Thursday, 25 September 2014

Reviving the historic tile patterns!

We often look at beautiful architectural magazines and think, wow that's really neat! Theoretically we were crystal clear with our vision that we had to provide a contemporary dwelling within a historic building but how were we going to achieve this practically. I trained to be a conservation professional in Scotland, it most definitely broadened my perspective to the levels of interventions that could be done in historic buildings. But I'd say conservation in the European context is a far less challenging when you can go to a special store and buy everything off the shelf whether it is lime plaster, heritage tiles, or types of limewash. This project made us go back to the drawing board multiple times to understand what the source of most things was, first year architecture and building construction was resonating with us which not only made the project interesting but also thoroughly challenging. Here I had at my hand a Grade II listed haveli, yet it had to be converted to a comfortable dwelling unit for 2010, air-conditioning provided for, concealed cabling for electrical and plumbing. One such concern was the introduction of contemporary bathroom in the historic building.

While at one hand, we were able to solve the spatial, plumbing and electrical concern, the second most important concern was the choice of finishes and fittings! Someone once told me when you do an interior project, the most important job is the selection of the tiles, once that is done the project is half done. Now most people say we are lucky to be in the heart of Delhi, where every thing is easily available off the shelf and we have lots of skilled craftsmen. But finding those shops and craftsmen is like looking for a pin in a haystack. Our Client is more that eager to source everything from his "friends and relatives" who import things from China. Words like local and sustainable were too distant and meaningless for him, marble inlay, gold leafing, Italian tiles and Chinese replicas of Versace tiles fascinated him more. NITCO was inferior, stone too old fashioned and the brief the bathroom has to be "royal".

The job of the conservation architect is a tough one, especially in a project like this when one has to begin socialising the client with design ideologies materials and finishes that are in keeping with the character and significance of the historic structure that he calls home. Our decision to use only home made lime mortar made it easier to reject a lot of the fancy material like vitrified tiles as they weren't compatible to our mortar. Our research had yielded that in buildings of a similar age in the walled city, the walls were generally clad with a dado of 4" X 4" what were then known as "Italian tiles".
4"X 4" Italian tiles used for dado in one of the grandest havelis of old Delhi, The Chunamal Haveli is used as a design reference.

The original Victorian tiles used in Chunamal Haveli, Chandni Chowk Delhi
We finally narrowed down on these 4" X 4" handmade ceramic tiles, were what we wanted to use. Now no shop in Delhi was selling them off the shelf since they were out of "fashion". Someone told us that there was this one shop in Sundernagar Market, which would probably stock these however when we visited them, the shop didn't exist anymore. We then heard that Raja Tiles in Noida, one of the largest manufacturer of handmade tiles in Delhi had a factory in Sector 16 and we went there to ask him if he was ready to custom make a design for us. However he declined and then someone suggested we look at Jaipur, so we spoke to some manufacturers of Jaipur Pottery. The big manufacturers were ofcourse not interested in our minuscule order and said we had to chose from their portfolio of designs only. Finally through just dial we found a small time manufacturer, Rachit in a place called khurja a 100kms from Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh, who was just starting out and was willing to experiment with us.

We researched  patterns of tiles in the early 20th Century and came up with some typical designs. We were able to trace these out on a 1:1 scale to explain to Rachit what we wanted! So we set off for Khurja with our designs to see his unit and order our final tiles. A treacherous 3 hr road trip on a   dusty and bumpy road  in 45 degrees heat led us to Rachits manufacturing unit on the banks of a canal in the small town of Khurja, as we entered through the gates, what we saw amazed us. That's when we knew the effort was worth it. We showed Rachit what we wanted and he like it and wanted to try his hand at something new so together in that small unit we began to develop a product that has left us both extremely proud!

Detailed 1:1 scaled drawings were prepared for developing the designs for the tiles.

Small scale industry in Khurja, UP where hand made ceramic tiles are still made, an enthusiastic entrepreneur agreed to made our designs

Hand made and embossed tiled being prepared at the unit for export purposes
It took some experimentation both on our part as well as on Rachits part to reach the final product. Twice the total batch was spoilt, due to over baking. Although there were delays but it was a blessing in disguise as it gave our lime plaster all the more time to dry out.

Special dyes were prepared based on our design for the skirting tiles

After several failures finally Rachit got the top rail perfect exact as per our drawing
The final product arrives, perfect in specification to our designs
Variation of the same design to be of the dado

September 2014 The bathroom under construction

November 2014 The tiles finally installed on the courtyard wall


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