About two years ago, not long after Mahesh and Devika Ramchandani met their architects, Mahesh e-mailed them a document he titled “Notes on a Home.” He wrote that he and Devika wanted a house that reflected their values, heritage and hopes. But they weren’t architects and weren’t sure what such a house would look like.
“The best that we can do,” he wrote to Russell and Rame Hruska, “is to try to make you understand who we are…. We shall have to reveal ourselves to you in a way that we simply have not cared to do with anyone else.”
The Ramchandanis wanted a house that felt part of 21st-century Houston, and they wanted it to nod at their Indian heritage. Here and there, Devika wanted jolts of bright, Indian colors, like reds and oranges. Mahesh required lots of light — maybe, speculates Davika, because he’s a heart surgeon. “All that time in the OR,” she says. “He wants the light at home to be that bright.”
The Hruskas designed the family a house as modern as Houston, and where possible, made of materials produced within 500 miles of this city. But at the same time, the house near Highland Village hints of India.
Last week the family moved into their exercise in self-definition. They’re hurrying to attend to the final details, to have its plants planted and televisions installed, before the house is part of the American Institute of Architects‘ home tour next weekend. Boxes not yet unpacked dominate Mahesh’s office. Paintings, mainly by contemporary Indian artists, lean against walls, waiting to be hung. The new living-room rug hasn’t yet been delivered, and neither has the couch that the architects helped pick.
Despite that chaos, the Ramchandanis seem deeply happy. This edgy new house already reflects them better than the brick Georgian they occupied for nearly 20 years. The swimming pool doesn’t yet have water, and the kitchen hasn’t produced a real meal. But already, the place feels theirs.
In the last couple of decades, as the rest of the world’s cities built big eye-popping deconstructivist office towers and museums, Houston has remained surprisingly subdued in its public realm. Architectural fireworks happen here mainly in high-end residences, and unless your social calendar sparkles more than mine, it’s hard to sneak a look inside those big, expensive houses. Next week’s AIA tour offers a rare chance to ogle the interesting new stuff.
It also offers a chance to think about the places where most of us spend our lives — about buildings that don’t seem to have much to do with us, the city where we live, or the time when they were built. Getting that kind of fit isn’t necessarily more expensive than any other kind of building; you don’t have to have cast concrete walls or live somewhere between River Oaks and the Villages. But you do have to think about who you are and where you live.
“Almost everywhere else, architecture makes a local statement,” says Mahesh. “It reflects the people who live there. But Houston doesn’t have much architecture that it can call its own.
“People are building Mediterranean villas!” he grumbles. “We don’t live in the Mediterranean. And the people who live in those houses never lived in the Mediterranean. They’re just copying some other place, some other century.
“I have a sneaking conviction that many people aren’t happy with their houses,” he says. “But they’re not sure how to do anything different. The lesson of this house is that anyone can build something that reflects their values.”