Throughout history, man has flirted with light as a conjunct to architecture in his dwellings. With all its positive associations, the resonance of light in the imagery of design has been pervasive. Thinking out of the box, Sangeeta Merchant and Sanjeev Panjabi of SPASM Design have controlled light with a tight rein, treading that fine line between too little and too much.
“Our first visit to the site was during the monsoons. Since speed boats were not plying due to the rough seas, we had to drive from Mumbai to Alibaug. Brick kilns dotting the landscape were recurrent images which made a lasting impression on us. When the lady of the house told us that she likes the texture of exposed brick, it was like a serendipitious opportunity to put to use the inspiration stemming from the brick kilns,” says Sanjeev.
Tamarind and Mango trees, with the odd Champa and Vad made up the grove at the front of the site. Part of the plot was four feet lower and was an unkempt paddy field at the rear, while an asphalt road lay at the front. Nestled amidst the aforementioned canopy of trees, sits the 8934 sq. ft. house. Not a single tree was cut in order to build the home. “In fact, we planted 200 more,” says Sangeeta. “Since several of them have been worked into the design, the process was rather experiential. In addition to being the architects, we were also the contractors, so the work was pretty site intensive.” The pool echoes the shape of the sun patch between the trees, so for most of the day it is a cheerful spot…an oasis, its organic form evoking a watering hole with a well attached to it.
“We were clear that we didn’t want to create a Spanish Hacienda with a red roof and white walls, which is what several other homes seemed to be like,” says Sanjeev. The house has a linear form and is “one ROOM thick,” he adds. Composed of two wings, the guest wing houses three bedrooms, while three more are reserved for the family. The thermal mass of the house ensures that it takes long to heat and long to cool, resulting in interiors which are cool during the day and warm at night. A generous verandah encourages outdoor occupation.
Utilising local materials reduced the carbon footprint – black cudappah flows through the interior on the floor, while all the wood is salvaged from old homes. No new logging was used in this design. “During the three and a half years that the construction was going on, all the human resource was hired from neighbouring areas and disbanded when the project was complete. The owners even retained three of the workers on their full time staff, benefiting from the familiarity which these employees had with the home, since they had worked to build it,” says Sanjeev. “Sustainability has a different role in India – it is not about using technology to get ratings.”
The quality of natural light in the home is free of glare, with the dark cudappah providing a sense of cooling. Every room is cut on two sides with openings, supporting easy cross ventilation and ingress of just the right amount of light. Country houses have peculiarly dark interiors, offering a respite from the sun-scorched outdoors. Strategically positioned jalis built within the brick facilitate the passage of both light and air, simultaneously creating a beautiful, understated geometry. The sunlight is also softened by pergolas. But at night, the rooms begin to glow and cast their light out onto the verandah.
In the living room, the ceiling appears to levitate because of the glass between the walls and the roof, with thin metal pins being used for support. Consequently, light bounces from the ceiling in a soft glow, whether it is day or night. Additionally, at night, the garden outside is lit and the foliage of the trees acts like a lampshade, casting light within the home.
Over the dining table, two Charisma pendant lights by Louis Poulsen hold sway. The fixture emits a downward directed light, with the two opal shades distributing a small amount of light laterally, illuminating the fixture itself through a clear acrylic layer.
There are very few recessed luminaires in the ceiling, further illumination being provided by the Kundalini floor lamp by Kyudo in the living room. Designed by the German design duo of Hansandfranzt and made in Italy, this stately floor lamp with a diffuser mounted on an adjustable sliding track allows for flexible lighting. It has a glossy varnished extruded aluminium structure, and a low voltage LED strip. Energy efficient, its semi-circular profile gives it a futuristic look. In the frugally detailed bedrooms, the dimmable tubes by Osram cast a golden hue.
The outdoor stone lamps are Sahara 2 and Sahara 4 by Gandia Blasco, Spain. These plant pots are characterised by their rounded and organic shape and are made from fully recyclable and durable plastic, with interior lighting. Sahara was inspired by the soft and uniform shapes of the dunes in the Sahara, reinterpreting the voluminous shapes of the desert landscape.
Says Sanjeev: “In the tropics, we have a unique light. One which is the giver of form, texture, feel and atmosphere. One which calibrates the passage of time, one which through depth of shadows and variances along surfaces, imparts a sense of joy. One which is unforgiving at zenith, making flat faces seem like pockmarked skin. And which an hour before sunset, turns everything golden and precious. Understanding this phenomenon is perhaps most, difficult, intuitive, personal and rewarding!
“The phenomenon of light, celebrates architecture as life, as experience, at once as tangible and ephemeral. At the Brick Kiln House, we needed to tame the light, adjust it through pergolas, courts, wall thicknesses, jalis, clerestories, louvres and dark floors. Each device intended to refocus and fine tune its purpose to work in tandem with the larger picture. The reflection of this light off paint, brick, plaster, stone, wood, glass, water and greenery is always special. During the monsoons, the iridescent moss picks up this light on odd afternoons and makes the edges of the kiln body luminescent! We wonder how much of it is our work, and what magic does light perform itself....
“Then bent over the drawings, we begin thinking about the absence of light post sunset. How does one make the hours up to sunrise as enthralling? Kahn, Corbusier, Correa, used sharp shadows, bold forms, and zenithal, light to great effect. Bawa, however harnessed tropical light in more latent fashion, every space being imbued with reflected light from sky courts, thin as slivers, capturing every nuance of tropical light, almost cinematographic in the way each time light is coaxed into the space.”
Since light has both psychological and physiological effects on people it is important to get it right. Light, after all, is the dancing partner of architecture. And of course, shadows, with all the drama they engender, are free.