Eye on the Lake: Shabbir Unwala, Design Workshop

Eye on the Lake, a weekend retreat in Khadakwasla, principled by Lonavala-based Shabbir Unwala’s critical understanding of architecture, is a veritable effort to intervene responsibly in a natural landscape.

How not to build on mountain slopes and how I learnt to design ‘Diet’ buildings.

Having relocated to Lonavala in 1988 to get away from the architectural madness called Mumbai, I started my practice in 1989 in Lonavala and began immediately to unlearn all the lessons learnt of how to build in an urbanscape that the college and offices I had worked had taught me.

Colleges primarily teach us to practise in an urban landscape with all the sensibilities of an urban architect but when the scenery changes one still tends to apply the old lessons to a different context.

So from the beginning my endeavour was first learn how not to build on mountain slopes:
No levelling of land
No earth filling and no humongous retaining walls
No cutting trees
And many other no’s…

….. And while learning this lesson, I also learnt a new lesson that the best way to build is to have a minimum footprint on the mountain side and treat the building as an artifact planted on the site.

The idea fructified with The Machan and henceforth we have designed many structures with this philosophy – it is green and sustainable and as Buckminster Fuller had asked Sir Norman Foster, ‘How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?’ My answer would be light very light- it is a diet building.

Shabbir Unwala

Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India
Perched on the edge of the lake, the architectural intervention is an implicit response to the context and programme.

“It is a visceral response to the site,” says Shabbir Unwala, Design Workshop of Eye on the Lake, “It is a pretty large lake (Khadakwasla) which supplies water to Pune. And from the point where you stand and you look at it, you can see the water till the horizon. There you want a house which is kind of ‘caught in motion’ before jumping into the lake. The house that wants to be a boat…”

Master Plan, Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India
Master Plan

A visual release on all sides over an undulating terrain to an open lake fringed by shoreline greens – an exquisite backdrop that frames an unassuming and selectively detailed pavilion-like structure. Amid this subtropical idyll, Eye on the Lake sits lightly, its minimal form, contained space and peripheral landscaping designed as a weekend home for a friend who is a practising architect. Endowed with this ‘honour’, as he puts it, of building for a fellow architect and with a purposeful sensitivity, the building represents not only the philosophical ethos he mentions above – a way of working and making architecture – but also the individuality of each site-specific detail.

Site Plan, Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India
Ground Floor Plan

Entrance View, Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India

Occupying 600sqft of the expansive plot area spread over nine acres, the structure crowns the rise of an extreme edge of the terrain at a singular point. The most distinctive visual feature perhaps is its textural envelope of wooden slats. It is an assertive aesthetic but one which lends a duality – of revealing and concealing at the same time. Anchored against the fall of the land on two RCC columns, folded steel frames support the soaring roof clad with Mangalore tiles forming the trapezoidal volume beneath. A part of this composition, seemingly detached from this outer envelope along its east and west facades,  the interiority appears as a suspended volume inscribed within.

A relaxing walkway over shallow inclines of the land leading up to a verandah shaded under overhang of the eaves counterintuitively marks the entrance. A low-slung seating inconspicuously engages a corner. Internally, the space expands holistically pausing at a cubical insert comprising of the pantry and toilet lined along the western edge next to the entrance door and a ladder-like stairway ascending to the mezzanine set atop these two functions. The sequence then winds gradually past a defined living space to step out to a balcony which overlooks the lake. The furnishings are spare, essential and tasteful – a centrally placed bed, cabinets and understated curtains. Patterns of shadow animate and maximise the compact space as sunlight encounters the façade.

Balcony, Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India

A level below, the design offers a seating negotiated at the intersection of the construct and the land to give a controlled view of the beautiful surroundings. Each element and connection seems measured to eliminate unessential architectural moves.

The preoccupation with the outside is ritualistic, and the immediacy to the lake intensifies the setting. It is simple, refined owing the restrained palette of wood, steel, glass and the concrete columns. Elaborating on it, Shabbir says, “The whole idea was to build it minimally, to make it as much sustainable as possible. It is a completely ‘nut and bolt’ structure. I normally tend to use most of the material which is recyclable.” A subtle and optimistic manoeuvre in the bigger schema, a photovoltaic panel edging slightly above the roof that empowers the entire lighting, certainly aligns well with this thought.

View, Eye on the Lake, Shabbir Unwala, Khadakwasla, architecture, India

Instilled in the house is a sense of this integrity more than an expected domesticity. As a visible element embedded in and trying to rediscover the landscape, it has a humility about it, an ease of character and retains a certain flow with a regard for the inhabitable space and yet extends boundaries. Effortlessly, it speaks about space and movement, of complexity and calmness, transparency and typology, and not the least, of comfort and pragmatism.

Project: Eye on the Lake
Location: Khadakwasla, India
Client: Arathi Parigi
Architect: Shabbir Unwala, Design Workshop
Completion of Project: 2009

Site Area: 9 acres
Built-up Area: 600sqft

Text: Maanasi Hattangadi
Images & Drawings: courtesy the architect



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