Transition Spaces and how they translate

Careful consideration of context and its surrounding, as well as the community needs are the forces behind the creation of any space.  These spaces are meant to serve a defined function and are articulated according to the connectivity and privacy that each space requires. But, there are a range of spaces (irrespective of the material and the construction methods) that are built without any specific or particular function, but are used as bridge or transition between two spaces.  These are commonly referred to as ‘Transition Spaces’. Most often, these spaces create a ‘Spatial opportunity’ for a range of activities, rather than being built to serve a specific function. Apart from this, they can also take up the function of the nearby space. Thus, this focused out space can also act as a ‘spill over’ for the surrounding tasks.

Right from the prehistoric architecture there was an apparent evidence of the usage of transition spaces and transition elements as well. In Neolithic period, we can see the confined spaces for transition in the adjoining excavated dwelling at Skara Brae. In Egyptian, Pre Columbian and Persian period these spaces got a new dimension. In Indian architecture, the very ancient civilizations like Mohenjodaro and Harappa were constructed with significant usage of transition spaces. From a simple corridor connecting two houses, to the courtyards, sophisticated verandas, and later to lobbies, foyer, porticos these spaces have evolved according to the change in architectural and cultural characteristics.

Spaces with specific and distinct functions may be referred to as “Static spaces”. Whereas, the spaces which connects them are “Dynamic spaces” as they are constantly evolving. Over many years transition spaces are glorified with efficient usage of landscape, lighting, colours, textures which add to the quality and experience of the whole space. Physical conditions of the environment, Cultural pattern, and climate have a very deterministic role in shaping these spaces. Design elements contribute a lot to transition spaces. There are colonnades, aisles, courtyards, water bodies, openings like doorways, pathways, grounds, patios, gardens, trellis, pergolas, foyers, lobbies etc. If there is no defined space then confinement by some of the above elements will make the space functional and sensible. Transition spaces help a lot more in climatology aspects and their characteristics vary according to the topography and climatic conditions of that particular region. The prime attribute which makes these transition spaces significant is that they don’t have much functional or design restriction or any prototype to confine them. These characters give boundless flexibility and limitless options for the designer to explore.

The outstanding quality of the architecture of India is in its ‘Spiritual content’.  Transition spaces are experienced from macro and micro levels with similar forms but serving varied function. There is a very vivid similarity between the spiritual and domestic space planning, which is most often overlooked. The important aspect of inclusion of both mundane and the sacred, shows how easily the abstract notion of a space can find expression in both. These spaces have been translated according to the function, need and climatological aspects.

Transition spaces can be broadly divided into three types, according to the spaces it connects.

  1. A) Transition Space between Two Destinations:

The most important transitional relationship between two distinct realms is expressed through entrances. It is regarded as “an ambiguous moment that defines the inside and outside”. Whether it is the entrance to a city through a fort wall with defence as the major consideration, or an entrance to a hierarchical sequence of spatial layers, transition remains the most significant aspect. The entrance space as a transitional zone is an important aspect of the cultural study of any traditional house, symbolizing welcome, auspiciousness and status. A threshold has a dual function. Interestingly, these two functions are mutually exclusive. –“Linking as well as Separating inside and outside”.

From mighty Gopurams, Darwazas to simple and humble doorways in residences, the treatment of entrances may vary in size and detailing, while the definition and essence remains the same. Any entrance not only stops at the doorway, they can be as elaborate as one needs it to be and the privacy and accessibility of the space depends on the user, community, their culture as well as their economic background. Mandapas, arthamandapas in any Hindu temple are cult examples of this type of extended entrance. These spaces are reflected as otlas, baithak and thinnai in traditional houses of India which are just a reinterpretation of mandapas in a micro level context.

Gopuram and Darwaza and Threshold of a residence
Mandapa in Temples and Thinnai/ Otla of a traditional Indian house
  1. B) Transition spaces between two static spaces:

These spaces are generally used as linking space between two or more spaces. Courtyards, Verandas, corridors, staircases, and ramps are common examples.  These spaces are important as the make other static spaces, relate to each other. These spaces are defined as ‘A world within a world’ or ‘Part as a Whole and Whole as a Part” as they are a part of the whole house, yet can act as a whole individual space altogether. The most important characteristic of this space is its “Flexibility” to change according to the needs of the user.

Most Hindu temple structures include various Pradaksina (circumambulatory) paths. These are secondary level transition spaces that connect all the static spaces devoted for various deities. Even in Islamic culture, there is a tradition and space for pradhakshina in Hajj. The scientific reason behind the pradhakshina paths is that, the magnetic field around the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum; the innermost area where the idol of the primary deity is placed in Hindu Temples) is higher and emits a powerful positive radiation and it tends to provide us with positive energy.

Similarly at a micro level, Verandas -the narrow pathways that run around a house or in the front of the house or around the central courtyards. These spaces connect and link all the spaces within a house. A typical traditional house in Tamil Nadu has a central courtyard with veranda running around it. This courtyard usually has a ‘tulasi madam’-a Tulsi plant (which is considered holy). This planning is very similar to the temple, where the sanctum (Tulsi plant) is in the centre and the pradhakshina path runs all around it.

Veranda all around the courtyard creates “Stack Effect”, which is a method of inducing natural ventilation. Thus the wind flow inside the house is maintained, which is the major climatic relief for the humid regions.  But in case of cold regions, verandas provide a break or barrier from the harsh cold climates.

Pradhakshina path in Sanchi stupa, veranda from traditional house
  1. C) Transition spaces between nature and built form:

This is the most challenging as well as most intriguing type of transition space. Man has always tried to link himself to the sources of nature, especially water. From stone pathways to sophisticated steps wells, the transition spaces created to connect to water have always been of high importance. The concept of backyard has opened out various possibilities to connect to the nature and landscape.  From a very simple semi-open enclosure using pergolas in the gardens to an elaborate chattris, pavilions and trellis, there are wide range of spaces that connects man, his abode and Nature. Apart from these direct linking spaces, Balconies, chajjas and terraces have also been an indirect connect to nature or the outer world. They act as a link between inside and outside, and let us experience the best of both spaces (Openness and Security)

Elaborate Stepwells and traditional well in backyards of houses.

The Indian notion of a space is very subtle where the definitions and boundaries are soft. Quite often one does not know when one is inside and when outside. Transition spaces are an integral part of any space making and their versatility makes them ‘Unique’. With changing cultural and economic demands, these spaces are often overlooked, and are being influenced by western notions. Cultural needs might change, but the climatic need remains the same. These spaces are curated with climatic as well as cultural demands.  Thus, it is our responsibility to find a solution that is ‘Modern’ with Indian roots destroying the idea that “Modernisation equals to Westernisation”.


Akshaya Murali

Akshaya Murali, an architect thriving to share her stories and thoughts, one article at a time.

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