As a riposte to the typical Indian luxury home, this brickwork house in Delhi’s Defence Colony sensitively reworks historic precedents and explores a poetic synthesis of weight and light
The Defence Colony neighbourhood in Delhi was laid out in the late 1940s. It was part of the city’s post-independence professional zoning planning policy, and as its name suggests was originally built to provide new homes for serving and retired officers from the Indian army, navy and air defence forces.
With fronts connected along a street and backs served by a narrow lane, the original two and three storey homes created a civilised suburban enclave. Pankaj Vir Gupta, architect of this new house, recalls it as a ‘quiet and sedate neighbourhood, very well located in South Central Delhi’.
That remained the case until the economic boom of the last two decades. Since then, with land values rocketing, the neighbourhood has been transformed. Many of the original properties have been demolished to make way for speculative apartment blocks aimed at young professionals, ex-pats, and an emerging generation of affluent middle-class families.
The client for this house moved here in the late 1980s during a property recession. Having benefited from being in the right place at the right time, they asked Vir Mueller Architects to maximise the permitted development on the site. The brief was to provide two homes in one, allowing their two young children to inherit half each in years to come.
‘Our clients didn’t really know what they wanted us to build,’ recalled Gupta, who established his 10-strong Delhi based firm with partner Christine Mueller in 2003. ‘They said they wanted something contemporary, but then showed us images of typically aspirational but nondescript luxury homes.’
The architects spent six months tactfully persuading the client that an alternative, more authentic response could be achieved. Fortunately they responded positively, understanding the logic and integrity that underpins the work of this highly motivated emerging practice.
In a cityscape increasingly disfigured by fake, showy and imported motifs, Vir Mueller’s approach is based on reinterpreting historic and urban precedents. Investigating the nature of place, they mine references from the fragments of the 15th-century Islamic medieval architecture that anchor the landscape of Delhi.
Load-bearing brick is employed to orchestrate a distinct composition of figures, forms and screens that, unlike the more defensive neighbouring properties, engage more directly with the streetscape. This alludes to the traditional Indian notion of the inhabitants of the house also being inhabitants of the street.
Detail of the brockwork, which is both structure and skin, yet not a single brick was cut during the construction of the house
The use of a single material is not only efficient in terms of site time and expertise, but brick is also robust enough to stand up to Delhi’s seismic activity. ‘But because much of the skill had vanished in the mid 1970s through the exodus of labour to the Gulf, we had to re-learn and translate the traditions of exposed brick construction’, says Gupta. ‘Yet this was very rewarding, as we set ourselves the challenge that not one brick would be cut. We knew we could build this house with 287,000 bricks; we literally had the number of bricks written down. So you can do a six storey building and be that precise.’
Initially unconvinced, the client expected the brickwork to be purely structural, asking the architect if they could really do without the steel, or glass, or marble of their neighbours. But as Gupta recalls, the breakthrough came when the brick screens were laid out on the balconies. Suddenly a thick, massive material was transformed into an effervescent and lacy veil. ‘The building started convincing them of its identity almost on its own,’ says Gupta, ‘which for us was a complete revelation.’
Next came the issue of the windows, with the client expecting ‘top quality UPVC from China’, but once again the architect proved persuasive, convincing them that sections of home-grown milled and oiled teak were far superior.
Through this and other subtle decisions, such as the specification of polished marble on the floor – ‘a catalyst of effervescence’ – that filters light deeper into the plan, Vir Mueller Architects has produced a memorable hand-made house that stands on its own terms in an increasingly eclectic crowd of contemporary villas. They join practices like Studio Mumbai, Spa Design and Sameep Padora in driving a truly humane and sustainable architectural agenda (AR September 2010) that does not discard but actively depends on India’s centuries-old craft traditions.
Architect: Vir Mueller Architects
Lighting: Louis Poulsen, Lucifer, Erco, DECON, Philips
Bathroom fittings: Kohler, Hansgrohe
Ironmongery: Dorset, Häfele, Hettich
Solar water heater: Solarhart
Wire-cut bricks: Jindal Bricks
Photographs: Andre J. Fanthome