Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Aesthetics and Urban Planning

From the desk of Vitasta Raina
Time: Monsoons

It's been raining here, all across my country, pretty heavily, and the blame for the wet outbursts of Mother Nature is being cast on Climate Change. Apparently, we are now in the thick of an irreversible climate upheaval and things could turn from bad to worse within my lifetime. Now, I haven't travelled much outside my own country, but of what little I have seen, and from the conversations that I have had with people living across the world, life, in general, and urban life more particularly, remains the same, tied to human condition, across the globe. The only thing that varies in degrees of differentiation is the 'quality of life'. But what is quality of life and how does it differ? I think quality of life is an aesthetic principle primarily, and then related to health, and the 'quality' of time spent engaging with and indulging in various aesthetic endeavours.

I say that quality of life is primarily aesthetic because it's linked to the visual perceptions of our cities and linked also to our other faculties of perception- noise, smell, tastes. Going home in the evening after work, for instance, I cross a large open dumping ground. It's repugnant, both to look at, and then in catching the ghastly odours driving across it. This reduces the quality of my life, spent poorly first in the long commute I make to work, and then in passing the dumping ground.

Aesthetically pleasing visuals in urban spaces, tree-lined walkways and hawker free pavements, city hostels and housing projects in place of slums and squatters, parks and gardens instead of open garbage dumps, not only visually impact the image of a city, but also increases the health and happiness quotient of their citizens, thereby increasing the quality of their lives. These days, the PWD and other government agencies have taken up the cause of 'public art' and are promoting artwork along roadsides, highways and the columns beneath flyovers. While this is a promising start, it also is an empty gesture, because aesthetics is not just a paint job, no matter who the artist and what the quality of artwork.

Graffiti on streetsides in Mumbai. Image Source: rednile.org
It's true that large public artworks set within a contemporary context spruce up the spirit, morale and general look and feel of the neighbourhood they inhabit, but aesthetics in urban planning and architecture need to extend beyond the surface level of pretty paintings and frescoes. In it's broadest definition, Aesthetics can trace its roots to the greek word aisth─ôsis, which loosely translates to sensation and feeling. While aesthetics refers to the larger philosophy of art, it is also a measure of how people view, relate to and feel about a piece of art, including poetry (literature), music, paintings etc. But Aesthetics also refers to the natural beauty of a setting, such as being in an ornamental garden. There are some works, that are universally appealing, while others are subjective. While I am not a reader of Aesthetics in philosophy, it encompasses critical reception or perception and appraisal of art, cultural symbols and nature. As with all works of man-made or natural art, these are relative terms when described by adjectives such as beautiful. In the poem 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', John Keats leads the reader to a poignant end statement, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". The poem itself is a critical appraisal of what is considered beautiful, and how pieces of art, such as the Grecian urn are universal, unending and eternal.

Aesthetics in Art and Architecture are easier to understand and define. The various movements in art and architecture, even literature and film-making, have their own principles of aesthetics that they follow, and in turn this helps establish in the viewer, or actor present in the milieu of these works,  a connect and symbolic understanding of 'where he is', and further introspect 'where the piece of work is located' in its larger historical and social context. Establishment of context as a subject, increases the relationship between the work and the viewer, and brings out various associations and subjective values, and invokes different emotional and behavioural sentiments and actions in the viewer or user of the work. These principles of aesthetics of different movements in architecture follow a set of values, and can be vastly different from each other, with emphasis on different elements, yet invoke in the viewer, a similar sense of beauty. However, different environments created by different aesthetic values bring out different emotional reactions in people. While architecture can be varied, from being a small single room for an individual, to a large group housing project shared between people, aesthetical values of "cities", "urbanscapes" and large township projects for instance, can be tricky, because it lies firmly in the public realm and needs to cater to a populace with differing tastes, cultural backgrounds and sensibilities.

Different Aesthetic Values of Brutalism (left) and Art Deco (right) in Architecture.
Image Sources: Left and Right

The understanding of aesthetics in the urban realm generally drifts towards notions of 'urban design' and movements such as the 'City Beautiful' movement. Planning on the other hand, that deals with infrastructures, land uses and development controls, seldom finds itself linked to similar aesthetical values. Or perhaps it is such that the degree of differentiation in subjects has lent a certain dissimilarity in subjects. While urban planning deals with policies, laws and regulations, urban design adds aesthetic appeal to the endeavour of city developments.  However, more often than not, the two subjects are taught in university in isolation, and the required urban design sensibilities do not sufficiently permeate into city master plans and vision documents. Thus, while important issues such as setbacks, distance between buildings, and building heights are controlled within the ambit of urban planning guidelines, other important design elements such materiality, sidewalks and walkability and the type, make and design of urban utilities (facilities) such as bus stops, electricity poles, balustrades, roadside compound walls, tree-grates, benches, etc and public arts are not integrated with city level master plans in the vision documents and are often added piecemeal over time. However, one of the few things that are not considered and are overlooked while planning exercises ensue and later while urban design elements are added at street level, is the aesthetics of physical infrastructure elements.

