The tolerance of dimensions

An old house in Kerala (Not the one described in this article, but similar) Courtesy:

I remember my grandmother at her house at Punkunnam, Thrissur, Kerala, India.

She was hunch-backed from the time I could remember her. Osteoporosis. But it did not dent her stern, yet gentle and wise outlook to life.

She would usually be in her kitchen, completely occupied with the needs of her large family. Once a while she would sit down just outside the kitchen door, in the dining space, to take a breather and get in touch with other realities.

I remember she would note down the time from the beam of light streaking down a crude skylight — a piece of glass embedded in the tiles of the roof of the spacious dining space. The entire angular column of light would be visible due to the suspended, silent, slow moving, country dust-mites.

I used to be constantly amazed at this faculty of hers where she could read time from that spot of light falling on the floor through that skylight.

That sun-dial was quite accurate.

I remember prancing around the veranda just outside that dining space. It had these iron columns, and I would hold one of those columns and twirl around like a dervish

Many years later, when I revisited the place I got another impression of the dimensions there.

Grandmother is long gone. The veranda is really tiny. Those iron columns are just around 2" in diameter and they barely held up the sloping eave above, now almost tottering down towards self-destruction.

There is nobody home.

One part of the now partly dilapidated house was rented to a poor family. I could peer in through the veranda, and wanted to see the skylight that served as a sun-dial to my grandmother. A lot of the tiles are gone. The silent dust mites are still around though, possibly searching for their own enlightenment

That once spacious dining space was really tiny, barely 8 feet square.

I have now understood the way dimensions of space are perceived in different situations and times

At one long forgotten age and time, space was magnanimous filled with children’s laughter, a grandmother’s wisdom and wonderful smells and taste of cooking — all tied together by gentle piercing light from a skylight high up in the tiles

At another time, it has become a sad, tiny place cowering in one corner of the world coerced by the ravages of time. The outside tropical sunlight is poring through various broken tiles looking for a long lost friend.

The nature of that space has not really changed. The perception has changed.

Space is the rarest of rare raw material there in on this earth.

There are still many architects and students of architecture who do not understand or even internalize this. You cannot create space. It just is there. Nothing you can do about it. You can’t stretch it. You can’t compress it and let me repeat: you cannot create it

What an architect does when a building is designed…is to remove some opportunities from a parcel of space and promote some other opportunities. Walls are built in to gently enclose space. Doors are cut out for a child to prance and waltz from one room to another. Skylights are placed to let a bit of the outside universe come in. The architect has to carefully decide which opportunity needs to be emphasized and which not

This includes the opportunity of perceiving the space in different ways, in different dimensions based on your own understanding, maturity, age and wisdom. An architect ought to appreciate and cater to the variations in this perception not just by one user of the space — but by each and every user.

Moreover, the architect cannot have the luxury of inventing an “average” user and just catering to that user — because each individual experiencing the space, be it an old hunchbacked grandmother or a child or an old tired architect — is experiencing the same space with his or her own unique distorted and yet, very real, perception

We architects are taught in school how to be disciplined, organized and yes, move our design processes to yield precise architecture. We are handed down tools — often made for other uses because no such tools were made specifically for architecture.

We try to put those round pegs of our tools into square holes and think we are now in control of the preciseness of the final design that gets constructed out there in the world

What many architects forget — and let me pontificate here — is that there is a continuum of life out there. There are wise grandmothers, excitable children, women with osteoporosis, poverty ridden families forced to move into half-dilapidated houses and yes even old architects who was once upon young and arrogant too

Can we architects really design our works using precision design tools that were possibly relevant when designing cars. There, I can understand the needs of precise dimensions. You cannot afford to have much tolerance in the dimensions of the car door, lest someone inside falls out due to the door suddenly flaying out at high speed

The meaning of dimensions in architecture is very different from that in mechanical engineering. Yet, when we architects are taught our tools of the trade we are often asked to be equally “precise” in our dimensions.

The window has to fit in exactly. There has to be standardization. The skylight cannot be crude.

The list is endless. In the end we produce sterile buildings made for that mythical average user who does not exist. We forget the trials and tribulations of life, and how each individual out there; and even groups of individuals, perceive and use the space, now modulated by that architecture

What many trained architects also do not understand that the subject of architecture is not the sacrosanct domain of professional architecture. 99% of what is really architecture out there never came due the work of a trained architect. And even if it did, it was further modified and used by hunchbacked grandmothers and others to make it suitable for life happening out there

When I started my practice, and I too were given so-called design tools to aid in the fleshing out of my designs. I was of course aware of the need to promote opportunities in each holy parcel of space I was asked to design for … and to demote some other opportunities there. Moreover, I had to decide what these opportunities were — for there were a multitude of users I had to cater to, in that design. Not one average user. Of course, all these happening across time and changes in perceptions.

It bothered me that I could not walk through my design process sanely with these tools. They were supposed to be computer aided tools. But they ended up as computer-interfering ones. The tool demanding me to be seriously precise of what need to appear in the final design there

But designing of architecture is an iterative process … sometimes maddeningly so. One needs to lovingly caress the design again and again till it is sufficiently accurate so that it can be built on the site.

I cannot afford to forget those grandmothers, those children and even the future occupants who could come in there

I took on the role that possibly many architects of yore did naturally. Nobody questioned a renaissance architect when he designed and made his own pen, ground his own ink, stretched his own canvas, and made other tools just so that he too could lovingly iterate and get to the design which is to be built

I did the same.

I made the computer tool that I needed in order to support this iterative design process, where I need to touch the dimensions of life as it happens in my design rather than the physical dimensions that would happen out there. For me, the work that I produce is lot more important because that rarest of rare raw material — the parcel of space — have to be dealt with in all the sensitivities demanded by life

My own version of a BIM tool — TAD (The Architect’s Desktop) arose from all these sensitivities and ethos. I truly believe that we are now in the new Renaissance and it is critical we take a similar approach as the ones the architects of the old Renaissance did. We need to take a deep look at the tools that help us shape our designs, and even hone it ourselves instead of depending on some other’s hand-me-downs.

(It is rather piquant and ironic, that I am nowadays considered as having committed treason. For many people perceive that I have “moved” over to computer programming — whereas … huh!… “true” architects are fully engaged in architecture built using precise BIM tools)

I think architects should serious revisit their own rich experience in architecture, take a quiet moment off and reflect on which dimensions they should really tolerate: The dimensions of life? The dimensions of space? The dimensions of form?

Or all of it?