Turin’s Horse

What’s common between the physicist and Spanish writer Agustin Fernandez Mallo and I? We could even have a parallel with thousands of other people who may have gone to trace a small distance and an exact spot in Torino, or Turin in English, a city in northern Italy. You may want to ask, what’s a man whispering into horse’s ears?

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In March 2011, I travelled to Delhi to get my registration of architect from the Council of Architecture at India Habitat Center. This journey is remarkable and memorable as it signifies the successful transition from student to becoming a certified architect. I stayed the week at a friend’s place who, at the time, was a student of MA Political Science in the University of Delhi. I accompanied her to the university and attended a class on political philosophy. We sat on a back bench, and I took notes through the lecture so the professor wouldn’t doubt I was an outsider. The lecture was on the concept of Nietzsche’s philosophy of Übermensch on which the character of DC comics modern Superman is loosely based. It concluded with an event in his life, that altered him forever. Nietzsche had health issues since his childhood, and he moved to different cities in search of a climate conducive to his health. In Turin, on the night of 3rd January 1889, he stepped outside his apartment and walked a short distance where he witnessed the flogging of a horse at the Piazza Carlo, he ran to the horse, threw his arms up around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed to the ground. He is believed to have whispered into the horse’s ear: “Sing me a new song! The World is transformed, and all the Heavens sing for joy!” 

This narrative really intrigued me, and I developed an attachment to this unknown place without having any knowledge about it. And it so happened that I had a chance to visit Turin, and the only thing I hoped to do was to walk along the path Nietzsche took and find that spot. On reaching Turin I bought a tourist map, and got into one of its cafes to figure out which direction to head. (Their coffee is really awesome!) Going around in Turin is a little difficult because I could barely connect the street names on the map with the ones on signboards. From the exit of the station, I had to take the middle street, which I did but rather returned from it half way to take its parallel street. However, a bit confused walking on a near-empty street I reached the Turin Cathedral and Royal Palace. Adjacent to it is the City Square of Palace Madama that houses a museum on whose steps at the rear end I sat wondering which way to pick. As luck would have it, I went in the direction of an arcade straight ahead when I should have taken a small lane on to the right. The arcade opened into another large plaza on the bank of the river Po, by then I knew I took the wrong path.

Station Susa
Parallel street that I should have taken
L to R: Turin Royal Palace, Palace Madama in front of City Square
Arcade of shops, bistros, and vendors


Piazza Vittorio


River Po from the Vittorio Emmanuel bridge
Off by a short distance

I had to take a train back to Milan the same day, with help from a kind gent who took the trouble to help me get on a correct bus to the station I returned, a little disappointed. But I carry with myself great memories that I am pretty sure I won’t forget! Recently, I found an article in Paris Review in which the physicist-writer recollects his journey reenacting the walk that led to Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin. In 2011, a Hungarian movie called The Turin’s Horse was released based on this event in history depicting the repetitive daily lives of the horse-owner and his daughter.

“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm!’ [‘Mother, I am stupid!’ in German] and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”

To Italy, and back

Tourist Maps

The first search in preparation for my impending visit to Italy led me to caution travel tips on how kind is the city to women traveling alone. It reminded me of a poem I read about the necessity of women’s body to constantly negotiate shared space in the public realm. It was only then I realized the unconscious habit of being in control and knowledge of space that I existed in at any given time. This I believe is true for all of us. Bodies, eyes, eyes, bodies – a methodical existence that makes carelessness a luxury. We act and react in accordance to the eyes that watch us, giving precedence to the one viewing, judging, intending over our individual self. What do we exchange in order to have a moment of carelessness? What is the price to be paid for a desire to be a careless unknown face in the crowd?

Safety is a paramount concern for us and a constant need of its assurance denies carelessness. However, can we ever be too careful? I believe strongly that there is a difference in the memory of place experienced with and without an element of fear. We have a memory of experiencing fear more than our memory of experiencing a place. Fear activates our senses of defense and control for the immediate environment. A mind filled with fear doesn’t sufficiently be at leisure in such instances. Our experiences and subsequent understanding are subject to individual sensibilities. It is possible to say this in retrospection and safe to say I’ve been as careless as I could have.

Italy is like the inside of a history textbook, and just as deep, complex and overwhelming. Like in the fantasy movies where you open a magical book, dive into it and exit in a parallel reality. There is so much to see that two eyes seem insufficient to capture the natural and manmade beauty of the place. The history associated with it abound in urban spaces, architecture, arts, culture, lifestyle, is simply awe inspiring. I loitered about most of the time in and around the urban historic core watching the place, people, and activities happening around. There are thousands of pictures at our disposal on the internet, and it is a good idea perhaps to leave one behind. I say this because I feel we have become over-dependent on an external device to capture our memories and experiences. I think we should rely more on our mind as a tool to associate with the sight and sounds of a place for an intimate experience.

