Tea shop Urbanism – A microcosm of Indian public realm.

titleUrban physicality is a complex network of systems; a family homemaker would be worried about the hike in the price of tomatoes in the grocery store, (s)he starts discussing with another homemaker from the neighbourhood vis-a-vis the dialogue is carried out to a water tap, where men and women wait to fill up their buckets, the tomato’s price hike is now a notification in the online social messaging groups, a government employee discusses the price hike with his fellow morning walker who is in the vegetable market business, the saloon debates about this as a potential political problem that might affect the vote bank, a middle aged uncle goes about his relentless fanatics and obsession with the actor turned political leader, a tea shop hosts a gentle theatrics of the discourse in an informal stage that has the backdrop of dozens of press brochures that literally cries the headlines of the day out loud, workplace cafeterias with controlled diplomatic debates restricted by the hierarchy of positions, the collective dialogue crawls in midst of a beverage, a smoke, a drink, a filling of the water bucket, a transaction of money with commodity till nightfall; oh wait, the labours, an inevitable layer of the city who, while unloading the tomato stocks, are whispering about the retail prices that might go down the following day, dulled by the last sip of the alcohol that they take to numb themselves to the unbearable weight of their survival, in a TASMAC. The city runs, survives, tickles, sighs and pretends to sleep. Time manifests its essence to the physicality of space. Spaces with rich temporal quality and informality tend to be the lubricant of Indian public life and its exegesis. Spaces with this characters are Incidental activity generators (IAG).

Malls are cute, pretentious and heavy machinery that hosts the same theatrics but under a ‘Conditions apply’ disclaimer- a privately owned public space. Malls are public spaces frowned upon by indigenous ones, but they work. They are the inevitability of modernity, oh I love the year-end sales. Where were we? Oh yeah, Incidental activity generators. Malls have them too, it has nothing to do with radical, native, urban physicality of space and its formats. IAG is rather the endurance of activity in a spontaneous and momentary genre, they are the keystones of the Indian public realm and urban landscape.

Tea shops, the microcosm of Indian Public space:

Teashops are substantial spaces in an Indian city. Zeroing in on teashops may sound a bit like leapfrogging but changes in the economic model and infrastructure have changed the character of the Incidental activity generators. Saloons have become spas (we probably have a membership card in one of its franchises), and drinking water infrastructure has been improvised in terms of accessibility. Somehow it appears as a riddle, how teashops and its inherited consumerism are always constant activators even amidst Neo capitalistic ventures like ‘Starbucks’ and ‘Cafe Coffee Day’s. Well, the only evident cue we have here is its informality and flexibility in space, but it is more complicated that.

In my dissertation “Incidental Activity Generators- Teashops, the microcosm of Indian Public space” (2015), I considered Tea shops as an economic model, and documented them to observe the quality of space.


Environment Behaviour Study:

The study of IAGs is critical to the design of the Indian urban landscape since they encapsulate the essence of temporality, time, people, and chaos that dictate urbanity in India. Here, it is important to adopt a methodology of study that documents the IAGs in an empirical way, in a way that the world understands; an evidence-based study.

‘Environment behaviour studies’ (EBS) coined by Amos Rapoport in the 1960s is a branch of urban studies that focuses on the physiological, psychological and social dimensions of environments to understand how the layperson views and uses the surrounding environment. Although it is emic in its ethos, the fundamentals of environment behaviour studies are that it is a science-based approach that analyses the motives, percepts and actions that form behavioural patterns. The existence of patterns and pattern recognition is the basis of EBS, which requires vast and varied quantities of empirical data to be collected and processed to arrive at generalisations and conclusions which could then be used to inform design and theory. (Rapoport, 1977, 1982, 1990)

My study aims to draw environmental design cues from such models through empirical studies.

