This Is an Indian House, According to One Architect

By turning his gaze backward, Bijoy Jain is creating a new architectural language that acknowledges his country’s precolonial past.


It was a bright April day of prodigious heat in Mumbai, India, with the monsoon still weeks away, and I wondered if the 54-year-old architect enjoyed witnessing that first beguiling affect his building had upon me. No sooner had we stepped inside the private residence, built-in 2008 and known as Utsav House — utsav means “an occasion” or “festival” in Sanskrit but is also a palindrome of vastu, the ancient Indian science of architecture — than the temperature fell by a few noticeable degrees. We were in Alibag, a cluster of coastal villages on the Arabian Sea where Mumbai’s rich have houses. Jain, who has designed a number of homes, such as Utsav, is an unlikely choice of architect for this place. Mumbai is a crass, brass-balled town where only those who do not have money are discreet about it. Utsav — with its outer walls of black basalt, its smooth, waxed concrete floors and louvered windows of opaque ribbed glass — feels as if it had come up out of the ground, less a house than an intervention. Large, airy rooms with low beds and spartan furniture are arranged around a central courtyard of red earth, where glossy, large-leaved verdure grows. A lap pool, tiled with river stones from the western state of Gujarat, feeds the garden with its overflow. The house feels utterly transparent as if built by a man possessed of a horror of interior walls. It has those subtle flourishes that come to certain artists who, in the process of paring down their craft to lean mass alone, feel a sudden nostalgia for the lyrical: There is a lily pool — pink flowers against dark water — tucked into the side of a courtyard-facing living room. Old-fashioned light switches, whose chrome has been sedulously scrubbed away, vanish into the smooth taupe surface of the interior walls. “The house is not an object, a ‘machine to live in,’” wrote the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade in 1959’s “The Sacred and the Profane,” taking a swipe at Le Corbusier, “it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods, the cosmogony.” Utsav is such a house, a small act of hierophany, a cheeky nod to the notion of the “imago mundi,” or miniature cosmos, as Eliade used the term. It was impossible to live in such a place without being reminded on a daily basis of the fragility and beauty of our lease on the earth. I was taking it all in when Jain, sitting across the dining table from me, began to tell me the story of a suicide. I had asked him how he dealt with the ugliness of modern building in India, and he, in response, told me of a young garden hand who had worked for him before hanging himself some years ago in his own house. At a wake of sorts, held in a small room with a corrugated roof, the young man’s family gathered. The monsoon had arrived and a strong wind blew. Jain, who has a way of restoring to architecture that most basic human idea of a refuge from the elements, said, “When you’re in that environment, you’re so fragile and exposed. All you want is to be in a contained, secure space. How do you enable yourself to be contained in extreme conditions? Fragile, as well as a sense of being contained — that is where stillness exists.”

Jain was 18 when his own brother hanged himself. Within a year and a half, his parents died of heart attacks. He was completely alone in the world. Hearing this, I began to think differently of the atmosphere in Utsav. The secular, mote-filled stillness, the diffuse light, and serenity, the feeling of being exposed; all these lend the house something of the character of a shrine or a sanctum — an ashram.

