We speak to the woman behind an innovative home in India's capital city, which was created with the help of two local designers.
Poddar residence in Delhi is a daring postmodern edifice
The route to the Poddar residence is down one of Delhi’s, indeed India’s, arterial roads. The traffic noise, the shuddering roar of planes overhead and the motorway groaning with overloaded lorries are both maddening and stimulating. This is a country on the move, in a hurry, on a mission: to join the global community. But order is quite suddenly reinstated by a broad, long and smooth tarmacked avenue with manicured grass verges and high hedges. And right at the end of this meandering drive is the Poddar residence, which brusquely dispatches any preconceived, foreign notions of a postcolonial India stuck in the past.
This is a daring postmodern edifice, a series of hollow concrete cubes and cuboids stacked in perfect symmetry. It’s stringently rigorous. On the garden side – the front of the structure – giant plate-glass sheets enclose the spaces. It’s an indefatigable statement asserting that India, in the area of architecture and design at least, has arrived. The effect is breathtaking, confounding and intriguing.
Lekha Poddar is disarmingly welcoming. Some Indian traditions are preserved – you’re immediately offered water and other refreshments. She and her husband come from old industrial families; now with two grown-up sons, they required two buildings that gave everyone a certain independence, yet at the same time maintained the tradition of the Indian nuclear family.
Poddar was clear from the start that she wanted to continue the radical architectural and design experimentation of their previous home, which was located closer to the centre of Delhi. “The previous house, which was built in the 1980s, was revolutionary in the Indian context in the way the interior functioned and moved,” she explains. “We created a 30-foot atrium with a 30-foot waterfall; we used materials such as granite where most people used marble; and we had stone walls, which we left exposed.”
Poddar could have picked any of India’s acclaimed, internationally schooled architects to design her new home. Instead she handed Inni Chatterjee, a young, Indian-trained architect, his first commission. With her general aesthetic clear – “I love the concept of clean, modern lines” – Poddar gave Chatterjee free rein for his design, provided it was low maintenance and able to contend with the extreme heat of summer and the torrential rains of the monsoon. He was keen to use concrete, wanting to show that, when used innovatively and moulded more like plastic, it could be a great building material.
Poddar is passionate about architecture – and is a great fan of such figures as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Kenzo Tange and Emilio Ambasz. She immerses herself completely in any project, musing that one of her few regrets is that she herself did not train as an architect. “I am happy on any building site. It’s the whole thing of creation that I love. I am very happy while it’s being done; it’s my biggest high. I love the technicalities of it all, not just the pretty bits. I love the detail: proper foundations, waterproofing, structural details, materials and what can be done with them, pushing the envelope in the use of materials and what you can make them do.”
The roof of the house is an excellent example of this. Usually the most utilitarian feature of any building, here it’s transformed into a kind of sculpture. Undulating and wrapped in copper – itself an exciting juxtaposition with the grey of the concrete – the roof seems detached from the body of the building and calls to mind the movement of waves, the wing of a great bird or a sari momentarily caught in the breeze.
This remarkable synthesis of design and contemporary materials continues in the interior of the property. It’s Zen-like, with stainless steel, teakwood strips, concrete, polished black granite, copper and marble. Not surprisingly, Poddar is “fascinated by Japan – no intellectual reason. Everything is just so elegant – their whole aesthetic, their culture and tradition.”
For the fixtures, fittings and furniture, Poddar worked with another young, Indian-trained designer, the 23-year-old Samiir Wheaton (‘Thank goodness for Samiir,’ she exclaims). Poddar, her son Anupam and Wheaton discussed at great length the intended look and feel of the furniture, constantly exchanging ideas but keeping to a “solid and simple” Japanese aesthetic. As with Chatterjee, she gave Wheaton free rein to come up with ideas.
“Young people are full of them, practical and impractical, good and bad; however, they are not inhibited by experience and age, and are enthusiastic,” she explains.
Poddar is also a patron of the arts, and the concrete interior walls provide the perfect backdrop for her extensive collection of paintings and sculpture, most of Indian origin. There was a conscious decision to avoid “wandering in too many directions. I am passionate about the arts – both the contemporary and the traditional – and I am influenced by how both the French and the Italians mix the contemporary with the period. My personal aesthetic is to use traditional and new materials with traditional crafts and apply it to a modern context.”
Such juxtaposition is clear throughout the house, but perhaps best expressed in the two large, three-sided courtyards created by the E-shaped footprint of the building.
Initially inspired by the glass furniture of the American artist Danny Lane, Poddar commissioned him to create two, monumental glass-and-water sculptures to sit in the wells of the two spaces. They’re a masterstroke: during the day, the play of watery green light refracting through the giant slabs of glass and gently cascading water bring the courtyards alive; at night, the two works stand alone to transfix the eye with light, movement and sound.
“It’s the way you bring things together: you can have a piece of couture like Issey Miyake with Topshop – all you have to do is bring them together … I am frequently inspired with what I see around me as I move around the city. Only the other day, I came across a tradesman selling artificial flowers on the street sidewalk. How he had arranged the flowers and their colours was stunning,” she says.
Poddar has diversified into hospitality, with the opening of her hotel Devi Garh in Rajasthan, and she has plans for another hotel in Rajasthan and a small intimate one on the Andaman Islands. “Ultimately, if you want to create beautiful buildings, they have to pay for themselves, and hospitality is a good way of getting around this,” she says.
Self-effacing about her flair and ability, her aims nonetheless remain clear. “What we are trying to create in India is modern architecture and design. But I always want to give it an essential Indian twist. I always keep in mind that this is India, that it belongs to India and should be done by Indians. Why should we be lagging behind in the world? That is my greatest challenge, all the time.”
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