In Chennai, an architect builds a peaceful home for her parents, inspired by her memories
Solachi Ramanathan of Urban Workshop makes brick the shining star in this seaside bungalow in Chennai.
Solachi Ramanathan’s latest project isn’t like her others. “And neither are the clients,” notes the Chennai-based architect and founder of architecture and design firm Urban Workshop of the rather unique brief she received a few years ago. The homeowners, after all, were her own parents, and the experience, nothing less than a happy family production. “My parents are very family-oriented and built this house keeping not only their own needs in mind, but also the needs of all their children. The home truly has room for everyone,” says Ramanathan.
For Ramanathan’s parents, the decision to build a house in the coastal Chennai suburb of Akkarai, along the scenic East Coast Road, stemmed from a desire for a more peaceful life. “The coastal suburbs afford a better quality of life. The pandemic saw a lot of people moving there, contributing to the growth of these neighbourhoods. The atmosphere is quiet, open and green, allowing people to live more outdoors,” says Ramanathan, for whom this spirit of discovery served as inspiration for the architecture. What also informed her approach was Geoffrey Bawa’s context-sensitive ethos. “I have always been moved by the way his houses are so sensitive to the dweller and the context. I like how you can engage with the spaces through light and material.”
Much like the light in Bawa’s architecture, the home flows like sunshine. “We created a close arrangement of rooms, with one leading into the next. The intention was to minimise the use of corridors in favour of a more informal and intimate environment,” says Ramanathan. As for the architectural placement, she chose to situate the house at the heart of the plot, adding a garden on either side. “We used materials that were largely sourced from the region: bricks made outside Pondicherry, stone from Shahabad and Tandur. We used stucco on the bedroom walls, while the bricks were custom-made to our specification.” Ramanathan was also careful to upcycle the wood from the original house (which was torn down to build anew), giving it a second life as ceiling panels in the dining room.
A part of the brief was to build a house with a gabled roof. “The sloped roof and bricks draw on associations of a house from our memory,” says Ramanathan, who made brick the home’s crowning glory. “We explored bricks in various forms. The staff block carries a load-bearing brick wall, and broken bricks were transformed to create a mud plaster for other structures.”
The secondary detailing is harmonious with the linear character of the bricks. The main door, for example, is composed of wooden strips, while the brass railing has a larger scale and signature than the brick backdrop. “We introduced materials like corten steel for the gate, and stone for the walls and floors to complement the brick’s rustic character.”
While using brick as the basic building module, Ramanathan admits that it was difficult to create large windows and doors to open the rooms to the garden. “Brick tends to absorb water, increasing the risk of wall dampness during monsoons. Being close to the sea, in a humid climate, we also had to be conscious of corrosion and erosion of building materials over time.” By the same token, she concealed a framed structure within the brick walls and introduced a layer of waterproofing. Another challenge, she recalls, was the brick transportation, which entailed a significant amount of breakage. In an effort to reuse the waste, Ramanathan absorbed some of the crushed brick residue into the plaster for some of the blocks.
For the architect, the home is more than just another “project”. It’s a haven of memories that harks to her past and her present, and one that makes room for many more family moments together.
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