THROUGH ITS PREMODERN phases, Indian architecture was effortlessly palimpsestic, one of the truest examples of the vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote in his 1946 book, “The Discovery of India,” of a place “on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” India’s oldest stone buildings are stupas and rock-cut caves of Buddhist origin, built in the centuries before the Common Era. These were preceded by an older tradition of building in wood. When Buddhism declined in India, and a resurgent Hindu faith rose, between the fourth and seventh centuries C.E., it was the ghost of Buddhist architecture, visible in both the apsidal shape of certain temples and in the use of stone-latticed windows, that was resurrected in a new tradition of Hindu temple architecture. With the coming of Islam to India in the second millennium C.E., many features of Indian building, such as screens, carved brackets, corbeled arches, and deep eaves projecting hard black shadows became part of Indo-Islamic architecture. Dynasties rose and fell, the religious makeup of India changed, but Indian architecture, like Indian food, music, and literature, was able to absorb the new influences. It was only with the coming of British rule to India in the 18th century that a culture that had prided itself on its powers of assimilation was confronted with an unassimilable influence. The irony of pre-colonial and colonial contact was that while the former was outwardly more violent, it was inwardly creative, whereas the latter, though less physically violent, stultified the Indian spirit. For the first time in India’s history, cultural assimilation became a forced imperative rather than something natural and organic. As late as 1929, 18 years before British rule was to come to an end, the English architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker published an official statement on building a new capital for India. Their intention was “to express, within the limits of the medium and the powers of its users, the ideal and fact of British rule in India, of which New Delhi must ever be the monument,” but the statement also revealed how contrived British building in a city that was once an ancient seat of power could feel. The English writer Robert Byron was in the new capital for its construction, and in his wonderful 1931 essay “New Delhi,” he makes an important distinction between what he describes as “fusion” and “allusion.” “The first,” Byron writes, “is the use of diverse architectural inventions and ornamental themes, whatever their dates or racial origins, simply for their practical value in creating an artistic unity and in giving effect ‘to the values of mass, space, line, and coherence in the whole design.’ The second is the use of these same inventions and themes in a mood of reminiscence — the mood of the 19th century — regardless of their relevance to mass, space, line, and coherence.” If fusion seeks to achieve a deep unity of spirit between two different architectural traditions, allusion seeks merely to paste the symbols of one tradition onto another. British building in India was for the most part an exercise in allusion. The meeting of Britain and India did not produce an enduring synthesis. When the British left, India’s own building traditions were paralyzed. What took their place was the seeming cultural neutrality of what was then called the International Style — modernity, in a word — which produced an awful proliferation of nondescript residential colonies on the edges of crumbling British cities, which, in turn, abutted medieval Indo-Islamic cities, swiftly turning to slums. The challenge then, for any architect working in India today, is how to break past the layer of nonporous rock that is British rule in India in order to creatively engage with a decayed but living tradition of Indian building, masonry and craftsmanship.

The exterior of Utsav House betrays its airy interiors.Credit...Tobias Alexander Harvey

JAIN AND I had met a few hours before our visit to Alibag on a dock in Mumbai, near the iconic Taj hotel and the Gateway of India, the arch the British built-in 1924 in honor of the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary 13 years earlier. An armada of small fishing boats and hulking freighters, their bottoms red and rusting, lay as if dazed on the flat, oily surface of Mumbai Harbor. Alibag, which sits on the Indian mainland overlooking the island of Mumbai, is a short boat ride from the southern tip of the metropolis. It has in the past 15 years been overrun by day-trippers, tourists, and, of course, the 1 percent — industrialists, socialites, and Bollywood stars. Jain knew the area long before it had any of these associations. After his parents died, he spent a decade in the West, first studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, then living in Los Angeles, New York, and London. While in the United States, he fell in love with land artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Mary Miss, and with Minimalists like Donald Judd. Their work reminded Jain of the rock-cut Buddhist caves. “To come upon their work,” Jain said, referring to the land artists, “was the same thing experientially as [visiting the famous caves in] Ajanta and Ellora. They linger.” After Jain returned from living abroad in 1995, he spent months in pre-gentrification Alibag, isolated, as a fierce but revivifying monsoon thrashed the western coast of India. It was here that he taught himself about Indian trees, developed the astonishing simplicity and quiet that characterizes his work, and, most important, broke from the limitations of being a Western-educated architect and found a way to speak to a living artisanal tradition in India of carpenters and stonemasons, painters and craftspeople. Describing days without electricity and venomous snakes coming out of their burrows, Jain said that Alibag gave him “perception of what it means to be agrarian in India.” Jain was confronting a problem that haunts every aspect of creative life in India: what to do with the past. India has produced over 40 centuries’ worth of writing, painting, music and architecture, and yet when each of these art forms met its modern iteration through British rule, the meeting of past and present, traditional and modern, was not merely sterile — it was corrosive. Jain saw the problem of tradition and modernity like this: “Architecture is a Western idea,” he said, “We didn’t have an architecture school until the 1900s.” Yet India has a codified tradition of building that stretched back at least as far as Ajanta and Ellora. Three years before the National Institute of Design (N.I.D.) was first established in 1961 in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, Charles and Ray Eames had written a manifesto for the institution in which they stated that it must reckon seriously with “the quality and the values of a traditional society.” But that did not happen. Instead, as in so much of the old non-West, past and present sat uneasily next to each other, never resulting in an exciting hybrid. This meant that as tradition calcified, Indian modernity remained a mere top soil, neither able to nourish itself through contact with the Indian past, nor able to move beyond a derivative relationship with the West. “Why was [the question of tradition and modernity] not part of the dialogue or conversation?” Jain asked, reluctantly questioning the architects who had gone before him, men such as Charles Correa and the Pritzker Prize-winning Balkrishna Doshi. “Not to question modernity today,” he added, “would be folly.” As we stepped into the boat, I saw Jain framed against the backdrop of all of neo-Gothic British Bombay, with its red-tiled roofs and shadowed arcades and porticoes. This was Rudyard Kipling’s Bombay of steeples, cupolas and trefoil arches, now blackening in the sea air, now with sprigs of peepul sprouting through their entablatures. The British city graded into a post-independence landscape of blue glass and steel, foursquare towers, and bungalows with iron-barred windows. Sandwiched in between all of this, as ubiquitous as the glittering sea and copses of palms, was a city of slum and shanty, already hunkered down under blue tarpaulins in anticipation of the monsoon. What did Jain, who believes so much in making one’s peace with one’s surroundings, think of the British city directly behind him? “It is just a backdrop,” Jain said, adding of the Gateway itself: “It’s a terribly proportioned building. They should take it down. It would open the city to the sea.” He said this without a trace of a smile as our little boat charted a foamy path across the harbor.

