Architecture as a Backdrop to Life

Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt, the Principal Architects of Architecture BRIO, a multidisciplinary design practice with offices in India and in the Netherlands talk to us about their approach to design and discuss some of their projects with us. By Amrita Shah

House with a Stream by Studio Brio; this retreat in Alibag delicately weaves into the landscape.

Architecture BRIO, a multidisciplinary practice based in Mumbai and Netherlands, search for a delicate balance between architecture as the act of disappearance, and creating characterful, responsive, and experiential environments.

SCALE charts their growth, as the two Principal Architects of Architecture BRIO, Shefali Balwani and Robert Verrijt take us through some of their significant  projects that throw a light on their aesthetic and architecture sensibilities.

Educational Background and Early Influences

Shefali graduated from CEPT in Ahmedabad and Robert studied at TU Delft in the Netherlands. Their paths crossed when they did exchange programmes in each other’s universities, where Shefali says they both experienced a culture shock of sorts in the others context. At Delft, students were left to explore the magnitude of possibilities in architecture, which was afar cry from the dogmatic approach Shefali believed in. For Robert, studying in India provided a break from the Dutch movement where emphasis on the conceptual form was too literal, and he was given a chance to explore other factors that influence architecture such as the site, climate and local materials that were completely different from the conditions in the Netherlands. Keen to explore this new approach to architecture, he moved to Sri Lanka to study the works of late architect Geoffrey Bawa by joining the team that was putting together a retrospective exhibition of his work. Shefali joined him a year later at the office of Channa Daswatte.

The Treehouse Villa designed by Architecture BRIO perches on the cliff of a 160 acre hilltop ‘treesort’ property surrounded by a meandering river landscape. The idyllic setting in Tala on the West coast of India, is a stone’s throw away from the Kuda caves.

Working primarily on residential and hospitality projects gave the duo a chance to be immersed in Bawa’s work. Shefali explains, “By refurbishing some of Bawa’s projects to living in one, by listening to Channa’s stories of how Bawa worked, we soon began to realise that the buildings he designed, however subtly and effortlessly they blend into the Sri Lankan landscape scene were often the result of surprising interventions. Bawa had created an architecture culture of his own that was progressive, timeless and extremely rooted in its surrounds.”

Shefali and Robert go on to emphasise how deeply influenced they were by Bawa’s approach to architecture and how it transformed their understanding of nature by creating contrasts that emphasise the raw and unpredictable elements of the natural world.

Aesthetic Sensibility

Shefali and Robert established Architecture BRIO in 2006 and the design firm now operates from offices in Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Mumbai (India). The team has grown sizably over the last few years, and in 2020 Mimo Shirazi joined the team as Business Head at Architecture BRIO and is responsible for the operational aspects of the organisation, business development and client relations. Subsequently, Rohit Mankar also from the School of Architecture at CEPT came aboard as Associate Partner and Head of Projects with a focus on technical development and the implementation of projects.

The work of the BRIO studio addresses new ways of understanding the often contradictory interrelations between the city, architecture, landscape and the interior spaces we inhabit.

The Riparian House is placed below the crest of a hillock at the foothills of the Ghats near Mumbai.

“There is a growing need for our built environment to re-establish healthy relationships with the natural world. Similarly there is an urgency to address the never before seen growth in urban and rural areas in India and globally. Within this context, the work searches for a delicate balance between architecture as the act of disappearance, and creating characterful, responsive and experiential environments,” says Robert.

This duality, explored within the context of a drastically changing world has become one of the main themes in the work of the practice. Shefali and Robert knew early on in their practice that their designs would not solely be based on aesthetic or visual criteria; any design undertaking would be the outcome of function, context, resources and climate. He adds, “Understanding human experience was essential. We believe that architecture should be the tool with which you enjoy the land you sit upon, a backdrop to life, fitting effortlessly with the user and the context. Architecture should remain a backdrop to life rather than taking centre stage.”

