When reD designed a holiday home in the mountains for architect Apoorva Shroff's own family, little did she know that it would become their main residence when the Covid-19 pandemic hit
A shift is taking place of architects designing ‘experiences’. Airavat (A Home in the Clouds), a holiday home in the outskirts of Mumbai in India, integrates design, art, technology and nature in its structure and ‘experience’. Designed by the Mumbai-based architectural and design studio reD (Research and Enquiry into Design), it sparks a bold, gutsy, and atypical attitude to articulating spaces and a mystical way of living. reD was established in 2004 by architects Rajiv Parekh and Ekta Puri Parekh and is known for its collaborative and process-oriented designs across scales and typologies.
Reviewing homes is tough – their designs serve custom lifestyles that are difficult to critique. The challenges multiply when clients serve the dual role of designing their space and embracing the responsibility of a client-cum-architect. What spurs, in most cases, is a dream project where an entire career’s explorations, learning and influences are reflected upon to envision a project unbound by an external client’s design or budget.
Airavat is that project for Apoorva Shroff, a former partner at reD who spearheaded and designed it for her family, including her husband and two daughters. It is built on a seven-acre barren site with spectacular views of the surrounding mountain chain of the Western Ghats. Her husband suggested building a resort-like space that even their extended families could use.
When a blank site like this is presented without elements to align the architecture, the creative license for designers can be unsettling. The design aimed to capitalise and absorb the views in different ways, to the extent that a single effort to study the matrix of spaces is inadequate to absorb its intricacy.
The building, all 2,790m2 of it, resembles a spaceship, perched as it is on its mildly contoured site. Like a self-sufficient spaceship, it also aims to have a self-sufficient programme, defying the need for residents to venture out in this remote area. The programme translates into three levels and zones. The highest level is the public zone (living, dining, kitchen); the mid-level is the recreation zone (including a family den, TV room, gymnasium) and three bedrooms; and the lowest level has four bedrooms. The common/public spaces are housed in a concrete structure in the north. A residential block in concrete with slate cladding is positioned to the south. A suspended metal section in steel carrying public and recreation spaces intersects these two concrete blocks.
The formal entrance is situated under a momentous canopy at the highest level— Shroff’s rationale is that descending steps is more convenient than climbing them. The design embraces the site’s gradient and allows one to walk to/on the ground from every level.
Materiality is a strong protagonist in the design. Transitions are blurry – opaque doors are minimal, while glass walls, notably those in the living area capitalising on the north light, capture the surrounding views. The layering of disparate spaces manages a distinctive sense of physical, visual and social connectivity through glass and courtyards.
Design details enhance this connectivity. The living space overlooks a pool on the mid-level, with its cantilevered metal structure acting as an overhang. The dining and TV room are connected via metal fins clad in wallpaper. A circular reading window gives spectacular outdoor views while concurrently overlooking the heart of the house – the 18’ double-height family den. A swing in the den captures views of the front lawns and the triangular courtyard behind open to the sky. The intersection of the blocks enables intermediate spaces, ensuring cross ventilation. The leafy triangular courtyard is a defining intermediate space and serves the traditional role of courtyards facilitating visual connections across levels. This enhanced connectivity bestows the house the accolade of serving the dual function of an outward and inward-looking home flooded with natural light.
Courtyards, extensive balconies, and blatant use of glass, angles and geometrical juxtapositions capture vantage views. Two significant concrete walls that run along the house’s spine and hold a perforated metal staircase frame the view of a mountain range. Column-free corners in the master bedroom allow views of the mountains, while a bathroom window captures a 100-year-old tree.
However, the site's minimal vegetation, harsh sun in the region's extreme climate and robust materials reduce the warmth of the building design. The large overhangs guard against extreme weather and are offset by greenery; a lotus pond on the entry level, courtyards, front lawns, and a green patch under a skylight in the master bedroom. However, the robustness of the site does extend into the interiors; bare structural members become art for those who enjoy it. The metal and concrete exposed ceilings and the stone wall in the den is built from a stone excavated from the site. Local Rajasthani stone flooring, vintage and contemporary furniture and artefacts offer warmth among the minimalism.
Arbitrary angles in architectural forms enable multiple seating spaces, which work well for a holiday home where the purpose is to unwind. The arbitrary forms also serve to frame the external views. There must be perceptiveness and a method in this madness to orchestrate the complexity these of ideas. ‘Over the years, travel and life place images in different parts of the brain which stay as inspiration. For me, this was the time to process and implement those images as per the context,’ says Apoorva. It is hardly surprising that the late Zaha Hadid profoundly inspires her.
Creditably, there were no changes during the construction; even a minor alteration could have a cascading effect on the design. The construction faced challenges of placing massive girders on site that required technology and the inability to dig deep due to the rocky ground. The brutal monsoons can be demanding for such open flowing plans, and although the building materials require minimal maintenance, the harsh climate will ensure ongoing maintenance. To diffuse the water scarcity at 500m above sea level, roof drains, and surface run-offs are channelled towards the six borewells on site to harvest rainwater. This water scarcity limits the flowering plants in the landscape to woodland landscaping.
Apoorva and her family shifted to Airavat during the pandemic, where they lived this past year. ‘The house is so comfortable that my husband refuses to come back to the city from the mountains. That is all I miss. The slow living is not for all,’ she admits. In hindsight, she would have reduced the home’s scale. I agree – not everyone can attune to everyday living in such expansive and open spaces with underdeveloped surroundings. What is only available are scenic views at day and the city’s blinkering lights by night.
Inquisitiveness must be paramount while discovering, imbibing, or creating spaces. Ekta Puri Parekh candidly states they are curious people by nature. As a studio, they try to be anonymous, bear no signature style and ensure that projects are complete reflections of clients. Meanwhile, post a 15-year partnership at reD, Shroff has recently ventured out to establish her firm lyth design.
The home remains with you as a symbol of an architect’s inquisitiveness in the quest for experimenting and manifesting moments of integrating diverse scales, levels, forms, masses, volumes and materials – all to revere the context and create an array of dramatic spaces that evoke a sense of connecting inwards and outwards. In Indian mythology, Airavat refers to ‘an elephant of the clouds’. True to its name, this home perches majestically on the hilltop replicating a jewel lit by its understated lighting. At ground level, it is a potent reminder of how powerful architectural floor plans naturally lead to stimulating sectional elevations.
Apurva Bose Dutta is an award-winning architectural journalist, author, curator and editor based in India.
Project Name: A Home in the Clouds
Architect Research and Enquiry Into Design (reD)
Gross Built Area (m2/ ft2): 3,000 sq m
Project location Khopoli, Maharashtra
Photographer Fabien Charuau
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Lighting Arjun Rathi Design