404: Aesthetic Not Found

Photo by arihant daga on Unsplash

It wafted across the boardwalk, soft and unassuming, and swirled around in the clearing before weaving into the fairly recent forest. The dense grey foliage buffeting it from one sight to another, singing one sound and another; the colours, the hidden motifs, the utter amplitude of unravelled structure, they all whispered of art that can otherwise be found only in desolation.

As an otherwise inseparable part of living an inspired and healthy urban lifestyle in India, walking is one of those high-hanging fruit. It is funny that in India’s largest cities, which host arguably the largest population of smart, driven, and enabled people of the country, it is barely enjoyable to walk about town. Dust, dirt, and garbage all vie for space to exist and be ferried around on unconditioned streets, competing against the original intended beneficiaries of the urban edifice — us.

The urban edifice itself is comprised of brick-and-mortar structures, remnants of older technologies trying to stand strong against modern methods of architectural design, some of which are notably fantabulous (those imperial structures) but most of which are relatively inefficient and bulky in aesthetic terms (those rows of tenements, those rising floors of concrete condominiums). A simple mono-phrasal description is enough to encapsulate the experience of an Indian city — “ad hoc”. The diversity of this ad hoc experience is exciting even to an Indian, but the disbenefits that it causes far outweigh the enjoyment. Cruising around in a car is never a good prospect, because you’d encounter either unending stoplights or gruesome traffic to disrupt your cruise. (Or innumerable cyclists. Or blithe, sunbathing cattle.) It is all in the name of traffic management though. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A Global Infrastructure

To begin with, let’s take a moment to notice how we’ve meticulously built an entire global infrastructure around the seemingly innocuous idea of moving vehicles that need a rolling surface with an appropriate coefficient of friction. All of that worldwide investment of our nations’ GDPs over the course of the last century today supports somewhere in the vicinity of 40 trillion global passenger kilometres yearly (road transport, all modes). [OECD data] The top 50 countries would need to invest a bulk of $34 trillion on road infrastructure during 2016–2040, says the World Bank. Of India’s nearly 5.7 million kilometres of road network, which makes it the world’s second largest and the world’s most geospatially dense (1.7 km per sq.km.), one-tenths are urban roads. So naturally, a good portion, if not most, of these Pkm occur in our urban areas. An automobile is a good conveyance for longer distances, obviously. But the point is this — the decision to use automobile technology at scale was made early on in the history of transportation and today’s urban environment is a net result of it (a ramification, perhaps?).

In India, we’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of technology on building solutions around the idea of the road commute, but in the course of all that economy-boosting activity, the urban environment around the most fundamental mode of commute — walking — has taken a major hit too. We’ve somehow forgotten that to cater to the travel demand of a billion-strong population is not enough to create a good life for them. The irony is that a LOT of people in India use walking as their mode of choice. And by extension, a LOT of people in India are suffering the Great Indian Insufferable City. (Sorry about that.)

Photo by S. on Unsplash

So no, not being able to walk comfortably about town isn’t all that funny, and urban planners know this well. Which is why there exist city mobility plans — Comprehensive Mobility Plans, they’re called. Multi-year efforts such as these try to strategize on how various modes of transit will evolve over the next decade or so in the city, including pedestrian infrastructure. But what urban planners also know, as much as the general public, is that a city without a sheen is just dull. (Mm-hm, that’s right. Tautology. Gulp it down twice.) Which is why there exist plans for art in urban areas — Public Art Master Plans they’re called.

The Most Beauteous Cities in the World (and Their Cousins)

Public Art Master Plans in cities abroad define guidelines for all design-related decisions in an urban environment. Every gorgeous city has those Public Art strategies now, a new-fangled master plan for artistic touches to brag of to the world. And boy, do they make a tremendous difference when they find synergies with world-class urban planning and architecture! It begins with the state-of-the-art in urban planning, because the playing field is set in this step. The best cities of the world invest long-term for high quality urban planning. Architecture provides the means to materialize the plans in a visually pleasant manner. Public art adds finishing touches to what is already beautiful by design, culminating in international acclaim and high scores on liveability indices. Most importantly, it leads to happy citizens and communities, and a happy natural environment that isn’t relegated to the boundaries.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

There is something at once impressive and intimate about a beautiful city — it inspires the mind. It is like the whetstone of life for its dwellers. After all, what is aesthetic if not a bundle of ever-evolving ideas that is premeditated to communicate with its observers? What is aesthetic if the observers do not convene to build upon previously unknown principles? Thought of this way, there seem to be no real challenges in coming up with good-looking cities. But as always, that is not true.

There is something at once impressive and intimate about a beautiful city — it inspires the mind. It is like the whetstone of life for its dwellers.

