Cities EVOLVE. A place which had a specific moral yesterday can mean something else today and a different one tomorrow. No context stays static. It seeks manifestations that appropriate to its time and place.
Having said that, are we acting conscious to those transformations? Has the progress our communities made created sensible reflections in our cityscapes? Do our city-building strategies embed visions for the future or are they just remedies for present? Why aren’t we putting people and socio-cultural networks as the prime stakeholders of our planning decisions?
I was pondered all these questions while viewing the city of Madurai through the lenses of urban design. Madurai, as a city with multiple hues, has rich historical significance. The city which emerged as planned settlement along the southern bank of R. Vaigai, has now expanded almost equally on either sides. Literature, Art, Commerce, Religion, Administration, Tourism all holds relevance with city. But, the unorganised urbanism of today implants pieces that in no-way can become part of the whole and strengthen the urban fabric.
As an individual being born and brought up in this city of past glory and architectural excellence, I believe the rich past is insufficient for a powerful future. It needs an intervention that responds to the context of TODAY, through the lines of what it should transform to be in the future; respecting the past yet bringing new dimensions.
1. Interrogate the ‘today’:
Old vs New + South vs North. The city of Madurai extends over an area of 2,42,977 sq km with the population of 14,65,625. It stands as a notable second-tier Indian city and a commercial centre for southern Tamilnadu. Though the city started emerging along south, with time, the growth process took a shift towards north as it gained most of the new public services after 1900’s. Few of the existing public functions in the old city also faced relocation as a decongestion measure.
These events in consequence molded the present scenario where the south city majorly offers commercial and socio-cultural dimensions and the north provides administrative and civic services. The city thus engages with two varied relationships; one between Old & New, the other between South and North. The design concern should therefore be oriented along these connections and contrive our cityscape as a continuous fabric.
2. Socio- Cultural Intervention in the North:
The expanding city boundary puts the people of north on the verge of getting disconnected from their cultural identities. The public services that were trans-located from south to north also stand as introverted establishments. The catchment population of south and north were as now almost equal, an active socio-cultural node in the north is a timely need to neutralize the present and formalize the future.
Vandiyur tank in the North-East is the largest water body within city limits. The tank spreads for an area of 577 acres and is the prime source of drinking water. The western and the southern edges are predominantly residential; the eastern edge adjoins the national highway and the proposed SEZ zone whereas the northern edge accommodates relocated inter-bus terminal, integrated flower market, Central vegetable & fruit market and the Omni bus stand.
The geographical location, potential to integrate existing functions, ecological significance and the economic asset that can be generated, makes it an ideal site for intervention. The design can conceptually take a similar model as that of the old city. The temple Vs The tank; The old city Vs The new city.
3. INCLUDE public opinions:
Encourage public participation. A new urban intervention that aims at bringing a change in cityscape should encourage public participation at all levels of decision-making. The concepts have to be simplified and people’s opinions and preferences should be recorded and respected.
The people’s impressions over the qualities of city’s existing public spaces can be discerned through a survey [Sample above] to decode the patterns of usage and spatial expectations. The public spaces in city can be categorised as religious, commercial, recreational and leisure spaces.  The options are listed as three parts by differentiating its physicality as open, semi-open, closed spaces. Based on the findings from audit, a case-study for every dimension should be made to broaden the urban understanding.
4. INSPIRE from the existing:
The city as an Event Space. The old city imbeds abounding layers of planning principles and spatial narratives. The Meenakshi Amman temple as the central foci of old city generates and ties-up the activities around. The five-layered concentric planning unfolds the city progressively; differentiating them in scale and morphology. The religion as a medium connects the city and people through yearlong festivals. These festivals work in relation with geography and make dynamic interaction across the fiver-layered structure.
The city, called as “THOONGA NAGARAM”, is known for its night life. The business-activities work round-the clock, and cause the transit areas, market areas and the ancillary night activities to be awake throughout.
Festivals and Sleepless activities are thus the essence of city which reconstructs the urban fabric periodically as temporal event spaces. They should also be re-interpreted as contextual catalysts to anchor the city’s spirit in north.
5. DECODE the Context:
The timelessness of the design is based on how it harmonizes the context, develops a sense of place, and shifts the focus towards the Vandiyur Tank. Here, the northern and western edges of the Vandiyur Tank with the land adjoining Inter-bus terminal was the right point for initiation as it holds potential to engage diverse users and serve as a unified socio-cultural node for the city. The site cultivates contrasting interfaces along road and tank. The tank edge is conceived as a green pedestrian ring concentric to the vehicular road, which adopts disparate roles and articulates temporal performances along the perimeter.
The patterns for celebrations and possibilities for night activities form the primary design parameters to bring optimum physical, visual and cultural connections.
6. INSCRIBE variety in design:
The architecture in specific should pay respect to context, people’s preferences and city’s aspirations. The built fabric is thus framed to enable a strong city-people network.
Here, the street culture of old city and the need for green open spaces in modern society were overlapped to create spaces that express spatial similarity, and yet extend new experiences. As the design was ideated to turn the north city tank-centric, the programs were structured to relate and work with the tank-edge. The tank edge will work as a daily use leisure/neighbourhood space, as a recreational centre when there is water, which can generate sports activities and as a cultural space engaging the performance floors and decks located along the strip.
The commercial activities and daily use market spaces were located in relation to road, to strengthen the street image-ability and enable accessibility.
7. IMAGINE big- Phase the development:
The tank, with time will evolve as the city’s physical and social identity. The proposed SEZ zones, the residential neighbourhoods and other public sector institutions along the tank will open out their backyards and infuse multiple characters. The tank can thus progressively become the cultural foci for North city and bring tri-fold (social-economical-environmental) connection with the cityscape. With further interpretation, other potentials of the site could also be unravelled as a comprehensive urban vision that grows together with the city.
In a larger urban network, the role of architecture in isolation might seem smaller. But, the impact generated by a building conceived with a larger vision will be much bigger. If the city’s vision was clear or at least if there ever was a vision, the tank would have earned a face lift decades back.
The lack of macro-level planning and growth predictions inflicts our cities to run in lag. Our city planning agendas should start taking infrastructure developments in conjunction with creation of active public spaces. The contextual connections need to be acknowledged and strengthened.
The cityscapes have to be put with periodical evaluations to promote evolution than expansion. The vision for our urban form is the vision for our lives.
[This article is a collaboration between Hashtag Urbanism and Bala Nagendran M, based on his Undergraduate Design Thesis, “Urban Connect- Framing the Ephemeral Performances”, compiled in the document below.]
- Research paper “Dichotomy of urban public spaces” by Priya Sasidharan and Prof. David.
- Article in The Hindu on Water Storage in Vandiyur Tank.