In a village called Munavali, near Alibaug, lay a three-acre plot fringed with tamarind and mango groves, with an odd champa in the corner. As architect Sanjeev Panjabi with his team travelled from Mumbai to Raigad, they saw the road dotted with local brick kilns, some in use, some dilapidated.
When they finally met their clients who wanted a country home, they were convinced it would be brick inside out. “We wanted to give the house a kiln-like form. We wondered what it would be like to hollow them out and inhabit these primitive mastaba-like structures,” says Panjabi, who runs SPASM Design architects in Mumbai. That was the thought behind the Brick Kiln House. Shaped like a shed, the house was given two main wings which sit at right angles to each other. Every room was given two large openings on either sides for cross-ventilation. Along the wings are large wide corridors, giving it a farm-like feel. With none of the traditional jaali or brick motifs in the design, the red-earth bricks were handmade, giving them both colour and strength.
For most of us, brick houses have been associated with architecture that is eco-friendly, stylish and cost-effective all at once. That has a lot to do with British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker’s houses, with perforations in the walls, manipulating the placement of bricks, and curved double walls, making the structures climate-sensitive and energy-efficient. Elsewhere, Surat-born architect Nari Gandhi was an organic genius in his use of rock and brick, elevating homes to works of art. Increasingly, contemporary architects are using brick in unusual ways, making it a style statement in luxurious homes.
In Surat, the team at Architecture and Beyond chose to make brick their hero: a gigantic brick “cape” embraces a two-storied house as it rises from the ground and shapes the skyline. The glass-enclosed living spaces sit lightly on the site, allowing ample natural light to stream in. Architect Kruti Patel says, “It was carved from burnt mud, and laid together with a designed brick joint to strengthen the wall.” With mild steel support, they curved the wall in exposed brick. “When you enter the house from the back, the effect is grandiose. But once you’re inside, you don’t see it at all because the whole house opens up to the greenery around,” she says.
In Bangalore, Kamat and Rozaria Architecture used brick primarily to define borders and lighten a closed-in 1,200 sq ft plot. Densely built on all sides with no view or natural light, this apartment block was meant for a family of five, including grandparents, parents and their toddler. Each owner had to give up a small portion of their property to make room for a courtyard. The challenge, architects Smruti Kamat and Lester Rozario say, was “to seize our slice of the sky”. To do so, they stacked the house on one side of the site and opened up the north-east corner for a tiny garden, which scooped ample natural light right into the living spaces. The boundary wall by default turned into a sculptural surface, when they placed burnt bricks next to mud blocks, creating a chevron-patterned grey-and-red boundary wall.
Using brick is labour-intensive and today is almost as costly as concrete, depending on the size of the building. However, for many young architects, it gives them an opportunity to work hands-on with masons, unlike any other material. “We had a father and son duo who did all the brickwork for the Kiln House. The father left his signature on the bricks, not like a pen drawing, but as a way of showing that this brickwork was done by him,” says Panjabi.
And if art brings in restraint, Kamat and Rozario chose that route in designing the Bangalore house. “This house was originally built around the 1980s and we had to make additions to it. We chose to pair the brick against unplastered walls and allow natural light to reflect on these walls,” says Kamat.
Similarly in the Surat house, the architects paired multiple materials with brick to bring a rustic modernity. In their design note, they explain: “We selected compressed hollow bricks for the wrap. For its homogeneous curvilinear form, bricks were resized and set into their course. The central fabricated stairway, which anchors the mass of the structure, was given an asbestos cement sheet to appear as a different entity. This mix of exposed brick, corrugated metal bridge and slate-stone clad pantry block gives the house its persona.”
In the Kiln House, the large wings of the living areas force its users to walk outdoors before going into the next room. The house, which captures the spirit of the place, not only stands in dialogue with its surroundings but gives it an edge in a district which is becoming a real estate haven.