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

Robert Dulau

Exploring the landscape of a street

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Towards a Definition of a Street

1The street is first of all the out-of-doors that permits the movement of traffic and trade and encourages meetings, gregariousness, play.

2The street is a living space, a kind of epicentre, constantly in use the whole day, animated by those who live on both sides and by the pedestrians and animals always passing by.

3The street is alive because the past and the present meet and unite in it.

4The street may also be considered as the surveyor’s realm; it can be measured and given a name.

5The street may also be seen from the architectural point of view from whence we can analyse the different kinds of facade, set up a strict typology, and appreciate different styles and decorations.

6The street, our street, is a place that we are constantly making our own.

7The space of the street is where public space and domestic space meet.

8These definitions are no more than suggestions towards a clarification of some of the main functions of the street. To understand a street better, and specifically the way in which it is integrated into the plan of a town and determines its structure, we must be more precise.

Necessary Keys to the Understanding of a Street

9When we look at the map of the town of Pondicherry, we notice that it is on a grid plan. This determines the particular geometry of the town. Most of the streets meet at right angles. More exactly, the lay-out of the streets forms a network which, here in Pondicherry, is a quadrilateral network. Often this indicates a relative absence of hierarchy. For example, the streets of the old "ville blanche" are all about the same size. This relative absence of a hierarchy, as would distinguish principal roads from secondary roads, may make it difficult for a pedestrian to find his way. This quadrilateral network constitutes a kind of framework that supports the whole town, the infrastructure.

10Houses may be built on both sides of a street, these are the structures, the built-up areas. The totality of these tangible structures, including the space they create, is part of the superstructure, brought into being by following a specific plan, based on a division into plots. These plots may be in the form of narrow strips or may stretch from one street to another when they are transversal plots. Plots, like roads, are part of the infrastructure and to a certain degree determine the size and mass of buildings. Several plots form a city block.

11Now that we have established some basic data concerning the role of the network, the plot and the structure, which, each at its own level, determines the form of the town, it is possible to undertake a real exploration of a street. Here we have a choice to make. It is useful to define, by means of the plan, a perimeter, and within that perimeter to select a street. This street may be one where we live or one we are especially fond of.

12The criteria for the choice may be of several orders: we may be partial to a residential street, a commercial one, a street of craftsmen or even a street in a particular area where the faith of the residents, Hindu, Muslim or Christian, defines a quarter. The architectural interest of the street may also be a factor in our choice.

13According to the number and the nature of the criteria chosen, the perceptions and the results of the analysis will reveal different aspects. Whatever the nature and number of chosen criteria may be, we must keep in mind, throughout the exploration, that there are any number of other points of reference that might lead us to sharpen and extend our analysis.

14The season of the year, summer, first monsoon, second monsoon and so on is important. Climatic variations can change our perceptions and exercise an influence on the nature of the occupations and habits of those who live in a town.

15Time and temperature furnish interesting information to add to the picture. For example, according to the hour of the day, the amount of traffic, the movement and activities will be different, the types of amusement and of playful pastimes may alter.

16The nature and the role of odours also affects our perception of a place, a street: the fragrance of jasmine, of the sea breeze, of spices used to prepare a meal, or the odour of cow dung mixed with water, which purifies the ground before a "kolam" is drawn, the smell of the earth after the first monsoon rains, or of incense burning during a religious observance. Odours, in a special way, structure urban space by tracing an invisible, shifting architecture in the air.

17Vegetation within and around the house or along the streets, its volume, its various fragrances, the nuance of the colour of flowers, from frangipani to flame-of-the-forest, modify and enrich the visual perceptions of a street. Beyond the Grand Canal, for example, the old "ville blanche" is hidden in places by the thick growth of trees.

18The frequency of animals passing on the street also provides interesting information about the activity of the street.

19The feeling of a street is expressed by the range of its audible landscape; depending upon the time of the day, an infinite variety of noises, cries and clamours can be heard as well as a certain quality of silence. We notice hawkers, or strolling merchants, all those street-sellers who cry their goods in an ever-increasing volume. All this is part of the intense vitality of the social space. We should also be attentive to other rhythmic, repetitious calls that fill the street at any given moment of the day: the amplified call to prayer from the minaret in the Muslim quarter, the sound of the bells for mass at Notre-Dame des Anges, the bugle of police headquarters or music relayed through loudspeakers from temples which, in the month of "mārkaḻi" begin broadcasting before dawn.

20The pavement of the town is an interesting space, used as a refuge by homeless people and by visitors who cannot afford lodgings. Looking at the street we can see: families on the pavement in front of the hospital waiting for a relative or a friend, or to be admitted themselves; families whose actual home is the pavement where they precariously carry on family life. Often the members of such families work as porters in the market, garland weavers, or as rickshaw drivers; around temples and churches the pavement is occupied by beggars and afflicted people who live on alms from the worshippers. The pavement of the principal commercial artery, Jawaharlal Nehru Street, turns, every Sunday, into a busy market for discount clothes and household items.

