India-Architecture of Intangible Spaces

Shreyasee S. Shinde is an architect and an Assistant Professor at P.C.E.T’s S. B. Patil College of Architecture and Design, Pune. She has received her Bachelor’s in Architecture from Bharati Vidyapeeth Deemed University’s College of Architecture, Pune. She is interested in heritage and cultural landscapes, Maharashtrian architecture, and adaptive reuse


Right from the Stone Age era, man has often found anchors – points in a landscape that helped him give a sense of space, a sense to hold onto something. Humans have always been able to sustain, survive, and flourish on Earth even in the most challenging circumstances. They’ve learned to live and make the best of their surrounding landscape, sometimes traveling thousands of miles for food, water, and shelter. This tendency, this resilience, is innate. Homo sapiens means “one who knows”, which was deemed true as they could then hunt for themselves, make a homea shelter, understand the landscape that we dwelled in. This understanding of the space, to master distances, to gauge surroundings- is what
made us who we are today.

As we evolved, our spaces evolved with us. Mud, India-Architecture of Intangible Spaces stone, and wood were the building materials of earlier houses all across the world. In the Stone
Age era man received shelter in rock caves. Eventually, dwellings were made of thatch and coated with mud. The Egyptians used sun-baked mud bricks to build Mastaba tombs and houses. Houses which primarily were built as shelters became more elaborate and extensive with open spaces built not only for social interaction but also providing light and ventilation.

To take an example of India, vernacular (regional) architecture took roots with the use of these very materials. For instance, the unique “kathkuni”construction technique used in seismic regions in North India. This region is home to tall deodar trees and high mountains of slate stone. The locals, therefore, build houses of these naturally available materials constructed by alternate courses of deodar beams and slate stones. This 69 Issue 4_September 2021 interlock of alternate bands makes the house stable and earthquake resistant. The houses have intimate spaces-small openings to let in the light and to ward off cold winds. The cattle are housed on the ground floor and the living spaces are on the first floor. The heat emanating
from the cattle keeps the upper levels warm and comfortable throughout the day. Vernacular (regional) architecture- was hence not created by architects but by locals residing in that particular area. Spaces thus created were not only defined by their function, but also by the social setting of that region.

Many structures emerged from religious and institutional to residential all following a specific geometry. The creation of sacred spaces like temples was also defined by a set of rules. The
concept of Vāstu Purush Mandala was on these lines-where the house was treated like a cosmic, sacred space, divided into 9 squares and spaces designed accordingly. Every room in the house was oriented keeping in mind its purpose.

This article will elaborate on a few examples of vernacular architecture techniques throughout India to understand and infer from the spaces and their way of living.








Fig. 1. Image showing the play of light and shadow in a transition space- Osari (Sardar Purandare Wada)

2.1 State of Maharashtra-Spatial Experience

The Maharashtrian Wada (dwelling) developed and flourished during the reign of the Peshwas. A typical wada is rectangular in plan, with courtyards in the centre surrounded by rooms
on the periphery. The first courtyard (pahila chowk) was a public chowk where guests were entertained. The second courtyard (dusra chowk) was a private one, usually restricted to the use of house members. This courtyard has a passage running around it called an Osari. An osari was a space between the open courtyard and the closed rooms. This transitional space creates a fascinating realm. It is neither inside nor outside.

This space is known as the fold [1]. This fold isan in-between space where the linearity of the boundaries is interrupted. There is no strong anchor point that ties this boundary together.
This space challenges all that is real and physical. It challenges the notion of borders, privacy. It is the space of transformation and passages, where a multitude of things intermingle and events unfold.

3] Fig. 2 and 3. A step-well from Gujarat. The levels acted as social spaces in summers.

Venturi notes that designing from the outside in, as well as the inside out, creates necessary tensions, which help make architecture. [2]

Fig. 1. Image showing the play of light and shadow in a transition space- Osari (Sardar Purandare Wada)

  2.2 State of Gujarat and Rajasthan-Climate Responsive Spaces

Step-wells in Gujarat and Rajasthan were a successful example of climate-responsive thriving social spaces. A typical step-well has 2 access points- one a circular well that is accessed
from the ground level to draw water. The other point acts as an entrance with steps that go underground to the lower levels.

During extreme heat, it is impossible to stay in the streets for a long time. These step-wells thus acted as social pavilions where women would collect water, rest, and socialize. Kids would play, passer-byes would sit enjoying the cool breeze that the water from the well provided. This space provides a fascinating example of the play of levels and contrasts – of light and shadow, of above and below, of movement and stillness

The numerous intricate carvings, and the echoes of laughter ricochet in these spaces. This was the place where women could enjoy their private time, be free from the chains of household duties and responsibilities.

[4] Fig. 4 shows a traditional jaali screen in Delhi. [5] Fig. 5. Shows a modern jaali screen in Rajasthan


Another fascinating example of an element, which challenges the notion of tangible/ intangible is the use of jaalis. Jaalis are perforated stone /latticed screens that have a geometric or organic pattern. During the reign of Mughals in India, many monuments- tombs, cenotaphs, gardens,and cities were constructed. These structures mark the epitome of jaali screens in Indian architecture. Right from carving in red sandstone to marble- jaali making was contracted to the finest artisans and this skill was passed down through the generations.

One might question the significance of an intricately carved screen, but it was much more than that. In the extreme climate of Delhi and Rajasthan, where the average temperature in
summer is 40 degrees Celsius, you needed proper air circulation within the built spaces. Spaces that could bring in the wind yet cut off the harsh sunlight. The jaalis were thus constructed on the facades, acting as windows, bringing in ample light internally. When the wind passed through these latticed screens, it created a funnel effect, and thus the hot wind when passed through the screens, cools down.

An added advantage was privacy. Where a person standing outside in the heat could not peep through the jaali, but the person inside could see what was going on outside.


Based on these successful spatial characteristics across India, it is evident that they work and can relate to any climate setting. We can go back and learn a great deal from them, modifying them to cater to the needs of the present and the future. The use of vernacular elements has moulded us into what we are, how we think, and act today. The motto of everything in moderation is aptly applied in today’s scenario where we have all that we need but still crave for more- where our social stories portray a different reality.

Our past has taught us to learn and adapt to our natural settings- to be one with nature. Ultimately what we aim for is adaptability, integrity, sensitivity to surroundings, and timelessness.


  • Martin and C. Stewart, “The Architecture of Complexity,” Culture and Organization, Vol. 9 (2), June, pp. 75-91, 2003.
  • Robert, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” London. The Architectural Press, 1966.
  • Vinod, “Indigenous Architecture and Natural Cooling”, Energy and Habitat, 2015.
  • Jaali patterns by Soumyabrata Sarkar.


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