Comfortable in my own skin
By Vellachi Ganesan
Architecture is often compared to a second or third skin that protects us and at the same time, provides an important interface between the internal and the external world. Not all buildings live up to this claim to the same degree. For architecture to be both functional and sensual, and to accommodate life in all its fullness while providing opportunity for contemplation, designers must engage their own personality, their memories and convictions in the design process.
Our skin, as with all human biology, is a magnificently designed organ. It protects the interior of our body, keeping it cool, while at the same time allowing us to experience the outer world in its fullness. It is
a primary organ through which we sense and interact with daylight, and it is the place where vitamin D is synthesised, an indispensable part of our nutrition that keeps us healthy and fit. Skin is constantly changing and evolving with our natural environment. It grows old with us, serving us at each stage, and serving as an account to our lives. Though we are never quite aware of our skin, it defines our very perception and is the lens through which we experience the world. Beyond just the physical touch, our skin can give us a sense of feeling alive, the vibrancy and frequency that makes us feel connected to the universe.
In so many ways, architecture is an extension of our skin, it is
another skin. It protects us from the outer environment, and at the same time gives us a window to perceive the world through. They way in which we design architecture has the potential to keep us healthy, to connect us with our environment, to age with us and, most importantly, to make us feel alive.
I remember summer holidays when I was a kid, and my family would travel back to our ancestral home in Chettinad in Southern India. What I remember most vividly about the house is the courtyard, the central space around which the rest of the house was built. There was an energy about it − the concrete floor had cracks in it from the years of weathering, light flooding through the house that was otherwise mostly shaded, you could access the daylight without necessarily being in
the daylight. It was around this courtyard that the family gathered, carrying out daily tasks amid the continuous conversations, where the children played, where the clothes were hung, rainwater collected and chillies left out to dry. Even now, as I go back to this home built generations ago by my great grandfather, it feels familiar, like a part of me, and never fails to energise me.
Vernacular architecture, like the house my great grandfather built, has a way of feeling like skin, a perfect fit that has evolved over years to make us feel comfortable and at home. Built by those who would eventually inhabit the space, such houses were created in a most unassuming way. The architecture was not motivated by any intellectual notions, but rather grounded in the way of life.
Heidegger speaks of the Black forest farmhouse in a similar manner and contemplates that the human quality of the house comes from the building process, which itself was ‘dwelling’. He speaks of fourfold elements that make up the essence of dwelling as earth, sky, mortals and divinities. Being connected to the fourfold, to the earth that grounds us and the sky that defines our limits, to the natural environment around us, to our own perception of ourselves and of our place in the universe, we are connected existentially to ourselves. It is only from this state of being connected, that we can design most authentically and meaningfully.
Contemporary architecture on the other hand, much more diverse and colourful in its pursuits, sometimes engages and nurtures us at this same level, and sometimes not. I believe that the spaces that do engage us, that do touch us, that offer experiences not only of space but also of ourselves, are designed in insightful ways that understand the essence of being
. It is no surprise that daylight is often a key element of such dwellings, as we human beings have a primal and inextricable relationship with light as a reflection of ourselves.
From my inquiry into the design process of these master architects, as well as from my practice as a designer and artist, and from my observations of my students, I find that the design process of creating such human-centric work, is a dance between knowledge and intuition. Constantly moving between rational thinking processes, and listening to our instinctive voice within, enables us to delicately fuse the measurable and the immeasurable, both of which are essential parts of the human being. By accessing ourselves in a primal human way, we can communicate this quality to those who inhabit the spaces we design.