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House With Balls by Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India

Built around four giant fish tanks, Matharoo Associates produce a bespoke concrete house, on a budget. Photography by Edmund Sumner

When a client commissions a house, all their foibles and fantasies invariably feed into it. Rarely, however, can client predilections have had such an impact on the architectural outcome as here in Ahmedabad. A house built around four giant fish tanks? Now that’s seriously bespoke. The client specialises in breeding and selling tropical fish. He owns a shop in town, but really does take his work home with him and commissioned Matharoo Associates to design this house just outside the city to serve not only as a weekend retreat, but also as a place to breed and observe fish.

‘The main living space, a long, low volume, is flanked by four 9,000-litre tanks that form a magical, cooling pool at the heart of the dwelling’

Landscaped with pink water lilies, this shimmering body of water has a truly surreal quality, its depths animated by the darting specks of gold and black fish.

This might all seem like a rich man’s conceit, but it’s actually executed on the most parsimonious of budgets: the architects quote a figure of US$ 100 (£61) per m². Concrete, which is a cheap and easily executed building technology, is the principal material and the pours have a suitably artisanal quality (echoes of Corb and Kahn in the subcontinent). Gurjit Singh Matharoo’s previous projects include a crematorium (AR December 2003) and a blood bank (AR December 2005), and this house, with its raw concrete walls and Stygian interiors bears a strong family resemblance. In Matharoo’s hands, concrete, the universal material, becomes intimate and particular, its rough surfaces dramatically washed with light.

Saving on the need to excavate extensive foundations, the house is partly bunkered into the site. Projecting concrete wall planes reach out to the street to funnel you into the entrance, around which the main bedroom, bathrooms and a caretaker’s suite are neatly compacted. The bedroom overlooks the pool’s length, lulling visitors into slumber. From here, the space flares and extends into a long living room, enclosed by the glass fish tanks on one side and a garden on the other. Continuous horizontal slots are carved into both walls, but there is no glazing. Instead, a system of pressed galvanised steel shutters can be adjusted to let in light and air, transforming the entire character of the space.

‘Appropriated from agricultural buildings (another economy), the shutters are operated by a system of wire pulleys counterweighted with concrete balls that gently sway in the breeze like heavy Christmas baubles’

The spherical counterweights were specially cast and their random vertical movements give the facades the feel of a giant abacus whirring out of control. On the garden side, the window slot is expressed as a deep frame. This assumes many functions: as a garden seat, as steps for children to climb on, or as a bar and serving counter to entertain guests. It also offers protection from the weather and repels rats and snakes.

As well as its admirable economy, the house is underscored by an inventive environmental agenda. Underneath a grassy knoll in the garden is a bio-gas plant (fuelled by cow dung) and storage for 50,000 litres of rainwater. On the non-garden side, a rooftop terrace is accessible from a gentle slope that cradles and bunkers the house. Running directly above the living space, the terrace is like an open-air room and from here, visitors can survey the pool and the garden. ‘The weekenders enjoy the feeling of floating over a bed of lily petals while being weighed down by the baubles,’ says Matharoo. With such an extraordinary brief and client it would be hard not to make something of it, but Matharoo mixes playfulness and sensuousness in a highly thoughtful response to place and programme.

Architect Matharoo Associates, Ahmedabad, India
Project team Gurjit Singh Matharoo, Hardik Pandit
Structural engineer Rajendra Singh Matharoo
Contractor Shriram Builders

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