At first, you wonder why Gurjit Singh Matharoo would keep his office in the crumbling Capital Commercial Centre.
Step into the tiny, antiquated lift – which like the building, has clearly known better days – and as you pass floor after paan-streaked floor, catching glimpses of exposed wiring, stained walls and rusting doors, you’ll reflect that if the location is central and the parking is good, general amenities leave a deal to be desired.
Ahmedabad isn’t short on office space. Why then, does an architect who has made his name with a slew of multi-million dollar residences, including a recently completed beachside villa for moneyed Mumbai-ites in the resort town of Alibaug, chose to be based here?
Step through the doors on the sixth floor, pass the neat white reception area, Matharoo’s glassed-in sanctum, the maquettes pinned to the walls and the creative clutter on the broad trestle-table desks and the answer is immediately obvious.
It is all about the view. From the frenetic traffic on the Ellis and Nehru bridges and snatches of the old Mughal city visible between the jumble of low-rises on the far bank to the wheeling flocks of suitcase-sized ravens thronging the dusty skies, over half of the city is visible through floor to ceiling windows.
“You see why I don’t want to leave,” he says, as Ahmedabad begins to light up after sunset. “Some of us are thinking of buying the owners out, tearing (the building) down and building something nicer instead.”
For an architect, Gurjit Matharoo is closely in touch with his Inner Engineer. A bit of a gearhead, he has been (re)designing vehicles since he was a boy. A model of his design for a motorbike sits on the shelf above his desk and a chopped down, souped up, bulked out and radically reconfigured Fiat Palio is currently being finished in an antiquated workshop in deepest Ahmedabad.
In 2005, Matharoo took his passion public with the Cattiva, a hi-tech mobile blood donation vehicle, designed to survive the battering dished out by India’s rough roads. Visually somewhere between a mobile home and a flying saucer, yet somehow feline in profile, the Cattiva was originally commissioned for the Prathma Blood Centre in the western Ahmedabad suburb of Vasna but became so successful that the bright yellow vehicles now prowl the streets of several Indian cities.
The Prathma is every bit as striking as its vehicles. Roughly finished and brutally concrete, it stands wildly at odds with the New India microcosm of partly paved roads, shantytown dwellings, Tata Indicas and clusters of mock-Mediterranean family homes, which surrounds it.
Set on a minimally landscaped site and partially afloat on a lotus pond, the centre is a series of concrete shells, whose sweeping interlocking curves and sheer walls leave no doubt that this is an institution.
The façade is south facing, so to mitigate the effects of Ahmedabad’s ferocious sun, it is pierced by only a few deeply shaded windows and a small, low entrance. Once inside, the building’s defensive feel vanishes. The almost oppressive entrance opens abruptly onto a soaring four-storey atrium. Airy and cool, it is bathed in the soft light that filters through the glass cut-out in the ceiling.
There is little about the Prathma that suggests medical institution. The donation centre itself, with its aerodynamic, reclining chairs that face the lotus pond through low windows, bright yellow panels and smooth concrete ceiling upon which ripples of light reflected off the water play, feels more like a hairdressing salon than a blood clinic.
The rest of the public spaces – waiting rooms, auditorium, toilets and a small post-donation cafe - are all located on the entry side of the atrium. The offices and laboratories are all opposite, encased behind a four-storey expanse of glass, that is broken only by a small balcony on the fourth floor and the extruded, almost abstract aluminium bulk of the blood freezer on the second.
“It’s designed as a flow. From entrance, to registration, to donation to relaxation, everything is aligned along an axis. I wanted to design a building that would be about the people who use it more than the function it is used for.”
That thinking also informs the Ashok Patel Residence. This bold statement in grey located in an upscale housing colony, is based loosely on Ahmedabad’s ‘Pol’ houses, the multi-story extended family merchant townhouses organised around a central courtyard found all over the Old City.
It is an unrepentant assault on what Matharoo refers to as the prevailing “closed house on an open site” mentality, where every legally available centimetre of a plot is used and houses are built margin to margin.
“People end up looking right into their next door neighbour’s house,” he says, adding that many people now keep their windows shut and curtains closed to maintain privacy. “They end up living in a dark house with the lights and the AC always on. It makes no sense.”
Matharoo’s solution, built in polished concrete, places everything around a carved out living/dining space that is, in effect, a covered courtyard. The kitchen lies at the rear of the house and a staircase near the entrance leads to an open landing running around the first floor, off which the bedrooms are located.
On the right-hand side of the one and half volume space, sliding doors open onto a large covered veranda. The left-hand wall, though seemingly solid, is actually pivoted and split in two. Unlatched, both halves of the wall can be swung outwards by hand and when fully extended, they graze the boundary wall, creating a roofless extension to the living room.
When everything is open, a single, private living space, made up of open air, covered and enclosed areas, stretches from the front wall to the rear. Shielded from prying eyes, the house remains well-lit and well-ventilated throughout the year and even when temperatures exceed 40C – a regular occurrence and one reason why Ahmedabad is India’s ice-cream capital – it requires little air-conditioning to keep cool.
That, Matharoo says, is all thanks to his favourite building material.
“Not everyone likes concrete but it is much less bulky than brick,” he says, adding that the 6% saving in space he gets from not using brick allows his clients the equivalent of an extra room for free, “and because I use less space, I can design in a way that opens up and maximises a site.”
Devotees of the idea that Modern means glass and transparent probably won’t approve, but like Corbusier and Kahn, Correa and Doshi before him, Matharoo understands that in hot, dusty climates, more concrete can mean more and better space at less cost and with lower electricity bills to boot. Once the rest of India catches on, expect to see his brutal cocoons join his vampire vehicles on the streets of cities all over the subcontinent.
Originally Published in Wallpaper