“STOP THE CAR, stop the car!” We were now on the mainland, approaching Alibag, when we passed a nomadic settlement, the likes of which one sees all the time in India, a collection of village huts on an arid piece of land. But Jain saw an articulation of what might be his core philosophy when it comes to the building: How does one inhabit the earth with the least possible effort? He pointed to the fencing of bramble that formed a perimeter around the settlement the nomads had established, observing the hearth to one side, an ashen circle in the pale earth, and bright-colored clothes hanging from a line on the other. Nothing about this way of living outdoors seems primitive to Jain, nothing about it is to be dismissed: For him, I sensed, this is a real architectural inheritance. “It’s viscerally there in all of us,” he said, speaking of the urge to be in tune with nature. “This is one of those few places where that connection is still very strong.” Jain has built 10 private houses, as well as studios, a mountain lodge, and a reading room, the majority in India, mostly centered around or in Mumbai, but increasingly his projects are located in more international destinations, such as Italy, Spain, France and Japan. He is not romantic — or not excessively so — about the realities of modern living. That this nomadic settlement should exist in India alongside towers of steel and glass seems to strike him as an opportunity. What appears to inspire him most about the country is that it is still a place where one can observe the rudiments of how premodern people developed their earliest notions of shelter. “One cannot become nostalgic,” he said, “and yet one can still recall that experience in a world that is moving at a different speed.” By “that experience” he meant the deep atavisms that yet survive within us. “Because if we lose that spirit,” Jain said, “we lose everything. If it comes to that, we will have to reclassify what human beings are.” After our visit to Utsav House, we had a lunch of grilled fish and prawn curry at another private residence designed by Jain in Alibag, the House of Nine Rooms, built-in 2014. Here again was a central courtyard open to sky, which Eliade likens to the smoke hole in a temple and sees as part of a communication with the transcendent. Here again were bare untiled floors and the constant presence of wind and earth. There was a stillness, a permanent air of afternoon and an interior that was magically cooler and airier than the exterior it felt so much at peace with. The site sloped downward, so the house had been set on many levels. The floors and walls were of a scorched reddish-black brick, the throwaways of the kiln, both sturdier and more attractive than normal bricks. If Jain has learned anything from the artisans of traditional India, with whom he is in daily contact — not instructing but collaborating with — it is the secret of watching them work with their hands, hammering out their creations with the least possible exertion. “Movement is minimal,” Jain said admiringly. My suspicion that doing less — the art of subtraction, predicated on a zeal for leaving things unsaid — mattered deeply to Jain was confirmed when later that afternoon he began to speak rapturously of Masanobu Fukuoka, the author of the 1975 classic “The One-Straw Revolution,” who pioneered the “do-nothing” school of agriculture, eschewing the plow and chemical fertilizers. I suspect Jain dislikes heavy-handedness, not merely on aesthetic grounds but because he sees in it a criminal failure of imagination. To disrespect negative space is, I venture to say, in Jain’s estimation, to lose the right to act. After lunch, we drove to Jain’s Copper House, built-in 2012 in another inland village farther west. The house is a two-tiered structure with a cupric roof enclosing a basalt courtyard that contains an immense boulder, placed asymmetrically to one side, redolent of an Isamu Noguchi sculpture. Japan has clearly entered Jain’s soul, where it has fertilized what feels like the ancient Buddhist-Jain austerity of India. When Jain was younger, his parents had taken him on long drives across the length and breadth of the country, where he had been introduced to Indian antiquity. In 1972, during a car trip north, the family stopped at the newly constructed city of Chandigarh, a triumph of Modernism set against the foothills of the Himalayas. Outside Le Corbusier’s 1953 government building called the Secretariat, the 7-year-old Bijoy refused to get out. “I saw this huge … it was a giant thing. I had to be whisked away. I couldn’t get out of the car. That’s my experience of Chandigarh.” Jain was at pains to say that this was not necessarily a criticism of the city — which the writer V.S. Naipaul described as a place where “India had encouraged yet another outsider to build a monument to himself” — but I suspect it was. The modern architect whom Jain unreservedly loves is Louis Kahn. Jain said of Kahn’s palatially geometric National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh: “The building itself is an excavation, it’s subtraction. It’s not a frame structure, not column and beam. It’s like water that carves rock.” It was a supreme compliment.

