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Square Dance: Studios 18 in Rajasthan by Sanjay Puri Architects

AR Housing 2016 finaist: Spacious workers’ housing in a barren landscape explores the play of light from strategically placed openings

Studios 18 is a visually arresting group of 18 residential apartments on an arid site in Ras, a village 200km south-west of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. Designed by Sanjay Puri Architects, this sumptuously designed housing is in the middle of a bare rural landscape where villages with minimum amenities are scattered far and wide.

Ras is a harsh region in terms of weather, where temperatures can easily exceed 40 degrees Celsius in summer. But the place is endowed with abundant natural resources such as marble, limestone and other minerals, which have attracted cement manufacturers among other industries.

Studios 18 is part of the housing project for Shree Cement, one of the largest cement manufacturers in North India. Along with the industrial unit, which is completed, the company is also building a residential complex to accommodate its employees. Spread over 36 acres, the housing facility, when finished, will accommodate studio apartments for guests, hostel blocks for trainees, interns and young recruits, and apartments for employees with families. The 18 studio-dwelling units and hostels are already completed.

Provision of housing for industrial workers has a long history in India. In the post-independence period, particularly the three decades starting from 1951, the central and state governments paid attention and invested in housing. The state planned and provided support for building shelter for industrial workers, economically weaker sections, slum dwellers and urban migrants. The state also set up large industries and constructed townships to accompany it. It viewed these greenfield projects as a means to manage the urbanisation ushered in by industrialisation. Private companies followed suit. For them, it was necessary to attract and serve the captive industrial workforce. From the 1980s, after the state had withdrawn from the housing sector, private industries also stopped providing housing for their workers. Only a few industries, such as the heavy and harsh ones – for example cement manufacturers and petroleum industries – which are remote from cities, continue to build residences for their employees. Many of the pioneers of Indian modern architecture worked extensively on housing projects and saw them not only as a progressive site for new modern ideas but also as an exploration of formal innovations. However, in the last few years there have been hardly any notable housing projects in India.

Studios 18 is a sumptuously designed housing is in the middle of a bare rural landscape where villages with minimum amenities are scattered far and wide

Studios 18, compared with earlier industrial housing projects, is generous and plush. Two simple design moves distinguish it. One, the insulated residential blocks are located at various levels to take advantage of the contoured site. Two, the blocks are interconnected by an all-weather zigzagging corridor. This enables the units to be dispersed and yet to remain connected. Equally important, it creates potential spaces between the blocks and helps the design to break away from the dull and nondescript repetition of dwelling units often witnessed in the public sector townships.

Currently, the 18 residential apartments, spread over six blocks and three floors, are partially occupied. The first two storeys have three-bedroom units of about 150m2 each and the upper floor has two-bedroom units of about 140m2 each. By any standard, the sizes of the studio apartments are luxurious. Each unit has a large living space that opens onto a terrace. Bigger window openings are recessed, and the terraces are partly shaded. The blocks are interspersed with courtyards and landscaped open areas. The corridor connecting these blocks works like an internal street. It is punctuated by square openings that are carefully carelessly laid out, creating delightful light patterns and acting as view windows. Externally, these perforated corridors contrast with the solid walls of the residential blocks and make for an attractive composition.

Colours enliven the project. ‘It is an integral parameter in differentiating volumes as well as identifying circulation spaces while alluding to the colours of the region,’ remarks Sanjay Puri. Bright colours, apart from helping the building stand out of the arid landscape, serve climatic reasons. Sanjay Puri explains that: ‘lighter hues on external walls reflect heat off the surfaces, and darker tones indoors create a cooler feel. Together they add impact to the highly “responsive” design solution’.

Together, the design evokes ‘the organic nature of old Indian cities’, claims the architect. This statement should be taken as an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. In traditional Indian cities, the building blocks are carefully packed and, as climatologists would describe, create an ‘urban canyon’ to shade the pedestrian street on the ground and cast shadows on the blocks. This ‘canyon’ is not only a simple climatic tool but also functions as a welcoming social space. Studios 18, which tries to work with the morphology of historic cities, is not particularly innovative. It does not have the required density or the complex layering of spaces that enable social life to extend beyond the dwelling unit. The residences are introverted and function more like typical urban upper-class apartments. The linking corridors, which create the ‘streets’, are neither playful nor enable better use of courtyards and the spaces interspersed between the blocks.

The housing units are not yet fully occupied. A few of the existing residents, mostly young trainees, comfortably glued to their computers, are happy with the lavish and rich interiors. Vitrified tiles, furniture imported from China and compact kitchens with granite tops make up the dwelling unit (the interiors are done by a different design firm). To the guests, after a hard day’s work, the large air-conditioned apartments are comforting. Maybe, when the project is completed and the families arrive, the spaces around the blocks will become animated. Given the limited opportunities that the corridors and layout provide, it would require some ingenuity from future residents to fully exploit the potential of the open spaces around.

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The design has taken care to orient the buildings appropriately. However, given the fact that this region remains hot for most of the year and the dwelling units are extensively air conditioned, the design could have gone beyond use of simple standard 230mm brick walls, recessed windows and colours to reduce heat gain. As buildings and their appliances are among the biggest consumers of energy, investment in predesign and design phase studies on building energy performance is imperative and unavoidable. Innovative passive strategies backed by empirical studies and the creative use of materials could have enhanced the performance. When the recently planted trees grow and shade the buildings, they will be greatly enhanced.

Either driven by greed or weighed down by bureaucracy, housing projects in India are uninspiring vertical towers or a depressing repetition of dreary units. Design has become increasingly disempowered or relegated to a luxury meant to inflate the expensive gated housing projects. Occasionally, as a silver lining, enlightened projects appear such as the Asian Games housing in Delhi by Raj Rewal. They stir up the debate, challenge the status quo and demonstrate that design could balance the competing demand for private and community spaces, comfort and sustainability, financial costs and social benefits. Laurie Baker and others have shown that such qualities are eminently achievable in social housing too. It is in this context that the Studios 18 project has to be viewed and evaluated. It only partially demonstrates how client support and design commitment can combine to enliven a housing environment.

Architect: Sanjay Puri Architects

Design team: Toral Doshi, Kintan Shah

Landscape: Roots Design

Photographs: Raj Lalwani

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