The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1855] Instances of the liminal

United Kingdom

This paper examines devices of the ‘liminal’ in traditional Sri Lankan dwellings, and their significance and relevance to a modern interpretation of dwelling. In essence, the ‘liminal’ could be best described as the threshold between an inner-world and a world that is beyond. In its simplest form, the liminal therefore is a plane that divides one spatial condition from another. As the definition attains higher states of complexity, the threshold becomes interpretive, stretched and contracted to form varying descriptions that in the vernacular are commonly referred to as verandas, porticos, loggias, and courtyards. Though their specific characters may differ slightly, their generic Archetypal function is to present us with a relatedness with the surrounding context that we inhabit.

All spatial conditions and events present to us certain psychic associations. Through time and experience all such associations are communicated to succeeding generations through the use of psychic symbols. Such symbols form the basis of a ‘tradition’; an acknowledged set of collective principles. We identify and relate to a tradition by interpreting the primordial meanings of such symbols. A psychic symbol is therefore a form of representation that in everyday life is familiar to us, yet possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. Such symbols through their presence strive to unite the ‘being’ with his ‘world’ and his collective ‘heritage’ through a continual and progressive process of understanding. This understanding not only presents ‘meaning’ to our immediate state of dwelling, but also facilitates the vital task of individual psychic development; a process that Swiss psychologist Dr Carl Jung described as ‘individuation’. The phenomenology of the liminal realm in such light presents us with varied meanings. At times such meanings are presented by symbols enshrined within the devices, or the devices themselves could have a symbolic significance. Accordingly a portico, depending on the context, may represent masculinity and an extraverted engagement with the world, while a loggia or courtyard may be read as being feminine, introspective, and demure. The meanings that each such devices present to us in their experience varies considerably with each collective psyche, and have been formulated over generations of continual consideration and thought. A tradition therefore encompasses vital meanings to each such collective and communicates, through conscious deliberation or unconscious mechanisms, a primordial discovery that has led to the considered psyche’s successful survival.

In the historical context of Sri Lankan dwelling and building, the traditional house-builders employed liminal devices in the hope of facilitating a reciprocal relationship with the natural setting, both on equal terms of pragmatic and psychic wellbeing. The evidence of their considered usage was confirmed in the early part of the 20th century by the discovery of foundations belonging to several courtyard houses that had been deemed to belong to early settlers of the city of Anuradhapura (5th century BCE to 1017 CE). Analysis of subsequent developments in domestic armaments has presented ample evidence to suggest that the ‘courtyard-manor-house’ typology emerged as the dominant and established tradition of the time (in terms of building that was directed by the skill and craftsmanship of a master-builder). Since then it gradually filtered with subtle refinements to other subsequent traditions of Sri Lankan building. A significant account of such subsequent domestic arrangements in relation to the Kandian tradition was offered by Robert Knox, a sailor of the British East India Company in 1660. Knox described the manor houses of the Kandian tradition (17th century CE) as being, ‘handsome and commodious houses ...commonly of two buildings one opposite each other, joined on each side by a wall, which makes a square courtyard in the middle...’. The succeeding Colonial traditions (16th-20th century CE) of building witnessed the fusion of western interpretations of liminal devices with the established local tradition. Portuguese and Dutch interpretations in particular had considerable influence in the design and organisation of manor houses of the period.

