The Official Publication of the Indian Institute of Interior Designers

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Sanjay Mohe
20 Apr 2024

Exploring the Yardstick of Context, Culture and Climate

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Architect BV Doshi once said, “Sitting in the verandah of a house you communicate with the society, within the house you communicate with the family and in the courtyard you communicate with the sky and the cosmos.”

As Doshi poetically articulates the profound interconnectedness of architectural spaces, we venture into the contemplation of the 'yard'—a defined space open to the limitless sky. It transforms into a private sanctum or a public arena—a dockyard, a timber yard, or even a graveyard—each carrying physical and emotional weight, inviting contemplation on the intricate art of delineating boundaries that encapsulate tangible and intangible fragments of space and imagination.

The way to understand a space is by looking at ourselves. Every emotion and situation makes us feel a certain way and we create invisible bubbles that reciprocate the same. When this bubble is aligned with a built space, it creates a comfort zone.

The boundary could be very notional, like sitting around a fire on a cold evening, under the shadow of a tree in a somberi katte (gathering place under a tree), or a place of learning at the Shantinikethan.

At the Warangal Fort, four majestic gateways define a large gathering space, and stone quarries offer canvases for captivating settings of random platforms and steps. Our fascination lies in crafting enclosures with minimal interventions, echoed in Tadao Ando's immersive Church on Water—where you sit in a 'room' observing a cross in changing weather, a testament to nature's seasons. Or Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial where with a simple cut in the soil and polished black granite insertion, a profound emotional connection is achieved.


Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial
Tadao Ando church on water- In summer
Tadao Ando church on water- In winter

Creating Dr Reddy's Memorial mirrored our approach of minimal intervention—defining a space by celebrating existing elements on site and introducing a black reflective water body. Like crafting a story, we aimed to emotionally engage people in a journey through unfolding spaces, orchestrating an experience akin to the gradual build-up of a raga in Indian classical music, reaching a crescendo.

In this journey of realisation, every element played a pivotal role — the unfolding spaces, the play of light, the sound of water, the smell of grass, and the gentle breeze. The ritual of removing one’s shoes and touching Mother Earth became a fascinating sensory experience. The memorial transcends a physical structure, evolving into a journey of emotional resonance and introspection.

Anji Reddy Memorial

The concept of 'ownership' of open space evolved from simple fences to opaque compounds and ultimately, invincible fort walls. The detailing of these walls defining yards conveyed messages about fragility or strength, and reflected the owner's status - poor/rich, ordinary/special.  The porosity of enclosure openings and yard gateways expresses dignity. 

In designing the IISC library, there was a cluster of tall trees where the shade of their canopies could have become the library by itself. We had to just create an enclosure to preserve the tranquil environment where one can take a book, sit under the trees and feel connected with nature. 

 Planes wrapping around tree with activities at different levels

Scaling a space such that it ‘feels human’  has always  been a priority, akin to the ethos found in Correa's earlier works like the Gandhi Ashram, Bharat Bhavan, and several houses. The skill of creating intimate spaces by experiencing larger volumes from low soffits is something we aimed to incorporate in our projects, such as the IISC library or Karunashraya.

Charles Correa Parekh's house | IISc library courtyard

Our climate has allowed us to explore these yards in various forms, blurring boundaries between built and unbuilt spaces, creating in-between threshold areas that seamlessly transition between being 'inside' or 'outside'. The teachings of Correa, Doshi, and Bawa guided us in crafting these ambiences. The climate dictates the shaping and sizing of these yards to allow the right amount of light, air, rain, and noise to filter in. For instance, courtyards in Kerala differ from those in Rajasthan due to climatic nuances.

Champalimaud by  Charles Correa | IIMB by BV Doshi | Triton hotel by Geoffrey Bawa

 Kerala house | Rajasthan house - section | Rajasthan House - Plan

Every climatic zone learned to embellish the yard, through the play of volumes, verandahs, levels, materials while also addressing climatic elements Screens, jaalis, and colonnades act as layers of defence against the harsh sun, emphasising the principles of controlling light, visual privacy, and bringing in breeze. Whether a small family home or a grand palace, the principles remain consistent, resulting in ingenious solutions across various scales.

Introducing water became a functional necessity, serving as a natural humidifier in hot, dry climates. For instance, a small fountain in the arid landscape of Rajasthan or cascading steps with pond water in the humid Kerala houses, create bathing ghats. In Kerala, the interplay of light reflecting off the water surface within these houses forms a magical and dynamic space.

Sketch: Section of space with fountain to water |  Section of Kerala house adjacent to water | Image: Kerala house adjacent to water

Levels within the courtyard denoted social status as well. Head of the family or head of the village sitting at the higher level. This brought in an extra element of social and economic symbolism into the yard and demonstrated at a greater scale in the royal palaces. Similar symbolism is reflected subtly, in the way master bedrooms are placed in a house or the way teachers' room is placed in a school.

