I was introduced to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in a hostel room one rainy night. Four of us sat together and read aloud his ‘cities’. The boundless imagination with which they were conceived filled us with excitement, curiosity and wonderment. It wasn’t as if I understood it completely, but that again added to its lure. I had forgotten the heights that imagination could possibly reach. After a long time, I found something that was this free of any boundaries or restrictions.
A few days ago, I came across this post and found it very interesting. It also got me thinking. Are his cities purely ‘imaginary’? Couldn’t you see that, in many ways, we have built around us, cities that are as chaotic, as wonderful and as strange as the ones Marco Polo speaks about? So, I decided to do an exercise –to try and look at cities the way he sees them, to try and find invisible cities within our cities. This is a bizarre thing to do, and I tried to be as open-minded and imaginative as possible while doing this.
The Phoenix City:
I have to talk here about the famous city of Boux. Around it lies the desert. As you approach the city, you find that the city has been born again, from destruction. The city stands in the midst of its own rubble. And like broken limbs are patched up with casts and plaster, its buildings show signs of wreckage. Every once in a while Nature comes in all fury and shakes up the city, leaving nothing, and every time, it rises again, not without wearing its wounds proudly for others to see.
This was inspired from the city of Bhuj, where I spent four months. Bhuj was the epicenter of the earthquake in 2011. The Kachchh region has always been susceptible to earthquakes and has been facing major earthquakes every hundred years. We have heard many stories of abandoned cities and cities that were totally destroyed by a natural calamity. But Bhuj is the Phoenix city.
The Excess city
With every single item you could possibly think of, this city forms a maze of streets, all overflowing. There is nothing you can’t find here- Sweets are sold in shops with a grand staircase and blouses laid with precious stones and lace are found on the street. In many ways this is a city of desire: The very desire that sages warn us from – material desire. Everything is displayed and everybody is called in to touch, feel and buy. It is a city of overwhelming excess.
This city was born from roaming around Commercial Street in Bangalore. There is literally nothing that you can’t find there. And while that may sound nice, it was an overwhelming experience for me.
The city of Surveillance:
Everyone walked as if they knew where they were going. Confident, smiling and greeting each other warmly. Every now and then someone or the other stealthily looked up towards the ‘eye’ and quickly looked away from it. It is hard in this city to not be aware of the ‘eye’. These are everywhere. They follow you out in the street. They follow you out in the office, when you go shopping, in the restaurant, everywhere. I can’t casually state that I think this is unnecessary. It wasn’t the most comfortable city. Everyone stole moments away from the ‘gaze’ and relished them, while acknowledging that the surveillance gave them ‘security’.
The city for Anyone.
Leaving the city of surveillance to come to the city for Anyone was a contrasting and liberating. Here you could find the ‘liberals’, the lovers, the drinkers, the social deviants, the outcasts- anyone and everyone. There weren’t many rules. Nor were there any responsibilities. The city lived by accommodating these ‘outsiders’ who found this haven. Well, for them, it was haven. But a person from the surveillance city would feel like a fish out of water and wouldn’t know what to do.
It was the ultimate freedom city, where no restrictions of any sort were in place. Here most common ‘illegel’ things were legal. Cities like these crop up when the existing ones squeeze out of them the people whom they consider as ‘undesirables’.
The city of Signboards:
It was hard to focus here. My eyes wandered restlessly, trying to settle, but that was impossible. There were signs on roads, on buildings, set in, jutting out….there were even people walking about with sign boards on their backs. Where they felt signboards didn’t do the job, they resorted to flyers or shouting. The city, to me seemed to have an excessive attention seeking character. But that was the way its people survived, competing with each other, to have bigger, better ways to capture the attention of passers by. Sometimes, I felt they were descending into madness, trying to come up with new ways of capturing attention. The kind of madness that made them hang a board on a human and made him walk up and down the road.
