Halls and Hallways

It is possibly only in India that the living room is also called the “hall”. In the ¬†UK, where I briefly lived, for example, the “hall” in the home refers to the hallway, the little passage that connects together all rooms. Actually, thinking about it, it is not surprising that the living room in India is called the “hall”, since it also performs the job of the hallway.

We rearrange the furniture in our home fairly often. Recently we had people moving in downstairs after that house had been empty for over a year. The first thing we told the new neighbours was that we rearrange our furniture rather often, and we’ll try our best to do it without noise.

That said, most of our recent rearrangements have involved the bedrooms. The living room has been left alone, since we’ve been completely unable to “plan and draw”(as my chemistry teacher used to say in class 12 while teaching us orbital diagrams).

The problem, we realise, is that our living room has “too many orifices”. It is a rather large room that combines the living room and the dining room. The main entrance into the house leads into it. And one bedroom, the kitchen, one balcony and (finally) the hallway that lead the two other bedrooms and one bathroom lead from it.

This large number of orifices for our living room means that there are few “U-shaped spaces” which can be converted into nice living quarters, with a TV, and comfy sofas, and what not.

And when I think about all the other houses I’ve lived in in India, this has been true there as well – the living rooms have had too many orifices, and the houses haven’t sufficiently made use of hallways to separate out rooms. The result, everywhere, has been living rooms where you have televisions that don’t sit directly opposite sofas, living rooms where the sofas are massively misaligned, and so forth.

Earlier on in the pandemic I had lamented the death of the verandah – as a in-between space where you could meet people who you didn’t want to invite into the fullness of the home. If and when I actually build a house (rather than buying one), I’ll possibly want both a verandah and a hallway.

I’m increasingly questioning why it became fashionable at all to have the main door of your house leading straight into the living room.

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?

Television and interior design

One of the most under-rated developments in the world of architecture and interior design has been the rise of the flat-screen television. Its earlier avatar, the Cathode Ray Tube version, was big and bulky, and needed special arrangements to keep. One solution was to keep it in corners. Another was to have purpose-built deep “TV cabinets” into which these big screens would go.

In the house that I grew up in, there was a purpose-built corner to keep our televisions. Later on in life, we got a television cabinet to put in that place, that housed the television, music system, VCR and a host of other things.

For the last decade, which has largely coincided with the time when flat-screen LCD/LED TVs have replaced their CRT variations, I’ve seen various tenants struggle to find a good spot for the TVs. For the corner is too inelegant for the flat screen television – it needs to be placed flat against the middle of a large wall.

When the flat screen TV replaced the CRT TV, out went the bulky “TV cabinets” and in came the “console” – a short table on which you kept the TV, and below which you kept the accompanying accessories such as the “set top box” and DVD player. We had even got a purpose-built TV console with a drawer to store DVDs in.

Four years later, we’d dispensed with our DVD player (at a time when my wife’s job involved selling DVDs and CDs, we had no device at home that could play any of these storage devices!). And now we have “cut the cord”. After we returned to India earlier this year, we decided to not get cable TV, relying on streaming through our Fire stick instead.

And this heralds the next phase in which television drives interior design.

In the early days of flat screen TVs, it became common for people to “wall mount” them. This was usually a space-saving device, though people still needed a sort of console to store input devices such as set top boxes and DVD players.

Now, with the cable having been cut and DVD player not that common, wall mounting doesn’t make sense at all. For with WiFi-based streaming devices, the TV is now truly mobile.

In the last couple of months, the TV has nominally resided in our living room, but we’ve frequently taken it to whichever room we wanted to watch it in. All that we need to move the TV is a table to keep it on, and a pair of plug points to plug in the TV and the fire stick.

In our latest home reorganisation we’ve even dispensed with a permanent home for the TV in the living room, thus radically altering its design and creating more space (the default location of the TV now is in the study). The TV console doesn’t make any sense, and has been temporarily converted into a shoe rack. And the TV moves from room to room (it’s not that heavy, either), depending on where we want to watch it.

When the CRT TV gave way to the flat screen, architects responded by creating spaces where TVs could be put in the middle of a long wall, either mounted on the wall or kept on a console. That the TV’s position in the house changed meant that the overall architecture of houses changed as well.

Now it will be interesting to see what large-scale architectural changes get driven by cord-cutting and the realisation that the TV is essentially a mobile device.

Policy design and environmental variables

I’ve spent the last two days and a bit in Amsterdam, and as I move around the city I’m fascinated by how well so many things in the city are designed and implemented, and wondered what prevents us from implementing such design back home in India. I’m not talking only about design in terms of building architecture – which no doubt is beautiful in Amsterdam – but also in terms of infrastructure such as roads, public transport, pavements, railways, etc.

But then every time I think of translating some design, I start wondering whether it is conducive to the environment in India – in terms of our culture and climate and weather and population density.

