In an episode of the series Black Mirror (a sci-fi anthology series on Netflix that explores “a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide”), a character is shown waking up in a room where each wall has a screen showing an outdoor scene — trees, water, wind — and simulating some nature sounds. Later, it is revealed that he actually lives in what can only be described as a box. This goes to show that even in a dystopian world, where we may control our internal environments artificially, there is still a need to be psychologically connected to nature, and to the cycles of day and night.
Today, in many cities, the noise and air pollution make it difficult to keep windows open, making our engagement with the outside world increasingly minimal. Our bodies follow what are called circadian rhythms, which are vital to how we function. It is our internal clock that sends signals to the brain depending on the external stimulus, of which daylight is a vital component. Research in chronobiology, which is the study of circadian rhythms, show that insufficient light is directly related to poor health and mental illness. Apart from reduced exposure to daylight, increased exposure to screens also confuses the mind and affects these rhythms. Despite this knowledge, a majority of our workspaces and malls are not lit or ventilated naturally. Lack of visual connect to the outdoors has been proven to result in low motivation levels and a sense of drudgery associated with work. In hospitals and healthcare spaces, too, where natural daylight and views through windows are brought in, they show a better rate of recovery, versus the sterile spaces we are habituated to.
Likewise, in many of our homes, too, all the spaces do not get natural light. I remember moving to Bangalore in the ’90s and looking for a place to live. Most toilets opened on to ventilation shafts as did many kitchens — indicating the priority these spaces have in the minds of designers and promoters. Exhaust fans and LED lights are not replacements for windows in kitchens and toilets, which are important components of a house, if we are to stay healthy — a fact that cannot be emphasised enough, especially considering that we are blessed with a comfortable climate all year round.
Countries in the northern latitudes that have long periods of daylight in summer and long periods of darkness in winter are a challenge to work with in terms of designing spaces to achieve as much of a light balance as is possible. In desert regions, too, the harsh climate makes it more convenient to inhabit controlled spaces, which were done by natural means earlier, but have now evolved to more artificial controls. In India and other temperate, subtropical and tropical climates, it is not so difficult to design for natural light and ventilation. In the timber homes of the Himalayas, the windows are oriented to the south to bring in as much sun indoors, while in the hot and humid climate of Kerala, the traditional homes responded very differently. With verandahs around the house to protect it from the rain, the windows are smaller, to keep out the heat and glare of the sun. Most of the day was also spent outside, the inside being used only to rest at night. In the deserts of Rajasthan, the openings are small, to diffuse the harsh glare reflected off the sand. Larger openings look onto internal courtyards in Jaisalmer, to bring in the desired quality of light and air. In these contexts, the window not only played the function of light and ventilation, but was the ornament of the house. Beautifully decorated, carved in stone or wood and painted with murals, the windows are the most aesthetic feature of the house.
The aesthetic value of the window is not lost on the contemporary designer. Globalisation has brought us images of glass facades, unsuited to our climate and imitations of which we suffer through. While at a macro level, sometimes the details of windows are simplified due to the nature and scale of the building, in interior design, one finds windows being fitted with planter boxes and other elements, to enhance the space within. At a more primal level, it implies our need to be connected with the earth. From smart, slit windows that sit like paintings on a wall to the picture window that takes up almost an entire wall, bay windows with seats that expand the space in the room, windows can be important characters in a room. Personalities to be reckoned with, windows also reflect ours if we are given the opportunity to work on them.
A German language saying calls windows the “eyes of the house”. Looking through the window, to life outside — children waving goodbye as they get on the bus, a teenager ambling along, lost in thought, a car struggling to find parking — connections are forged. The closer we are to the ground, the better these connections are. Connections between people, to the trees around, to the butterflies in the garden, and the cars and vendors on the street. As we go higher, an expanse of space can also satisfy the mind, looking at the sky, the buildings around, the signs of life. In the Hindi film, The Lunchbox, the filmmaker shows the kitchen window as the conduit to pass food, comment on the fragrances of the food and connect with neighbours. The lack of an aesthetic view becomes irrelevant as the window is building a relationship between people. Emotional well-being is built on our relationships with each other and with nature, and, as our life is spent increasingly indoors, the window is an important ingredient in the design of our spaces.