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

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Robert Dulau

The plan of a town

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  • 1 The word "town" is used here primarily in terms of morphology, that is: the different forms a town (...)

1Each town1 has a particular form, a face of its own, but most often a person pays little attention to the precise nature of its configuration. A glance at a tourist map, however, can generally provide some indications; the streets stand out, whether narrow and twisting confusedly or the reverse: a regular network of streets meeting at right angles with official buildings concentrated in one area or scattered about the town.

2At all events, the best way to come-to grips with the immensity of a town is to make for an elevated place, the top of a hill or a monument, from where the organization of the urban fabric can be discerned, along with the role played by its major arteries. From such a vantage point it is instantly obvious whether the town is cooled by public parks, whether a river divides it into two banks and whether it extends as far as the eye can see to where the earth meets the sky.

3Some Landmarks which Indicate the Form of a Town

4The shape of a town often corresponds to the geographical features of the area in which it has grown. The site sets the boundaries and delineates the territory. A town may be tucked into the bend of a river or be situated on a plateau; it may be cut off on an island or be stretched out along the bank of a river. Its siting and expansion are thus determined, to a great extent, by natural limits.

5The shape of a town doesn’t, however, depend solely upon its geographical position. A town or a city is also the expression of a will, a decision taken by a group of people who, for political, commercial or even religious reasons, decide to found a town.

6Two major types of town may be identified:

7A town may be created from scratch: those that used to be called "new towns" and are today called "experimental towns"; Pondicherry is a new town and Chandigarh, in the Punjab, is an experimental town. Usually these towns are so constructed that all the pieces come together in a regular checkerboard plan, for example, Chandigarh, Pondicherry, Jaipur and Washington D C.

8A town may be quite otherwise constituted, having grown round a particular point, from an already existing core such as a place of worship or fortified castle from which it has developed; its features will be completely different from those of an experimental town. As the areas of the town are formed they arrange themselves concentrically around the original nucleus, as was the case with historical, medieval centres of cities such as Paris and Barcelona, and to some extent with medinas, or traditional Muslim towns, such as Tunis or Fez, often characterised by narrow twisting streets with dead ends, loops and blind walls facing onto the street.

9The use of the grid layout in the west goes back to the 4th century B.C. when the philosopher and architect Hippodamus of Miletus built the town of Pireus on a checkerboard plan. The plan was adopted by the Romans and then, from the 16th century onwards, Europeans revived the checkerboard or grid plan, for practical reasons, when founding cities in their colonies. Pondicherry supplies us with an excellent example of this kind of town.

10Grid plans have been used in various cultures. The town of Jaipur, mentioned above, founded at the beginning of the 18th century, offers the perfect example of a regular plan in checkerboard form. Other models which lean towards a grid plan are identifiable in India, for example at Madurai, where the town is organized in regular streets at right angles to one another all around the temple dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi. It is said that this regular network of streets was designed to facilitate and encourage the processions that take place in proximity to the temple.

11The checkerboard plan is a response, first and foremost, to a need for rationality. Its composition allows for the breaking up of the land into regular plots and the possibility of equal allotments. It further favours a division into homogenous quarters, residential, administrative and commercial. The network of streets perpendicular to one another facilitates the flow of traffic, unlike the narrow twisting streets of medieval towns. Rectilinear streets can be more efficiently supervised and there can be fast intervention when trouble breaks out.

12There are however, visual disadvantages: the regularity of layout and of houses that are all the same size may produce relative monotony if not broken up by squares, a row of trees, a fountain. Moreover, in a large town the grid plan is not ideal when one is trying to get from place to place and it needs to be tempered by the construction of a diagonal artery as is the case in Washington D C.

13The town of Pondicherry as it is today, and as it appears on its plan, has almost entirely retained its original design. It is a genuine new town, built more or less ex nihilo in the 17th century, by the French, according to a grid plan. We must remember, however, that before the coming of the French, settlements of fishermen and weavers already existed in the area and temples had been constructed; the territory to which the French came was far from being virgin but it is not clear to us today whether the French, in creating their own town, were even partially influenced by the structures of already existing villages.

14The Grand Canal still divides the "ville blanche" from the "ville noire" and on both sides there are numerous itinerant pedlars and homeless families.

  • 2 A French engineer who, during the second half of the 17th century, revolutionised the art of milita (...)

15At the time of the foundation, by François Martin in 1673, of the town in its present form, a fortress was erected, initially looking over the sea. The first quarters of the town to come into being were arranged on either side of that fortress. It was destroyed in the 18th century by the British and has completely disappeared from the landscape; the huge quadrilateral it occupied has been transformed into a public garden. It was fortified with ramparts and bastions according to the plan of Vauban,2 whose monumental entrance gates regulated passage, the whole safeguarding the town against attack. These walls have also disappeared but the boundary lines are still clearly visible on the map of the town and it has become a ring road for traffic, the circular boulevard being based upon the ancient fortifications with their bastions.

16Pondicherry has not, up to the present day, undergone any very drastic changes as far as its original plan is concerned. There is the risk that any major change may upset its superstructure, that is, the buildings themselves, the size of the houses and the placement of them in their plots. The Grand Canal, already mentioned, is in the process of being covered over and its disappearance cannot but alter the traditional appearance of the town. The network of streets and their narrowness especially is not very well adapted to the flow of traffic today. This suggests that the face of the town is vulnerable to sweeping modifications that could take it far from the original plan. Here we see contrary logics face to face: the need for modernization in a town, against the great risk of its losing an essential part of its cultural history.

***

17What are the characteristics of the map of Pondicherry?

18What were the reasons for the selection of this kind of plan in the 17th century?

19Has the plan of Pondicherry changed much since then?

20Which buildings have disappeared from the town?

21What has replaced them?

22Does the plan of Pondicherry have any advantage as far as traffic is concerned?

23Is it possible to find one’s way easily around Pondicherry? Does the network of streets help one in doing so?

24Are there any examples of new towns conceived on a grid plan in India?

25Can you identify any town in India that has developed other than on a grid plan?

26In another town, or village, is the network of streets regular, rectilinear or, on the contrary, are there twisting, narrow streets that go around a building – the temple for example?

27Do you notice a difference in perception when walking along regular straight streets as opposed to narrow ones that twist and turn?

Notes

1 The word "town" is used here primarily in terms of morphology, that is: the different forms a town may have. The word "city" refers to the institution that makes the laws governing municipal life in the town.

2 A French engineer who, during the second half of the 17th century, revolutionised the art of military fortifications by the introduction of low protruding structures overhanging the inner enclosures.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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