Living with Nature
Text: Zain Mankani, Photos: Najeeb Umar & Associates
Architect Najeeb Umar’s houses are easily recognizable from the outside because of the way they tend to block out the view into the house and consequently the views from the house. There are usually narrow slits on the façade or concrete screens but never large windows. The architect says he starts out by creating a shell for reasons of privacy and security. The house is planned within this shell, along with all the courtyard spaces, and all the views are directed inwards. Even the COS between the shell and the front boundary wall, which is normally incorporated into the garden by most architects, is more or less overlooked in Najeeb’s plans. The space is not important for the architect, who prefers to create his gardens at the back of the house where he can achieve the required level of privacy. Hence, no primary spaces open towards the front of the house, and in fact the front is taken up by secondary spaces such as bathrooms which are afforded a peek into any garden created by default because of the COS.
It is certainly an unusual approach to planning, which most clients would be unwilling to accept, but Najeeb is one of those few architects who are very selective about their clients and he works only with people who are able to understand and appreciate his concepts. Of course, any potential client who sees the architect’s own house, which is also built on the same principles, would be easily convinced of his approach, being as it is a marvel of architecture.
This particular house, designed for Zaheer and Abintah Adamjee has also been widely acclaimed, having recently won the 2012 IAP Award for Architecture in the Single Family Residential Unit category.
The house is located in Phase VI DHA and built on a 2000 square yards plot with a total covered area of approximately 9500 square feet. From the outside the house appears quite elegant because of its simple, barely perforated, soft white façade. As you enter into the car-porch you encounter the shell of the house more closely and see it in relation to the COS spaces, which in this particular case seem even more neglected. The architect had planned a garden in this superfluous space, but the client paved it over and turned it into a cricket pitch. Najeeb was consulted, of course, but since the space was unimportant for him, he did not object.
The house really begins when you enter the shell and the door leading you in is sufficient to give you an idea of what to expect inside. It is composed of unfinished planks of wood, painted over, and gives you the impression that the house is all about being comfortable and casual with nature.
As you step inside, you don’t enter into an indoor space like a foyer, but rather into a courtyard – a feature that is consistent in all of Najeeb’s work. The courtyard starts off with a pebbled floor, but then suddenly transforms into a lush green garden. This superb yet subtle transformation is really the thing that takes you by surprise and informs you immediately of the maturity and subtlety of the architect’s mind. Najeeb says he lays down the principles for the landscaping himself, deciding what the surface should be and where the plants should go and how high they should be, for example, but leaves the plant types to someone with a more specialized knowledge of what grows best in the given conditions.
The garden leads to a verandah with a very high roof. This space, which is at the threshold of indoor and outdoor is the most important part of the house. Najeeb goes further and says, ‘For me, this is the house. And everything else is just added to it.” It is certainly a very refreshing space, sitting as it is at the head of the entrance courtyard, with controlled vistas into the backyard. It is bounded at the rear by the formal living space, which also has a high roof but no second storey so that between its roof and the ceiling of the verandah, one can see a slice of the sky. It also allows a breeze into the verandah, since the wind direction is from the rear of the house.
The formal living area is itself an overwhelming space with its high ceiling and openings on three sides; one side looking into the verandah, another into a pebble-court and the third into the large garden at the back. All these open spaces are interconnected, which makes it conducive for holding social get-togethers. Guests have a variety of spaces to enjoy, differing in their scale and rendering, while easily navigating through the house to socialize with others.
The formal dining is also connected to the verandah, though detached from the formal living. This however allows it to have views on three sides as well. These areas make up the public wing of the house, while the private wing is completely secluded, and accessed through a door leading from the verandah.
The private wing includes three bedrooms and a lounge on the ground floor and two bedrooms plus a studio space on the first floor. This section is organized around a small courtyard and all the bedrooms, except for the master bedroom, look into this courtyard rather than viewing into the backyard or the more generous open space towards the front of the house. The courtyard is, moreover, not very sensitively designed, in comparison with the entrance court, or the pebble-court, and lacks the subtle variations in materials and the unkempt nature that is seen elsewhere in the house. Because of this, one almost feels bounded in and wishes for an unrestrained view to the front or rear gardens.
An interesting feature of the house is that much of it is single-storey, which gives it a nice scale and keeps it from becoming over-bearing, especially when one is enjoying the garden at the rear.
Zaheer and Abintah Adamjee, the owners of the house, appreciate the privacy and the proximity to nature that the house provides and which is at odds with the outside world.
“[The house] has been a lifestyle not just a home”, says Abintah. “It has confused, befuddled and amazed many people but always left a lasting and positive impression on those that have been through it. We have loved and enjoyed every moment since we moved into our home. It has accommodated family, friends and guests with warmth comfort and ease without ever encroaching on our privacy.
From the moment you step through the front door you feel transported into a different world leaving the hectic city far behind. Our friends called it a resort. There is a garden or courtyard in every view that soothes the eye. The multiple layers in which the house is built maintains the sanctity of the personal spaces and yet provides a variety of indoor and outdoor areas for entertaining without actually going out.”
The owners are currently living abroad and the house is occupied by another family, which shares the love of nature of the original occupants and accepts the positive and negative aspects of living in a house that is so seamlessly integrated with nature. In their opinion, it is a house that is best appreciated in the winter months – from November to March – when the outdoor spaces are utilized the most. During this time, they have social evenings on a regular basis, with candle-lit dinners spread across the various courtyards and gardens. Of course, they have to get used to the incessant chirping of birds; of being invaded by cats; of the occasional rainy day when they have to move the furniture out of the verandah, but all that comes with the package and is part of living with nature.