We live and work in cities. Everyday, we travel through the same roads, and it becomes easy to take things for granted. Yet, is that all? Aren’t cities man-made wonders? Aren’t they like huge machines, chugging through the centuries? Cities today have grown, with them new habits and lifestyles have formed and this means what we take for granted now might have been a very surprising, even laughable phenomenon at another place and time. I would like to leave it there, and hope you will find ways of looking at the place and the time we live in, through a different lens.
[Divya RV, the author of this beautiful interpretation of Italo Calvino’s seminal work, “Invisible Cities”, is still grappling with the process of becoming an architect while juggling with writing, traveling and adjusting to the ubiquitous ‘PG’ life in the city. ]
We are the so called millennial generation. We like to feel special, we have earned a lot of resentment against our generation—the notion that “we’re a spoiled, entitled legion of precious snowflakes who expect prizes just for showing up, pout when we’re insufficiently petted, and never go anywhere without slathering on creamy layers of self-esteem.”
We seem to want/need instant gratification and possess a disturbing penchant for capturing instant moments, frozen in time, in the numerous selfies that flood the picture galleries on our phones.
But to sum it all up, we are a generation that seems to think we can get what we want, WHEN we want it. Instant gratification. Now. Right Now. NOW!
But are we so consumed by the present that we are unable to sustain the momentum to last into the future?
We are the generation that has started countless things but not finished them. These days, it’s funny; we snicker, when we come across a meme that talks of broken New Year resolutions. But it’s scary to think that has come to define our entire generation.
What does all this have to do with Chennai, Cyclone Vardah and Trees, you ask? Everything.
While enough has been said about the recent loss of trees in Chennai due to Cyclone Vardah, and the initial enthusiasm and zeal to plant trees is noteworthy, it is the subsequent discipline, upkeep and sense of duty in continuing the movement, which will have lasting impact on restoring Chennai’s tree cover.
While we may piggyback on the efforts of previous generations to initiate planting of trees in Chennai, it is the Millennials who are going to have to sustain it, continue it, and fight for it in the future.
Watch this space to know how. Watch out for our city’s Millennials.
Graphic by Keerthana Udaykumar.
Throughout college, I had to travel from one end of the city to another. Avadi to Adayar every day. Peak time traffic was so bad that I used to get nightmares about being stuck for hours on a crowded bus with hardly room to breathe. That being said, sometimes I took the auto to reach college faster, but mainly for the myriad shortcuts through the city that an auto driver invariably knows, to bypass the traffic.
Now these shortcuts meant I had to venture into places and streets I didn’t know before, routes that were alien to me. The watchdog inside of me was constantly on alert, looking out for any deviations from the usual route. The first time this happened I spotted it too late. We were already in the middle of nowhere. Lost for all I knew! I instantly went into panic mode, imagination on overdrive, desperately searching for signs, clues, anything at all to figure out where the auto driver was taking me.
Then, I spotted it. Rows and rows of nameboards outside shops with one thing in common – Addresses written proudly beneath their names, showing exactly where I was.
Navigation and way finding issues have been largely ignored when it comes to urban planning and design of Indian cities. Yet they are fundamentally important in orienting ourselves in a new place and makes acclimatizing to unknown contexts easier. Our brains subconsciously map and keep track of the routes, taking orientation cues from the surrounding contexts like street signs, buildings, and landmarks, anything that triggers memory of a place. Cities that make this process easier are naturally easier to navigate.
Google Maps and the Smartphone Revolution
Without a doubt, wayfinding is certainly much easier than it was before. But, here’s the thing- nowadays we are so dependent on Google Maps for finding our way through our cities that it is hard to remember that there was no Google Maps before 2005. We find it hard to get out of our houses without consulting our phones and plotting our route inch by inch. Traffic analysis, time-distance appraisals, travel mode comparisons are all put together to give us the ‘recommended (read safe) route’. We let artificial intelligence make the judgements for us (“Google shows this, so must be right”); wayfinding through the city is largely enabled by, and limited to our phones.