Expeditions to Explore the Town

A Street in the Old "ville blanche"

The Physical-factual Reality

21– The architectural approach
The knowledge that we already have of the grid plan of the town tells us about the layout of the streets which meet at right angles, and makes us aware of the size of plots and of the continuity of structures.

22The streets in the old "ville blanche" still harbour an impressive number of colonial houses; these houses are characterised by their particular architecture and by the way they are cut off from the outside world. Generally, one of the facades of the building faces onto the street but the principal facade is most often perpendicular to the street and extended by the boundary wall of an interior garden.

23This enclosing wall and the main door, framed by two upward-tapering pillars constitutes a clear limit between domestic and public space.

24On the facade we can identify pilasters that determine the rhythm of the span. Usually a parapet with balustrades crowns the roof and forms a terrace. Most often these houses have a first floor. We note the trees that can be seen from the street and it is interesting to identify their species: acacia, flame-of-the-forest, coconut, neem, Indian magnolia and plantain.

25The materials used on the surface of a house and the diversity of colours transform our perception of a street. The surface coating protects plastered brick walls from heavy rains. The colour tones vary subtly through shades of grey to yellow ochre and pinks.

26We may notice whether the total effect of these colonial houses is harmonious with the street. Is the landscape of the street affected by recent constructions that disturb or alter a view of the street otherwise homogeneous? It is also interesting to see if the modern houses are situated in regular alignment with the older houses or if they are set further back from the street. It is interesting, as well, to identify the lines which give character to the facades: the verticals formed by the pilasters and the windows, the horizontals by parapet, balustrades, and cornices on the facade. The composition of these lines is responsible for the rhythm of the facade.

27– The historical approach
Houses on a street have a history, which we can read if we look carefully. Here, on the eastern side, houses of the old "ville blanche", bear witness to the French presence. After the destruction of 1783, Pondicherry was reconstructed on the original plans. However the majority of houses dates from the 19th century or even from the beginning of the 20th century. We observe that these houses constitute a tropical adaptation of the private mansion of the 17th century such as we can still see in the Marais quarter of Paris today. This borrowing explains why, for example, these houses are closed off from the street. The indoors and outdoors, where private space meets its limits always tells us something about the attitude of a culture towards privacy and intimacy. This particular borrowing also explains the use of classical architectural motifs: pilasters, pillars, capitals, denticles, balustrades, decorative fire pots, ornamentation that can be clearly identified from the street. This influence is also evident inside the house. Large terraces, however, are a straightforward adaptation to the tropical environment.

The Experienced Reality

28– The socio-cultural approach
A street is not made up only of a series of houses, facades and gardens. It is lived in, it is constantly being crossed, and is animated by pedestrians, merchants, animals and those who live on both sides of it. According to the time of day and to the nature of the area, events and exchanges take place. The streets of the old "ville blanche" are mostly residential. In this part of the town there are also a number of large administrative buildings. This does not mean that trading does not go on, on the contrary, here we find all kinds of strolling merchants selling brooms, dusters, ice cream, mangoes, bread. Some street dwellers in the old "ville blanche" continue to carry on their traditional rural practices in the centre of the town. One of these is to bring a cow round the houses to provide pure fresh milk every morning, otherwise milk will most likely be mixed with water. This practice is in fact a survival, in an urban setting, of a village tradition. Villagers count a cow amongst their most valuable possessions as it provides milk for the family’s daily consumption.

29The passage of animals: cows, buffaloes, goats, pigs, chickens and dogs is extremely frequent. This frequency and their numbers indicate that there is still no clear line between the town and the rural area. An elephant, an animal as sacred as the cow or the snake, usually belonging to a temple, may sometimes be led through the street by its mahout. We may try to find out if the elephant’s appearance is linked to a religious celebration, a festival, a marriage, or if the mahout is displaying the elephant so that people can have its blessings and offer gifts in return. Most often, it is domestic animals that take possession of the street and are integrated into daily life.

30Cultural habits have a long life. Even today, in the old French town, the Tamil inhabitants of the erstwhile colonial houses open their front doors, bring out chairs and settle themselves on the pavement to chat, thus making a link with a cultural tradition. At twilight the pavement becomes a kind of "tiṇṇai" (see below).

A Street in the Old "ville noire"

The Physical-factual Reality

31– The architectural approach
The grid plan covers the whole of the town. As in the French town, the network of streets retains its regularity because the streets meet at right angles here too. But the appearance of the street we shall now explore is very different from those of the old European town. Here, no matter in which area, the traditional Tamil house is the essential element. We must remember that, in the past, the residential areas were divided according to caste but though these divisions are nowadays in the process of disappearing, lines of demarcation can still be perceived.