The pragmatic argument for liminal devices in a tropical setting has ample precedent as they provide ideal opportunities to utilise passive ventilation strategies and regulate internal temperatures by facilitating climatic gradients. Climate and terrain are two key elements that must be reconciled in order to sustain a satisfactory habitation. Close observation of the various traditions of Sri Lankan building reveals the roof to be an unchanging element. It is protective, emphatic and an all important factor governing the aesthetic of every period. To reconcile the relentless advances of the monsoon an over-sailing roof would have been intuitively devised by the primordial house-builder. As a result of such a pragmatic discovery, the open yet sheltered space between the inside and the outside naturally would have given birth to a new practice of spatial occupation. With the contentment of shelter, the liminal space would have encouraged a deeper association with the natural; the opportunity to reconcile the core of man’s dwelling and the world that was beyond him. Accordingly, a potent psychic association would have engrained into the collective language and practices of dwelling and building. This traditional attitude to dwelling was greatly influenced by a profound understanding of a dialogue that must exist between man and nature. Nature thus was not deemed to be conquered, but understood and related to. Being a nation of predominantly reverent to a Buddhist philosophy, the inhabitants are deeply aware of the importance of introspection and the need for Self discovery. The meditative and contemplative state was seen as an integral and essential act of inhabiting, and best achieved through phenomenological proximity to a natural setting. The symbolic representation of which was presented to the Sri Lankan collective in the form of the biography of Buddha; as a man who sought a higher state of consciousness by dwelling in contentment under the shelter of a ‘Bo tree’. The practice of thought and mediation thus became intrinsically associated with the liminal realm, where shelter and nature are permitted to coexist. It is from this standpoint that over the past two millennia the traditional language of building in Sri Lanka had embraced the liminal realm as an integral and vital asset to any practice of habitation.

Such a traditional and symbolic attitude to habitation however has undergone a radical transformation over the past century or so of modern Sri Lankan dwelling. The critical reason governing this transformation has been the exponential growth in population that the island has experienced. As a result of this dramatic increase, a severe shortage in land supply has led to a notable reconsideration of the structural organisation that an ideal modern abode needs to achieve. In such light, liminal devices have suffered indifference in face of efficient use of space and economic value. Verticality is now embraced, and a condensed structural organisation preferred. In addition to the pragmatics of spatial supply, the ‘international style’ of dwelling has also had a considerable impact on the dwelling aspirations of the modern day house-builder. Globalisation has presented Sri Lankans with the fascinating cube, where the liminal is only but a thin plane of wall or glass that offers the definitive distinction between the inside and the outside. Robert Venturi’s assertion that architecture is ‘the wall between the inside and outside’ has thus gained significant authority in such modern interpretations of habitation. The world of man has gained the allusion that it is distinct and different from that of his environment. In some instances, the extent to which ‘control’ is employed has presented some with the deluded belief that man’s built world is superior to that of his surroundings. As a result of such delusions, a careless attitude towards the environment and our impact on it has fostered a culture dependent on fossil fuels and air-conditioned cubes for habitation. Efficiency of living is by no means a synthetic endeavour. What matters here is whether efficiency of living is gradually surmounting the spiritual aspects of dwelling. Efficiency for the sake of efficiency only leads to a maintaining of ‘existence’. The question that dwellers must answer for themselves is whether they are content with maintaining their existence or whether they seek the true meaning of their ‘relation to the world’. Thus the spiritual search, or as Jung would call it the process of ‘individuation’, requires more than just an efficient approach to living. To understand one’s relation to the world, one must have a clear understanding of his existence and the environment that surrounds him. Sustainable living therefore is rooted in the ‘attitude’ that one adopts towards their environment. The liminal realm in such light becomes a constant reminder to us that suggests that there is a greater environment with which we have a continual and reciprocal relationship with.

The house as a ‘machine for living’ soon began to be questioned as the ideal state of habitation that a society must strive to achieve. In Europe, groups such as ‘Team X’ and philosophers the likes of Martin Heidegger, were extremely critical of this high Modernist attitude and argued for a considered approach to habitation. Heidegger in response to a post-war European housing crisis, believed ‘unsettledness’ as a fundamental condition of anxiety in the world and advocated an approach that aimed to provide a more rooted habitation. This line of critical assessment gradually filtered to a Sri Lankan context, as many considerate and conscientious Sri Lankan architects during the late 50s began to be concerned with client demands for air-conditioned concrete cubes. One architect in particular found this plight to be somewhat disturbing. The architect Geoffrey Bawa, after some experimentation with the Modernist agenda on his own part, began believe that such a ‘mechanised’ approach to living was not satisfactory for a more rooted dwelling with one’s surroundings. He proclaimed that: ‘we [Sri Lankans] have a marvellous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instincts’. Bawa began a process of rediscovery that aimed to consider modern applications of forgotten traditions. Liminal devices in particular presented to him a wealth of opportunities that could be adapted for a more compact and spiritual habitation. He subsequently embarked upon two seminal projects; ‘Lunuganga’, his country home, and 33rd Lane, his town-house in Colombo. Both projects were envisaged from the start to be laboratories for continual experiment and discovery. Accordingly Bawa developed a language of building that began to reunite modern challenges of the city with the spiritual connection that is desired in habitation. His conscientious efforts to source his inspiration and material from the immediate surroundings grounded his works as being reverent to the situation and its context.