This type of Google-based route planning is radically different from how our parents found their way through cities, using their own internal cognitive map of random points and landmarks in the city, both familiar and unfamiliar, like that cousin’s house here or that temple there, and form a sequence of these landmarks to reach their destination. This might have been less accurate, but this was when travelling and navigating was enjoyed for the joy that is itself, when they actually saw the city and were guided by the city.
In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel.
Wayfinding is essentially a mix of logic, accident, and most importantly, our basic human navigational instinct. But Smartphone navigation narrows our perspective of the world, reducing it to the singular route between the two points of travel, leaving nothing to chance. In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel. In the guise of exploring the city, we see less of the city and more of the tiny map of the city inside our phones.
The charm of wandering through the city, lost in reverie, can’t be predicted by an app nor can it be calculated by any algorithm.
Most cities abroad invest millions of dollars on installing way finding systems like signage and maps to aid in moving through an urban landscape. The best part about Chennai or any Indian City, for that matter, is that we already have one! A system that has organically evolved over the years, to become the quickest, most original way of orienting ourselves in the city – the nameboards. This curious practice prevails in shops big and small, and has unconsciously played a major role in making places more legible.
All this fuss about a nameboard, you ask? But it’s not just a nameboard of a shop, it’s a crucial marker in the wayfinding process. With changing times, there has been an increasing shift towards fancy, minimalistic nameboards without the addresses. The important thing to realise is that despite all its good looks, it doesn’t add any value to the urban environment. The legibility of a city largely depends on the intuitiveness and creativity of the wayfinding systems. Of course, there’s a lot more to wayfinding than just these nameboards. But preserving this practice is a start to making Chennai coherent as a whole.
I realised the extent to which this influenced my perception of the city when I moved to Bangalore last year. The first thing I noticed was the lack of address on the ‘modern’ nameboards, in some of the posh, commercial areas like Indira Nagar. I had become so dependent on them for orienting myself and tracking my route that I was lost everytime I stepped outside!
There is a lot of joy in being lost in the city, and chancing upon hidden streets you didn’t know existed, exploring less known routes that take you to new places, new sights. Nothing can compare with the moment of revelation when you connect the dots and think “Oh! I know where I am now!” A good wayfinding system gives us the confidence to chance getting lost. It makes us feel like we belong.
All we need to do is look outside the window.
When I was in school, we were taken to the Egmore Museum for one-day picnics four times in as many years. Four times! I absolutely hated it. Even as a kid, I didn’t quite get the idea of piling all art under one roof and deliberately spending a whole day to see them. Naturally our entire class rebelled, fought, threw tantrums, passionately declared we’d boycott the whole picnic, tried every means possible to get out of it, but to no avail. Resigned to our fate, we’d ultimately just sit and stare at the dinosaurs the whole day, pretending we were at Jurassic Park. The point is, museums are just as unpopular now and its main visitors are still school kids dragged against their will.
Why is that we need to go in search of art in a city? Why have museums evolved to be a model of academic and social exclusivity?
We need to understand that spaces can be both constricting and liberating. By demarcating spaces for art, we limit their public outreach and seeing it becomes a tiresome effort, a chore. For urban art to be inclusive it needs to come out of its spatial boundaries, it needs to become a part of our everyday experiences. It should be present at the oddest of places and the most common spaces, from a bus stop to a traffic signal, from a shopping mall to the open beach, where encountering it would be a part of our daily routine!
Inclusive Art in Public Spaces
This is why the Phoenix Market City stands out amidst the plethora of malls mushrooming in the city. There is more than just the overload of commercialism and entertainment; there is also a liberal sprinkling of art and other installations that make use of the dynamics of the enclosed space! Art greets you at every corner on every floor, and it is surprisingly well organized and mapped. Similarly the VR Bengaluru Mall has very well curated, attractive art installations that stand out amidst the stark black and white interiors of the mall. What makes it so appealing is that I don’t have to go somewhere in search of art, it is interspersed with my shopping experience. If finding art in malls can make such an impact, think about how wonderful it will be to find art in open, public spaces like the Marina beach or our neighborhood parks!
