with Balls is referenced in the long, rectilinear column-free core with parallel concrete walls, and top-hung shutters that work with counterweights. Mechanics are combined with a deadpan humour in his design of the toilet, for here – using a visual pun – it is the unit that slides open, pivoting around the drainpipe, while the door remains fixed. Elsewhere his quirks can be seen in doors going nowhere or lighting fixtures embedded on the soffit of the slabs or extremely minimal frames on which thin glass shutters slide.
Matharoo’s own building is the best space to reflect on his architectural worldview. Certain ideas are examined repeatedly, certain practices are preferred, pared down, removing all that can be removed. There is no embellishment; even the furniture follows this frugality. There is a conscious curtailment of core spaces to minimise air conditioning. He challenges conventional energy myths by minimising the use of resources, focusing on structural efficiency, high serviceability, low maintenance and staying true to nature.
Matharoo Associates’ Studio
Architect: Matharoo Associates
Structural engineer: RS Matharoo (principal), Hitesh Rathi
Landscape architect: Vagish Naganur, Bengaluru
Photographs: Edmund Sumner