The question then arises as to how much influence local environmental factors need to have on design, and the intuitive ¬†answer is “probably a lot”. The next question that arises is as to how urban planning began as a profession, in terms of the basic design principles that came to define this profession. This is a relevant concept from the point of view that if environmental factors are a strong determinant of how a city is supposed to be architected and designed, can one really have a general set of principles on how a city needs to be developed, and if so, how this set of principles was originally arrived upon.

I’m thinking of a time a few hundred years ago when the first set of general principles of how to design a city came about. Did they really have enough data points in terms of what kind of cities worked and what didn’t when they came up with these principles? And once such principles had been arrived and agreed upon, how did they translate, especially when they had to be transplanted across continents and regions (as it had to happen with the coming of colonialism)?

Now that I have raised all these questions, I leave it to you, the readers, to try and answer them and fight it out in the comments section.

Religion and culture

Normally I don’t consider myself to be too religious. Apart from wearing the sacred thread (janavaara / pooNal) there is nothing religious that I do on a day-to-day basis. I visit temples only to look at the architecture (and look at my offering to the temple as my support to maintenance of the temple), don’t do sandhyavandanam, hate rituals and all that. But then I figured today that irrespective of all the irreligious things that I do, a part of religion has been ingrained in my personal “culture”.

So my car had a freak accident today. I had parked it in the basement parking lot of my office and this electric powered golf cart that my office has recently bought smashed into it. Rear bumper is actually broken. A couple of dents around the sides. The corporate services people have promised to get it repaired for me and stuff, but I’m still mighty depressed about the damage (and I don’t normally take my car to work).

So initially when I saw it smashed, and was told that it would be repaired by next Tuesday, I didn’t think much. I mentally made plans to roam town by auto this weekend and reasoned that I could easily manage the weekdays in office cab. All way peace with the world.

Until I realized that Saturday is Ayudha Pooja, when you worship your tools, especially vehicles. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the religious types but celebrating Ayudha Pooja is a done thing. I’ve been doing it every year and want to continue doing it. Probably because I think it’s fun, but also because it’s a “done thing”. Washing and cleaning the vehicle, applying turmeric and vermillion, putting flowers and (most fun of all) smashing lemons under the wheels of the vehicle!

I’ll still celebrate Ayudha Pooja this year. Worship my dabba bike, my computer, my violin, my guitar and other sundry implements. But it greatly saddens me that I won’t be able to worship the car. And again it’s nothing religious about it. But just wanted to mention how something that starts out as a religious thing becomes a “done thing” and becomes part of you.

Just like how I’m vegetarian!

Road Widening is NOT the solution

The other day, walking down Dr. Rajkumar Road in Rajajinagar, I saw several signboards on the road, on shopfronts, on buildings, etc. protesting against plans for widening the road. Apparently they want to widen the road and thus want to demolish shops, parts of houses, etc. Looking outside my own apartment building the other day, I saw some numbers written on the compound wall. Digging deeper, I figured that they want to widen the road I live on and hence want to claim part of the apartment land.

Now, the logic behind road widening is not hard to understand – due to increase in traffic, we need more capacity on the roads and hence increasing their width results in increased capacity in terms of vehicles per unit time and so it is a good thing . However, before going headlong into road widening and land acquisition for the purpose, road architecture in the city needs to be studied carefully.

There are two primary reasons why trafffic bottlenecks happen. The more common reason at least in western nations is road capacity. Roads just don’t have the capacity to take more than a certain number of cars per hour and so when more cars want to go that way, it results in pile-ups. The other problem, which I think is more common in India is intersections.

It is going to be a tough problem to model but we should split up roads into segments – one segment for each intersection it is part of, and one segment for each segment between intersections (ok it sounds complicated but I hope you get it). And then, analyzing capacities for these different segments, my hypothesis is that on an average, “capacity” of each intersection is lower than the capacity of road segments between intersections.

Now how does one calculate capacity of intersections? Assume an intersection with traffc coming from all four directions. Suppose traffic approaching the intersection from north sees green light for fifteen seconds a minute. And in each fifteen second interval, 25 cars manage to make it past the intersection. So the capacity of this intersection in this direction becomes 25 cars per minute. I hope you get the drift.

I’m sure there will be some transportation engineers who will have done surveys for this but I don’t have data but I strongly believe that the bigger bottleneck in terms of urban transport infrastructure is intersections rather than road width. Hence widening a road will be of no use unless flyovers/underpasses are built across ALL intersections it goes through (and also through judicious use of road divider). However, looking at the density of our cities, it is likely to prove extremely expensive to get land for the widened roads, flyovers etc.

I don’t see private vehicle transportation as a viable solution for most Indian cities. Existing road space per square kilometer is way too small, and occupation way too dense for it to be profitable to keep widening roads. The faster we invest in rapid public transport systems, the better! I’m sure the costs borne in that direction will be significantly lower than to provide infrastructure to citizens to use their own vehicles.