Studio Momo: An Organic Approach

Goa-based architectural and interior design firm Studio Momo has become synonymous with luxury villas that are environmentally sensitive and have a unique wabi-sabi aesthetic. SCALE talks to Gurmeet Akali, the Principal Architect of the firm about her work and approach to design. By Amrita Shah

A Wabi Sabi aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete in nature. The term is derived from wabi which can be translated as a subdued or austere beauty, and sabi which means rustic patina.

Gurmeet aka Meetu Akali, the founder of Studio Momo is a true believer in this Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfections. She explains that wabi sabi, in design means rustic and simple living with an understated elegance, and nothing could better describe the numerous homes she has created over the last 13 years.

“My design process is very organic and sensory,” says Gurmeet Akali (Meetu Akali)

Born and brought up in Mumbai where she studied architecture, Akali went on to do her Master’s in Advanced Architecture Design at Oxford under the mentorship of industry stalwarts David Greene and Andrew Holmes. Moving to Goa on her return to India was a conscious choice borne out of her desire to live in a place that had a multicultural, relaxed vibe as well as a greater connection with nature. Nature has always inspired Akali.

About Studio Momo’s approach to design she says, “Right from the architecture to the interiors – the colour scheme and choice of materials – everything pivots around being sustainable and making environmentally conscious design choices. I aim to design and create a built form that has a direct relationship to its context both physically and culturally.” Akali explains that architecture to her is beyond the built form – it is experiential, and in her treatment of projects it is evident that the architecture, interiors and landscape were conceived together as a whole.

Akali’s design practice is all about giving due importance to natural materials and the surrounding landscape.

Akali’s design practice in Goa grew organically with one thing leading to another. Restoration projects came her way and she says she just jumped into the deep end and learned along the way. Her approach to a project is similar.

“My design process is very organic and sensory. When I get a new project, I like to visit the land and spend time walking around and soaking in it’s vibration, touching the existing trees, understanding the movement of the sun… understanding and observing everything the plot has to offer.  I make sure I spend time with my clients too… for me, architecture is a seamless blend of the home-owners’ personalities and my response to the site,” she says.

Beauty is in the Details

The ‘Chef’s Villa’ – a retirement home for an internationally celebrated chef, is a prime example of Studio Momo and Akali’s sensitive and organic approach to a project and its surrounds.

Chef’s Villa.

Abutting a densely forested area in a quaint North Goan village, Akali designed a space that created a seamless integration of the interior with the landscape to create a sense of free-flowing energy through the home.

The 3-bedroom, 2000sq ft villa was designed around a 100-year-old mango tree that existed on the site. The tree was made central to the layout, and all indoor areas opened up to this central courtyard which served to act like the lungs of the house.

The house is planned around an old mango tree.

Akali adds that the design was changed overnight when she realised that the roots of the tree were more widespread than anticipated, and the initial plan would do irreparable damage to the tree.

Wood, bamboo and stone are the materials used around and in the construction of the Chef’s Villa.

The design also incorporates natural materials that age well such as stone, reclaimed wood and bamboo, conforming to the wabi sabi aesthetics the studio promotes.

Architecture is Experimental

Akali talks about her design process. “I look at every project as a fresh canvas. Once I have soaked into all of this information, I sit at my drawing board and sketch. It’s usually a one-time process where I look at the built form in a holistic manner. For me architecture is beyond the built-form – it is experiential,” she says.

Villa Charão

“I think about the texture, the materials, the courtyards, the water-bodies, the light and play, the size of the openings, the height of the ceiling, the fabric for curtains, the type of bed, the design language of the furniture…. In those extensive hours spent on the drawing board in the beginning, I create a detailed mood board for every space. In fact, the first step of the project is detailing. It is a very involved and detail-oriented process that includes a rich palette of natural materials, textures and colours. Though the overall look and feel is locked in the beginning, the actual outcome is something that evolves gradually and intuitively through the journey of the project.”

Studio Momo has worked on several restoration projects in Goa – something that happened quite serendipitously.

The mud and stone carved Villa Charão is one of the earlier restoration projects.

In 2015 she was approached by Smita Crishna Godrej to breathe new life into her daughter Nyrika Crishna and her husband Yeshwant Rao Holkar’s 200-year-old Indo-Portuguese villa on the Goan island of Charão. Although young and inexperienced in this area, Akali decided this was a good way to preserve the heritage of Goa. She dived into the challenge and spent the next two years educating herself on architectural restoration.

