A Garden (Re)treat

Using impeccably finished economic materials, organic forms, earthy colours and lots of plants, architect Hardik Shah of Studio Lagom conjures a delightful garden restaurant in Surat.

Text: Rupali Sebastian; Photographs: ©2018 Photographix | Sebastian + Ira, courtesy Studio Lagom

Architect Hardik Shah

This restaurant was born out of deliberations over constraints… Perhaps its unusual moniker — Think of It! — in some tangential way refers to the intense thought processes that sought to trump limiting factors. The story began with an entrepreneur wishing to launch an eatery in Surat. Now, while the city may not be as space-starved as Indian metropolises of Mumbai and New Delhi, the restaurant typology sees a predominance of eateries operating within enclosed, air-conditioned environments. That’s not to say that restaurants with a considerable al fresco section do not exist, but these are limited to largely utilitarian establishments that pay scant heed to ‘place-making’. Therefore, when the client approached Studio Lagom’s founder Hardik Shah to design a cafe/restaurant, the architect’s thoughts immediately veered to creating something that the city lacked: a well-designed garden restaurant in the true sense of the word.

A low-flying bird’s eye-view of Think of It! shows the orchestration of the enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces, and how the latter enjoy a beautiful connection with the courtyard. The rippled installation of salvaged construction rods creates an interesting distortion in the perspective.

The leased nature of the premises gave rise to the aforementioned limitations — of budget and timeline. The client, naturally, did not wish to make a rented outlet investment-heavy; neither could he indulge in the luxury of time. He wanted things to happen quickly and economically. “Constraints create solutions,” states Hardik emphatically. “They give you directions and point the way. Here, the tricky part was to keep an eye on the budget, yet deliver a good-looking commercial space.” The broad vision? Keep the built-form to the minimum and use economic materials to rationalize project costs.

But this paring down of outlay was a balancing act, to be done carefully, with a strategy in mind. “For instance,” elucidates the architect, “we did not compromise even a little bit on the heart of the restaurant, which is the kitchen. The hygiene, the materials, the equipment are some of the best.” When it came to the ‘public’ area, the inevitable route was material rationalization — painstakingly sifting through leftover stone and using materials in their ’pure’ state, “which was perfectly ok with me as one of the core design philosophies at Studio Lagom is harnessing the ‘honesty’ of a material,” reveals the founder of the practice. And while he economized on materials, Hardik ensured that he had the best of craftsman to do the installations — so that these ‘humble’ materials were impeccably ‘finished’. A balancing act, again!

The architectural response to the quiet surroundings was a street-side cafe-like setting, elevated from the street-level. Lush greenery shields the guests from direct view. The brick wall constructed from easy-on-the-pocket fly-ash bricks and paving rendered from waste stone are two instances of rationalizing costs.

The location of Think of It! in a quiet by-lane was opportune: the relative serenity would accentuate the requisite laid-back air that was crucial to this type of development. However, the location also elicited an architectural response to the street, manifested as an elevated and landscaped set-back sandwiched between the street and the painted fly-ash brick masonry wall that marked the ‘boundary’ of the restaurant. “This green band serves as a street-side cafe, handy for a quick bite or cuppa,” says Hardik. Beyond the wall, the entry is orchestrated through a lobby-like enclosed space. Nearby, and functioning as a spatial pause, is an enclosed open-to-sky waterbody with a tiny cascade whose gurgling lends soothing aural dimensions to the area. On its blue-painted walls, is a hypnotic gold spiral — a nod to SH Raza’s Bindu.

The lobby ‘releases’ you into the restaurant proper, with an open courtyard nestling within the arms of an L-shaped semi-enclosed area. The visual aesthetic within is organic and free-flowing, with materials, colours and forms that are grounded to the earth. The seating options range from the al fresco to ones with varying degrees of semi-openness. Immediately bordering the courtyard void are smooth cement ‘benches’ created in situ. To one side of the entrance lobby is a section shielded by a slim, undulating ferrocement wall with cut-outs — more screen than wall.

The entrance to Think of It! Textural play is clearly manifested through the exposed brick wall, the metal rod partition and the mosaic flooring.

“This was the first time I’ve used ferrocement, and it was a good decision. It allowed us to have a built-form that was light-on-the-eye as well as the pocket. Plus, these walls could be shaped organically,” states Hardik. To the other is an open section, slightly elevated, almost a ‘roofed’ version of the courtyard. Both these sections shelter under corrugated GI sheets whose edges, cut deliberately in a wavy manner, reinforce the organic look and feel. In a few places, the roof is punctured, to allow sunlight and rain to pour in, and the plantations underneath to flourish upwards.

The colour scheme — a predominance of an earthy red, with a dash of blue at the entrance — and materials — leftover stone arranged in a homely mosaic, smooth swells of cement and MS — are aligned to a rustic look. In the courtyard, salvaged construction iron rods form an undulating installation overhead, almost like a heavily contoured site manifested as a wire-frame drawing. Its shadows create a rippled effect on the floor, distorting views and adding more dynamism to the vistas.

Curves ahead! Ripples of the in situ seating are echoed by the GI roofing and the installation of the reused construction rods. The planation of the garden restaurant is carefully careless — a wild, natural scheme that adds its own charm to al fresco meals.

Come evening, and the restaurant assumes a golden mantle, thanks to the warm incandescent bulbs fitted along the structural members of the roofing of the semi-enclosed sections. In addition to delineating the roofing grid, these light-rows create a pleasing geometric counterpoint to the organic look by reflecting and highlighting the corrugation of the GI sheets. In the courtyard, garden lights and the spill-over illumination from the semi-enclosed sections make the glow of candle-light adequate for lighting purposes.

And, of course, where would a garden restaurant be without plants. Curated tropical greenery — frangipani, heliconia, dracaena, bamboo, banana, bougainvillea, and many more — imbue the restaurant with natural freshness. Strategic plantings — as borders, in the centre of the courtyard, a small bed in the paving of an open section, create a lush natural look. “The idea was to create an unplanned look,” reveals Hardik.

The architect’s latest visit to the restaurant, several months after the hand-over, was a pleasant one. “The garden is flourishing,” he enthuses. “Creepers have covered most of the construction rod installation overhead. Nature is taking over — just as I intended it to be.”

To create a hospitality experience with a difference, with the built-form and budget kept to a minimum.

Flooring: Waste Indian natural stone
Walls: Fly-ash brick and ferrocement
Doors and windows: Sourced from wood scrapyard
Roof: Corrugated sheets
Furniture: Metal and wood
Art installation: Reused construction rods

Location: Surat, Gujarat
Area of plot: 5,000 sq ft Built-up area 3,500 sq ft
Principal architect: Hardik Shah
Design team: Krishna Kapadia, Kruti Sheta-Patel
Landscaping: Hasnain Sabuwala
Artists: Kruti Sheta-Patel
Structure: Hitesh Rathi (Rathi consortium)
Metal Structure: Sai Shyam Engineering
Contractor: Kalpesh Patel
Plumbing: Burhanali Shaikh (Bhai Bhai Contractor)
Electrical: Sandeep Patel
Carpenter: Magraj Suthar
Branding and Signage: Satyadip Vadnere (Satyarth) and Hemant Saho
Flooring: Jyoti Marble Art
Colour: Rajpat Prajapati