Building Blocks: The twin buildings of the Belgium Embassy marry Indian and Belgian sensibilities

The two buildings of the Embassy are done in exposed brick and emerge from the earth in anthill-like forms. While arches provide a ceremonial yet muted entrance to the Residency, it’s the Grand Lounge that overwhelms visitors.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: August 12, 2018 5:30:11 am
Satish Gujral, Belgium Embassy Rooted in nature: Satish Gujral’s sketch of the Belgium Embassy.

Even as Belgian fans cheered their way to a third-place victory over England (and some Hoegaarden) in the FIFA World Cup recently, it seemed like an ideal time to examine how artist Satish Gujral scored a perfect goal with the architecture of the Belgium Embassy in Delhi. Not a trained architect, the well-known artist built the complex with a Chancery, the Residency, staff quarters and a bountiful wrap-around garden in 1983.

The two buildings of the Embassy are done in exposed brick and emerge from the earth in anthill-like forms. While arches provide a ceremonial yet muted entrance to the Residency, it’s the Grand Lounge with its Italian marble flooring and dramatic staircase that overwhelms visitors. However, Gujral manages scale in a way that isn’t intimidating. The skylight in the central landing, afforded by a cupola, ensures there’s ample light and depth inside. There are arches everywhere and windows too, which open out on to the undulating landscaped garden.

Gujral recalls the inauguration of the Embassy. “The Belgian king’s brother had come, and he said, ‘When I saw the building from the outside, I felt like I was in India, and when I walked in, I felt like I was in Belgium.’” Raka Singh, wife of the Belgian ambassador, Jan Luykx, says, “Light is something that Belgians crave and this house is full of it. Mr Gujral took care of the orientation to ensure we have adequate privacy and ample views of the garden.” The private family areas are scaled down and Singh says that despite the Residency having guests from 20 to 150 on certain days, her privacy isn’t compromised.

Sited on a five-acre triangular plot in Chanakyapuri, Gujral located the Residency at the rear end, raising the level of the landscape around it such that it sits in the bowl of the garden that slopes outwards. Ambassador Luykx says, “This building is a sculpture, a piece of art, but it works very well. The Chancery across the garden is a contrast with its formal spaces”. However, there too, one notices the scale which allows the space to be inviting, transparent and friendly.

“Artists are not thinkers, they are feelers,” says Gujral. “Every artist tries to be different, and I wanted to do something that hasn’t been done before. The Belgian embassy was built around the same time as the French and Finnish embassies. Many critics said that my design doesn’t look like an embassy building but creativity was my only guide,” says the 92-year-old. The building has been included in the forthcoming 21st edition of Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture, a classic reference on world architecture.

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