One great example of the kind of decisions that hold potential to shape our cities is the National Interstate and Defence Highways Act (1956) in post-war United States. The flame of war had just died out, but the embers were still aglow. The threat of nuclear attack loomed large over the US. Civil defence was a priority and the minds behind militaristic defence and urban design thought that ‘dispersion’ and ‘defence through decentralization’ would be the most appropriate strategy, which was also promoted by Truman and Eisenhower. The National Industrial Dispersion Policy came into effect as well, leading to decentralized industry and commerce. Thus, the shape of the city had been planned to chart a much different course for decades to come. In a way, one of the great hallmarks of urban aesthetic in certain US urban and suburban clusters — spaciousness — is not just a result of transportation planning, but also of defence policy. And by extension, so is the much-coveted American way of life.

Has India’s policy historically contributed to the accretion of sprawl? Probably yes. There are several Central and State Government policies that can ex post be inferred to being directly or indirectly causative of sprawl. Whether sprawl is a good solution or a bad bequest to future generations is debatable. (In general, cities are better when designed for density.) But it can be casually noted that Indian cities are in desperate need for space to breathe. The yogis from ancient India have suggested us humans to practice good breathing; cities are no different. The world’s best thriving metropolitan ecosystems heed diligently to this advice. Think of Sydney, San Francisco, Toronto, New York, Paris, and London. Hear their susurrations, and that of their denizens.

Naturally, not all of the world’s most popular metropolises possess great urban aesthetic. These cousins of the world’s most beauteous cities can learn a thing or two from their better siblings. Despite having aesthetic taste in their urban form, cities often falter when it comes to sustainability. This is because the urban aesthetic has a lot of contributors, the most crucial of which are (in no particular order):

· Built-up environment

Built-up environment

· Traffic

· Noise

· Green cover

· Energy consumption

· Walkability

· Hygiene

· Economic centres

· Recreation and stimulation

For example, compare carbon footprint of Indian cities to those of the Orient or the West. Do sprawl and other factors have a great impact here, besides population, density, traffic, etc.? Compare urban hygiene in urban India to the north of Europe. Tobacco-stained sidewalks notwithstanding (it physically pains to write this), hygiene in India is an acutely visible deficiency. This consideration is like the litmus test of our success. Inclusive and enjoyable spaces are meant for satisfying our psychological needs more than anything else. But at what cost? Although it is fair to say that a psychologically satisfied collective conscious is more likely to live holistically and take holistic decisions, which is good for the long run.

At present, this long run in India unfortunately appears to be much too long.

A Neophyte Composed of Veterans

In this country of ours, we have a more fraught problem — the common public is not educated in urban aesthetic. We say each Indian city has its own flavour, its own smells, and its own palate. And yet we don’t fully understand it ourselves. Based on cultural and societal factors, we all build our own individualistic sense of taste. What is uncommon about India, something that can rarely be found elsewhere in the multicultural regions of the world, is that one person in their formative years typically gets to experience an almost unmanageable array of states (literally and figuratively) of multiculturalism throughout the subcontinent. Nothing comes close to the way India primes an observant person for acquiring tastes. (To just list the various modes of exposure and experience that are available in India for extended effect: the food; the paintings, murals, and woodwork; the literature; the mythology; the natural world; the village; the music. Need one go on?) Royal palaces and glorious cities of our past as well as the incursion of the British in the industrialized era both serve as a touchstone for what India’s urban aesthetic could have become today. But much as a neophyte, our veteran society seems to lose its grip when it’s time to up the game.

What India needs is a lesson in applied taste.

This is not to generalize to the outliers, of course, but the bulk of us find ourselves never really thinking about it, simply complaining about it, or the dearth of it thereof. In spite of tremendous opportunity to redesign our cities into the exotic songbirds they once were, we want to get just one taste of the exotic foreign country in a 6-day-7-night tour package of a lifetime. We need to realize that there is a way we can borrow a phrase from the incumbent POTUS. “Let’s make India exotic again.” The only difference is that it’s not a competition, just a long-term global brainstorming.

Applied Taste

Isn’t it the “common man” who carves grandeur into temple complexes, hand-finishes the Ganesh idols, weaves fine threads into warp and weft so mesmerizingly intricate, and reinstates the Taj Mahal to glory time and time again? What we need is for these highly skilled, highly creative people from among us to be able to deliver on a regular basis to the city what they deliver to monuments, religious festivals, and craft. This goes beyond the host of trained designers and artists. One way to look at it is that we already are in possession of the people we need — it’s only a matter of deployment.

