Flexibility is one word which, for me, describes traditional Indian architecture. One place for sure which binds all the functions together and is the most flexible of the lot is the courtyard. Since the courtyards are going out of fashion, I thought of penning my views on this subject.
Courtyards go back as old as 3000 BC where they were first used in Iran and China. Earlier the central portion of the house was used for fire and then slowly the scale of this space increased and changed to courtyards.
As a kid I used to go to my village every year in summers and considering the size of families in India, the head-count would go up to 50 people if not less in our case.
Our house had a simple layout, wherein we had a cattle shed at the entrance, then a courtyard, surrounding the courtyard were the store and verandah and next to that were a couple of bedrooms and a kitchen.
Morning in a village starts early around 5 am, and everybody is done with the morning rituals by 6 am. There was a small chulha (stove), connected to the courtyard where tea was prepared in a big container with everybody sitting around the chulha, chit chatting, reading the newspaper, gossiping etc.
Then the house in-charge (my grandmother, along with the rest of the help available) starts cleaning the house and wiping the floor with cow dung (which is to kill all harmful bacterias. This is an age old ritual).
Once the men of the house are out to the fields, the women take charge. Mass and elaborate cooking rituals are done in this very courtyard. Not only that, drying of clothes, use of solar cooker, dining for entire family too! If nothing else, then papads and pickles are made here for the entire year. After 4 in the afternoon, its a place to play cricket, studies happen here, a guest comes and this place transforms to host the guest, at night you just put khaats (cots) in one line and people can sleep here. Family photos are clicked here and family issues are discussed here.
One empty/negative space and so many advantages, now I wonder how does this happen.
Now, let’s do some reasoning.
1. First thing is we need some place to sit. This is usually achieved by changing the level of the courtyard. Changing the level keeps the floor water away during the rainy season and the steps give a place to sit. Simple detail but the most effective one.
2. The second most important thing is the SCALE of the courtyard. In India, traditionally the scale has always been a human scale for anything we design. We will never over design if it is not required. So the court space can’t be too big or too small. It should allow visual and verbal interaction between the opposite sides. The height should be such that it at least allows visibility of the sky for at least up to 45 deg. Remember, it is not a duct but should not be designed like one.
3. Humans by nature never feel relaxed in a closed space. We want to sit in a place which is shaded, airy and close to nature. Go to a restaurant and you will first check if the outdoor seating is available. We can sit for hours on a culvert below a tree or sleep below a tree if the space permits. In a tropical climate, shade is an important aspect. You need it in summers and you don’t in winters. These courtyards are such that since they are centrally placed, some portion is always shaded and some are open to the Sun. Thus can be used based on the outside temperature and if the sun is overhead you have the verandahs to counter it.
4. Placement of the courtyard also plays an important role in making it so flexible. They are usually located along the entry passage and not too far from the visitor area. Connections are always there with the surrounding rooms through door and window openings. In ideal conditions, the passage is allowed to pass through the courtyard. By doing this the court is part of your daily activity and not an isolated space which will be used only when you wish to relax.
5. Since the courtyards are the nucleus of the house and are open from the top, they allow clear passage for wind circulation inside the house. Village houses usually have fewer walls, the wind moves unobstructed. This can be felt in the room, where you can sleep when it is raining and even in the courtyard where you can sleep in summers. The courts also allow the stack air to move out and fresh air to replace it.
6. In a square plan, the biggest challenge is to make light travel beyond 3 meters of the skin. Introduce a courtyard and it acts as a light well for these isolated areas.
It’s like the star of the solar system where planets move around it. It’s the nucleus of an atom where electrons move around it. It’s like the lungs of a body which bring in the fresh air and throw out the foul air. It has been the most vital organ of our house since ages but the irony is that it is not even part of the design brief anymore.
In an era where we are talking more about sustainable design and green buildings, I think this small negative space can be positively used to cut running costs and at the same time give us space which binds the entire family together, a place which is a part of any celebration or grief in a house. A place for all occasions, seasons and activities, a place called “The Courtyard”.
About the author:
Siddharth Singh, is the principal architect of Green Hat Studio, Pune. Since starting his own practice, he has tasted a fair bit of success since then. Recently he won an award in the prestigious Delhi Architecture Festival Awards 2016.