Sketch: Malnad house yard |  Jaisalmer Public Square| Utsav house, Malnad | Jaisalmer Public Square

Symbolism is reflected in how activities unfold in different yards based on social needs, privacy, gender, and age group. It evolves throughout the day and the year. Lower-level activities may shift to rooftops during festivities like Makar Sankranti for kite flying, transforming terraces into elevated levels of action.

Sketch: Street-level activity |  Terrace-level activity | Street-level activity  | Terrace-level activity

The concept of a fence, initially born out of the primordial need  for a man when he came out of a cave, led to the creation of yards—private ones attached to homes and public ones formed by clustering homes around a central point like a public well. The larger enclosure, often symbolized by celebrated gateways, evolved from mere fencing to formidable structures like fort walls or temple walls, as seen in the Tanjore and Srirangam temples.

Belapur Housing | CARE College, Trichy   

The need for communication within families and across communities resulted in a hierarchy of open yards, from private to semi-private, semi-public, and public. This concept is exemplified in Charles Correa’s Belapur housing project. In a housing scheme for IISc in Bangalore, a similar idea was explored on a smaller scale, providing open-to-sky private areas for each apartment, and creating a series of open spaces with different dimensions and symbolic gateways.  In this central yard, a couple of ‘tilted’ elements were added which gave different dynamism to the experience of the spine through minimal intervention.

Idea sketch | IISc housing Plan | IISc housing

Every religion has a deep-rooted way of establishing space to aid the process of praying, from the large central gathering space in a mosque with it’s surrounding walls and quibla defining orientation, to the series of courtyards and halls diminishing in size leading to the sanctum in a temple, culminating in a one-on one moment with the central deity. 

Charles Correa describes this as the ritualistic path. To move along a path towards a sacred centre is a primordial experience, one so embedded in the deep structure of the human mind that it has appeared in almost every society since the beginning of time.

The commonality is that both have indoor and outdoor spaces mainly because  climatic factors allow for it, but the way a person experiences them  is almost entirely different.

The Japanese zen garden embodies the idea of the sacred through the behaviour of a person in the space. The placement of the stones, plants, the raking of the gravel and the position of sitting, all together.

The Ritualistic Path
Jamia Masjid
Zen Garden

Certain places carry powerful markers that, while not intended to enclose a space, give it definitive meaning and purpose, interpreted by each individual differently. 

In Charles Correa’s Champalimaud, two stone monoliths on the pathway ramp serve as such markers. As you move up the ramp, it leads to a vast waterbody seamlessly connecting to the horizon. Within this waterbody there is an object—an island, a treasure chest, a mythical adventure—metaphorically symbolizes one's journey into the unknown.

Similarly, a single strip of water in the Salk Institute courtyard redefines the orientation of the space itself. With one simple gesture Louis Kahn redirects your gaze to the horizon. The space tells you to look beyond the courtyard and into the nothingness.

Champali Maud, Charles Correa | Salk Institute, Louis Kahn

We would like to discuss two of our projects: Karunashraya- which was built around 1998 and Titan Integrity Campus built after almost 20 years. After Titan was completed, strangely one day, I was thinking about Karunashraya and found an uncanny similarity between the approaches, without any kind of intention. The expression and form of both projects are different yet there are similarities. Both are built around a water body which is the central energy zone, both have a strong visual axis, both have verandas around the water body, and both have plans that try to squeeze the space in the middle trying to scale it down. You wonder, why does this happen? 

Are these the fundamental principles that you believe in or is it about our upbringing? 

Memories of the temple with it’s tank and ghat steps, surrounded by a colonnade with a focal point as the gopuram? Maybe you absorb these elements and unknowingly they start appearing in your work. You become a medium to express these ideas. 

Titan Integrity Campus by  Mindspace | Karunashraya by Mindspace  | Typical temple kund

About the Author

Sanjay Mohe
Founder, Mindspace

Ar Sanjay Mohe, founder and partner at 19 year old Bengaluru based “Mindspace”, has a distinguished and illustrious career. A prodigy of Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai,  Mohe had a working association of 21 years with Bengaluru’s Chandravarkar and Thacker Associates, stints with Ar Charles Correa in Mumbai and in Saudi Arabia, prior.  

His work spans a spectrum of projects  – Research Laboratories, Knowledge Parks, Campus Designs, Beach Resorts, Libraries, Corporate Offices, Residences - and has been well recognised for his contribution to the field which resonates with a more sustainable approach towards Architecture, revolving around the five elements of nature, climate and context. His awards include - - The Golden Architect Award by A+D & Spectrum Foundation Architecture Award (2009), India; J K Cements Architect of the Year Award – 1991 /1999 /2001 /2004 /2007 /2008/2013; The Award of the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects – 2002; ar+d International Annual Award of Architectural Review (1999), London, Gold Medal from ARCASIA (the Asian Forum for Institutes of Architecture-1998). 


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