A House of Motifs and Tell- tales

Lall said, a motif is not centripetal, it is always centrifugal…it sticks out so as to connect to the ether of the space. His motifs connect much more- childhood, genealogy, traditions, philosophy, family, guests, and the makers of the house and its history. A quest for the joy in making. This house has many a tell-tale. Enter Lall’s House…

There was a simplicity that enamored in the presence of nature, eminence of human skills, the clear definition of spaces, and the choice and economy of materials, as there were questions to the standards and merits of architecture paraded in the tableau of styles, brands and energy intensive merchandise which floor and clad most buildings now.

As I sat in the naturally lit-up space in the centre of Lall’s office, I looked at the dancing dragon- a suspended exposed aluminium cooling duct coiled with red LEDs – swerving lithely across the length and the silver origami cranes, as they spangled in the luminous space underneath the accented clerestory on the western wall of the basement to his house. The elastic space fostered engaging discussions as I met Architect Ashok B. Lall, the first time. This was to seek some direction on my dissertation. A skewed subject that endeavoured to establish the role of intuition in the processes that lead to architectural production. We discussed the ‘joy of beauty’ that comes by way of venerating the absences of people, places and events. In routine and in design. Memories, Tales and Motifs are easy examples.

As a forerunner of sustainable, eco-friendly architecture, I expected a scientific and technical drone, but in my odd countable meetings conferred under this naturally charged space with artificial lights off most times, I have heard Lall often sing or dance in words, thoughts and reflections. Last time he was a quasi-poet and this time an amateur potter. Each time we sat under this receptacle of light and energy to his office, I wanted to go up and see it from the top, but I knew it was part of HIS HOUSE. This time when he showed me his house around, instantly a breezy, lively and earthy affair, I saw the galvanic element that bound it. There was a simplicity that enamored in the presence of nature, eminence of human skills, the clear definition of spaces, and the choice and economy of materials, as there were questions to the standards and merits of architecture paraded in the tableau of styles, brands and energy intensive merchandise which floor and clad most buildings now. But there was more to the house… wizardry of diminutive motifs and symbols – those which celebrated and at times even played pranks on the people, places and events- those present, and those not.

“The house is coded with such little stories and private jokes which are to be only understood by the close family…like Dada Dadi ki Kahaniyan (tr: Stories told by the grandparents).”

The entrance portal imitates a common feature in the traditional houses of Delhi that welcomes guests in form of a baithak (sitting space) infront of the entrance door composed such that both the baithak and the darawaza (gate) interfaced at a right angle and approached through steps are concealed from the gali. We enter the Deorhi, the staggered threshold of the house, symbolizing the chess-board move of the knight. As I step in, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the staircase on my left, simple but well-dressed in colours as it zigzags to the upper floor, encased in the tall walls much like the exemplar in the old house. Once in the Living room or the aangan of Lall’s house- a modern stylization of the old courts in that it retains in its volume the quality of lightness, openness and freedom- a mastery in terrazzo spreads out in alternating diagonal checkers in colours that immediately remind those of corn, flax and mustard, broken by borders in cobalt blue, and sheathed by an insulated hipped glass roof supported on a steel framework. The two pitched faces show the northern and the southern skies. Carefully observe the glass roof on the northern sky. It maps astrological stars and signature constellations which depict the Lall’s family tree.

“The house is coded with such little stories and private jokes which are to be only understood by the close family…like Dada Dadi ki Kahaniyan (tr: Stories told by the grandparents).” I see a pair of quilts hung from the centre. The folds of the quilts are pulled up and tied along the underside of the pitched roof in the summers to shun the oppressive heat and glare. As winters approach, the quilts are let vertically loose to receive the sun. The kitchen and the dining are to the right.

The dining, an extension of the central open space is still a neat separate area with private view of the garden. As we walk around the court, Lall draws my attention to the round structural pillar that supports the open volume and the floors. It is draped in a patterned inlay of a Bel or a climber in leaves of deep jungle green with beautiful floral buds in deep carmine. “This is my Dhaiya- the ‘Home Base’, which is usually a landmark next to where the Sipahi or ‘it’ counts off in hide and seek- the popular children’s game.

Hiders make a dash for the ‘Home Base’ as touching it makes them safe. The aim of the game is to touch base without being tagged. Symbolically, Dhaiya is the location which is stable and encompasses protection and freedom.”The door to the garden in the rear is marked off by a white square on the floor, a similar one set off at he main entrance. This is the seat for a festive family tradition. Facing east, the members squat here on the festival of Holi, and write a message on the white From the road, I enter the driveway laid out in brick herringbone and with drains in the centre, lined with broken white tiles. Lall calls it a Gali, forming a T-section between the two entranceways and enveloping the two houses that belong to him and his brother, on a site where once promptly sat an Indo-colonial ancestral bungalow. The former house was built by Lall’s grandfather, a lawyer who considered investments into properties wise and paid great attention to the development of the house in 1940-50’s. Civil Lines was where the Britishers and the Indians in high government services or in favour with them lived. Many colonial structures and those with similar influences are found here, including the plot across Krishna Lodge or Lall’s residence. However, the appearance of the architect’s house at once speaks of his preferences and methodologies that negotiate between the old and the new. While architectural stylisation is completely rejected and so is the colonial past of the context, the plot retains its own history and those of its residents in special ways.

