“Space is a social morphology: it is to experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure” – Henri Lefebvre.
As both the medium and the outcome of social being, space is a social production, with an intertwined relationship, which Edward Soja terms ‘socio-dialectic’, an act where people and places are resultants of each other. With defined functionality attributed to space by designers, it is the production of static space where most of our interventions are limited.
The dynamic spaces, often the more engaging ones, result as leftovers, most times without any conscious thought and deliberation. One of these dynamic spaces in architecture, the intermediate – undefined are the ‘threshold spaces’ that blend the world outside and inside.
Concept of liminality
The root word – limen is derived from original Latin, literally meaning being on a threshold. The concept of liminality has been appropriated in varying contexts, from social, cultural, and also percolating into the spatial, where it refers to an intermediate state and an in-between condition. The liminal entity, the threshold spaces, have the primary characteristics of being in-between, of what it connects or separates, though most times are separate and distinct entities in itself. This liminal stage, the being of threshold spaces, is ambiguous and a state of pure possibilities, where the realms of conscious and unconscious, and different ends of the spectrum find their place. The creation of this zone in architecture, where ideas are re-imagined from the real to virtual, intermingled and reassembled between static and dynamic constants, being temporary by nature, is an art developed by a deep sense of context, society, and space. It is this understanding of threshold spaces, as transitory connectors and separators, that adds meaning and value to movement and subsequent use – interpretation of space in architecture.
The spatiality of Threshold spaces
In the form and fabric of architecture, spaces are defined by the varied physical elements although the essentiality of space is not limited to them, and defined by the non-physical components. Threshold spaces reflect a fine blend of physicality as an extension of cultural appropriations and configurations. The spatiality features explicit zones of change controlled by culture and customs, wherein certain motions and exercises occur. Henri Lefebvre talks that the unitary hypothesis of the space as a social item should fuse in three minutes: the perceived (physicality), the conceived (ideality), and the lived (experiential). The threshold spaces are spatial arrangements of an individual’s mental need of acclimating to some random circumstance while moving towards an alternate encounter. It is where the physical-visual combination of the space abandoned, and the space to be entered is accomplished. Edge spaces are along these lines, uncovering and cryptic space that characterizes the breaking point or limit of design and the metropolitan circles. Regardless of their utilization or scale, threshold spaces are the principal articulations of urbanity and everydayness inserted in the life of the urban areas, framing a significant piece of social commitment.
The Indian Context
The Indian philosophical framework sees spaces in a relationship between the inner and outer, not defined by the staidness of it, but the plurality of its experience. In the domestic architecture spheres of India, the otla or veranda expresses itself as the architectural element of plurality, mediating between the constant flux of street life and the private house. With the house and the street being two polarities, the dichotomies of the public and private are bridged at the otla.
Categorically seen in the pol houses of Ahmedabad, the otla is an exhibition of the unique cultural identity of the dweller and prone to the personalization of varying degrees. It is a conscious act of responding to the topography, climate, street pattern, and need for community engagement. The necessary in-between realm is thus as much of the individual as it is of the community. The wooden columns screened lattices and jalis, mark the character of the large platform, in front of the house, just before the street.
As Borden says, “The city is not confined to a spatial scale of the building, or indeed even that of the city itself, but encompasses the whole, multi-scalar landscape produced by human activity.”
The otla-veranda, is a space of conversations throughout the day. The auditory sense is in a constant state of stimulus, with hawkers selling essentials on their moving cart and people engaged in conversation with neighbours, acquaintances, and strangers alike. One engages with the natural and the built environment simultaneously, while finding refuge from the harsh midday sun, in the premise of their dwellings, while also being out in the open. This instance of ephemeral urbanity in the Indian context is limited to small scale, vernacular dwelling types. If this discovers articulation in our city spaces at an amplified level, would make drawing in and safe metropolitan circles, where the city and the home become articulations of similar thought at various scales.
In New York and other American cities, stoop sitting is a part of the urbanized culture, of spending time just sitting and gathering, loitering on building porches and fronts. It is not only an expression of social engagement; it also fosters the New York identity by the levels of democratization of space.
During the dark racial segregation days in America, this adaptation of the front porch, was a result of not being able to gather publicly, while inside poor living conditions did not foster healthy levels of engagement. Architect and urban planner, Germane Barnes, has created a project showcasing the adaptation of the front porch by the African Americans during the discriminating Jim Crow restriction times.
These threshold spaces when appropriated according to context would result in the creation of streets rather than roads, that modern city planning has brought about. The street share would then essentially be redefined by equal numbers of pedestrians, cyclists, stoop-sitters, and motorists, with the redefinition of the street as a primary vehicle conduit to a container of activities. The growth of privately owned, bounded, and contained private spheres and the pseudo-public spaces in our cities, is a result of modernity as a way of life, where social engagement is negligent, and the confines of a home are the only necessary luxury.
The COVID pandemic has brought to fore the deliberation of blurring the rigid lines of the public and private, the outside and inside. It is the compulsory confinement within our private domain that has created an environment for the desire of the public and the semi-public. Images of balconies and verandas brimming with people, finding solace in the idea of collective, reinstates the need for these threshold spaces in our urban environments.
Can threshold spaces with appropriations and learnings from the past, be the redefinitions and primary exhibits of our urbanity in the future? It will depend upon what ‘we as a society’ would want the primary determinant of the production of space to be.