Peace, prairie style

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

Building a home is often the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to create a habitat that perfectly suits one’s lifestyle. For Dr. V.C. and Manjula Patel, the process became life-changing, a spiritual quest.

V.C. was born in Kenya and Manjula in India. They lived in Iowa City in three different houses for more than 25 years before deciding to build a home designed just for them.

“We spent 19 years on Teg Drive,” said V.C., a retired professor, director emeritus and the Edwin B. Green Chair in Hydraulics at the University of Iowa. Increased traffic brought about by the extension of Teg Drive to Sunset Street ultimately led them to higher ground in Walnut Ridge, a quiet luxury residential neighborhood off Melrose Avenue on the far west side of Iowa City.

“We were thinking of building,” he said, “and then one day we were driving on this road and saw this particular lot — we thought ‘Maybe that’s for sale.’  We contacted the owner and eventually bought it. It had the right elevation and location and grade.”

Time passed with little progress building the home until a chance meeting with Indian-born architect Sanjay Jani of AKAR Design. 

“We met him at a picnic and he said he was an architect,” V.C. recounted. “We told him we wanted to build a home and he got excited.”

Coincidentally, the three are from the same region of India; V.C. and his wife from Gujarat and Sanjay from Bombay.

“Sanjay came to us with a lot of ideas and sketches, but nothing really seemed to work,” V.C. said. “Then one Christmas he went to India and returned with a whole stack of books on Indian architecture.” They immersed themselves in Vastu Shastra, or “literature about living,” which detailed the principles used in planning Hindu castles and temples. “We fell in love,” he recalled wistfully.

The months that followed were marked by study and discussion on how to arrange the space. Soon the home began to take shape.

Today, 12 years after its completion, the couple says there is nothing they would change.

Compatible with the surrounding hilly terrain, the Patel’s home reflects the open prairie-style architecture inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, with its inherent simple lines symbolizing peace and freedom. More importantly for V.C. and Manjula, the dwelling embodies the Hindu concept of building in harmony with physical and metaphysical forces.

“In Hinduism, God created the heaven and the earth in nine forms and placed himself at the center,” V.C. said as he stood in the entryway before the colorful art glass front door depicting the sun encircling thesenatural forms. At the heart of their home above the great room fireplace, an ancient Hindu prayer written in Sanskrit establishes their abode as a place of peace, praise and enlightenment.

“The openness of the house was very important to us,” he said of the prairie-style design that seamlessly blends interior and exterior areas. “It’s the concept of tropical living: When you are indoors, you feel as though you are outdoors.”

The home is surrounded by a circle of warm clay-colored concrete representing the earth, V.C. says.

“This house is precisely positioned west to east, within a minute of lateral orientation,” he notes, which is just about perfect.

Entering the home, one comes in unison with the elements of earth, fire, water, air and space.

“All of the elements of creation are aligned in the house — that’s very important,” he said.

Natural materials cover the floors — maple and cherry woods, granite and slate tile and beautiful rugs woven from wool and cotton. According to Indian tradition, shoes are removed when one enters the house. Built-in seating at the door makes adhering to this custom an easy ritual.

“This house was being designed when we met our guru,” V.C. said, referring to their spiritual leader, Saheb, the founder of Anoopam Mission. The meeting marks a great moment in the lives of Hindu faithful. “He inspired us a lot,” he said. Framed photographs of the guru are displayed in a room reserved for study and prayer, which they call their shrine or temple. He also is shown in family wedding photos standing amid a group dressed in beautiful flowing silk robes.

“We feel the presence of the guru — he permeates this place,” V.C. said, noting that the home’s foundation was formally blessed and, in 1998, a “Yagna” or spiritual dedication took place near a fountain on the back patio, attended by guests from around the world.

Merging tradition with modern aesthetics, architect Sanjay Jani replicated the Hindu pattern of nine squares throughout the home — in the overall floor plan and in the intricately crafted wood chandeliers suspended over the entryway, in the kitchen and dining room, in the elaborate handrail leading upstairs, in custom-built cabinetry, coffee tables and floor pillows. The pattern also is inlaid in the floor at the center of the home and even the door knobs on the cabinets are a decorative nine-square grid with red marking the center.

Many of the furnishings were “designed by Sanjay, and crafted right here,” V.C. explained. The colorful Hindu prayer in the tile mosaic over the great room fireplace is another Jani exclusive, designed and crafted by him. The scene shows only the top of the guru’s head and his holy wand as he stands behind a sari on a clothes line. “It’s the symbol of the guru Narada — the one who knows the difference between this life and the next.”

V.C. translated the Sanskrit to read, “Guru is Brahma, the creator. Guru is Vishru, the provider. Guru is Mahesh (Shiva), the transformer, in preparation for the next life. Guru is the manifestation of God on earth. To such a guru, I bow.”

“It’s as old as Hinduism,” V.C. says, as his wife nods in agreement. “The God himself spoke these words. Anytime walking around the house, the guru is here at the center.

“Every time we are here, we feel totally at peace.”