From weather control to ways of living: can the architecture of a place affect the way we behave?
‘Defenestration’ is one of the funniest words in the English language. It comes from fenestra, the Latin word for “window”, and refers to the act of throwing somebody out of one—which I must say sounds like something straight out of a Road Runner episode.
‘Fenestration’, on the other hand, is the arrangement in a building of windows: openings which have more things to do than have people thrown out of them. They let in light, sound and fresh air, allow people within a building to gaze outside, and, conversely, also protect you from the elements. Windows can become the defining identity of a piece of architecture, or be a means of entry for secret paramours; they are even the name of a popular operating system.
But why are they the way they are?
Windows might carry out the same function across the globe, but, just like the people that use them, their anatomies can be very different.
The house that I live in right now has fixed, full-length glass windows. My childhood home, on the other hand, has windows with wooden shutters and mosquito-nets. Some windows in my grandparent’s house are simply openings in a wall, with lattices of plaster-of-Paris. The tiny theka near my old flat that sold alcohol illicitly had shuttered doors with a tiny sliding window on it, through which bottles of Old Monk were passed to plucky young college boys in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the windows in my hostel had bars on them, presumably to stop young idiots from sneaking out in the middle of the night. (They snuck out anyway).
Windows can be of a variety of types—tall, short, full-length, miniscule; with curtains or blinds or without; made of wood, or metal or brick, or even recycled beer bottles—but each is built with a unique logic relevant to its context. To understand why a window is a certain way, it helps to know where the window is.
Modern technology has given us heaters to keep us warm in winter, ventilators to allow better circulation of air, and air-conditioning to keep the air moving while turning it to the perfect temperature. In olden times, people had a simpler way of doing all those things: a strategically placed hole in the wall.
Windows, like any other architectural element, traditionally evolved as a response to the climate of a place. Coupled with layout design and choice of material, this was what could make or break the suitability of a building. Colder climes with high-speed winds, for example, feature thick walls, staggered openings, and smaller windows to reduce the impact of polar winters. Keeping rooms closed is the norm, and even public spaces are cosier. Think of traditional British pubs, with roaring fireplaces and people closely packed in together. The primary function of a house in such places is to keep the outdoors out.
Warmer, or more humid climes, on the other hand, need actively circulating wind to achieve an optimal level of comfort. Buildings in such places tend to have larger windows to let in the breeze. They sport thinner curtains made of light material like cotton or linen. Going even further, they often have outdoor spaces like balconies or verandahs: places that let you enjoy the shade and the cooling wind at the same time.
Consider the Mediterranean house. One of the most defining features of a Mediterranean or Turkish house is how they ‘bring the outside in’. These houses often feature atriums, patios, or terraces; an active effort to blend in with natural surroundings and make use of the beautiful weather so different from cold, wet and windy extremes.
Something similar happens in places with humid weather, in the tropics. Traditional Malay houses, for example, are well-ventilated, with large openings on all sides of the house. This facilitates the movement of air throughout the space at a body-level, while large, steep eaves protect the inside from harsh sun and angled rain that is typical for the tropical islands.
In extreme hot weather situations, again, the focus is on closed space. But the design is driven not by the need to escape the cold, but to provide shade and relief from the relentless heat.
What your window looks like—whether it has blackout blinds, or light, airy curtains—depends on where your house is. Of course, there isn’t a specific longitude beyond which it’s all shutters, but you get the gist.
The design decisions behind fenestration depend on more than merely the weather. They take into account local fauna (are there predators around?). They also depend on local materials (do we build out of brick or bamboo?) and on other, more human factors as well like: how much will it cost?
These preferences are also reflected in the social spaces in these areas—consider the pavement cafés of southern Europe, or the open-air baithaks across the Indian subcontinent. The outside, even in winter, is often comfortable and preferred for these regions. In the British Isles, though, you’d have to be at a pub to socialise.
Is it too far a stretch to hypothesise that the built form of a region dictates the rules of social behaviour prevalent in that place—an architectural Pavlov, if you would? As lives revolve around architecture, so perhaps do people’s expectations of what they consider a normal way to live.
People behave as a response to their surroundings, gathering cues from the existing environment to guide their behaviour.
In the simplest of examples, a person will behave differently when walking into a five-star restaurant, versus when entering a roadside Darshini eatery. Both are places where we sit down to eat, but the corresponding behaviour is wildly different, owing to inherent differences in the social expectations attached.
This difference is conveyed by the entire socio-spatial rigmarole of the process: one waits in a Darshini, but is waited upon at a restaurant. Consequently, the line—and space to wait—is often near the kitchens at a Darshini, while restaurants take care to keep the kitchen out of sight. But there are other differences besides the practical considerations. A Darshini gives off a more homely vibe, with chattering voices, jostling at the counter, and “adjusting” seats to squeeze in place for an extra person. The atmosphere at a five-star restaurant is more prim and proper: we sit at our seats, signalling silently to the waiter when we’re ready with our order.
Both places are designed to generate a specific kind of social behaviour—and to signal to patrons that exact thing. People at a five-star restaurant behave very differently from people at a Darshini even if they’re the same people.
Here, the design and behaviour stem from social requirements, which in turn depend on how the establishment came about. In this case, it was probably intentional—but it may not always have to be so.
There is a reason Romeo and Juliet is based in Italy and not Iceland: it’s because Italy has the architectural and social set-up to support it. This includes the presence of balconies, weather comfortable enough to stand underneath them and gaze at people’s gloved hands, and, of course, a social system where such a practice is fairly common.
It is the architecture of a place that dictates how people move, and consequently, what social behaviour they consider normal, or even possible.
Does this mean that you can look at the windows of a place and tell if it were the site of a Shakespearean play? Probably not. Windows—and architecture in general—depends on cultural norms, yes, but it also depends on so much more. The design of a window is affected by who lives there, who is in power, what is in fashion, what technology is available, and, of course, on the climate itself.
That said, fenestration is a significant, often overlooked, part of people’s lives and how they behave; both the cause and the effect of behavioural patterns. Next time you go out, try keeping your eyes open to the spaces around you, and find what you will.
After all, you have nothing to lose—and it could open up a new window to the world.