Seven conquerors established cities on the site of India’s capital before the British constructed New Delhi in the 1920s as their short-lived seat of empire. Ruins of the earlier foundations are scattered through the fast-expanding metropolis as inspiration to architects who care more for their own culture than the seductive gleam of East and West. Sadly, the newly prosperous middle class has embraced some of the worst examples of global glitz, notably in the Defence Colony neighborhood, a short drive south of the center. Laid out in the 1950s as a community for retired military officers, it grew into a leafy enclave of modest bungalows. As the Indian economy began to boom at the start of the new millennium, land values soared. The area was rezoned to permit houses of up to five stories, and builders persuaded owners to max out their sites, turning the floors they didn’t need into apartments for rent or sale. Many of the original bungalows are gone and the rest are at risk. Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller, the principals of vir.mueller architects, have created a new paradigm. A well-educated couple commissioned a house, having admired their previous work and their concern to find an economical and ecological solution. The architects decided to work with exposed brick, a material that was widely used in Delhi as recently as 30 years ago, but has now been supplanted by steel and concrete. Himanshu Parikh, a daring structural engineer who had worked in Europe for Arup and Buro Happold, before moving back to India in the 1980s, collaborated with vir.mueller. He suggested they create a load-bearing structure - a closed box with brick walls braced with reinforced concrete floor slabs would meet the city’s tough seismic code and provide good thermal insulation. The construction cost could be reduced by designing flat reinforced concrete slabs and omitting structural beams. This would also allow greater freedom in laying out each floor. “We remembered the brick houses we had seen in London and Boston and, of course, Louis Kahn’s masterly use of brick in the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad”, says Vir Gupta. “We decided that, if we were to do a masonry structure we should express the material and make a massive building seem to flutter and whisper”. To achieve that sense of movement, vir.mueller cantilevered the floor slabs by two meters and enclosed spacious balconies with pierced brick screens. Inspired by the fretted screens in Delhi’s old Islamic buildings, they serve as a veil, providing shade and privacy, while filtering the breeze. Bricks are set at an angle to create a lively surface rhythm. As Vir Gupta recalls, “we sketched and made paper models before refining our design with computer software. We worked closely with the masons, and they rediscovered skills they had almost forgotten, but they had no idea what we were talking about until the house was finished”. The owners have two children and share their four-bedroom duplex with his parents. Storage and a home office occupy the basement, cars are parked in the walled forecourt, and the upper duplex is rented out until the children have grown. In replacing the decrepit bungalow that formerly occupied the site, the architects were given a free hand to interpret the program. They’ve crafted the house, creating polished stone floors to complement the exposed brick walls, and teak joinery cut on site from logs that were shipped here from central India. Concrete beams support the cantilevered treads of the staircases. The owners wanted a bathroom that would remind them of a hammam, with steam from the shower condensing on the walls. The architects chose two exotic marbles to achieve an effect that is both aqueous and ethereal. The lower wall and counters are clad in Grey William, an Italian sedimentary stone containing fossils that evoke the bed of the ocean; above is Volakas from Greece, which is white with red streaks. The late Charles Moore said that postcards were a proof of a building’s popularity, and the Defence Colony house has met a contemporary test: everyone, from the neighbors to the street sweeper has snapped it on their cell phones. Strangers come to stare, and it’s provoked a lively debate and a surge of enquiries from potential clients. The owners are delighted and the architects feel validated in their desire to root this building in the heritage of their city. Three years ago, at the start of their practice, Vir Gupta expressed the hope that “we and a few other firms can make a difference. The promise of India is uncertain but thrilling” (The Plan 037, October 2009). At that time they had designed a sustainable village toilet and were completing the Wolkem office building in Udaipur. The success of that project opened doors: they were invited to compete for major campus buildings for a couple of think tanks in Delhi, then a prestigious university in Ahmedabad, and they won all three commissions. It’s the story of modern India - a meteoric rise to success made possible by a wave of prosperity and a new transparency that prizes talent over connections. Meanwhile, in rural India, where 70 per cent of the population lives, the low-tech toilet that would cost a mere 10,000 Euros is still blocked by village politics. It’s urgently needed, for reasons of health and to save scarce water, but poverty breeds a deep resistance to change. Vir Gupta is philosophical: “it’s a project everyone wants to talk about and one day someone will make it happen and hundreds will be built”.