Lunuganga was very much Bawa’s first experiment in attempting to identify the merits and shortfalls of open, sheltered, and enclosed spaces. The estate, with 25 acres of land, provided Bawa with ample opportunity to perfect the parameters that governed the creation of successful liminal zones. The evidence of such experiments is exemplified by the many verandas, porticos, loggias, and courtyards that occupy Bawa’s estate. There he aimed to perfect relationships with light and shadow, views of the sky, direct and reflected associations, contact with water, earth and terrain, and finally, the deployment of eternal psychic symbols. At the estate the phenomenology of such devices are extremely varied and highlights the dynamic relationship we have with our environment. Bawa’s town house, 33rd Lane, was appropriately sited to address the more urban challenges of a language of building that employed such liminal devices. The urban setting of Colombo being much denser permits little or no opportunities for expansion. Boundaries are definitive, and by the 1960’s, compactness had become not more of a preference, but a necessity. 33rd lane in its response to this setting did not seek to refute this urban truth. Spatial organisation is therefore unashamedly compact, and in its reading as a plan presents itself much like a labyrinth of spaces. The main key spaces, such as the bedrooms, living room, and dining room, all have a proximity to some form of garden or space open to the sky. The cross-axis arrangement eventually leads the occupant to an open space of some sort in all for directions. The key strategy employed here that differs from Lunuganga, considers the boundary of the site as forming boundaries of an enclosed yet open space. In such instances the definition what becomes a verandas, porticos, loggias, and courtyard begins to merge depending on whether one considers the presence of the boundary as integral to the spatial organisation of the residence. Regardless of how one defines these open spaces their purpose remains the same; they all aim to unite our being with the environment that we inhabit. The act of dwelling therefore is never encouraged to be considered as a self-centred and isolated endeavour.

Man intrinsically desires constant reaffirmation of his situation in order to dwell with contentment. Such is the burden of our most valued asset that is consciousness. The affirmation of our situation is almost always conveyed to us by the perception and comprehension of our existence in relation to the sky and the earth. The earth relates to us our rootedness with the environment, while the sky presents us with the dynamism of temporality. A perception of space and time therefore must always be within the comprehensive grasp of every dweller. The psychological functions of ‘orientation’ and ‘identification’ must therefore always be facilitated by building. The liminal realm in such light performs the vital task that unites us with our environment and facilitates our reciprocal relation to it. In a Sri Lankan context, the fact that such devices have succeeded over two millennia of attempts at dwelling, suggests a deep-rooted psychic reverence to the phenomenology of such devices. The primordial house-builders discovered their pragmatic and spiritual validity and passed it down generation after generation because they encompassed certain qualities that had been deemed to be successful and enriching to the collective; the basic premise of a tradition. With such a considered history of reverence and meaning, it becomes an arduous and contentious task to discard such values without an in-depth consideration of the consequences of such actions. If efficiency and compactness is what is demanded of today, the answer should not be to abolish the liminal realm in favour of the liminal plane, but to consider it in light of the challengers of today. As architect Geoffrey Bawa began to demonstrate by his considered transition of such devices from a rural setting to an urban setting, the approach to the modern liminal realm should aim to gratify the Archetypal sentiment of ‘relatedness with the environment’ while providing an efficient and compact spatial organisation. His treatment of the liminal presents it as symbolising ‘freedom’, ‘permeability’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘medium’, and most of all, as a ‘mediator’ between two worlds. Concretised as courtyards, verandas, loggias, and porticos, they present the freedom of Self-determination to those who encounter such situations; the encounter of the liminal thus remains within the interpretative grasp of each dweller.

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