Every time I drive down Cathedral Road, I wish for a red light at the Stella Maris signal just to admire the murals on the walls. There is just something incredibly relaxing about soaking in the colourful expressions in the middle of a tense traffic situation. It makes driving more pleasurable. All this points towards an effort to take urban art outside the walls of institutionalized spaces, to make it more open and accessible. By far, the streets of Chennai have the most potential in transforming the way art in a city is perceived. Every traffic signal, every bottleneck on the roads can be vantage points of an urban arts program.
When I heard about the ‘Conquer the Concrete‘ urban art festival, I rubbed my hands in glee. In a city where street art is nothing more than political and commercial publicity, it was encouraging to see the Egmore Railway station spruced up with murals and graffiti work by a diverse range of local and international artists. It garnered a lot of interest, and was successful mainly because of the support of local bodies like the Chennai City Connect, Corporation of Chennai and Southern Railways. This urban intervention paves the way for a different kind of dialogue between art and the city. Art is more than just a piece in a museum with a ‘Do not touch’ board next to it. It has become a medium of interaction, expression and a symbol of inclusivity.
Engaging the Community
Moreover, public art is a communal activity, whose reach can be powerful for communities and neighborhoods. Artists realize a democratic ideal in outdoor settings that are free to all viewers. The public role in public art is essential to the artist. People enliven a work, are inspired and intrigued, motivated and provoked.  Street art also attracts attention to specific causes and socially relevant issues as a form of “art provocation”
Urban art in public spaces have the potential to reflect the local cultures and be a part of narratives forged with the context. It can revive troubled spaces in the city that are struggling for recognition and identity. It could also prevent public vandalism and keep a place clean. A few days back, somewhere in Royapettah, I saw a wall plastered with huge murals of various gods and goddess with the ‘Do not urinate’ sign below it. Not surprisingly, it works! Whatever the motive, whatever the form, one cannot deny that the changing urban art scene in Chennai is transforming the way our city looks and feels. And I, for one, am glad that I don’t have to go to a museum to see art. A red-light at a traffic signal is enough.
A couple of years ago, a friend and I were part of a competition that questioned the notion of a “public space” in a city in the year 2099. What made it interesting was the fact that we had to understand how a city would change in the future, plot our predictions and design a public space that would be in tune with the mindset of the society in the near future. After aimlessly tossing around Spielberg-inspired ideas for futuristic spaces in an apocalyptic world on the brink of doomsday, we chose to dwell on the notion of the public space of the present. A notion largely shaped by the largest public space in our city – the Marina beach.
The Marina beach in Chennai stretching from the Chennai Harbour to Santhome is the single largest public space in Chennai and the largest urban beach in the country. There’s hardly anyone in Chennai who hasn’t visited the beach at least once. Frequented by a diverse populace of different social and economic backgrounds, this sandy stretch has long been the go to place for Sunday evening breaks.
More than just a space to relax, the Marina, has also been a platform to voice dissent within the society. Historically public spaces have been the trigger for social and political revolution from the Jallianwala Bagh that sparked off the Indian independence movement to the recent Egyptian Revolution at Tahrir Square. Public spaces take on many roles in a city. Here, they took the role of a social lever, enabling the people to join hands and tip the balance against forces that threatened to bring the city to an urban standstill. The Thilakar Thidal in the Marina Beach opposite the Presidency College was the place where great national leaders like Balagangadhara Thilak, Mahatma Gandhi inspired more than 5000 people to join the Freedom struggle. Sadly, all that remains of this historic stage is just a sandy plaque.
A public space is truly “public” only when it is free, open to all and democratic. It is precisely this freedom to just be that makes the beach so alluringly our own. The Marina beach is the one public space in Chennai that welcomes people, rich or poor without any bias, without expecting anything in return. In spite of this, we are witnessing a steady increase in the number of malls in the city that have taken over as the new public/private spaces. While it might offer relative comforts of air conditioning, hygienic toilets and spacious food courts apart from shopping, we need to realise it has a downside too. It is world where entry is a privilege, we are policed and observed when inside, expected to act in a certain way and dress in a certain way. Yet, the very policing that strips it off its freedom is what forces us to be responsible towards the space. We consciously don’t litter, we make it a point to put the toilet seat down, we behave in a civil manner, we respect the place.
