This Is an Indian House, According to One Architect

By turning his gaze backward, Bijoy Jain is creating a new architectural language that acknowledges his country’s precolonial past.
The exterior of Utsav House betrays its airy interiors
The exterior of Utsav House betrays its airy interiors - Photograph © Tobias Alexander Harvey
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It was a bright April day of prodigious heat in Mumbai, India, with the monsoon still weeks away, and I wondered if the 54-year-old architect enjoyed witnessing that first beguiling effect his building had upon me. No sooner had we stepped inside the private residence, built in 2008 and known as Utsav House — utsav means “an occasion” or “festival” in Sanskrit but is also a palindrome of vastu, the ancient Indian science of architecture — than the temperature fell by a few noticeable degrees. We were in Alibag, a cluster of coastal villages on the Arabian Sea where Mumbai’s rich have houses. Jain, who has designed a number of homes, such as Utsav, is an unlikely choice of architect for this place. Mumbai is a crass, brass-balled town where only those who do not have money are discreet about it. Utsav — with its outer walls of black basalt, its smooth, waxed concrete floors and louvered windows of opaque ribbed glass — feels as if it had come up out of the ground, less a house than an intervention. Large, airy rooms with low beds and spartan furniture are arranged around a central courtyard of red earth, where glossy, large-leaved verdure grows. A lap pool, tiled with river stones from the western state of Gujarat, feeds the garden with its overflow. The house feels utterly transparent, as if built by a man possessed of a horror of interior walls. It has those subtle flourishes that come to certain artists who, in the process of paring down their craft to lean mass alone, feel a sudden nostalgia for the lyrical: There is a lily pool — pink flowers against dark water — tucked into the side of a courtyard-facing living room. Old-fashioned light switches, whose chrome has been sedulously scrubbed away, vanish into the smooth taupe surface of the interior walls. “The house is not an object, a ‘machine to live in,’” wrote the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade in 1959’s “The Sacred and the Profane,” taking a swipe at Le Corbusier, “it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony.” Utsav is such a house, a small act of hierophany, a cheeky nod to the notion of the “imago mundi,” or miniature cosmos, as Eliade used the term. It was impossible to live in such a place without being reminded on a daily basis of the fragility and beauty of our lease on the earth.

I was taking it all in when Jain, sitting across the dining table from me, began to tell me the story of a suicide. I had asked him how he dealt with the ugliness of modern building in India, and he, in response, told me of a young garden hand who had worked for him before hanging himself some years ago in his own house. At a wake of sorts, held in a small room with a corrugated roof, the young man’s family gathered. The monsoon had arrived and a strong wind blew. Jain, who has a way of restoring to architecture that most basic human idea of a refuge from the elements, said, “When you’re in that environment, you’re so fragile and exposed. All you want is to be in a contained, secure space. How do you enable yourself to be contained in extreme conditions? Fragile, as well as a sense of being contained — that is where stillness exists.”

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