Approach to a Project

The partners say they see each project as a challenge but also an opportunity to uncover the unique characteristics of specific conditions and investigate how to intervene so that they can create a positive change. Robert elaborates, “We often ask ourselves which approach can have an impact on the way we deal with natural and built forms. However appropriateness is not necessarily the most self evident. Often an inherent conflict between the context and climate of a project and its chosen typological and functional approach generates solutions that unexpectedly turn out to be favourable.”

BillionBricks Homes is the world’s first carbon-negative, self-financing home for the homeless. It address the scarcity of homes across rural communities and the impossibility of access to financing. This project is a collaboration with BillionBricks with Robert Verrijt as the lead designer for BillionBricks.

When asked about the materials and construction techniques they favour, Shefali responds, “We believe buildings should coexist with their surroundings rather than alienate them. We choose materials consciously; they should last long and evolve over time due to natural patina processes. There should be some tactility to them; we don’t aspire for our houses to look exactly like they do currently 20 years from now. Natural materials are alive and change is inevitable.”

A project designed by Architecture BRIO stands out in that it imbibes another design principal the team follows. The principals believe that good architecture is like a good book – with perspectives and plots changing to keep the reader engrossed. This translates into their buildings having smaller narratives that engage the user in different ways while framing the landscape beyond from different angles thereby varying the inside-outside connect continuously and providing a multitude of user experiences. As Shefali explains, “Understanding that the landscape in the distance is the real limit of the house.”

Meeting of Landscape and Architecture

Architecture BRIO’s approach to architecture is to integrate a building into its environment. “We believe that landscape and architectural design are meant to come together as integrated as well as opposing elements. It is this contradiction between the two that enriches the experience of the other. Landscape design is not a garden to be merely observed. Rather it is a part of the house or building, an extension of the inside, often a room without walls. It enlivens the architecture; it creates variety in design depending on the regional and local context. Often for the landscape to make a dramatic impact, bold interventions are needed in the initial conceptual planning and thought process of the project. What may in the end seem natural is often the outcome of surprisingly intensive interventions,” states Robert.

In their House by a Stream, the stream is a powerful force that dominates the design. Turbulent in the monsoon and stark dry bedrock in the summer, the stream is a key feature of the landscape.

“The house is like an organism trying to make most use of its resources and surroundings,”say the architects.

Shefali explains that their primary concept was for the house to be experienced through its views of the stream. Huge picture windows frame these views as one moves from room to room.

She says, “We chose to highlight the contradiction between the built and natural forms by breaking up the house in two parts and scattering it across the site, making it seem like it was moulded around the stream. The resulting experience becomes an encounter – an encounter between the home and this dominating landscape feature.”

Another project designed by Architecture BRIO that brings together nature and architecture was The Tree Villa. Conceived as a celebration of the dramatic landscape and intended to evoke the feeling of living in a tree house, the architects were given a free rein of the site.

Robert explains that actually supporting a large tree house on trees was not possible. Instead, the team opted to use slender steel columns painted in dark colour to mimic the trees. Concrete was used only in the foundation of the structure; the walls were made of timber posts with an infill of acrylic or glass, the floors of terrazzo tiles on ply and the roof of thatch.

He goes on, “Elements and textures as part of the structure are focused on coexistence with nature. We thought it would be nice for the villa to reflect the greenery around so we used a mirror screen to clad the exterior walls of the indoor-outdoor bathroom. This is only solid part of structure; rest of pavilion is like glass house with unobstructed views.” The trees form an integral part of the structure and the architects had to ensure that there was enough room for the trees to grow over the years through and around the tree house.

When the studio was appointed to build the Riparian House on a hill along the river in Mumbai’s outskirts, they were faced with the dilemma of constructing a building in a pristine, untouched landscape but making it seem like it had always been part of it. The problem was addressed by opting to build an underground house that allowed nature to take over on completion. The hilly terrain originally did not allow the house owners to sit out and enjoy the view of the river.

