Everyday Urbanism

Eatsup- Food and the City

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Hailing from a small town in Kerala, being  a  passionate foodie , my first fond memories of a city are the huge malls, pizzas and sizzlers which were once (until about 10 years ago) exclusive to only the metropolitan Indian cities. In fact I would always look forward to visiting my cousins who lived in the city, for my yearly pizza. It was not until I moved to Chennai for my undergraduate studies, five years ago that I could truly explore a city in terms of the multiple culinary dimensions that it has to offer.

Food is as much a part of culture as architecture is. But what is fascinating about food and cities today is that the cities today have become truly global offering us a taste of multiple cultures through a wide array of culinary experiences. For example, while Chennai stays true to its own South Indian Filter coffee and Idly, Vada Sambar, the spicy streets of Sow carpet (in North Chennai) are sure to impress one with the true north Indian flavours.

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This quest for what a city could offer in terms of food led me to explore the same through my undergraduate architecture design thesis. My exploration of gastronomy began with a study of the culinary world today. Visiting culinary schools, getting a sneak peek of the workings of kitchens of five star restaurants, enjoying cooking sessions while making new friends at food studios, being a part of food walks where in one could explore the city through its cuisines, learning about how food start ups work, sharing my food experiences through social media food groups, I realized how cities today offer much more than just multiple dining experiences. Food today is no longer a mere means for sustenance, it is an art, a hobby, a profession, above all a kaleidoscope of experiences that people crave for!

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Food offers a kaleidoscope of experiences that people crave for.

 

Creating a Food Public Space

Food and Architecture being creative fields due to the exuberant quality of art that exists in them, my exploration furthered to see if these synonymous projections could be extended to explore a newer perspective; one that could inscribe value to our cities and engage a wide range of its citizens. The architectural concern of my project was to bring together people through food as a medium by creating a new food public space in the heart of the city that caters to the multiple dimensions that the culinary sector today has branched into.

Bangalore-a truly vibrant city with its fascinating culinary world, be it the ‘oota walks’, the late night partying in gastro-pubs, food melas or the numerous food start ups that can get you anything from a salad or a cookie to a celebrity chef in a jiffy – set the ambience for the design. The site on Church Street, one of the oldest food hubs of Bangalore within the CBD, abounding in eateries and pubs, well connected and surrounded by commercial spines, with a steady pedestrian flow provided ample scope for the project to expand from a ‘culinary arts centre’ into an ‘urban eat street’.

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Bangalore, the restaurant capital of the country.

       

Designing for Food

A study of the existing streetscape and the urban context was important to understand how the built form responded to the same. Food, being a very sensuous phenomenon, works best when it is not hidden away, but exposed, letting the aromas linger. What was interesting about Church Street was that despite the large number of eateries present, there was hardly any spill over onto the streets. The reasons were mainly two:

  1. The street is not pedestrian friendly. It is punctured by transformers and piles of garbage, with uneven foot paths and haphazard street parking, cutting off any contact between pedestrians and the adjacent buildings.
  2. The buildings themselves are largely introverted (barring a few), not even attempting any engagement with the chaotic street.
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Mapping Church Street and its existing food culture.
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Analyzing the street elements .

As an architectural intervention for an urban transformation the design proposal focuses not just on the built form but also on creating a vibrant eat street.

 

Programming for Food

The  culinary arts centre, whose built form was conceived as a response to the city, the streets and the people (and function) at three different scales, was envisioned to be a reflection of the vibrant urban culture, connecting multiple user groups through food and letting the streets flow into the building as much as possible. As the idea was to connect multiple user groups through food, the building is a collaborative food space that has chef studios, co working kitchens, public cooking studios, food retail, culinary schools, restaurants and amenities like library, auditorium etc.

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The building’s conceptual massing was a response to the site and programmes of the Urban Eat Street.

 

Connecting with the Urban Street

The main design challenge was to understand how a vertical building as tall as 24 metres high in a tight urban context with FSI, setbacks and other building constraints could achieve an extroverted character, unlike the other tall buildings on Church Street that strictly did not engage with the pedestrians.

