Verandahs

Both the houses that I grew up in (built in 1951 and 1984) had large verandahs through which we entered the house. Apart from being convenient parking spaces for shoes and bicycles (the purpose that the “hallway” in British homes also performs), these were also large enough to seat and greet guests that you weren’t particularly familiar with.

None of the other houses that I’ve lived in (as an adult, and most of them being apartments constructed in the last 20-30 years) have verandahs. Instead, you enter directly into the living room.

There might be multiple reasons for this. Like you don’t want to waste precious built up area on a separate room for guests that is likely to be sparingly used. Some people might consider a separate space to meet certain kinds of people who come home to be classist, and unbecoming of a modern home. Finally, over the last 20 years or so, not as many people come home as they used to earlier.

I’m completely making this up, but I think one reason that the number of people who come home is lower is that we now have more “third places” such as restaurants or bars or cafes to meet people. If you can meet your acquaintances for breakfast, or tea, or for a drink, there is less reason to call them home (or visit them). Instead, your home can be exclusive to people who you know very well and who you can invite into the fullness of your living room.

Now, I must confess that even before the covid-19 crisis, the wife and I had started missing a verandah, and have been furiously rearranging our large living-cum-dining room over the last year to create a “verandah like space”.

When government officials conducting the census come home, where do you make them sit? What about the painter or carpenter who has come to have a discussion about some work you want to get done? What about the guy from the bank who has come to get your signature on some random forms? Or the neighbour or relative who suddenly decides to pop in without being invited?

In either of the homes I grew up in, the verandah was the obvious place to seat and greet these people. You let people into your home, but not really. Now again, some people might think this is casteist or classist or whatever, but you don’t want to expose your private spaces to the world. With relatives and some acquaintances, though, it could get tricky, as seating someone in the verandah was too blatant an indication that they were not welcome, and could potentially cause offence.

In any case, the verandah was this nice middle place that was neither inside nor outside (Hiranyakashipu could have been killed in a verandah). Apart from seating the uninvited, verandahs meant that you could call acquaintances home, and the rest of the house could go on with its business completely ignoring that a guest had come.

In fact in my late teenage I had this sort of unspoken arrangement with my parents that I was free to call anyone home as long as I “entertained” them in the verandah. The family’s permission to invite someone would be necessary only if they were to come into the living room.

In any case, I think verandahs are going to make a comeback. As I wrote in my last post, the covid-19 crisis means that we are going to lose “third spaces” like restaurants or cafes or bars which were convenient places to meet people. And you don’t want to make a big deal of a formal invite home (including taking your family’s permission) to meet the sort of people you’ve been meeting on a regular basis in “third spaces”. A verandah would do nicely.

The only issue, of course, is that you can’t change the architecture of your home overnight, so verandahs may not make as quick a comeback as one would like. However, I think houses that are going to be constructed are going to start including a verandah once again (as well as a study). And people will start creating verandah-like spaces where they can.

One guy in my apartment works from home and gets lots of random visitors. He’s installed an artificial wall in his living room to simulate a verandah. Maybe that’s a sort of good intermediate solution?

6 thoughts on “Verandahs”

  1. Hi Karthik! Loved the way you have articulated your experiences around the verandah. In architecture school, various forms of ‘semi-open’ spaces like verandahs, balconies, courtyards etc are quite sought after by both students and teachers. There is a certain romance associated with these spaces, so they are also easily written off by propagators of utility and efficiency as useless. In fact, such spaces form an integral part of traditional domestic architecture in many parts of India (especially hot and humid areas). To bring them back, one, the architect needs to be able to communicate the benefits of such spaces in a way that people are actually touched by it (like you have :)). Two, this is hard to escape, but people should really start seeing through real estate advertisements that glorify facilities and expensive ways of life over simple design decisions that can really have a positive effect over our lives at home. This lockdown has made us notice things we never paid attention to before.

    1. Piggie,

      I’m sorry I completely missed your comments and discovered them only now. I guess one thing about “traditional architecture” is that they’re all village based, where land is not at a particular premium. If you start thinking that verandahs and balconies mean smaller living space (for a given cost), it’s not surprising that people are not opting for these.

      On another note, I’ve been wondering how building architecture (both houses and offices) will change thanks to this covid-19 crisis. I’m guessing (or hoping) that there will be a greater premium on natural airflows, fans rather than ACs, etc.

  2. Also, I think building an artificial wall is too permanent a solution that you may not appreciate after using the place for a few days. A full wall may also block light from windows and the resultant verandah can feel claustrophobic. Rearranging furniture like bookshelves/ anything vertical can act as a good divider that does not cut off the light, at the same time, creates a cosy reading/private space (of course when there are no visitors and the main door is closed). The seating cannot be too close to the door because you need to be able to move around a bit (to serve water/coffee etc). You could even try roll-up fabric curtains/ bamboo curtains (something porous but low maintenance) if you want more privacy. It may also be a good idea to keep a bench/setti/good ol’ diwan in this area so the seating becomes multipurpose. Your shoes can go into the storage below the diwan. A small fold-able coffee table should suffice for working on the laptop sitting on the diwan or getting papers signed :).

    1. Thanks for this. Pinky is always up to some rearrangements or the other, so artificial wall is something we’re never doing (too permanent). Right now we don’t have a verandah but you never know when we might create one by moving furniture around.

  3. Very thoughtful mention of the third places. Your theory is proved right, as even today houses in villages have verandah. Both my maternal and paternal grandfather homes in Udupi have a large verandah. Apart from all reasons you mentioned, verandah are good open air resting place, precisely meant for random traveller or postmaster to relax and have tete with glass of water or butter milk.

    1. No surprise that verandahs exist in villages, since space isn’t as much at a premium as it is in cities. And all the reasons you mention make perfect sense!

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