The landscape of the structure is laid out in such a way that it embraces the Villa Charão while guarding the house against natural forces.

The Charão house had been submerged underground by a metre over the years of neglect. Carving this mud and stone structure out of the earth and keeping in mind the steep incline on which it was built was one of the primary challenges faced by the structural team Akali collaborated with. As a response to the slope, the garden was divided into five stepped terraces, each with its own characteristic feature, with the front garden overlooking the backwaters.

Beauty of rustic interiors showcased in Villa Felicidade

The house was reconfigured to create several entertainment areas, each exuding a different vibe for the young couple who loved having people over. The three bedrooms, a living room, a semi-covered dining room and spacious kitchen were wrapped around a central courtyard lined with laterite columns. Natural stone floors, sloped wooden ceilings, whitewashed walls and sunlight flooding through the large expanses of window unify all the spaces.

Restoration Projects are the Forte

This first restoration was a game changer for Akali and the team at Studio Momo and over the years she was approach for several similar projects.

Villa Felicidade

The Villa Felicidade is a 177-year Indo-Portuguese house that has been tastefully restored by Studio Momo.

In 2021 Studio Momo completed renovating and repairing Villa Felicidade, a 177-year Indo-Portuguese house that sprawled over 15,00 sqft over a plot that is 4000 sqm in area.

Large structural interventions in the architecture were made to enhance the natural light and ventilation, and the original interiors of the house were gutted to be replaced with a minimal pallet of black, grey, blue and white offset by teak and stone. This project was executed in two phases – the restoration and redesigning of the main house, adding the swimming pool a new structure that was built to echo the aesthetics of the original.

Light flows in through the large windows in the Villa Bambolim.

Soon after came Villa Bambolim – a 4000 sqft beach house perched on a cliff in east Goa.

“The house acts as a break between the surface and the depths, giving equal weight to the beach and the sun. The tide is on one side and tropical undergrowth is on the other. In Villa Bambolim’s restoration journey, our focus was clear. We wanted to infuse every corner with the mesmerizing beauty of the sea,” explains Akali.

Villa Bambolim is a 4000 sqft beach house perched on a cliff in east Goa.

To make the most of the villa’s location on a cliff, Akali created a wood and steel cantilevered deck that wraps around the entire house. Seamlessly extending from the façade, the deck offers an immersive view of the ocean and the trees, effectively bringing the outdoors in. And it is understandably the place the entire family congregates at all times of the day.

Materials used in all the homes are environmentally friendly; up-cycled wood, doors, windows and furniture are a common occurrence in all projects.

“In effect, the deck functions as a modern version of the traditional Goan verandah and extends into every room. This wraparound wooden deck effortlessly transitions into a cozy breakfast nook, lounge space, ideal spot for sundowners and into a lively party venue for late evenings, all with a stunning sea view,” elaborates Akali.

Respecting Nature

Akali stresses that one of the aims of the studio is to be respectful to the existing site conditions with any project. Trees are often preserved and woven into designs, or the surrounds are made the highlight of the house by ensuring spaces flow and the eye travels from in to out. The materials used in all the homes created are also environmentally friendly, so up-cycled wood, doors, windows and furniture are a common occurrence in all projects by Studio Momo.

Terra cotta tiles and stone-layered flooring helps in maintaining cooler climates indoors.

Courtyards are frequently seen in their projects but not only as a reference to traditional architecture. “By adding multiple courtyards into our design, we work with creating a microclimate outside all the living spaces. The microclimate is further enhanced by adding tropical lush plants, and water bodies so as to drop the internal temperature by degrees,” she explains.

Villa Casa del ada spread out on the Goan landscape

Akali builds using vernacular load bearing techniques common to the Goan Portuguese architecture, and says the lime plastered walls and pitched roofs covered with terracotta tiles are ideal responses to the Goan climate. “Terracotta tiles help in reflecting UV rays and maintaining the temperature of the house, while lime plastered helps walls to breathe, creating healthier living conditions,” she explains.

Pitched roofs covered with terracotta tiles are ideal responses to the Goan climate.

Akali’s design process involves making several colour and finish samples on site, a process she describes as very detail oriented and one that involves a rich palette of natural materials, textures and colours. She says, “I travel excessively to pick up antiques and artefacts for each project and that is what makes every project unique and exciting. The handover time is the most exciting time for all of us because we see the whole thing come together, like seeing a baby come to life. It’s usually a pleasant surprise at the end for all of us including the clients!”

Photographs: Courtesy Studio Momo