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Hence the building was conceived as a heterogeneous vertical street with a play of inside and outside, multiple walkways within the building enabling many circulation paths for an interesting spatial experience. Transparency as a tool was used to connect the multiple levels and activities and project gastronomy as much as possible. Solids and voids, textures and colours also add to the extroverted building character, making it dynamic. The materiality of the building  also draws from street characteristics such as plain vertical planes for graffiti, steel frames for banners etc .The building comes alive at night as the open spaces double up as dance and disco floors. The colourful banners of street festivals, events and performances get displayed on the steel grids of the building facade and the glass exterior facade of the rotated auditorium has LCD display that screens food videos, music, etc, becoming a focal point for the street node.

The built-form is ultimately an expression of a vibrant urban street. The street design proposing a pedestrian-friendly street, takes the vehicular traffic and parking underground. The idea is to enhance spill-over onto the street and add elements of colour, play and food throughout. The 750m stretch will have three pedestrian subways and one vehicular entry and exit point. The street is envisaged to become an urban canvas and a renewed food public space in the heart of the city of Bangalore.

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Unlike the other buildings on Church Street, the design aims to engage with the street and create an open ambience.
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Street Montage of the Eat Street.
Experiencing Food through Architecture

Architecture is played with to add a physical dimension to the food experience with multiple hues that accentuate the spirit of the place. The building elements were composed to form voids, frame views, fuse activities and provide fascinating new user experiences. Just as food has multiple flavours, the building’s spatial heterogeneity was a deliberate attempt to express the cultural diversity of the city. It also hints that only if architecture implants variety in the cityscape will it be a fertile seed for urban transformation.

The building thus becomes an identity for FOOD CULTURE and in parallel transforms the image of the context. Just as a city offers us a plethora of culinary experiences, the design aims to capture the essence of it on one platter to offer to its people.


[This article is a collaboration between Hashtag Urbanism and Priyanka Sreekanth, based on her Undergraduate Design Thesis, “Eatsup- A Culinary Arts Center on an Urban Eat Street”, compiled in the document below.]

Institution – School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University, Chennai.
Review Members – Ar. Shakthivel Raja, Dr. P. Meenakumai,
Thesis Guide – Ar. Saravanan

Noteworthy mention – Presented at NIASA (National Institute of Advanced Studies in Architecture) Thesis Awards South Zone jury.


Women in Urban Space

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Poverty is experienced differently according to gender, age, caste, class and ethnicity and within households. Poverty pushes you across geographical boundaries and the societal frames set by the same factors in order to survive.

More often than others women tend to fall victim to the Burden from these discriminatory power relations in the society. The working women from the lower economic section of the city today are those who have set about to tackle this problem on their own by their own means. They could be migrants, victims of displacement caused by developmental projects or survivors of natural disasters or simply looking for work.

They work as housemaids, sweepers, petty hawkers and largely vendors who now fall under the informal sector of workers in the big cities. The concerns of informal economy workers and particularly women workers can be easily overlooked in the process of policy making and even urban planning. The urban space these women occupy and function in, are not theirs and therefore are shortchanged by urban planners and various government officials who do not completely comprehend their significance in the neighbourhood or the city as a whole.

An Indian city without these women is somehow rendered, devoid of life and colour in my imagination.

A photo series of working women from the streets and neighbourhoods of different cities, by Krithika Sriram. 

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A niche in the Wall, Bangalore.

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On the streets of Jodpur
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Inside the Jodhpur Fort
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On the verandah, Ahmedabad.
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Quiet afternoons at a temple in Bangalore.

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Early morning Markets, Ahmedabad.
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On the tourist beat in Jodhpur.

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Gulab Gang, Darjeling
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Along the Mada Streets of Mylapore.
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Along the Beach Road, Chennai.
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Braving the rains, Port Blair, Andamans

9 Cycling Routes to explore Chennai!

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Cities are inevitably judged by the efficiency and inclusiveness of their transportation systems and networks, them being vital veins for the city’s functioning. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Transportation sector has progressed immensely over the past few decades, so much so that the pioneering two-wheeled human-powered transport system – the cycle – has little, sometimes no space on the roads any longer. To this inescapable conundrum, Chennai is no exception.

From vital transportation to fitness and recreation, cycling is a greener and cleaner option for all needs – and of late, the latter aspect has been on the rise in the city. And why not? There is a certain wonderment experienced when you get onto that saddle and pedal yourself forward – the joy of your leg muscles’ pull as forward you’re pushed; the wind in your hair and a song in your heart – there is a certain wonderment when you get onto that saddle and explore the city and all the joys it has to offer. But then, there’s a catch – inside the city, cycling is almost fatal; you’re bullied by the motorised vehicles, the unfriendly lorries and mean horn-blasting cars. To experience the joy of cycling, we are forced to escape to the outskirts, or to the really early morning hours or late nights.

