Modern retreat in India

What do you get when you cross a fortress and a wind sock? This may sound like a riddle, but marrying such seemingly incompatible qualities was exactly what architect Niels Schoenfelder set out to do three years ago when he began designing a weekend house for his family—his wife, Malavika Shivakumar, and their two children, ages 15 and 3. The site, just north of Puducherry (colloquially known as Pondicherry) on India’s southeast coast, lies in a region where the average annual temperature tops 81 degrees and the relentless sun is outfoxed only by the equally ferocious (though shorter-lived) monsoons. The house needed to offer protection from the dramatic climate while still welcoming the cooling winds that blow in off the Bay of Bengal. Foxtail palms surround the concrete-clad house.

The solution was deceptively simple: a thick-walled cube that can be completely opened on opposite ends so that the sea breezes blow through it, like a tunnel. “It is as if you are sitting in the jet stream,” says Schoenfelder. The house’s daytime spaces—the living rooms, studies, and library—are all upstairs, on the double-height second floor, while the bedrooms and kitchen are tucked away below. Schoenfelder and Shivakumar at their house.

Heavy masonry gives the house the rugged solidity of a medieval structure, something Schoenfelder had in mind while developing his otherwise severely modern design, with small rooms that appear to be carved into the thickness of the walls, and a staircase that climbs through a close, shadowed space. But the evocative materials serve a more practical purpose as well: They stay cool to the touch. “We are always barefoot in the house,” says Schoenfelder. A sitting area’s custom sofa and armchairs are upholstered in a cotton with silk-embroidered pillows, all by Jean-François Lesage, the cocktail table is reclaimed Anjan wood and milled steel, and the fan is by the Fan Studio; the walls are hand-polished lime plaster, and the doors are reclaimed Burmese teak.

This no-shoes attitude is just one of the reasons that the house has become such an essential respite for the family, who spend their weekdays in Chennai, a crowded industrial city a two-hour drive up the coast. There, Schoenfelder has an architectural practice, Mancini Enterprises, and Shivakumar is a partner in Jean-François Lesage’s self-named firm, which creates and exports exquisite hand-embroidered textiles to a client list that includes leading interior and fashion designers, as well as royalty, around the globe. The living area and mezzanine library of the Puducherry, India, weekend home designed by architect Niels Schoenfelder for his wife, Malavika Shivakumar, and their family; the pillows on the custom daybed are by Jean-François Lesage, the rosewood-and-cane armchair is French colonial, and the rug is by Shyam Ahuja.

“Once the week is done, this house is very much a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city,” says Shivakumar. The family’s downtime is made even more relaxing by the fact that the property abuts a 35-acre resort—the Dune Eco Beach Hotel, also designed by Schoenfelder. A gate from the family’s lush garden opens directly onto resort property, with its swimming pools, spa, and restaurants. In the library, the sofa’s upholstery and embroidered pillows are by Lesage.

The house site also has historic significance to the couple. “We met more or less on the very property on which we built our house,” says Shivakumar. Back then, Schoenfelder was just establishing his own practice in India. Raised in Germany and trained in France, he had come to the region a year earlier to oversee a renovation project in Puducherry, a former French outpost. He quickly fell in love, first with the country and then with his wife, and never returned to Europe. Shivakumar, for her part, had studied French and English literature and spoke several languages fluently. “We are both citizens of the world,” she says. In the studio, the vintage Hindi movie posters came from a Mumbai flea market, and the chair was discovered at a thrift shop in Puducherry; the English colonial table (right) was also a local find.

Schoenfelder soon also found himself captivated by the Indian approach to building. “It is more of a human adventure than it is in Europe, because you work with all these craftspeople on a construction site,” he says. “You have direct interaction with the people who are really doing the work.” It’s a sensibility he has sought to replicate on all his projects, not least his own house. The metal furniture legs are made by hand. The walls are clay brick covered in lime plaster, a hand-applied finish that results in a beautiful, slightly uneven surface. The floors are hand-polished concrete. And all the wood, both inside and out, is reclaimed from older buildings, so it bears the marks of human wear and care. “When you do a house that is quite rigorous in its geometry, you need the surfaces to be softer,” says Schoenfelder. A bathroom’s shower fittings are by Jaquar, and the flooring is black slate.

Softer still are the textiles used throughout the interior, including an antique bedspread from Kashmir and pillows embroidered in silk and gold thread from Vastrakala. Ultimately, these aesthetic details matter only insofar as they contribute to the house’s underlying spirit. Schoenfelder’s goal was to demonstrate that a smart, small-scale house will be more satisfying to inhabit than a sprawling, superficially fancy mansion. For Shivakumar, the objective was somewhat subtler: “I wanted a place where I could feel my entire being. When you enjoy being in a beautiful space, you get a feeling that is almost like a physical experience—a sense of your whole self.” The result of these asymmetrical desires? A house that marries not just fortress and wind sock, but also intelligence and poetry. The ikat in the master bedroom is from Kalpa Druma, and the sconce is by Philips.

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