This article was originally published in Domus 957 / April 2012
"The hortus conclusus unites within itself a marvellous assemblage of disparate aspects. It seeks to understand the landscape it denies, explain the world it excludes, bring in the nature it fears, and summarise all this in an architectural composition."
Rob Aben, Saskia de Wit, The Enclosed Garden, 1999
At the Khoj Marathon held in New Delhi in 2011, Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviewed Bijoy Jain, the only architect in that edition of the marathon. In an almost cinematic narration, Jain described his experience of going from his studio to visit the house of a carpenter on the news of his death, in the middle of a heavy monsoon. He referred to the anxiety of dealing with the landscape in everyday rural life, and its impact on ideas of enclosure and openness, both in the rural landscape and the city. When building a house in a village for clients from the megacity of Mumbai, this anxiety takes on an additional complexity.
He describes the typical city-dweller's tentative relationship with the landscape when he or she crosses the harbour and heads into the country, the hesitant negotiation with nature, and a certain unlettered-ness of the relationship between body and land. Studio Mumbai, which for 17 years has been located in the hinterland across the harbour from the island city of Mumbai, has evolved as a very particular type of architecture practice, even as it is in the process of extending its studio back into the city. In this "iterative" mode of praxis, Bijoy Jain, although the principal of his multidisciplinary studio, is only one of a group of makers—with little distinction during the working day between the masons, carpenters, engineers and architects who come together to produce the practice's buildings. They function as a "human infrastructure", designing and building directly, with limited mediation of the type common to modern contractor-architect relationships.
Exploiting the monsoon to compact the soil accumulated from the excavation of the well (dug to supply the site with water), Studio Mumbai began work on the foundation for what became known as Copper House II. The severe flooding of Mumbai and its hinterland in 2005 had left its high-water mark on a pump house that was extant to the site, and this line was used to register the datum for the house. In 2010 a stilt foundation was built two feet above the high-water mark and the excavation material from the well became the central fill, allowing the house to grow around a court.
The building's language and logic are located in three primary architectural moves. The first is the creation of two distinct blocks that vary in width by a foot. Separated by the stone-paved courtyard on the ground, they are united by the cupric roof plane on the upper level, where the two blocks function as discrete private spaces: one is a singular space with a bedroom and bathroom, while the other contains an additional study. On the ground level, an indoor family room becomes an adjunct to the main living space, which lacks the containment exhibited by the other more private spaces.
This main space literally functions as the deck of the house, overlooking the landscape and courtyard in a simultaneity of vistas, each of a different scale and accessibility. The copper-covered private spaces on the upper level are positioned in mutual tension, with the guarantee of simultaneous intimacy and isolation, so essential to the domestic interior. This spatial strategy also allows for varying levels of communication, visual and otherwise, between the upper and lower spaces of the house.
In Kerala, further south from Mumbai along India's west coast, the courtyard was the centre of the traditional house (as in many other regions). The central room formed from the courtyard flanked by pillars was called the naalukettu. However, the same word could also refer to the entire structure, comprising the central hall and the four surrounding wings. This reference to the courtyard as the house itself holds a clue to the development of this house, as its design evolved from being an embracing structure to one that opened out.
The second definitive move is the layering of light through a series of material gestures, each one tuned to the light's direction and the need for varying amounts of privacy. This ploy is articulated with screening devices made of fine netting framed in traditionally crafted wood, fluted glass that diffuses the light and greenery and hints at the absent city, and sliding and folding wooden windows, all of which allow for degrees of seclusion. The walls are finished in a traditional celadon-coloured plaster, as smooth as human skin and crackled like ancient Chinese glaze. The result gives the transitory appearance of a fragmented, rectilinear ceramic container, encased with a lid of weathered copper. The continuous copper roof plane forms a secondary datum for the house, becoming a surface for potential occupation. The last key strategy is the inclusion of the element of water, whether in the form of monsoon rains and their relentless action on material and mood, or in the form of the well, stream and pool beyond the house. The seasonal "anxiety" of the ground is addressed in the paving design, which is worked out within the courtyard in a continuous linear fashion and in a loose ring around the house, with undulations registering the flow of rainwater as it reaches for the nearest point of exit.
The building's entrance portal is remarkable in its articulation as a non-place. Sitting beneath the first upper copper-wrapped container, it becomes a place to pause before encountering the hortus conclusus. Jain refers to the idea of time with remarkable regularity when talking about his architecture. He speaks of "using time as a measure", referring not only to the processes of drawing, prototyping and testing details, all of which are necessarily time-based, but also to the simple fact that time inevitably affects materials, forms and perceptions of what is first built as new. The late Robin Evans, in his 1971 essay subtitled Notes Towards the Definition of Wall, remarks: "The terrain of the retreat—its structure, geography and architecture—depends on the context, and on the ideologies and intentions of those involved."
In this house, with its hortus conclusus acting both as container and sieve, the architect's exploration of the rites of retreat, passage and exclusion are tested again. Not unlike the water diviner who was invited to detect the best spot to dig a well, the architect intuited the location of the rock which now lies in the first third of the courtyard, pre-empting its arrival. This final gesture of housing the massive rock, which came as a gift from the owner's mother, has sealed the studio's action in the project, now leaving it for time to take over, as time always inevitably does.