Why is it that we abandon all sense of civic responsibility and care at a democratic place where we are not policed? Why isn’t the Marina, which is far better “public” space than any mall in the city accorded the same level of respect?
Be it the early morning joggers, the bajji and balloon stall owners, the love struck couples holding hands, the impatient kids running around, fishermen pushing off to the blue sea, or the rag pickers scrounging for waste, they all lay claim to the Marina. It is home to hundreds of fishermen and slum dwellers living at its fringes, and thousands more depend on the Marina for their livelihood. It is delicate ecosystem, a microcosm of life that offers glimpses of many aspects of urban existence and social values. This microcosm invariably reflects and informs the macrocosm of the city. How we treat the Marina in the coming years will define how Chennai grows as a city.
It all comes down to whether a public space is a right to all or a privilege to some. To what degree should they be policed and regulated? Spaces like the Marina survive on minimal policing but will flourish only with our social and civic responsibility. It belongs to no one and everyone. Let’s keep it that way, shall we?
(This is the first of a six part series on elements, rituals, spaces and contexts that make the city what it is. It hopes to build urban narratives born out of this synergy between a place and its memories.)
– Photos by Siddarth PT, Vaishali Chellapa, Harini Vijayakumar, Chandiran Joseph.
Every city has a plethora of stories waiting to be told – Undiscovered trails and untold tales of a million people that highlight forgotten nuances of city life. From the tea-kadais of George Town to the filter kappi kadai in the midst of Mylapore, the bajji stalls in the Marina to the biriyani kadai loyalists in Triplicane, early morning sweepers to the garbage handlers in Perungudi – they all have a story to tell. These stories are evidence of a complex relationship between people and place, and ultimately contribute to the “identity” of a city. Each person perceives the city differently and forms one’s own narrative, uniquely shaped by cultural, human contexts and the social milieu. Urban narratives reveal the character of the city, and most importantly, make us feel like we belong.
Now, wait a minute, this is not another romanticized version of city life, and its chaotic charm. Here, I want to go beyond just recording these narratives. I seek to decipher the spatial contexts that give rise to such narratives– urban contexts that frame the stories and influence how we place ourselves in it. The quality of these urban contexts affects the quality of our experience as well.
The architecture of a city, the built form is no longer just a backdrop to our lives. It has metamorphed to be a unique generator of our experiences. A lot of memories of our childhood, of our life are uniquely shaped by the “place” of its happening. We tend to associate memories with a place. Place memories are born of the emotional bond between a person and a place, it is what makes a place meaningful to us.
This leads me to the question – ‘what’ in a place makes it worth remembering? Why is it that memories of some places are recalled with a smile, while some leave a distasteful aftertaste in our mouths? What tips the balance?
Spatial memories, especially in a city, are crucial is shaping the image or mindset one has towards the city. Memories are subjective just as individual mindsets are, triggered by the initial experiences of the place. So, the initial experience of the place- the sights, sounds, the serendipitous encounters with people, the context that sets the tone and opportunity- determines the memory we take from it. We go on to fill the space with those memories and a place, defined by our reminiscences, is born. Experience of a context shapes the memories.
Our city is changing fast, caught a conflict between the ephemeral and the permanent. The ephermerality of everyday rituals, interactions with people, events in places, fleeting moments in time make up urban life. Architecture and design in a city should be conducive to the realization of such experiences that mould memories of city life. Architecture should respond to the ever changing urbanism of the city and not just be a mark of permanence of the designer of the political regime that sanctions it. Public buildings have the potential to be the face of the city and reflect the mindset of the society. They could be inclusive, user-oriented and democratic or could be biased, unfriendly and not susceptive to any kind of change.
We need to make a conscious choice to create architecture that respects the city it is in, and responds to the collective memories of the people. Only then is it worth remembering.
- All photos by Siddarth PT.