MY TIME WITH JAIN was meant to end in Alibag, but unexpectedly, the architect invited me to his office, Studio Mumbai, which he built in 2014, and where he lives, if not quite above the shop, then adjacent to it. A few hours later, I found myself driving to the southern Mumbai neighborhood of Byculla. I passed mosques and minarets, and tube-lit chawls (tenements), where behind grille windows a thousand evening meals were being prepared and a thousand televisions flashed. It was squalid and decaying, and yet so overwhelmingly human. I could not help but wonder what Jain would make of these scenes. Would he, like most of the city’s moneyed classes, shut them out behind air-conditioned cars and hermetically sealed high-rise apartments? Or would he find a way to make creative use of the hard, gritty reality of urban Mumbai? Jain was waiting for me on the street. He pushed open one leaf of a vast metal gate, and I found myself in what felt like a mews, open to the night air but infused with the germ of the Mumbai chawl. Pendant lamps ran down the length of the street, on either side of which were open units. Jain lived in one, and at the far end of this magical street were the ateliers of Studio Mumbai. Despite the lateness of the hour, they teamed with industry and activity. It was part modern studio, part forge or medieval workshop. Jain’s new obsession was tazias — the miniature mausoleums made of colored paper and bamboo that Shias in India parade through the streets during their month of mourning. These giant structures, which Jain had discovered were mandalas, geometric forms with mystical or cosmic significance, cast long skeletal shadows over the walls of Studio Mumbai. I had until that moment been guilty of believing that Jain’s immense talent was confined to designing beautiful houses. But now I saw his full ambition. The architect had set himself the task of what a young Brahman in Varanasi once described to me as pulling the thread of the past forward and tying it to the future. It was renaissance that Jain was after. “I knew that we could build like we used to build,” he had said earlier that day. But for rebirth to occur, wasn’t it necessary that the death of the traditional Indian past be acknowledged? Earlier, Jain had spoken of the grief of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar, who, after the death of a cherished Sufi saint, had built him a white marble mausoleum in the red sandstone city Akbar constructed near Agra called Fatehpur Sikri — a city of pure folly, which was soon to be abandoned, for it ran out of water. Driving home to my hotel from Studio Mumbai, the words Jain had used to describe Akbar’s coral capital returned with new force and meaning: “He conceived of a place where there is life in death.”

This article was originally published on Published Oct. 9, 2019 Updated Oct. 10, 2019 at

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