When I returned I managed to map (click to view) the route along which I walked using Google Maps down to the detail of the winding paths, and spots I took rest at. There is a simple logic to the organization of places, the seams are almost absent between the older cores and the newer developments. And although the new buildings conform to the old style, they retain their new character and hardly ever seem out of place. The resemblance between the buildings, and the streets is high, however, guided by a distant landmark the way-finding is not difficult. A sense of direction is built into the layout. Besides Italy is a heaven of maps, literally all roads lead you to where you want to go. When in doubt, follow the crowd!

Of the things invariably connected to walking in large cities is the availability of public transport. It is often said that the success of a place relies on the choice between the available options for public transport. These systems are often interdependent – where one terminates the other takes over, but not necessarily hierarchical. There is a well-organized and well-maintained system of public transport in Italy. There are not just metro rails, trams and buses, taxis, tourist rickshaws to cover distances large and small but dedicated bicycle tracks and racks for parking at designated places. The attention to basic pedestrian infrastructure like road crossings, refuge islands, speed limit, signage, accessibility controls; for comfortable movement buffers between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, seats, shaded areas, kiosks; and utilitarian support like dust bins, toilets, water spouts etc. is laudable. The availability of a choice of public transport also reduces car ownership, and when there is an efficient system is in place it is possible to have areas that can be car-free zones. All the historic urban cores I visited were pedestrianized conveniently connected by public transport.

From among the many different experiences of cities, one remarkable is the sense of discovery. Walking amongst the dense old buildings in narrow winding streets to find it lead up to an open space is such a memorable experience. The urban squares, large and small, are interesting places of activity to observe the transformation over a period of time. In the morning, there are tourists like I, all around followed by the younger crowd in the afternoon, and as evening approaches a mix of families, groups of friends, young children and old couples seem to occupy it making it the center of activity. There are little kids laughing, eating ice creams, playing, and cycling which is such a delight to see!

At the heart of large urban plazas are usually the cathedrals, awe-inspiring examples of magnificent architecture inside out. The cathedrals are so marvelous; it’s a spiritually aesthetic experience to be in them. Every inch of space not only of religious significance but has such attention to detail that one is left spellbound. It is difficult to decide what to look at! Many of the cathedrals have their own exhibits, interpretation centers dedicated to its religious and historical significance within them where the original sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, etc. are preserved. The roofs are open to visitors, and the view of the cities from atop is simply spectacular! Of the places I visited, I was completely awestruck by the Gothic architecture of the Duomo of Milan; I spent two full days just wandering around being a part of the crowd! On one of the days the plaza outside Duomo, a huge canvas was laid out on the floor for people to paint as a part of public art initiative.

The cities are huge, but there hardly seem enough people. Many places are unpopulated, roads empty, stations empty, buildings empty, left me wondering if there are people at all. It was only when I walked into the central square I realized where the people are. Given its scale, it seemed as if the entire population of the city could be fitted into the central square (not literally). A keen sense of private and public spaces in built into the form. Without previous knowledge and access, it is not possible even accidentally run into an inconspicuous private space. Scale plays an important role in the transition between private-semi-public-public without relying too much on surveillance devices. Places designed to human scale create a sense of enclosure within which control and surveillance through the presence of other people in movement or resident are achieved. The sound of the city is virtually absent everywhere, every place is calm and quiet, sometimes unnervingly so. By the standard of surrounding noise of machines, movement of vehicles etc. we are exposed to every day even the noise of the center of activity was relatively negligible. I personally have an intense dislike to noise especially with one that alters at irregular frequencies and intensity.

There is so much more I have taken notes of that I wish to write but I conclude here with some of my thoughts, rather questions. It so often happens that we visit western countries and especially European we get so besotted by the places. And naturally our response is to emulate the kind of urbanism in our cities. As is the belief that economic development, in this case with respect to the built environment, precedes social or cultural change. The benefits will slowly trickle down to the last of the people in the economic ladder, and change will overcome in all other aspects – be it social or cultural. When we are duplicating western urbanism we are designing our cities on principles that do not really align with our sensibilities. In which case, do we really wish to thrust upon the cities mere ideas we find inspiring? There is little doubt as to as a society we always hope and aspire for better future – may we also lose at the same time much of our own knowledge?

Is it that if we imbibed a civic sense and local municipal bodies provided basic services and utilities in all areas of rich and poor people alike, would our response to cities expansions be still to impose those inward-looking developments that exist as self-sufficient complexes? Has the western suburbia manifested itself in gated communities being very much a part of city extents, well connected yet its back turned against the city? The super SEZs, IT SEZ’s thriving on the infrastructure and services of the city does not contribute to the quality of places to its built environment. It’s public and semi-public spaces, neither inclusive nor democratic, are fenced, protected, under constant surveillance. We are constantly harping about the benefits of mixed use development which I think is funny because that’s the kind of urbanism that is authentic to us. From studio exercises to architects offices mixed use development is the most trending subject. The question is when or why we lapsed to understand that our urbanism is characterized by it so far that we reiterate it as a new finding.  We speak about women safety, very well, in parallel with the built environment, besides the need for infrastructure requirements unanimously agree on the importance of building mixed use.