In a close symmetry, isn’t it supposedly the “common man” who paints thought-provoking graffiti across American, British, and Greek walls as well? Graffiti is one of the many façades of their urban aesthetic. The common man in South America so zealously doesn’t let their cities make the earth awash with grey. The ones in Switzerland take full advantage of its bucolic mountainous setting, and the ones in Europe indulge in its sublime ancient and medieval inheritance. What India needs, therefore, is a lesson in applied taste.

The empowered artist can deliver a magnum opus, but an empowered art director can repeat success a hundred times over. The issue with deployment is the lack of a framework on which to add flair to our cities. There is a dire need to acknowledge the importance of urban aesthetic at the State and Central levels, as well as to identify the cross-functional nature of the required implementation paradigm. Modern institutions such as the NITI Aayog have an unparalleled vantage point to be able to weave together the various threads into the new Indian aesthetic. We need to create the avenues to allow the lifeblood of every variegated city to flow out onto its streets, and colour it like a scarlet sunrise.

4000 Indian cities and towns in 29 Indian states and 7 union territories have at least 60 major languages, at least 9 religions, hundreds of cuisines, thousands of art forms, and billions of minds to derive their inspiration from.

The collective arousal in fashioning a new urban aesthetic in our cities should be motivated by the myriad of benefits that it unquestionably provides. As described earlier, urban aesthetic impacts (and is impacted by) health & hygiene, social activity, mobility, recreation, and economic activity among other things. In terms of improving economic potential, it is well understood that urban aesthetic impacts tourism levels, attracts good industry and good people, emboldens the city’s brand image, and in turn attracts fresh investment. Research suggests there is a positive correlation between urban aesthetic and the state of health of a city, from millennia ago to recent decades. This can become a virtuous cycle only if the most crucial link is secure, and this link is in the hands of the government as much as it is in the hands of the common man. We’ll probably be (positively) overwhelmed trying to imagine and plan for all the positive freakonomic effects that all of this can have on the future of our country.

Grace in Stasis, Grace in Movement

A city at standstill is a good first approach to understanding its aesthetic quality. Hence we look at cities in their photographs (2D), or perhaps virtual reality (3D). The static mode captures elements that are the pivots of the city’s entire infrastructure and urban design. This is the state of play which matters the most at face value. Upfront, we tend to discuss about urban aesthetic using the twin pillars of architecture and the manipulation of space. We must also set our eyes upon a third pillar, as the best in the business know to do — the manipulation of time. A city is never really static; a city should be graceful as she moves.

Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

Public transportation is an iconic part of every city, an instantly recognizable part of the street. Several elements of street and street-side design cater directly to the desiderata of public transportation. In India, this translates to Metro stations and elevated railways, bright red buses and bus stops, and the omnipresent auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk). Designing appealing public transport is at once scalable, because the public transportation network is by default present everywhere, and so it can add to the look of an entire city at once. A typical snapshot of an Indian street will be mostly grey, but also bright green and yellow. Public transit agencies have good control over the overarching design choices for their services, vehicles, and support infrastructure. Passenger vehicles are designed to be stylish and suave, and customers pay the purchase price no matter what. This is something that can be implemented in the auto-rickshaw industry as well. So much of the Indian experience happens on the three wheels of the auto-rickshaw. It is easy to imagine converting the humble auto-rickshaw at the corner of the road into a gregarious styling element of a city. (It is perhaps fitting that the primary colours — RGB — of the rickshaws on the streets of Colombo are what give birth to the real colours of the city.) The good news is that there will always be several avenues to achieve this grand vision of aesthetically appealing transport, both public and private, so long as there are appropriate frameworks.

Timbre is a musical concept that is related to the kind of noise that a particular instrument emits, beyond simply the tonal frequency and intensity at which it is being played. If August Rush has taught us anything, then it is that the metropolis is one colossal orchestra. If a city is music being played, why not design the music of the city? That is, why not apply the concept of timbre to urban noise? Every city has its own rhythm, its own crest and trough in the music of the day. As designers of most of these sources of sound, we know a lot about the way the sound of everyday things contributes to the overall orchestration. In simple words, if we can fine-tune the unwanted or jarring into something more humane, our cities can sound more aesthetically palatable, if not pleasing all at once.

By focusing on making a more hospitable environment for a city’s residents (and remember it’s not just humans — cats, dogs, pigeons, raccoons, falcons, fish and squirrels live here too) the city can enjoy a healthier life.

We must strive to benchmark and learn from the best minds in the world.

In designing the urban aesthetic, we must remember to respect nature in all its forms.

We must design for inclusiveness and multiculturalism.

We must design for a promising Anthropocene.

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Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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Sarang Deshpande

Sarang Deshpande

Co-founder at Flow Mobility (urban mobility architecture); prev: EV platforms | Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat — it’s only opening the box that does. Sometimes.

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