Elegantly poised atop its granite pedestal, this beautifully crafted home in India is truly a temple for the body, as well as a captivating repository of stories. Engraved both into its spatial organization and into the details of the house, these are stories of traditions and beliefs, of customs and of the relationship of the body to nature. With a simple and poetic clarity, these stories and are all told through the modern architectural interpretation of sensitive designers at Bedmar and Shi. This house, which is located in the highly prestigious and beautifully landscaped region of Amrita Shergil in Delhi, India, was to present Ernesto Bedmar with one of his greatest challenges to date. Due to its wealth of socio-cultural references as well as a more temperate climate than the tropical environments in which the designer is more familiar, the design marks a daring departure from the rest of Bedmar’s earlier works. The surrounding neighbourhood is full of greenery and is a highly conserved area of very horizontal houses, mostly single storey, that sit on elevated platforms and are topped with flat roofs. These flat roofs are still heavily used by the occupants as terraces because from this height they enjoy the desirable winter breezes. Due to the dilapidated state of the original building which was on the site, its demolition was permitted. The new building was given the restrictions of a large 9 meter setback from Lodhi Road and a height control of no higher than the original house. Bedmar’s approach to the design was to allow the architecture to be as neutral as possible so that the pure forms and spaces can then become a backdrop for the beautiful Indian textiles and arts. He chose as a reference and inspiration the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe. The purity of the International Style of this architectural masterpiece as well as the notion of free flowing spaces were to influence Bedmar’s design of the Amrita Shergil Marg house and become the canvas upon which he overlaid elements of the Indian culture.
In conjunction with some of Bedmar’s planning strategies of spatial sequencing, framing of views and controlling of light to create a variety of different atmospheres and experiences throughout the house, in this project he was to interweave into the planning the contextually important principles of Vastu Shastra. His traditional Hindu system of design translates roughly as “science of construction” and is based on directional alignments as they relate to the themes of Matter and Energy. The shape of the site itself was favourable to the implementation of the principles of Vastu as it is a rectangle that is elongated in the East-West direction, with the main gate entering from the East. Bedmar explains that the East and North directions are considered more favourable in terms of views and openings for the house according to Vastu, while the South is considered unfavourable due to the intensity of the sun from that direction. The Amrita Shergil Marg house was therefore planned with the entrance and views to the North and East and a long service block placed along the Southern edge of the site. Many other Vastu principles dictated the locations of the specific rooms within the site such as the Pooja or prayer room in the Northeast corner, Dining in the West, Master Bedroom in the Southwest and courtyard in the East, among others.
Also largely contributing to the layout of the house is the family’s social tradition of entertainment. There are many areas positioned throughout the house that cater to various sizes and types of social gathering. The guests that come to the house often enter the Pooja or prayer room first before visiting the main house. In this house, the Pooja room is a magical space located in the Northeast corner, just off the vehicular entrance area. Natural Italian travertine freestanding walls enclose the entire property and courtyards. These walls, which are formed of huge slabs cut from giant pieces of stone, are so well cut and the grain book-matched that the entire long stretches of wall appear to be formed out of a single piece of stone. The linear grain of the travertine on two sides of the Pooja room creates directionality and focuses the worshipper through the crafted timber trellised pivot doors and directionally aligned statue of the Hindu deity Nandi in the courtyard beyond. The timber screens or jali timber panels were designed by Bedmar with the use of a traditional Indian pattern that had been reduced in its geometry, and then cut it into the wood of solid Burmese Teak doors. The abstracted pattern still contains the essence of the original, giving it a distinct Indian flavour without literally replicating the traditional tapestry. The courtyard in front of the Pooja room is the first of many entertainment spaces and is here often used to receive guests during a celebration.