A notorious example of this is the criticism received for the design of metro stations, transportation hubs and various transport infrastructures such as road dividers, junctions and medians. These places are where users directly interface with the city's infrastructural facilities, and the spatial quality of these arenas impact the general mood and sentiment across the vast landscape of the city. Since these spaces and movement corridors are used most often, the textures and patterns of a city, and a glimpse of the city's culture and life can be assessed through them. However, more often than not, these corridors, and spaces are overlooked and their functional (technical engineering) structures are left bare with little design thinking behind their development. The idea that form follows function is embraced by these entities and perhaps in a developing country like ours where there are tremendous pressures on infrastructure, such a philosophy of construction is valid for transportation hubs. Unfortunately, one of the major functions involved with large scale developments in our cities is lining the pockets of high functioning government employees and civil contractors, and the form of our cities that we ultimately see, follows this function, of moneys exchanged and bribery given. But what of other physical infrastructure elements, sewage treatment plants and landfill sites, burial grounds and underground cables for utilities, the unseen lifelines of cities?

The Aesthetics of Urban Infrastructure is often overlooked.
Image source: Vitasta Raina, Mumbai June 2018

One reason why the quality of life in our cities is so dismal is because of the badly laid out, in planning, execution as well as design, physical infrastructure, or lifelines, of the city. Open sewer drains, sewage and water pipelines, solid waste dumps, the dirty underbelly of the city, the works, are laid bare, like a dissected rat pinned to a board in a biology lab. The difference between superstructure and infrastructure is easy to understand, much like a tree is meant to be appreciated for its beauty, the intricate network of subterranean roots is hidden from our views. Hence, the essence of debating its aesthetic value does not occur. Similarly, the aesthetic value and beauty of underground infrastructure elements is not considered to be an important issue. However, in our cities, overhead wires, conduits for sewer systems, open manholes and sky high mounts of garbage, open up the debate and public opinion of their aesthetics. These open views of a city's internal organs, become unmanageable and extremely undesirable under extreme weather conditions such as flash floods and monsoon rains, and deteriorate the health and happiness of citizens, thereby drastically reducing their quality of life across the socio-economic spectrum.

While there is no design solution to increase the attractiveness and beauty of infrastructures, a simple approach of upkeeping the overall aesthetic value of these building blocks of city life can increase the quality of life experienced in cities. New missions by the govt of India, such as the Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT, delve in maintaining and modernizing various infrastructure elements of cities, and their by improve the city's liveability, or the ability to live in cities. Quality of life takes it further by increasing the ability of thriving in cities as well. The image of a city is improved by urban design elements and the various works of public arts that engages citizens in a bid to promote their sense of belonging to cities and create new cultural narratives and networks in cities, but the quality of their lived experiences in cities is still largely dependant on the quality and aesthetic values underpinned in physical infrastructures.

Open Sewer drains in New Delhi National Capital Region .
Image Source: MapsofIndia.com
The infrastructure of the city that we encounter everyday in passing invoke in us oral histories of cities, personal and emotional linkages with ourselves and our fellow inhabitants, they bring out memories, of sidewalks, and put us within a context, a time and a space. While more infrastructure is meant to be hidden, left to be functional and without any attributes of beauty, that very act makes it appealing to us, it makes it attractive, in its absence. By ignoring and not exploring the aesthetic value of infrastructures, and by putting it in a place without much design imposition, we are relegating it to be of poor quality in construction. However, if we expand on the material quality and aesthetic values of the same, we may be in a position to improve upon the existing systems. These systems are intrinsically linked to social systems, they change and develop along with the social infrastructure and cultural capital of cities, and along with fixed elements of the urban environment have a profound impact on how we experience, and live within cities. Whiles it's easy to expand on the design vocabulary of bridges and roads and present them as the staples for good design, a 'good life' at street level is often found only through the underground, hidden and messy infrastructural lines that support the surfaces, and landscapes of a city.

More on this at another time.
You can email me at studio1652@gmail.com
Bombay Love.

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