Best of brick

Materials World magazine
,
1 Sep 2017

Khai Trung Le looks at the chaotic brick façade of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre and its mix of traditional Indian design and modern architectural demands.

Around the corner from New Delhi’s Africa Avenue, in the Northend Complex, is a modestly small office. The office, belonging to a non-governmental organisation, is slight and narrow and could easily be overwhelmed by the noisy street activity outside. But the importance of the work conducted by the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), India, is well demonstrated with the impressive and erratic brick façade by Anagram Architects.

Vaibhav Dimri and Madhav Raman, co-founders of Anagram Architects, identified the bustling street corner as both a potential issue for the office and a source of inspiration. Although it was important to shield the SAHRDC from noise, visual distractions and direct sunlight, the pair imagined the external wall as ‘an animated, dynamic skin reflecting the bustle of the street and activating what would otherwise have been a mundane façade with minimal fenestrations.’

Jaali 

To achieve this, the centre’s external wall is adorned with an elaborate rotating pattern inspired by traditional South Asian brise soleils – architectural flourishes that reduce heat gain by deflecting sunlight – and jaali – typically a perforated stone or lattice screen. Jaali is a long-standing tradition in Indian architecture, and garners numerous advantages including heat ingress, greater ventilation and managing illumination while maintaining privacy through light difference. Some of the earliest examples of jaali can be seen as far back as the 8th Century with the Kailasa Temple in Ellora and the Pattadakal temple complex in Karnataka, India.  

The choice of exposed brick construction for the façade was primarily one of cost reduction, although having decided on its use, the architects were keen to prevent any visible intrusion of any material other than brick masonry onto the façade. A six-brick module laid in staggered courses was chosen to create twirling vertical stacks and an undulating surface. The rotating pattern was created using computer modelling, but using a six-brick module created unique challenges.

A statement from Anagram Architects explains, ‘For proper alignment (prevention of corbelling), all the centres of the modules in a vertical stack had to fall on one perfectly vertical axis around which the module would rotate. This was difficult to estimate accurately on site during bricklaying due to human error.

‘The other issue was verifiying the plumbness of every course. Dropping an accurate plumb line from one course to the next was not feasible since the brick faces were not in the same plane. A single vertical stack was built and rebuilt five times on site with both the architects and the masons trying to co-strategise on a simple and practical bricklaying technique that could be replicated by the various masonry teams without relying heavily on the individual skills of a master mason.’

Construction took five weeks, with many of the masonry techniques accommodating the irregular structure devised on site. The architects note that the ‘porous and playful external façade is designed to provide a degree of acoustic and visual privacy from the street activity while intimately engaging the street corner.’

Brick in the wall

Since its completion eight years ago, Anagram Architects has worked on 18 other projects, both commercial and residential, moving between material choices. While the duo has moved on from the SAHRDC – Raman said, ‘I don’t think of any of our projects as singularly significant. The SAHRDC is the one that got us wide critical acclaim and global recognition, so it is the one people immediately identify us with. But it was our first completed building [back in 2009]’ – Anagram has returned to brick with its work on the Doon School Dehradun and Vaansa Eco Resort.  

The SAHRDC was awarded second place in the Wienerberger Brick Awards 2010, and the duo remain passionate about the potential of architecture. Raman said, ‘We would like to show students of architecture that its practice is not just a cerebral activity of the mind, but one that involves the heart and might just help you find your soul.’