Rajeev Kathpalia describes the house he built for his family in Ahmedabad as a pavilion opening up to gardens and the sky, even though it appears from the outside to be carved from a massive block with a dramatic cantilever. As an associate of the veteran architect Balkrishna V. Doshi, who assisted Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn when they built in this northern Indian city, Kathpalia seeks to fuse tradition and modernity, in this and other buildings. Cavity walls and a well-insulated roof mitigate the chilly winters and ferociously hot summers. The sunken roof terrace is a traditional feature, providing a cool retreat on summer evenings and a place to indulge in the local sport of kite-flying, as is the basement cistern for storing monsoon rains. But the shuttered concrete outer walls and ceilings, jutting rain spouts and sculptured roof lanterns evoke Corbu’s villas and his Mill Owners’ Building; Kathpalia has even included a Modulor figure in his elevations.
It’s a witty gesture, but Kathpalia is a pragmatist who differs sharply from the French master in emphasizing livability over form-making. The Radhika Villa is named for his wife, an architect who is one of Doshi’s three daughters, and it is shaped by the needs of the couple, their sons, aged 15 and 21, and guests. For all its hard surfaces and sharp corners, the house has a sensuous, informal character. Trees filter the sunlight and soften the raw surfaces with a dappled pattern of light and shade. Within, the light is constantly shifting, charting the movement of sun and clouds, and there is a free flow of space and cross ventilation around the closets that divide the double-height living room from the smaller rooms on both levels. This is an inventive spin on the traditional Rajasthani house in which a single space is divided up with curtains or bamboo roller blinds. Contemporary Indian paintings and sculptures are displayed on ledges. The lanterns capture the cool evening breezes like desert wind towers and vent hot air during the day. Only on still or muggy days at the height of summer is it necessary to close the windows and use the air conditioning. A solar hot water system is in place, and photovoltaic panels will be installed to power the lighting and cooling.
Kathpalia sketched and modeled the house in great detail and reviewed his plans with Doshi as he does on every project. “We had no general contractor and I was quite busy, so the house was often on the back burner,” he recalls. “There were many builders and they did almost everything by hand, realizing my designs in their own way over a period of three years”. The materials and finishes are frugal, sustainable, and low-maintenance. Concrete outer walls and ceilings were cast in planks salvaged from a ship’s pallets, and the rough texture absorbs imperfections by breaking up the light. Ordinary Indian bricks do not weather well, and so these are employed for the inner walls and covered with plaster. The extensive teak paneling was cut on-site from logs, and the left-over pieces were used to mask the steel security bars on the windows. Floors are paved with honey-toned stone from the desert city of Jaisalmer. Kathpalia told the stone setters to imagine that a stream was flowing between the irregular slabs and they created joints from chips of stone and glass marbles. The concrete roof parapets and lanterns are clad in a mosaic of white china. An old lady with thick glasses took the cups and saucers, acquired as factory rejects, and broke them into rounded fragments, which were installed by an eight-man team.
The house is oriented to embrace a communal garden and to shut out the neighbors, so that the views are more rural than urban. It’s easy to imagine you are far removed from an industrial metropolis when peacocks swoop in through an open window to strut across the dining table, and black-faced monkeys scamper around the roof terrace. “We are thoroughly enjoying the house and its different ambiences with the changing seasons,” wrote Kathpalia, six months after he and his family moved in. “We are having a very good monsoon this year and our rain water tank is brimming full, which is a good sign.”