The architects introduced a green roof over the house that not only further integrated it with the landscape and make it more unobtrusive, but also created a space where the residents could enjoy the outdoors. Building in the lap of nature comes with its share of unexpected challenges.

Shefali says, “We also make room for chance encounters during the construction process.”

The Plantation House in Alibaug

She says, “For example, in the Plantation Home we built in Alibaug, we knew that there were large boulders on the site. However it was only once we dug up the land that we learned what size and shape these were. We left them naturally exposed to create an earthy feel, while lifting and repositioning some of them to create an artful effect.”

The Plantation House emphasises the profile of the built from. It is not much unlike the Portuguese chapels scattered around the rolling hills of nearby coastal Goa.

In the Riparian House, a similar large boulder was unearthed at the back of the property, the designers decided to carve steps into it as a means of connection between the house and roof terrace. She adds, “The nice part of this project is seeing it evolve over years; it is always changing, always dynamic. The relationship between house and garden keeps thriving. We find joy and comfort in this.”

Stone boulders which were discovered during the excavation process of the Riparian House were used in the building and retain the earth.

Social Responsibility

The firm has always worked toward the betterment of society – whether by working with NGO’s to uplift impoverished sections of society, or promoting and practicing sustainability.

“We firmly believe in the power of architecture to create a positive social impact. But we also realise that we practice mostly in parts of the world where architects serve less than 5% of the population. Therefore we’ve focused much of our attention on work for amazing organizations like Magic Bus, BillionBricks and the Etania Green School in Malaysia,” says Robert. He goes on to explain what each organization does and BRIO’s role.

“Magic Bus is all about empowering underprivileged children through sports and education. We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate closely with them, using our architectural expertise to design safe and inspiring spaces for their programs.”

BillionBricks Homes was shortlisted for the ArchDaily Building Of The Year 2022 Awards in the Houses category. It also won The Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction global that showcases the cutting edge approaches to sustainable design, green architecture and materials innovation.

“BillionBricks is another organisation close to our hearts. They focus on providing sustainable housing solutions for homeless and vulnerable populations. We’ve been actively involved in designing shelters that are not only functional but also generate more power than they consume. This way housing for the masses can become a catalyst for a sustainable future.”

The Etania Green School is a lightweight module for a classroom that floats over shipping containers that serve as foundations.

This project done in collaboration with BillionBricks, with BillionBricks as the lead designer.

“The Etania Green School in Malaysia was a fantastic project where we designed a learning environment that fostered a deep connection with nature and promoted eco-consciousness. Through incorporating renewable energy sources, green spaces, and sustainable materials, we were able to minimise the school’s carbon footprint while providing an inspiring place for education.”

Improving spaces for the community is something Architecture BRIO strongly believes in. The Bandra Collective is a group of like-minded architects who live in the same Mumbai suburb as BRIO. To further enliven a public promenade in the area, a skate park was proposed. Seeing that the government was hesitant to allow this, the proposal was amended to show an amphitheatre. Today this ‘amphitheatre’ is used actively by urban sport enthusiasts who express their creativity through skateboarding.

The Plantation House

Robert goes on to says, “Sometimes engaging with a community close to home can lead to incredible results. All these initiatives are driven by our belief that architecture can do so much more than just create beautiful structures. It can be a force for positive change, promoting inclusivity, sustainability, and community development.”

Architecture BRIO strongly believes in sustainable design. They emphasise that there is a need to promote rapid, widespread acceptance of sustainable solutions. “The challenge is also to generate fresh ideas that carry out self-sufficient systems at scale. The potentials of new building techniques, re-appropriating materials in an effective and durable way, and intelligent energy concepts should be uncovered and integrated in an innovative way in architecture.”

With energy reduction and sustainability as a starting point for all their projects, the practice attempts to create innovative and exciting architecture. BRIO, much like the name, is about buildings that give energy both literally and metaphorically.

Photographs Courtesy of the Architects.