We sense architecture long before we understand it. From our childhood onwards, buildings are a familiar home, giving us a feeling of security and stability without us knowing why. The intimacy that we associate with the house we grew up in and that evolved over a period of years is practically impossible to evoke with the means of architecture alone. Nevertheless, in later life, we repeatedly encounter spaces that move us profoundly because they are able to tell us something about the fundamentals of human existence. Daylight, smells, noises and the feel of materials in these spaces combine to engender a very special atmosphere. What does it take from an architect to create such buildings? How to design spaces where people can find peace of mind at a time when the pace of life is accelerating and the senses are being inundated?

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. 

Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self- sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse. Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.”

Martin Heidegger, Building, Thinking, Dwelling


“Architecture strengthens the existential experience, one’s sense of being in the world, and this is essentially a strengthened experience of self. ”

Juhani Pallasmaa, Eyes of the Skin

To allow for intuition to be part of the design process requires us as designers and architects, to engage our own personality, our own memories, our own convictions in our design. There is a certain level of vulnerability that we must be willing to accept for the design process to be genuine. To be honest in our design is to lay a part of our most intimate selves bare to the public eye. 

   In our present-day world, time moves very quickly. Technology, economics and politics have accelerated the pace in which we are expected to move. In this time scale, the connection with being, the essence of being human, is somewhat lost amid the countless distractions that constantly surround us. It is in this time that architecture that brings us back to this essence is fundamentally necessary. And for us designers and architects to design such work, we first need to be comfortable in our own skin and use it as a great inspiration in our work.  

“Kahn saw human being as a unique meeting of the measurable and the immeasurable. This meeting can be seen in the play between knowledge, which is measurable, and intuition, which is immeasurable.”

John Lobell, Between Silence and Light- Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn

“Memories like these contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of the architectural atmospheres and images that I explore in my work as an architect.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture

Comfortable in my own skin

Vellachi Ganesan is a lighting designer, light artist and design educator. Born in Singapore, she studied architecture (BA) in Singapore and Paris, as well as architectural lighting design (MSc) in Stockholm. Among other things, she has worked as a lighting designer for Arup, the Design Abode, and the Icehotel in Sweden. She works collaboratively across disciplines with architects, designers and artists to create work that is meaningful to the human being. Vellachi’s work has received notable recognition, including the Special Commendation Award (Special Projects) at the Lighting Design Awards. Currently she lives in Salt Lake City (USA), where she is an associate instructor at the faculty of architecture of the University of Utah.