Solitude, Intimacy & Congregation

Lepakshi Temple, Andhra Pradesh


As we sit down to detailing out the brief for the first set of studio exercises, Sukhmani asks, “What is the difference between a space of solitude and a space of intimacy?” To me there isn’t a discernible difference in the making or quality of spaces; but there is a distinction in the nature of being which makes the nature of inhabitation different. While congregation doesn’t seem to demand any particular articulation or element to qualify a space – we can come together on a flat ground under the open sky; intimacy & solitude, however, require a plinth or steps or a column or a wall or a corner or a niche to make a space inhabitable as such. “A bench under a tree is a space of solitude for me”. Says Sukhmani; “And how is it not a space of intimacy?” I ask. “Well, if it’s just off the path it can be intimate; but for solitude it has to be far off.” She replies.

sketches of the large & high dining space, the square but long verandah and the bedroom vestibule
of the farmhouse in Punjab which was architecturally upgraded by the tutors.

Although I feel I can be in solitude anywhere (of course, even amidst a crowd), it is perhaps a function of gravity of bodies. One can choose to inhabit a seat along a path, but only with another – in an intimate sharing. To be in solitude, however, one seeks distance and seclusion. It is as though another body beside (and besides) are required to resist the gravitational pull of passers-by, but if one were alone, one would need greater distance from other bodies to retain balance with our own gravity.

To me the essential space of solitude is the toilet. One may read Juni’chiro Tanazaki’s description of traditional Japanese toilets, which he claims to have inspired haiku poets, to get a sense of what I’m suggesting.1

I brought in the analogy I shared with students on earlier occasions of running this exercise. Imagine a soundproof glass box in the middle of the studio. To me it offers solitude but not intimacy, as I can go about alone with my business or meditation or even the job of watching others from within the glass box without palpable distractions from outside. Intimacy for me, on the other hand, is about sharing something very close with another and that which is being shared, which appears to be leaving or entering my opaque body, needs some cover of shadow from the world. For Sukhmani, the glass box offers neither solitude nor intimacy. Although she doesn’t agree with the need for shadow, she seeks a space without distraction to be able to listen well in an intimate conversation. I still call it the shadow.

Gradation & Distinction

I wonder if congregation, intimacy and solitude can be qualified in terms of varying degrees of light as glare, shadow and darkness respectively. Congregating in darkness seems to have something sinister about it, while seeking solitude in glare seems pathological.

Sukhmani keeps bringing up the Exeter Library’s carrels as perfect example of the space of solitude. While I argue that it may as well work for intimacy, it’s a difficult example because neither of us has experienced it. Libraries, nevertheless, are spaces for solitude, not necessarily for intimacy and definitely not for congregation.

The Carrels at Exeter Library (John Lobel, Between Silence & Light)

With regards to spaces that we have both experienced, she refers to the crypt at la Tourette Monastery, which I again argue could work well for intimacy. Places of worship are primarily about solitude and gathering and only to a limited degree for intimate conversations.

The Crypt in the Monastery at la Tourette

The cells in la Tourette, however, were conceived and created for solitude – narrow, long and opening up to a view of the landscape.

The Solitary Cell, la Tourette Monastery (Jean-Louis Cohen, le Corbusier)

To bring the discussion within the ambit of endowed experiences, we asked each other what are the spaces of solitude and intimacy within the CEPT School of Architecture building. In addition to the balconies, the culture of tackboards afforded both solitude and intimacy within studios. However, even within the public spaces one could find grades of solitude on the steps, in corners, next to walls and so on. Even on the ramp – the most exposed of spots open to public glare – there was a small seat for three, perpendicular to the main long one, nestled into a niche formed by a fold in the wall of the adjoining structure. This was a space of shadow against the glare. Intimacy could be created anywhere, but off the path and off the glare, in the shadows: on the little plinths under the trees, or the corners where the steps meet the ramp.

I personally feel that what is good for solitude is good for intimate inhabitation, for intimacy is the delicate expansion of our vulnerable solitary selves. “So why then do you seek distinct spaces for them?” Sukhmani asked. While I am actually not seeking distinction in spatialities to suggest intimacy and solitude, I do want to see what it could lead us to architecturally, considering that the two words have two distinct meanings. Seeking clarity in architectural gestures that distinguish the nature of inhabitation, she gets impatient at my suggestion that it is the action that defines inhabitation rather than spatial articulation governing how a space is inhabited. While the articulation of a space and its elements do generally suggest how it is to be occupied, the distinction between solitary & intimate inhabitation is too nuanced for explicit discernment. Architecture is a frame and not a mold for the behavior of its occupants. As architects we need to facilitate the self-empowerment of the inhabitants, that they find their agency. Action is important, as Kahn said – always encouraging students to imagine beginnings – “A man with a book went to light and that’s how a library started.”2

Congregation & Democracy

Spaces of congregation too can throw up a surprise if you only look at size as the defining parameter. The central courtyard of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies is a case in point. As legend has it, when Louis Khan asked his namesake Baragan for his opinion on landscaping this space with trees, Baragan apparently replied, “I would not put a tree or a blade of grass in this space. This should be a plaza of stone, not a garden.“3 Acknowledging the pristine austerity of the courtyard. The large Travertine void – contained on the two long sides by faceted edifices of concrete and Teakwood – is indeed a space for meditation in solitude.

The Courtyard at Salk Institute of Biological Studies, La Jolla, California

The intention of these inquiries is not to ascribe water-tight compartments to different modes of inhabitation, nor derive spatial formulae for specific architecture. What we wish to do is to elicit memories, observations, imagination and reflection on our relationship to the self, to others and the spaces that we inhabit. Solitude, intimacy and congregation to me are the essential modes of being and in habitation that permeate all people and places. Sukhmani rightly identifies a sense of democracy and equality in this classification of inhabitation. Each of us relates to them differently. It is in the becoming aware of the individual associations and bringing them into the space of conversation that we may create in our understanding, vocabulary and offerings the diversity necessary for a resilient way of communal life.


  1. Juni’chiro Tanazaki, In Praise of Shadows; Translated: Thomas J Harper & Edward G Sedensticker; Leete’s Island Books, 1977
  2. Kahn, Louis; Alessandra Latour, Louis I. Kahn: Writings, lectures, interviews. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991
  3. Robert McCarter, Louis Kahn; New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2005

all sketches & photographs by the author unless mentioned otherwise

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