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Architects Take | August 2012

The Material Connection

Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller Gupta have found their calling in design – using materials to seamlessly fuse culture, the past and the geography.

Over fifty years ago, while designing the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Louis Kahn is rumoured to have asked the brick, “What do you want to be?” The brick simply responded, “I want to be an arch.” vir.mueller architects decided to restart this dialogue. “What would you like to do?” they asked the humble brick, once again. “I want to dance...naked!” said the brick. And so, they let it. The legacy still continues…

For vir.mueller architects, the focus has never wavered from the connect that material creates between culture, geography and age. The firm was set up by Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller Gupta in 2003 in Boston, USA; after creating waves there, the principals transported their opera­tions to Delhi in 2009. Pankaj Vir Gupta shares with Shanti Padukone how the firm has app­lied its design beliefs to the Indian context.

What drew you to architecture?
Coming from a family of architects, I grew up surrounded by the activities at my parents’ office and sites. I did not want to be an architect; instead, I went to the US to study English Literature and become a writer. But, because of the flexible academic system there, I happened to take an archi­tectural course in my first semester and became completely engrossed in the subject! And, the rest is history.

Your firm is deeply involved in anchoring design to the context. Could you elaborate on this?
Our design is not typological. Every project is an opportunity to explore the relationship between the culture of a place – both physical and material – and its craft tradi­tions. Every location we’ve worked in, be it Boston, Colorado, Udaipur or Delhi, has offered us several design cues like the quality of light, temperature or material availability. Our architecture involves discovering the roots of a place through such cues.

So, how does this translate into your projects?
Take, for instance, the Wolkem office in Udaipur. While the city itself is very pic­turesque, the site is an industrial area about 20 km outside and is surrounded by stone crushing sheds. The location offered no architectural context; so, we derived inspira­tion from history. Since utilities were scarce, we chose a simple design and trained local workers to build with the most elemental stone slabs. We wanted to evoke the archite­ctural history and grandeur of Rajasthan with design inspirations from Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri or forts and palaces.

How did the project manifest these in the contemporary context?
We have used stone in various forms. While the flooring inside is clad in highly polished kota for coolness, the façade is clad with local sandstone in its raw, natural state. This merges with the Aravali hills landscape. Since the environment was highly polluted, we wanted a low-maintenance building. By cladding the building in natural stone, ironically, as the layers of dust increase, the building will look cleaner, as both elements are of the same colour.

A lot of your work focuses on the integrity of material and craftsmanship. Why are these so important?
Modern India has forgotten that the most amazing architectural legacies go back seve­ral hundred years. Commercial constraints now drive architecture, and it is tragic to see how cheap building design has become – not only in material or cost but also in intellect and design skill. The focus is on time and price, but issues like maintenance, life or environmental impact are hardly addressed.

We wanted to be amongst the few architects who truly care about the creation of something long term and meaningful. Thus, the integrity of materials and craft became the crux of our architectural practice.

In terms of material, is there any project that you are specifically proud of?
I would say the Woodwalk showroom fits the bill. We started off with a non-glamourous proposi­tion; this showroom at Kotla, New Delhi, had no natural light and no evocative quality. Moreover, the client, who supplies wooden flooring to various job sites, had a limited budget. Given all of this, we decided to build the entire architecture out of scrap material salvaged from his various job sites.

Our challenge was to build and design the entire showroom out of waste material. Our design team and a group of carpenters spent 60 days building the office. And, all of a sudden, the place started speaking poetically about the character of timber. The final product is an elegant, structural system of primary columns and secondary surfaces.

What kind of wood did you use here?
Iron wood from South America, which is strong and termite-resistant, was perfect to make the entire shell. Purple Heart is an African wood. Since the client had bigger pieces of this, we used it to create a structural shell on which latticework was mounted. Finally, we used American Oak on the floor.

Any other project that is characterised by the material it uses?
Yes, the Defence Colony residence in South Delhi comes to mind. The ‘luxury’ buildings in this upscale neighbourhood, which used marble, stainless steel and glass in abundance, didn’t have much character. We recomm­ended to our client a material that never needs painting or upkeep – earthen brick. The idea was to expose the structural brick.

We created a load bearing house with walls that were 18-20 inch, since the location is in Seismic Zone 4. The brick work is carved away to reveal big thresholds, doors and window; it is an element that completely dematerialises and dances like a screen or lace and keeps the western sun out. Moreover, it creates an internal temperature 10 to 15 degrees lower than the ambient temperature. Moreover, the house provided employment to almost 20 brick masons and gave dignity to a skill that ordinarily gets concealed behind other materials.

So, what determines your decision with regard to the primary material and combination of materials in a project?
The budget, the client’s lifestyle and the culture of the place. We look at the best quality material that can be used within cost constraints. In a personal residence, we try to weave in the material selection with the clients’ lifestyle. As for cultural references, we seek inspiration from local tradition, ethos and materials.

Any final words?
We, as architects, must aspire towards the highest ethical standards possible. We must adopt a transparent approach and allow the client to understand the best material and most economical option; empower contractors to focus on the quality of their products; let the merit offer the material and let the merit of its making inform its selection. We, at vir.mueller architects, are trying to affect an ethical revolution and infuse this industry with a newfound belief and value system.

And, with the seeds sown, in time we shall see their efforts bear fruit. Meanwhile, we shall revel in vir.mueller architects’ vision and buildings as they continue to grace the landscape of India.

Photos: Andre J Fanthome

Meet the architects: Pankaj Vir Gupta & Christine Mueller Gupta

Firm: vir.mueller architects, founded in 2003.
Design philosophy: The design we are interested in is not typological. Every project is an opportunity to explore the relationship between the culture and craft traditions of a place.
Philosophy towards life: Embrace an attitude of openness and liberal mindedness.
Favourite architect/designer: The real value in terms of picking a favourite is in picking designers whose work has survived for more than a couple of centuries. That is worth emulating.

Contact:

vir.mueller architects
c7/125, Safdarjung Development Area,
New Delhi-110 016.
Tel: 011-2656 5032.
E-mail: pankaj@virmueller.com
Website: www.virmueller.com
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