Travelling is a way of experiencing new things, of exploring new places and feeling new things; it broadens the mind and makes some peace. And travelling by a cycle only makes the whole experience even more fulfilling. The trick is, it’s just fast enough to keep you moving ahead, and just slow enough to let you savour and enjoy each moment, each scene you cross – the birds on that tree, the lone pink flower in a sea of green, the smiling old shop lady who hands you bottle of water while you try to catch your breath, “Where are you cycling from? All the way from there?!” That’s something you do not, and CAN NOT, get from any motorized vehicle- bikes are too fast, cars too closed, flights too detached, and walking, well, unless you have a lot of time on your hands.

So in case you’re not already on your cycle, here are a few routes around Chennai to get you started! As a general rule, all routes mentioned here are safe for cyclists at the following timings;

04.30 am to 07.30 am
10.00 pm to 12.00 pm (Main roads only. Front and back cycle lights, helmets mandatory.)

CYCLING ROUTES
A. Beginner Routes – Below 20 km

Route 1 – Koyambedu – Anna tower park – Koyambedu

Short and easy, a route in the centre of the city – if you want to add a challenge ride up the Koyambedu flyover and cruise down. A stop at Anna tower park is great in the mornings, walk a circuit or two to stretch the muscles before getting onto the saddle again. The avenues of Anna Nagar are mostly residential streets so less traffic can be expected.

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Cycle to the park, and spend some time at the famous skating ring there!

Total distance 10 km. Duration (max.) 1 hour

Route 2 – Madhya Kailash – Besant nagar beach – Madhya Kailash

Who doesn’t love the beach in the mornings – the fresh breeze and gorgeous sunrise. The roads are hard and neat, speed cycling is great, especially tree-lined Besant Avenue close to Theosophical society.

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Watch the sunrise at Besant Nagar Beach, and relax on the beach before cycling back!

Total Distance: 10.1km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 mins

Route 3 – Madhya Kailash – Pallikarnai – Madhya Kailash

OMR is every cyclist’s dream – wide and pleasant to ride. Cycling along the Pallikarnai marsh is a beautiful sight in the morning, you can spot flocks of birds in amidst the greenery. There are small gazebos off the main road where one can sit and take in the beautiful scenery.

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Spot some beautiful migratory birds at Pallikaranai, Chennai’s Freshwater Marshland.

Total distance 21 km. Duration (max.) 1h 30 min



Intermediate Routes – 20-30 km

Route 1 – Anna university – Marina beach – Anna University

Right along the main roads, it is advisable to get on the saddle real early to avoid 8 am traffic. Also, this is one of the best night-cycling routes in the city – well-lit streets and good safety for the night rider. Marina beach is a treat in itself – mornings mean beautiful sunrise and fresh air; nights mean a mid-ride ice-cream at the beach!

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Count the arches on Napier’s Bridge on the way to Marina Beach!

Total distance 22.4 km. Duration (max.) 1 h 45 min

Route 2 – OMR to ECR loop

OMR is another great night-cycling option owing to the bright streetlights and around-the-clock police patrol. The connection from OMR to ECR at Shollinganallur junction is a great spot to cross a wide and clean Buckingham canal – you can stop at the corner of the bridge for a break from pedalling. Another add-on is a brief detour through any of the side streets on the ECR to an isolated and silent beach.

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Cycling down Chennai’s incredible coastline along the ECR-OMR stretch.

Total distance 29 km. Duration (max.) 2h 15 mins

Route 3– Velachery MRTS – Ottiambakkam quarry – Velachery MRTS

After Perumbakkam, the route is mostly through winding tarred village roads, so peaceful and silent in the morning hours. Ottiambakkam stone quarry is an abandoned quarry which has accumulated rain water over the years and forms a beautiful pond – swim with caution, though. You can take a brief 15-minute hike to the top and spot eagles or other birds, and experience a panoramic view of the city far beyond.

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Riding your cycle all the way to Ottiyambakam Quarry is well worth the view in the end!