parapet that encloses the skylight to the office- basement. The raised roof-opening doubles up as a focal element in the living space, fitted with glass that extends vertically in a large glass window connecting the internal space to nature and admitting plenteous daylight. The inside of the parapets are decorated with shards of white tiles and triangular mirrors, intensifying reflection of natural light, as well giving an allegory to a water stream. “This is the charged location in the house and is the most natural choice for resting the statue of Buddha.” We cross the symbolic stream to see the guest room in the south-east corner. I notice a circular arrangement of white flower buds on the floor, just behind the door. Lall steps in, stands inside the pattern. “It is a little joke”, he smiles. “This is how we garland our guest.” The room- a fluid entity with a curved wall to avoid a sharp corner that would have spoilt the garden on the south- offers a magnanimous view of the same. The garden sports the fountain which once adorned the front of the old house.

We take the staircase that had greeted me first at the entrance and go up to Aftab’s room, Lall’s son. The scattered booti or motif in pine green on the golden rod terrazzo floor is that of a charkhi, a four-leaf toy wind-mill. While Lall explains to me the substitute that they played with in his childhood, he also tells me it was appropriate for Aftab’s room who was a child when the construction began. In Anousha’s room, a bud with two leaves curling out, an elegant floral motif for the skilled dancer was chosen. The locations for the dispersion of the motifs were discovered randomly as the stones were rolled on the floor. This was to have the same order that the leaves have when they fall from the trees or the toy fly-wheels have when they take off and land on their own.

The architect avers, this was more of the Japanese natural sensibilities. Lall’s room houses his invention- the khus cooling tower. Built on the west wall, this vertical screen tower takes advantage of the prevailing north-westerly hot winds that blow during the hot-dry season. On its outer surface it has khus evaporative pads, fed by a water pump. Externally these are concealed by decorative terracotta jaalis of geometrical patterns. The inner side has adjustable windows opening into adjacent rooms. The air driven through the wet khus pads is meant to spread the fragrance across the two storeys of the house, not unlike a system used traditionally, where water would be sprinkled manually at regular intervals on the khus pads kept in the direction of the loo. The tower is not functioning as expected but Lall is determined to make it work. The eastern wall has a series of ventilators to ensure cross- circulation of air. The eye-catching doors and windows, with decorative green glass or galeecha are recycled from the old house. The terrazzo technique was also dominantly used in the old house and thus was a way to connect to the glory the house was and to his Chief mason/Raj mistri-Bhagatji- a name that Lall remembers with honour. The architect found the terrazzo experts who had worked with Bhagatji for the new construction and fondly recounts Sri Kishan, Jiya Lal and many other masons, carpenters and artisans who have impressed in their artisanship many doting memories. “I found people who wanted to do something special. Woh Jhoom Jhoom ke kaam karte the (tr: they would swing in joy and comfort as they worked). The lineage is nearly gone.” The western wall of the earlier house which now is the retaining wall and offers a double bioclimatic envelope to shun radiations, also creates an artistic refuge in the narrow alley that brings face to face the old and the new. The potter’s wheel finds its place here and has replaced an ingenious idea of a swing with a growing plant fixed in the spiraled mesh of what would have been the dhok or the back-rest. The Visage of the old house has been incorporated in the new one. Lall’s wife, who is a documentary maker has the eastern wall of her study recall the old verandah looking towards the river (the river view is completely blocked in the present urban setting). Infact from her study is an access to the old terrace, the steps for which are built over the old stairs, both in red sandstone. This was necessitated as the floor levels had changed. The study on the upper floor is also connected through a stepladder to the music/dance room, the three walls of which are remnants of the old structure. On the ground floor, the steps from the dining lead down to this room and are abstractly fashioned out in the shape of the serpent head, the shesh- nag, a symbol of creativity. Lall clarifies it was a natural requirement as the space constraint could not permit the width of the first tread more than what is required for an individual, though as one goes down, the steps fan out. “The steps say ‘One at a time’… a joke built in them.” Once, inside I see a white ceramic figurine of Lord Krishna, that Lall has recently begun to enamel in hues of yellow, blue and others. Shortly, in Lall’s office, I naively enquire if ‘Bihari’ in his name B. Lall meant he was from Bihar. Amused he informs the word Bihari denotes ‘Bihariji’, a popular reference to Lord Krishna and its inclusion in the name bears a strong devotional association in the family and the region the family ancestrally hails from, a place near Bulandshahr in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Call it an instinctive choice or a conscious decision…the house inside outside is dressed in Mathura colors (colours such as tangerine yellow and peacock blue as seen on the attire of the Mathura born Krishna.) I toddle out and wonder if the architect’s house is a tattle- tale in any more ways!Biographical Note: Jinisha Jain is an architectural journalist, a researcher, an architect and a heritage conservationist based in New Delhi, India. She is widely published in many national and international architectural magazines/journals.

Comment here