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A timeless tradition of open space

Updated: Jan 28, 2019


Arati Chari

Landscape architect based in Chennai.

"Architectural spaces that envelop us like a physical presence, simple and dense, defying description imitation and photography. . . . universal, yet present. The exterior is simple leading to greater levels of mystery surprise and memory, creating poetic changes of light and shade . . . guiding us through its spaces . . . ."

Alvarso Siz on Mexican Architecture

D. V. Jainer/Telepress Features 📷

Traditional settlements especially the vernacular, whose form evolved as a spontaneous response to the climatic and topographical constraints of place, and the complex (often intangible) fabric of its people have much to teach us; rooted as they were in "a topology of fundamental common sense" and a profound understanding of the human condition.

Spatial systems in a traditional settlement were hierarchical in their progression from the private to the public, comprising the private open-to-sky courtyard - which Charles Correa refers to as "blessings of the sky" - at one extreme to the public street or 'bazaar' at the other. Linking these two extremes were a complex series of 'in-between' or transition spaces which defined separated and yet joined adjoining spaces of contrasting character. "The boundaries between these various zones" as Charles Correa elaborates further "are not formal and sharply demarcated, but easy and amorphous. Subtle modulations of light, of the quality of ambient air, register each transition in our senses."

Living in this interface of the built world and open space is often described as a deeply sensuous experience "creating a heady cocktail of hedonistic delight, a kaleidoscope of emotions" and a unique sense of identity and belonging to its residents' infusing its streets and squares with an irreplaceable sense of place and meaning, seldom found in modern settlements today. Traditional planners and builders perhaps intuitively understood that architecture by formula and site planning by sterile geometry are doomed to failure.


The cities we live in today increasingly characterise architectural and spatial isolationism, with scarce regard to relationships between spaces or to the whole. Describing this tendency to isolate everything as a "truly modern sickness" Eliel Saarinen as early as the 1940s observed that "as there cannot be a socially healthy population consisting only of egotistical individuals having no common spirit" so too can there be no spatially healthy city without a sense of relationship between its components or without a sense of direction.

K. Ramesh Babu 📷

Urban landscapes today increasingly seem to characterise this complete lack of spatial variety, hierarchy or relationship, and perhaps aptly fit the description of being "egotistical and lacking a common spirit"; finding a sense of unity if at all, in their uniform sense of sameness, mediocrity and sterility - diminishing the character of a city and, therefore, its people.

The root of the problem lies in our perceptions of "landscaped space" and our expression of it. Influenced largely by the erstwhile colonial development of open spaces in cantonments and towns, our perceptions of a legitimate "landscape" all too often comprises "clumsily undulating topography seeking to imitate English landscapes, topiary in the manner of the 17th Century European Garden, flower bedding schemes of the Victorian tradition and shabby rockeries trying to pass off as Japanese landscapes." Strangely the "Sacred Grove" the village maidan, the charbargh, the orchard or bagh or vernacular spaces of profound spatial character and variety - historical landscapes of truly Indian character fail to inspire contemporary Indian landscapes today.

Eric From believed that "before we create, one must first develop the ability to see, so that one can then respond." Vernacular spaces and other landscapes of indigenous character speak of a design language appropriate, profound, rich, varied, spontaneous and expressive beyond description. There is much we can learn from the vernacular not in its mimicking or superficial transfer but in the understanding of its underlying spirit - in the hope that we can produce buildings and open space of a certain timeless character which fuses the wisdom of the old and the new, regional and universal. For as the architectural historian William Curtis explains: "The best in Modernism can be profoundly rooted in tradition' and the best in tradition has to do with a dynamic process of rethinking cultural core ideas. It is a question of penetrating the underlying generating principles and symbolic structures of the past, realising where they are relevant and transforming them into the present circumstances . . . ."

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