More often than not we have had to unlearn and question some of our beliefs about old cities. Either we are totally romanticizing them as places of amalgamation of architecture, heritage, arts, culture, and lifestyle selling for the purpose of tourism or as heritage walks, photo walks, culinary walks etc. Or we see them as deteriorating, run down places, stereotyping the people who live in them. The proposals, it at all, are exercises in beautification, façade improvements, investing in tourism infrastructure in otherwise sacrosanct historical areas. In the latter case, elaborate proposals are made that do not ever come close to the implementation or dismissed as they are such complex entities that apathetic authorities rather shrug and ignore they places exist. But yet  we compare our old historic centers with that of the west, and in an ambitious appeal by aesthete override the ground realities. This is not to make a sweeping generalization that there are no architects, designers, and planners who are not sensitive to the urban processes. But it is to say there are very few and that we really need to change our approach to old cities’ development. In the rhetoric about increasing urban population, we often forget older cities are often the hosts of migrants acting as transitional spaces. Our focus should be as much on old cities as much for the new not only in terms of historical importance but also  as unexplored areas of development.

Mad Chennai ras

The following is an impromptu observational  write-up as a part of Studio exercise. 

Global cities have a distinction of existing in the divide: between the rich and poor, have and have not etc. Many Indian cities have a vision of becoming the ‘capital’ centers of the world; the state of the art technology, astonishing scale of infrastructure, healthcare, everything being business class regardless of need. Yet our cities are remarkable for having evolved out of a historical past, rich culture, vast heritage, values and tradition getting lost in an aspiration to be ‘world class’.

Chennai, as is apparent, is competing against other Indian cities to be the next global city, or the automobile hub of India, or the pharmaceutical hub of India or the most aspired IT hub of India. A person who works at the grandiosely and unfittingly built IT Park is the same person who eats at the local food kiosk and that is without inhibitions. As an outsider, it may be for us to find it difficult to either communicate or traverse within the Tamil Land but it’s very intrinsic pride of culture seems to abound in all people. It is a value I cherish being an Indian, and at the same time not being a Tamilian, in fact, I don’t have to be.

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The real Chennai exists not in the dichotomy but its wholeness. It exists not only in being Madras at once but in being Chennai today. City expansions run their new extents inside many villages as it the case of ever expanding cities. But there didn’t seem much resistance to the new and urban by the old or repulsion by the new to the rural. An interesting assimilation of culture – the rural and urban co-exists. A moment or two can be spared in reading the city with its unending issues and ever brimming neglect. But the real beauty of the city, for me, remains grounded to the culture and pride. Something inherited by the city because of its origin in the temple towns and the many temples and shrines spread across.

In some ways, the city seems much like its counterpart of being the colonial port city. It bears a resemblance in the urban form and spread to the city of Mumbai. A memory of its colonial past being built upon shared values. These cities are made of resistance, and also of co-existence. Making cities cosmopolitan does more harm than good to cities that have a deep foundation if they get lost in transition as they are the aspects that distinguish one city from another. One of the days I had the chance to visit the Anna Centenary Library which I loved – seven floors of books! However, inside the building, I could imagine myself to be present anywhere I wanted to be – in my hometown Hyderabad or Delhi where I am studying or just about any city. I believe that is the danger lurking for our cities.

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Note: All pictures have been taken in and around George Town


Hide and seek: in Mumbai

A narrative to shortly describe experience of a city like Mumbai can never do justice to it – as a visitor, in the least. Life in cities, appear to be the same – never a dull moment, hardly an absence of sound, a imminent feeling of life in a bubble, a self contained visual noise, an anxiety lurking like your own shadow, sometimes always in a hurry to move; but go where and do what? This Mumbai is a grand system of the city-works where the line dissolves: people make the city or the city makes people. I am not sure if this line existed ever in case of this city.

There’s more than one thing that I remember from my visits to the city. It might be unwise to say that the city of Mumbai unfolds itself in various moods (genres) like the films it produces. Taking it to another level and that’s exactly the plot of Mumbai conveying itself. It reveals itself – in bigness and small, like a storyboard sometimes jumbled together. Mumbai has everything that makes it work, but it can still leave you unsatisfied many times. And if I were to take that a little further ahead, then that sense of dissatisfaction will take me back to the city, again and again. It’s hide-and-seek of sorts.

Mumbai is in absolute state of inertia, all at the same time: it is constantly on the move and at rest. This static motion appears to take the city of Mumbai a step forward and sometimes many steps backward. This inertia between the people and city is further intensified by the vast sea. There’s something about the magnificence of the sea my inarticulate words can’t capture. This marriage between Mumbai and its sea is very apt – they complement, they isolate but they’re each a representation to their identity. This fascinating sea is the place where the city Mumbai come to rest (or end perhaps?) on its fringe. A visitor, a vagabond, a wanderer, inhabitant, a migrant – Mumbai is to each his own story. The same story told in many different ways dissolving many such lines in unimaginable ways.