As with many of Bedmar’s buildings, the house is never revealed all at once. The circulation is planned in such a way that the spaces are slowly unfolded to the visitor in an experiential and spatial journey throughout the house. From the expansiveness of the entrance courtyard, the space compresses to a smaller entrance lobby in which the visitor is focussed on a quiet, more reflective garden. This garden is dominated by a single Tulsi tree, which is considered to be an auspicious tree dedicated to the gods and creates an internal aura of reverence and tranquillity. The visitor then turns to enter an extruded, linear corridor which is used as an art space and is flanked to one side with a cosy family room with a full wall of bookshelf and to the other with an open courtyard in terracing and stepping slabs of stone. This courtyard, Bedmar explains, carries a memory of cultural history of central social open spaces within traditional houses that were used for artistic performances. Bedmar’s modern interpretation of this courtyard is used for musical and dance performances and is formed from randomly stepping ground platforms that serve as seating and as a stage for the performers. The solid, carved out nature of the stepping platforms is somewhat reminiscent of the stone steps in Indian temples and can be seen in several other social spaces around the house. Within this courtyard are elements of fire and water. The fire is represented by a small stone block on the ground that shoots up a flame into the air and the water is in a white basin.
Further down the long corridor, a wall opens up to introduce the Living and Dining Rooms. Perhaps here, Bedmar is most influenced by the Barcelona Pavilion of Mies Van de Rohe whereby the walls act as free standing objects that cut the continuous volume of the rooms into interconnected spaces. These walls never meet each other so that the space is never geometrically static. Adding to the free-standing nature of the walls in the Living and Dining Rooms is the visual disassociation of the concrete flat roof from the walls. Here, horizontal concrete beams are exposed below the ceiling slab and the spaces between the beams above the walls are left as high level windows. This detail raises the Living and Dining Rooms up higher than all the other rooms. The extra height not only emphasizes the space as significant, but it also creates the hierarchy of the sleeping spaces above. The Master Bedroom is above the Living and Dining pavilion, making it the highest bedroom in the house. The children’s bedrooms are the next highest and the guest suite, which houses the only bedroom on the ground floor, is the lowest hierarchically.
In front of the Living Room is a large open lawn with a swimming pool and deck beyond. This deck steps downward to the left into the swimming pool itself in the same random type of stepping pattern as seen the first courtyard. The stepping also continues more steeply to the right of the deck and reaches up onto the roof of the guest wing and Pooja room to a small informal roof terrace. The gradual and random stepping of the terrace from the pool to the deck level and then up to the roof, makes the deck feel like it is a continuous carved out surface that undulates below and above the building. A light and breezy atmosphere is created on the roof terrace atop the guest suite onto which is erected a series of steel columns supporting tensile fabric that shades it from the sun. In a more formal manner, this rooftop environment is echoed at a larger scale by a similar roof terrace above the Living and Dining Rooms that can accommodate larger gatherings.
Another social custom that Bedmar and Shi drew into the planning of the house was the social lineage of the house itself. The family in the house comprises of two parents, a son and a daughter and in Indian tradition, once the son marries, he is to remain in the parent’s home with his new wife, while the daughter is to move to her new in-law’s house upon her marriage. The designers therefore planned the children’s area as a separate building on the Western area of the site with a separate vehicular entrance from the South. The two main children’s suites are shielded from the rest of the house with a travertine fixed screen and corridor space to allow them a degree of privacy and independence. The screen is detailed as a series of thin travertine horizontal strips with recessed stone supports at intervals. The elongated pattern of the screen emphasizes the overall horizontality of the house but at the same time allows light and air through it. These children’s suites each have a separate Living and Dining space on the 1st storey and sleeping areas upstairs. The intention of the planning is also that once the children are married and the daughter moves out of the house, the son can take over the entire West wing of the house. The children’s pavilion is linked to the main Living and Dining space via a timber deck that spans over the swimming pool like a bridge. This deck is covered with a lightweight skylight that links the two building blocks of the Children’s wing to the main house. Underneath the skylight is a timber trellis. This trellis, which has been seen in some of Bedmar’s more tropical designs in Singapore, here echoes the pattern of the travertine screen wall as well as creates a sheltered and comfortable space below which is screened from the direct sunlight yet feels completely outdoors.