A decade ago, Delhi-based Anagram Architects fashioned a house they called Kindred House. It was, says the practice’s principal and co-founder, architect Madhav Raman, a “halfway home”, something in between a nuclear family unit and a joint family one, an innovative response to a new way of living for the Indian family. The clients in this case were “kindred nuclear families”, a set of siblings and their families.
The design created multiple social spaces where people could gather, while each family also had its own specific zones. The idea was to allow for the four children of the house to grow up under the care of two sets of parents, instead of just one. Raman says it was Anagram’s design response to the new Indian joint family situation, where you are together but also separate.
Many people now live in places where families have inherited plots and siblings live stacked on top of one another, on different floors (this, of course, discounts most people living in Mumbai). Such homes are usually a mono block that’s cut horizontally into entirely independent apartments, separated entirely by elevators. That’s very different from the joint family home of our imaginations, a vast common space centred perhaps by a sweeping staircase where all the drama takes place—my mind is of course cross-referencing Ekta Kapoor TV serials here. For Kindred House, Anagram stacked the bedrooms at the back, while in the front of the building they created three floating volumes with a terrace garden and other social spaces where the families would have to spend time together. It was reminiscent of older homes where families shared common areas, particularly dining and kitchen spaces. Instead of making just a building filled with relatives Anagram’s design enabled the two family units to interact and socialise while affording privacy via bedrooms and other intimate spaces.
“After liberalisation, it took a decade for there to be lifestyle liberalisation,” says Raman. “The home was the first place where new needs and demands for individualisation came to roost, so things like a man cave, media room, swimming pool, such things became part of the checklist,” he says. In order to make space for all this, the home had to be divided entirely, with ground floors often going to the eldest and the topmost set aside for younger members, with access to rooftops and decks so that, Raman points out, “whatever debauchery they do, it is kept away from the grandparents on the ground floor”. This kind of separation, though, didn’t allow for any sense of joint intimacy in the home.
Thirty years later, there is what Raman describes as a “grey area of a family unit”, which is neither completely nuclear nor completely joint. It is the type of household where even members of a single family unit function like separates, with adult children and parents living parallel lives within a single space. It means members are sequestered in their rooms, entertaining themselves, maybe even eating separately. Maybe it’s a household where the mother is non-vegetarian, the daughter is vegan, and father and son are vegetarian; the family meal then means four different things to four different people and there’s little to share. Add to that the fact that we are no longer habituated to sitting together to watch a show once a week on the telly.
Of course, it enables some degree of independence within the larger family unit but when there’s so much self-reliance, the home turns into a parking spot for each person—each one sitting adjacently. The intimacy gap can only be bridged by intention, through design.
The spaces we occupy scream out the stories of our lives, if inadvertently. Our likes, dislikes, discords, joys, pain; the feelings of the people living in a home are plastered on its walls and sitting on the shelves. Some of that storytelling comes from the things we have around us, and sometimes joy and emptiness are created by the way a space is designed. In India, a home is an aspiration, one’s own space is a mirage that people across economic strata are trying to grasp, and when that dream becomes a possibility, people get quite caught up in the aesthetics and exhibitionist parts of the process and forget to think about how they want to occupy the space.
The intimacy you want to foster in a home ought to be an essential part of the design scheme. The bigger the home and its possibilities, the more important it becomes. A home can bring people together or can allow members of the household to disperse into single units. In an unhappy one, space is a relief; it can mean safety, privacy and peace of mind. In others, the space itself divides people, setting them up like islands inside a two-bedroom hall kitchen layout. Thinking about the intimacy quotient while strategising the design of your home, then, has a bearing on whether the relationships within are fostered or distanced.
Obviously, small spaces push people together, but if you are designing a home with enough area to divide your living and dining spaces, pay special attention to where you will gather, particularly focus on where you cook and eat. If the members of the family have the facilities to eat separately, that’s a family that’s rarely going to meet. Where there is no option, every seat at the table will have an occupant.
The dining hall is, then, an essential congregation point of a home; it could also be around a kitchen table, a sofa, a reading nook, or even a balcony. But the intention to gather is the starting point of the plan and it leads to better space management. I have chosen to go without a television in my apartment so that my children and I can gather, uncomfortably even, around my computer to watch whatever mutilating anime spectre they have chosen. It forces us to participate in each other’s interests and it enables a sense of camaraderie, even if it is at the risk of my good taste.
When designing, Raman’s advice is to rationalise your space based on how you have lived thus far, which means that if you haven’t hosted large house parties in your current living quarters, you are perhaps not going to start in your future home. Sometimes we eat up available square footage to create areas for activities we never engage in, or rooms for guests who may never come. “I always tell people to stop collecting bedrooms,” says Raman. “People love adding more bedrooms to a house and bedrooms can become too self-sufficient. When you have a large bed with a seating area, a balcony, maybe even a little coffee machine, then really you could quarantine in there for a fortnight by yourself. But that’s not the way to be part of a household.” Focus instead on creating sociable spaces, common areas where people in the house can come together and spend time, even if it’s just parked next to one another. A bigger intimacy killer than badly sectioned spaces is the “screen”, or, in the current era, many screens, all jockeying together for attention. One rule above all else: Do not put a TV in the bedroom, staring blankly back at your bed. The television is another element that makes the bedroom a self-reliant space that people are often loath to get out of.
Fostering intimacy in a home takes focus. The home’s spatial design can either be helpful or a deterrent. You determine which direction it should take.
Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.