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.

Festival and Urban Space

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Every year I get asked by some new friends and colleagues, ‘It’s a holiday on Eid Milad but what is it?’

For those not aware Milad-un-Nabi is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed[Peace be upon Him] which falls on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. There are proponents for and against the celebration which also marks the day of the death of the Prophet. There is no historical evidence for Milad-un-Nabi or Eid Milad, and the practice started 400 years later by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt inspired by Christmas Day venerating the birth of Christ. However, it is celebrated widely in South Asian Muslim communities. This background is necessary to understand the context of celebrations in the midst of people questioning the legitimacy of the celebration, and it being politicized in the recent years.

Milad-un-Nabi in Hyderabad has taken altogether a new fervor and zeal. A little less than 7 years ago this day would be a small private and somber affair. Small neighborhood gatherings, if at all, local mosques filled with songs sung by children in praise of Prophet would be heard.  An evening dedicated to seminar narrating the stories and lessons from the life of Prophet, and quiz, elocution competitions, and from which prize distribution followed. Businessmen, shopkeepers, and householders pitch in money for the communal kitchen where poor people are served food without discrimination. This was observed in the old city and mixed neighborhoods while the rest of the city went on business as usual. The scale of the events was still local and not yet mobilized to make grand pompous processions in the city.

One incident that brought about a dramatic overture to this is the communal tension the city was plagued with briefly during 2010.  That year eid was followed by Hanuman Jayanti witnessed the celebrations competing in their show of pomp and fervor.  Both celebrations are marked typically by decoration on religious buildings, prayer and puja, communal kitchens, and sounds blaring from speakers religious or Bollywood numbers. At the time, a number of people from an organization were mobilized from various parts of the country in Secunderabad area armed with swords etc. to create communal tensions, in an otherwise calm city with small infrequent altercations among the two communities, were preempted by the city police. The people of old city Hyderabad are a mixed population and contiguous areas of concentrated either Hindus or Muslims.

The following years have seen a lot of changes in the way these celebrations happen. In response to the attempt to disturb the communal harmony and threat to their security, some religious groups consolidated to make the event grander and several processions are taken out in the city every year during eid.  To assert the right to city and public space grandiose statements are made during the celebrations. Bigger, brighter, larger, louder – lights, sounds, sights, places are to behold. The festivals follow each other and so do their attempt to make it larger than life. These activities happen precariously within close proximity of space and time. An imminent fear lurks as a slight mishap could be blown out of proportion, and provoke people negotiating the same public domain.

It is a known fact that the old city area has been estranged from the growth and development’s relentless activity in the newer and extended city. The celebration marks a day beyond an everyday necessary to make their presence felt in the public sphere and show of community spirit. It is an assertion of a right and a political statement as several politicians are invited in night long events that take place in the open grounds of the college run by the organisation. David Harvey defines the Right to City: ‘ far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ The old city is built too densely and events such as these are a testimony of people claiming the city space outside its immediate boundaries from which they are excluded. The administrative side is another story exhibiting abject neglect and apathy. Recent proposals were made to rebuild the Osmania Hospital, a listed heritage building. Decisions such as this only prove counterproductive and disturb the integrity and sense of place. Examples from other cities emphasize that neglected urban areas divide the city and make its resources inaccessible. Such a plight is often evident as one takes a ride from the new city to the old city, a keen subject of study of marginalization of people socially, politically and economically.

The festival celebrations in such a scenario serve twofold for the people. Firstly, in claiming the public sphere far from the edges of a local neighborhood and demand the right to public space as its (ignored) citizens. Second in fostering a community spirit and solidarity as a collective response to elements that disrupts the harmony of the city. In times of the tolerance debate, one could only hope the succession of the festivals happen as peacefully, and that urban development follows a far more insightful and sensitive course.

Art Alfresco | Place for art, Art for place

Project : ART ALFRESCO is ‘art outside’ buildings to provide a thorough visual experience in an urban setup. A gallery without walls gives people an opportunity to respond to art in relation to its urban fabric. The project distinguishes the area around the river highlighting the historic buildings in continuous relation to the spaces around it. Form a network of connected pedestrian paths with plazas, proximity to bus shelter, amenities while providing place for activities combining retail/small hold ventures in central urban space.

Site: The River Musi was the lifeline of the city of Hyderabad the chief source of its water. The flood of Musi in September 1908 changed its character forever, the ravaged city was rebuilt and a flood control system was introduced by creating two large lakes – Usmansagar, Himayatsagar. Today the river is dry most of the year and a dump of untreated sewage from the pipes that terminate in it. There are several bridges on the river that divides the old walled city from new extents.

Context: As a result of the flood in 1908, a City Development Trust was set up that build some of the civic buildings that flank the river site today. High Court on the south bank of the river built in 1919, opposite to which Osmania Hospital was constructed in 1927, in 1936 the Asafiya library was shifted less than a kilometer from the hospital. One of the earliest school built in 1865 was upgraded to college in 1929. The Salarjung Museum is the latest building on the south east built in 1967.

Topography:

Built Spaces : Unplanned urbanization has led to an indiscriminate building use pattern. Encroachments along the river bank are as old as 50-60 years as a result of lack of space in the dense fabric of old city and the issue of affordability. Mixed use buildings, housing units, clusters of houses with central courtyards have intense activity day long in and around them.

Vegetation: The edge of river has small cultivation, and planting. It is the source of livelihood of small farmers and landless households. Wastewater is a major source of livelihood for households practicing agriculture along this river in the urban areas of Hyderabad city.

Across street there’s unplanned planting pattern apparent with trees along the stretch of the main north south axis to frame space. Landscape in the open annexe of the civic building follows the simple geometric pattern.

Circulation and Traffic Pattern: The bridges are the main link from the old city to the new city. The east west road is the connecting link to the national highway network. The promenades across the old section have given way to the quick access road that gave a distinct character and a sense of connection to it.

The ease of pedestrian movement is an important aspect of an urban setting. There is a lack of connection in the pedestrian activity that goes around the place. The pavements have irregular widths and the pedestrian refuge lack an identifiable character. There are existing old pavilions that offer seating and a view of the river bank from one side.

Visual Connections:

Art for public defines the public realm and distinguishes the fine points in a city. Civic art stimulates the cultural life of the region giving places back to the people; it leads visitors as well as inhabitants into the discovery of a city.

Masterplan: 

  1. Distinguish the river area as a place of art alfresco.
  2. Highlight the existing landmarks.
  3. Maintain freedom of movement in pedestrians and connecting plaza or bus shelters.
  4. Create a safe urban environment for all the users.
  5. Provide for shelter from the varying weather conditions.
  6. Active civic art to create a civic dialogue for a community identity.
  7. Retain the wilderness areas near the river bed.
  8. Provide alternate to encroachments and create public space along the bank.
  9. Create an economically vibrant urban area by allowing informal activity.
  10. Create inter-connectedness in the open spaces.

Pedestrian Plaza and Open Gallery:  The site of the grand plaza lies between the Afzalgunj and the Naya pul, selected because a. central location b. visual connectivity c. access from both sides d. vantage point

The main aim of the proposal is to connect the network of footpaths and open spaces in the study area.It can serve as the central place activities going to ease the vehicular movement and relax the pedestrian activity near the road abutting river, hence paving a way for the art intervention.

The design proposal considers safety as the major issue and offers solution such as slanted railing, unapproachable ends.  The contour seating and benches alternate at intervals and provide strategic views of the place. It is raised to a height of 2 meter above the adjoining vehicular bridges. The built area is conceived as a typical shopping extension that stretches through the Charminar area.