Chennai-born, New York-based architect Suchi Reddy often talks about the impact of her childhood home on her practice. She once told me that when she was 10, she had this epiphany that her house, which her parents had commissioned an architect to design, was actually affecting her. She says she felt a certain joy in her home and that notion of feeling a space would eventually conceptualise her practice’s foundational principle of “feeling before form” and her interest in neuroaesthetics, a branch of architectural study that explores how visual aesthetics impact the mind. Our first discussions on this subject helped me understand how much I needed to trust my “feeling” for a space.
Many of us can sense it, that instinctual reaction to a home or building and its energy: You like it or you don’t. Over the years, I have been particularly interested in how my children perceive spaces. Perhaps I am trying to help them tap into that “feeling” early enough so they can learn to trust their instincts.
We have discussed what sort of house they would like to have in the future. Their home life in Kerala, the nature of my work and writing, and, more recently, the environment of their school have all caused this topic of conversation to come up over and over again. A pair of emotionally-charged Scorpio twins who are entering that last snatch of transition from child to teenager—they have just turned 12—their spatial understanding and aesthetic choices keep evolving, and it’s interesting for me to remember where their ideas have come from.
Pull at those threads and they lead back to something somewhere that they have seen or experienced, maybe a hotel, a facet of someone else’s house, or something in their own. Inadvertently perhaps, they tabulate perceptions from the spaces they have experienced, stitching those together into plans for their future homes.
Twin 1, as the hospital delegated the first-born, told me a few days ago that he would like his future home to have some space where he can “spend time alone writing but also have parts where people can spend time together”. He was sure he wanted a courtyard; one that was so integral you would have to cross it to get to the living-dining spaces. This idea came from the design of a friend’s home in Mumbai that he visited earlier this year.
His brother, Twin 2 designate, thinks of space more in terms of aesthetics: a largely grey and white space with floors of black marble that has cracklings of white. How many of these will remain attractive to them decades from now, one can’t tell, but it is striking to watch, in real time, the significance of the impact of spatial experiences on young people.
Even more interesting to me is how these two children, who have experienced the same places at the same time, have translated those elements completely differently, based on their own personalities and tastes.
People often speak of taste and design inclinations as just generational acquisitions: “They come from a family with great taste,” or even the reverse. It is, they say, something that one is born into, depending on whether you win or lose the birth lucky draw. I don’t believe that is entirely correct. We can train our eyes and hone our tastes, and yes, we can nurture it in our children and they will make of it what they want. Nature and nurture—like everything else.
The places children experience will influence them for life, if often unconsciously, particularly if those spaces are associated with love, care and happiness. As an architect friend recently told me, with a home, we are always trying to recreate a feeling of joy experienced in some previous moment.
I grew up in the Dubai of the 1980s and early 1990s, where there wasn’t really any access to Indian cultural or heritage forms, beyond movies. Most of the furniture in our home consisted of large, bulky American designs, none of which I really cared for. However, I spent two months in Kerala with our family there every year of my childhood. Much of that time was with my paternal grandparents in Thiruvananthapuram at their suburban home, where the furniture was either simple Kerala modernist or old pieces. I still remember my grandfather’s teakwood writing desk and chair that sat beside his bed, his old radio, a bamboo outdoor seating set in the veranda and this Rexine arm-less sofa with a metal frame that could be unplugged to resemble a bed. Those pieces and their arrangement are time-stamped in my mind.
We would often decamp to my aunt’s home in central Kerala that was large and rambling, with trees and tropical plants spilling out of everything. There were so many people and all sorts of creatures, various dogs, rabbits and multiple kinds of birds, in that vast homestead where the kitchen was the centre of action and my aunt, the queen bee. The wooden vaulted ceiling, tiled roof and the sheer expanse of tree coverage was in such contrast to the apartment I was growing up in Dubai that at the time I felt a bit scared of that wild place. However, decades later, I can see how my homes and my inclination towards certain types of furniture have been greatly influenced by those two Kerala homes.
My grandparents’ home was not the result of conscious aesthetic choices; Most things were locally made or they bought what was convenient and seemed to be of good value. As a child, I wasn’t at all aware of that space as being of any particular beauty but its impact has shown up unconsciously in my life. In fact, the only two items I have dragged along with me over the decades are two things that belonged to my grandfather: his radio and an old teak cross he had fashioned for the family. It is partly the beauty of those simple objects—and then it is that each of those items represents love, now long gone.
With my children, I try to make this process more intentional, punting that it will influence them positively at some vague future moment. When we travel, I point out things, attempting to engage seemingly uninterested kids into noticing wooden boards and antiques. We recently rambled through the Jim Thompson House Museum in Bangkok on a guided group tour of the late American silk legend’s collection of antiques and traditional Thai architecture. We discuss the places we see together, as much for me to understand how their perceptions are changing as to force them to look. Now that they spend a considerable amount of their year in a boarding school, I have to accept that they may feel “joy” in a space that is not their own home, and is instead a place where they commune with friends. Maybe a quality of that will be part of a future home they make.
The important thing I would like them to learn is to actually be able to identify the emotional quality of a spatial design, to listen to how they feel and then hopefully interpret it their way in a space of their own someday. We are never too young for that.
Manju Sara Rajan is an editor, arts manager and author who divides her time between Kottayam and Bengaluru.