Public Spaces

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.


7 Steps for Urban Connect at Madurai

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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.

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Evolution of Madurai City over the years.
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Urban pattern and growth over time, leading to the clear bifurcation of the North and South, Old and New.
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Madurai needs an intervention that responds to the context of TODAY, through the lines of what it should transform to be in the future.

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.

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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
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The city engages with two varied relationships; one between Old & New, the other between South and North.

 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.

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Vandiyur Tank and its immediate Context.

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.

4a
Sample of survey of Public opinions in Madurai

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. [1] 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.

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The Meenakshi Amman temple as the central foci of old city generates and ties-up the activities around.
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The religion as a medium connects the city and people through yearlong festivals.
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Festivals and Sleepless activities are thus the essence of city which reconstructs the urban fabric periodically as temporal event spaces.

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.

6a
Analysis of existing urban conditions around the tank.
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Graphic showing how this site would connect bring out the essence of the city of Madurai.

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.

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Masterplan for Vandiyur Lank Front Area
7b
Comic strip showing progression of spaces on site

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.

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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.

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Bridging the South and the North, Old and the New.

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.]

 

References:

  1. Research paper “Dichotomy of urban public spaces” by Priya Sasidharan and Prof. David.
  2. Article in The Hindu on Water Storage in Vandiyur Tank.

 

 

 

 

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.

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

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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

…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.

 

 

 

The Romance in Abandonment

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Melancholic tales from a system in despair

Chennai has the distinction of having the first elevated Rapid transit system in the country, the MRTS (Mass Rapid Transit System). Born out of a transport study by the Metropolitan Transport Project in the 1980s, the MRTS was proposed as a 20 km elevated and on-grade railway corridor with 17 stations, to ease the congestion along a throbbing transit route from the Central Business District to the fast-growing IT corridor.

Mylapore station platform
Passengers await the next train at the Mylapore MRTS station platform. The wide arched-truss roof allows a golden sun-glow into the space.

Envisioned to be a vital transit system with  the stations having additional commercial and institutional functions, the vast majority of the“air-space” in these hubs now lies in dire disuse, gradually and steadily moving to misuse. Caught in a vicious cycle of disuse and lack of revenue for maintenance which causes even further disuse, the system is caught in a complex concoction of decay – the  Buckhingam canal and dead spaces between the stations further adding to the poison.

However, there is a specific aesthetic that exists amongst architecture in the absence of routine human interaction- the aesthetic of decay.This aesthetic develops over time, as buildings cease to function in the way they were originally designed to do so; It develops naturally, as Nature reclaims what was originally it’s own and Man leaves behind his trails. A photographic exploration through the dying spaces helps identify any existent hope, potential and dreams of a better future.


|  CONTEXT  |

 

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Decay abounds. A foot-bridge connecting the Thiruvallikeni station to the slum behind it. During evenings, this becomes a playground of sorts for children.
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The system was planned to run along the banks, and at some places, right into the Buckhingam canal to avoid land acquisition problems.
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Parallel paths |  Similar Fates
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Desolate back lanes. Meant to be a service lane connecting the Kasturbha, Indiranagar and Thiruvanmiyur hubs.
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Assertive reticence. Columns holding the tracks above create a sheltered pathway beneath, awaiting the human’s feet.

 


|  SHELL  |

7 (2)
Deserted atrium in the Greenways station. Even during peak hours, some stations do not get much passengers.
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Daily residents catching a nap
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Spacious desolate volumes broken by large silent piers.
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Blank canvas. A remnant banner from a photo exhibition in 2012 hangs unnoticed, Thiruvanmiyur.

 

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Man’s trails
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Left-overs from last night provide some clues to the kind of use the shadowed spaces are put to.

|  PANES IN PAIN  |

7 (8)
Shattered panes break the cityscape into frames
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A rule breaker, in a string of order
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Art where the light gets in. Graffiti is a prevalent scene in abandoned spaces.
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Hanging by a slim thread
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Memories past; forgotten and lost.

|  HIDE AND SEEK  |

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A grand orchestra of sunlight breaks in from the main entrance, Thiruvanmiyur.
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Streaks of light peel the shadows, Thiruvanmiyur.
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Shutters can block paths, not Light.

 

|  PEOPLE AND ENCOUNTERS  |

 

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Walking across the Concourse, Thiruvanmiyur, the highest used station in all 17.
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Empty ticket queues waiting for human lines.
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Playground. Children indulge in a bit of activity at the entrance, Kotturpuram.
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The world is my playground. A child cycles up and down the ramp meant for differently-abled entryway, Kotturpuram.
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Silent enough to sleep. A child sleeps on the entrance porch of Kasthurba Nagar station, oblivious to surrounding chaos.

 

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]