Total distance 30 km. Duration (max.) 2 hours 30 mins



Expert Routes – 30+ km

Route 1 – Porur junction – Chembarambakkam lake – Porur junction

Small winding tar roads through small towns lead to one of the biggest lakes in the city – Chembarambakkam lake. One uphill and you’re onto the small path just adjacent the large blue water mass. Great for those who love solitude and water. During the return, you can take a short fun detour to Decathlon, every sports-shoppers paradise.

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Cycle around the Chembarambakkam lake’s cycle friendly perimeter

Total distance 32 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours

Route 2 – Padi flyover – Puzhal lake – Padi flyover

From Padi flyover, taking the city route in the morning is better due to less vehicles. Puzhal lake is another beautiful morning spot – during summer the lake is dry enough to walk on some parts of it, mind the sinking mud spots though. During monsoon, the lake is full and if you have the knack of it, you can ask fishermen to lend their canoes to you for a few `bucks. The National highway route back has good ups and downs to train your calves and is mostly free at all times of the day.

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Total distance 35 km. Duration (max.) 3 hours

Route 3 – Padi flyover – Sholavaram lake – Padi flyover

A little farther down from Puzhal is this out-of-the-way Sholavaram lake. When the lake is dry, its full of green grass presenting a whole other beautiful scene. Expect to be completely on your own here, very few people wander inside from the main road.

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Total Distance 48 km. Duration (max.) 3h 30 mins hours


* All distances measured are nearly accurate

* All ride durations are approximate and are inclusive of an average 15 mins break/stop at the destination mentioned.


[This article is by Abinaya Kalyanasundaram, Co-Founder of Saddle Addicts, a Chennai based Cycling group, in collaboration with Hashtag Urbanism. Check them out here!]

…joy of being lost #3/6

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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.

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Small shops throughout the city continue to display their location on their nameboards. Seen at Myalapore.

Urban wayfinding

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.

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We are presented with multiple route options based on traffic analysis, time-distance mapping, giving us the “best” route.

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.

Intuitive wayfinding

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Art and Urban Public Spaces #2/6

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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.

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Art in the city continues to be housed in enclosed spaces that cater to a niche interest group and not the average urban dweller.

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!

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Art Installations at VR Bengaluru Mall.
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Art in the middle of traffic, Stella Maris Road.

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.

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Work done as part of ‘Conquer the Concrete’ Festival in Chennai. [Source: Street Art Chennai]

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.  [1] 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.

Sources:

1. [With inputs from this NYT article]
2. Photos and Graphic by Siddarth PT

Open Streets, Bangalore

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Last Sunday saw MG Road in Bangalore transform from a noisy thoroughfare to a lively, bustling public space, free from cars and traffic. ‘Open Streets’ , orgranised by Department of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and Bangalore coalition for Open Streets, was a landmark event in Bangalore’s struggle for pedestrian friendly streets. Parking lots were replaced by nearly 120 stalls, flea markets, art installations, and dance performances, attracting more than 50000 people in the course of the day.

From 9am to 9pm, MG Road was jam packed with people strolling, children playing badminton and speed ball, college students painting and singing, with the atmosphere of a carnival. Fun and frolic aside, this event drove home the invaluable importance of pedestrian spaces on streets, popularized public transport  and called out to the people to reclaim the streets as their own!

Here’s a time-lapse video which captures the spirit and gaiety of the event that brought together people of all ages, cultures and even nationalities. And here’s to more such events on busy roads that ought to be reclaimed by the people. Share to show your support for Open Streets in your city!

[Video shot and edited by Siddarth PT]

The Shuttered-Busy Shop fronts

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The “shuttered busy shop front” – doesn’t it seem ironic?

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A local resident reading Newspaper in front of a closed Shop @Tiruvanmiyur

How can a shuttered shop be active? Early in the morning last week, when I went for a jog, I noticed these shuttered yet busy shop fronts, crowded with the people from adjoining tea shops, random residents spending time on the road from, the early morning school goers, the random chit chatters, etc,. The shop fronts with nothing but raised plinths and a few steps are actively used, even when the shops are closed. I look at these small elements in the streets as a tool that facilitates a healthy social life within the people of specific area, engaging and encouraging them to BE on streets, interact with each other and share the commons.

In the rapidly modernizing city, these threshold spaces are fast being enclosed by boundaries and walls, curtailing the relationship between the elements of streets and people. The increasing privatization of public space is a recurring theme on Hashtag Urbanism, and here’s a photo essay that captures the pressing need for the commons to stay common.