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The town... the house... their spirit

Robert Dulau


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1To look with new eyes at our own town, to analyse it more deeply and to become aware of the infinite variety of faces, and sometimes masks, that it wears is rather like re-reading a demanding but favourite book with the intention of getting to know the characters better. At the beginning of the story the functions and feelings of the heroes or heroines are familiar and then we come to a word we don’t know or have forgotten and the story is suddenly incomprehensible. In the same way the town is also familiar and yet complex and needs to be read at different levels if it is to be understood. As residents we naturally have a longstanding intimacy with the place and can easily orient ourselves and identify landmarks and monuments; whenever we walk the streets of a part of the town we know well, we are at home in them. Habit, and the feeling that we’ve seen it all before, tends to limit curiosity and the desire to explore. A town is not simply a collection of streets and houses with a certain number of inhabitants listed in books of statistics but is, above all, the profound expression of a culture, reflecting the discords as well as the aspirations, of the people who live in it. A living urban environment is the product of its past and of its architectural tradition. In Pondicherry, as in any town in the process of change, the doubts and the difficulties are due largely to a fascination with an image of modernity which entails sweeping structural transformation and the more or less complete abandonment of age-old habits and customs.

2The aim here then is to provide students and their teachers with analytical methods and with ways of considering a town, so that they may the better make the place where they live their own, and come into closer contact with the living spirit in places generally.

3Pondicherry has been chosen for this analysis but the methods used can as well be applied to any town.

4First, we look at the situation and the site of Pondicherry and then turn to the history of the town’s morphology, its form, and to the particular plan used in its layout, along with the reasons for the adoption of that plan. Comparisons are made here with other towns in India. Next we focus upon the urban landscape of the street in both what was called "ville blanche" the French or European town, and the "ville noire" or Tamil town. Several aspects are considered here: the actual physical reality, from the architectural, urban and historical points of view, and the "experienced reality", or socio-cultural aspects.

5Each of these approaches casts light upon a specific aspect of the urban landscape and, far from being mutually exclusive, they enrich each other. The procedure is the same in the chapter on the house with its emphasis on the Tamil house, where the focus is on the diversity of the actual physical reality: the architecture, the function of the materials and the adaptation to climate, as well as the experienced reality, the symbolic aspects and customs. Again, these elements cannot simply be added together, nor does one compensate for the other; rather they share the aim of focussing upon a reality and understanding it in order to define the sense of place.

6The next three chapters deal with the limits, the landmarks and signs and with the "experiential approach", thereby deepening our investigation. In the conclusion we look closely at the problems involved in preserving the living heritage of the town and of choosing those aspects of modernity which are most expedient and which best suit the particular culture of the place. The drawings, maps, lists, elevations and photographs are indispensable to a reading of the town. A teacher will be able to select what seems most appropriate to the subject being taught and ideas explored. A history class, for example, will be most interested in the plan of the town and the recognisably European influence to be noticed on the facades of Tamil houses. Expeditions into the town will provide living illustrations of the different kinds of urban space analysed here.

7There is another side to the process of taking possession of one’s own town. Through work with this survey and the resulting discussions students may become conscious of the inner workings of the town and their implications. It is by virtue of such an awareness of the contrary logics, inescapable in the municipal life of a city that an individual becomes responsible and effective as a citizen of this great democracy that is India. Such a citizen is in a position to make people aware of the dangers inherent in the destruction of the living heritage, to suggest solutions that facilitate modern progress whilst protecting cultural elements and, last but not least, to alert people to the balance that must be preserved, in a town, between vegetation and buildings.

8The central question is how we may best understand the experience of the urban environment so that each inhabitant may live a better life within it and be in a position to contribute to its transformation in ways satisfying to mind and heart alike.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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