To Each Their Own

Observations on territory, space and taste from the interior and exterior customisations of homes in Vasant kunj’s DDA apartment communities

Vasant Kunj is an idyllic upmarket locality situated at the feet of the Aravalli range in New Delhi. It has the sprawling JNU Campus and Sanjay Van on its north east, and the airport just around 5–7 km to its North West—making it very desirable in the real estate market. Vasant Kunj consists primarily of residential areas developed by the DDA through the 80’s and 90’s, the most recent being the 2010 development of apartment complexes for the Commonwealth Games. The early DDA apartments were built to accommodate the growing middle class population in New Delhi, and were sold through auctions and draws for people serving in the government and private sectors.

The residential areas are divided into larger sectors, and smaller pockets. Each sector contains within it about 9–10 pockets, within which are the apartment blocks themselves, about 4–5 storeys tall, surrounded by parks, play areas, and grocery stores. There are also larger market areas, at strategic locations which provide most of the other needs and services for the residents.

The apartments themselves were built on reclaimed agricultural land, and like most municipal constructions, were bare minimum in design. Over the years, things have changed. Larger economic shifts and rapid urban growth have made real estate prices to sky rocket. The middle class itself has grown, incomes have risen. Those unable to keep up have chosen to sell and leave, making way for people of higher income groups to settle in. These people naturally have brought with them their tastes, sensibilities and ideas of how they imagine their way of life. With the change in the tastes and lifestyles of its residents, these frugal DDA apartments became woefully inadequate.

However, as a self maintaining society, with free ownership of space, and relatively lax regulations, Vasant Kunj has become a collective experiment in the redefinition of the living space. The free exchange of ideas for better living, has revealed the incredible creativity and ingenuity of its residents.

Space has been stretched, squeezed, twisted, and bent. It has been cut, hewn, moulded, shaped and cast. New spaces have been discovered within old spaces. The houses seem charged and dynamic, constantly shifting and shuffling like a Rubik’s cube.

Our homes and the way we choose to present them speak volumes not only about how we live but also how we want to be perceived by others. The exterior facades of the apartment buildings are particularly interesting in Vasant Kunj. There are two apartments on every floor, which stack up 4 floors. A walk along the lanes show many individual apartment exteriors painted a different colour than the ones around it. Fascinating modifications have been made — extra balconies have been attached, walls have been broken, windows have been stretched, stained glass has been added. Even the areas surrounding the ground floor houses have been swallowed to make way for private lawns and gardens, additional rooms or extended parking spaces with sculptural lions with glowing eyes as gatekeepers. The apartment complexes themselves look like patchwork quilts with different patches of colours and patterns all fighting for attention. Each home then becomes an individual part of a loosely bound whole. Each home is, after all, an individual address. The exterior is as much mine as the interior. The inside and the outside, the interior and the exterior are all fair game.

While we’re outside, we cannot overlook another charged and very controversial space — the parking lot. A sign of growth is the growth in the size and number of vehicles owned. The parking space forms a common plaza like area fed by the entry exit lane which the apartments over look onto. Originally designed for a single car, and maybe a 2 wheeler, these spaces have swollen with the sheer number of cars standing at any given time. It takes great talent, ingenuity, spacial awareness, and knowledge of the exact dimensions of one’s car to manoeuvre it into the “allotted” spaces, taking extra special care not to nick the neighbours’ cars parked feverishly close, surrounded on both sides, and sometimes, in front of the space. Various strategies are used to keep intruders out of their extended spaces. Reminiscent of the life-sized chess games of the kings of old, the residents plan how their spaces can be saved from take over. Substitutes of pots, crates, 2 wheelers, the second car, or even specifically purchased junk cars are used so other people don’t park in their space. And if there are any lapses in vigilance, and spaces are taken over, the intruder and indeed the entire neighbourhood is signalled through prolonged honking. Sometimes a stealthier approach is taken. Air from the tires are removed, or the intruding car is blocked off so they may suffer as we have.

The gleaming facade, however, does little to prepare anyone for the experience that is the interior. The resplendent fantasies of their owners come to life, blossoming to envelope their residents in Escher-esque mazes to shield them from the grimy urban chaos outside. Some apartments are life long works of art, where constant touches and refinements are being made. Walls are broken down, resurrected, shifted or displaced. New rooms are discovered, divided, assembled, dismantled, and projected. One house has partitioned the entry passageway and the living room to make their 2 bedroom apartment into a 3 bedroom. A counter separator has been installed between common area to squeeze in the living and dining area. Clearly this family had outgrown the apartment, so sleep and individual space was a priority. Another had broken open the far wall of the kitchen and built a utility with a spiral staircase going up to the loft, becoming the fourth bedroom. The original plan had 2 apartments on each floor which were mirror images of each other, but today, it takes a while to get one’s bearings while comparing their layouts. Almost all walls are recessed to the maximum possible extent so as to expand the volume of the apartment.

It’s as if its residents have emancipated the apartment from itself.

Each home is a splendid display of creativity. Walk-in cupboards, centralised ventilation systems, false ceilings and floors and french windows. Another spectacular feature of the terrace gardens made by the residents of the top floor. A wide open terrace has become the space to truly experiment. Waterfalls and streams, sprawling lawns and carefully manicured jungles. waterproofed vegetable patches carved into the terrace floor.

The restyling of the apartments of Vasant Kunj tell us a lot about the individual and their relationship to the larger community. The partitioning of the exterior walls and the parking for example give us an idea about their notions of the ownership of space. It indicates a strong territorial self centric and self preservationist ideal. After all Delhi is a harsh city, with a harsh past and one has to constantly beat the heat and the dust or face being ground into the dirt. A lot of time, effort, money, and sweat has gone into building these realities. The home is a respite and a refuge as much as it is also the embodiment of status. But this tenacious drive to improve, shift, improvise, adapt and change also shows us qualities of how our homes come to represent our values.

From huts, hovels to holes in the ground, we have come a long way in defining our habitats. The Mughals for example built embellished tombs in memoriam and lived in elaborate tents that reflected their nomadic culture; gaining permanence only in death (or love). The rajput kings on the other hand built massive palaces on hills to cement their place in history and demonstrate might over others; life mattered more here. Today’s homes are personal kingdoms but it is worth thinking about the values we build into our walls and our ceilings for the sake of posterity or otherwise. A home now has become a transient term. The movement of people between cities, countries and cultures has provided fodder for new ideas, new ways, new technologies and new materials for home improvement, making the home a deeply personal yet equally global project.

So as you read this essay, look around your house. The walls not only have ears but also have a mouth and indeed a body they will have a lot to tell you about yourself.

Deepak is the gardener, coffee maker, dwaar-paalak, and “in-house” designer at Treemouse. Get in touch! deepak@treemouse.com