Methodology of study:

Teashops are neither a street typology nor public square. Teashops escape from these windows of research easily and this slippery nature of the teashops are because of its multi potential usage. The activity in an incidental activity generator is gullible with time. The behavioural pattern around a tea shop is not the same as it was two decades ago. I am concerned with the change in the behaviour of an individual and its related group as a subject matter with respect to its surroundings (McAndrew, 1993). This can be measured by multiple observations, at equal intervals through intricate behavioural mapping. The mapping consists of two major contents, one is points in space (the representation of users). Two, the dynamics of the points in space until it moves away from the area of study.

points in space (00:00), p   o    i    nt   s  in   s p a c e (00:10), pointsinspace (00:20), points in space (00:30), p   o    i    n  t   s  i  n   s  p  a  c  e (00:40).

The observations are diagnosed into three major theories based on above concerns as impacts and effects namely,

  • Arousal theory
  • Behavioural Constrain theory
  • Adaptation level theory

In its primary examination, it all comes down to three vital aspects of human behaviour. The change in an act from being lets say null impulse to an inertia of acts is by arousal. This arousal is conflicted by constraints, and human behaviour either falls short or succeeds in adapting to its environment in a constant negotiation. So I considered theories of Arousal, Constrain and Adaptability as key points of evaluation of human behaviour in space.

Step 1 – Identification and Typological classification:
The total number of tea shops in Madurai were identified and classified by typological sampling. Here, models that had extensive facilities such as dine in tables were excluded to maintain the essence of the study.


Step 2 – Collecting empirical evidence:
Based on the typological sampling and its peak hours of usage, the observation stage was phased in equal intervals, three times a day and two days a week, a vital day and a normal day. The observation was repeated for three to four weeks until behaviour patterns were identified through mapping and visual documentation.


Step 3 – Alignment with the behavioural theory:
With the available patterns, the typologies were processed and juxtaposed to identify the reasons for behaviour within the trio of theories (Arousal, Constraints, Adaptability)


Step 4 – Territorial mapping:
The sense of publicness was the end result witnessed with the aid of understanding territoriality.


Step 5 – Extracting cues for design:
Vivid space making qualities which appeared distinctly from one typology to another one were drawn to demonstrate the design cues for Public realm and its physicality in the city of Madurai.

City making is a constant never ending process, we keep building, operating, removing like how a surgeon works over a body, like a child playing with lego boxes, but with a reason. The reason lies in the dichotomy between capital and the collective good, so lets not brag about it. A good city form emerges from responding to visual principles and its supporting cognitive theories but when giving it a thought, I constantly ask myself “What is a city?”, I hear Coriolanus in a muffled tone saying,

“What is the City but the people?” (Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 3, Scene 1)

People from my city love to hang out in a teashop, but not everybody drinks tea. Life grows and public space catches them red handed.




McAndrew, Francis T. (1993). Environmental Psychology. Brooks/Cole: California.

Rapoport, A. (1977). Human aspects of urban form: towards a man-environment approach to urban form and design (1st ed.). Oxford; New York: Pergamon Press.

Rapoport, A. (1982). The meaning of the built environment: a nonverbal communication approach. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Rapoport, A. (1990). History and precedent in environmental design. New York: Plenum Press.

*Click to expand image*

This article is a collaboration between Hashtag Urbanism and Siva Subramanian, based on his dissertation titled ‘Incidental Activity Generators- Teashops, the microcosm of Indian Public space” (2015)’, guided by Dr Jinu Louishidha Kitchely, PhD (Professor, and Head of the Department of Architecture, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai.)


Siva Subramanian is currently studying Masters in Urban Development and Design in UNSW, Sydney. His team’s presentation on “Tagus Mouth” workshop curated by ULHT, Lisbon, Portugal titled “Confronting Pessoa” that discussed radical interventions on the Lisbon waterfront is one of his notable theoretical discourses in urban design. He is also currently collaborating with Hashtag Urbanism in a series of articles that puts forward storytelling medium to articulate urbanism.

Being a passionate storyteller, he writes under the pseudonym of  “The Nomad Culture” exploring the transgressive, poetic nature of text both in Tamil and English, which is heavily influenced by Roland Barthes, George Bataille and Charu Nivedita. Follow the page for more updates!



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