32Unlike the colonial house mentioned above, the Tamil house is very much open to the street. In a typical Tamil house the ground floor facade is made up of the principal door with, next to it, tiny rooms often with barred windows. The facade opens on to a covered area called the "tiṇṇai". This is the perfect place to relax, meet friends and converse. It is also a vantage point for seeing what is going on in the street. The "tiṇṇai" is an integral part of the house’s architecture; it is supported by wooden columns, or, sometimes, twin pillars. The "tiṇṇai" is usually extended by a verandah, the "tāḻvāram", another area of relaxation, designed to keep the facade wall cool by prolonging the area of shade. The verandah is supported by wooden or cement columns. The "tiṇṇai" and the verandah do not completely divide domestic from public space, as any passerby may stop and rest a while in their shade.

33The row of Tamil houses, situated side by side, the projections formed by the roofs of the verandahs, and the decorations that hang from them according to the slope of the street, give their own particular life and structure to the facades of the streets of the Tamil quarter.

34We are sure to notice and to be enchanted by the beauty and variety of the "kolams" in front of every Tamil house. These are geometrical designs, drawn on the ground by women at day-break; this popular art structures and decorates the street by offering the pedestrian an infinity of variations based on simple geometric designs. "Kolams" seem to be the farthest extension of the house, they constitute an extreme and fragile limit just before public space begins. During the day the designs are rubbed out by the passing feet of inhabitants, pedestrians and animals. This traditional art can be considered at once ephemeral, as it is only visible for a few hours, and durable, as it is reinvented and renewed every morning.

35– The historical approach
We have evoked the morphology of the facades of Tamil houses, and we have seen how such architecture can reveal a certain quality of space linked to needs, to ways of representation and to the demands of a period. But it is surprising to discover that traditional Tamil houses have been more or less influenced, as far as their facades are concerned anyway, by western architectural motifs, this applies to those built from the 19th century up to the 1950's.

36Without setting up a too rigorous typology here, we may devote some attention to doors whose mouldings seem to have been inspired by, and recreated freestyle from notebooks of models of French designs, at the end of the 18th and 19th centuries. Floral designs such as acantha leaves, and winding stems appear on the lintels and frames of doors, mixed with traditional Hindu motifs.

37Other architectural elements such as pilasters which extend to the first floor, often matching and emphasising the span of the facade, are evident. We may also note the crown of balustrades and the fire pots which, here too, decorate terraces.

38According to the emphasis of these decorations, the impression may be of a thought-out act of decoration on the part of owners attracted by a certain western idea of architecture. This may indicate that the different communities living side by side during the French period communicated with each other and did not lead totally separate lives. This may also show that beyond the borrowing of a form there existed, on the part of these Tamil builders, more or less studied ability to imitate and adapt a European style that was already relatively outdated and stereotyped when the houses were built. Some astonishing exercises in invention can often be seen in these decorations on the facade.

39It is important to emphasise, however, that the interior structure of these Tamil houses has almost never been influenced by western decorative motifs. The division of space in the Tamil house conforms to the traditional usage.

The Experienced Reality

40– The socio-cultural approach
Just as in the old "ville blanche", the Tamil area around Isvaran Dharmaraja Koil street is used in diverse ways by those who live there, by children at play, and passing animals. Among commercial activities can be seen hawkers selling curd, ducks, basins, brooms 20 and fly swatters, flavoured ices, balls and toy windmills, even parrots. There is a lively trade in used metal containers, rags, cartons, plastic bottles and so on. All this tells us something about the real animation and vitality of the street. The flux of pedestrians, the variety of strolling merchants, the number of small businesses, and the system of exchange: these activities are directly related to the needs of the residents.

41Children's games, in their turn, tell us about the relations which are created both between boys and girls together and when grouped separately. Games mark off a specific space which, though well defined by precise rules, can spread along the street according to the weather, the time and, of course, the mood and intention of the players. In the game of hopscotch, most often played by the girls, an area divided into compartments and boundaries, is drawn on the street as in Europe The game is played by kicking a small flat stone into the last compartment while hopping on one leg. After a short time, this ephemeral space, rubbed out by the sliding and jumping of the game is reproduced several metres away. It is thus possible to find traces on the street of many geometric figures in chalk, sometimes just beside other short-lived marks: those of "kolams".

42This residential quarter includes Tamil houses of Muslim, Christian and Hindu families. It is possible to identify a religious persuasion by looking carefully at the lintel where for example a sacred symbol may be hung. In Tamil houses niches decorate the "tiṇṇai". In the centre of each niche is a lamp which is lighted at sunset to attract auspicious influences to the house.

43Every day, in front of Tamil houses, "kolams" are drawn which decorate and structure the urban space and at the same time reflect cultural practice. The dexterity with which the woman executes the design on the ground permits her to distinguish herself, to become known to her relatives and neighbours. The "kolam" may also serve to support a specific request as when, during the month of "mārkaḻi" (December-January), the young unmarried girls pray while drawing "kolams". In the centre of the "kolam" they place a flower in the middle of a mound of cow-dung fashioned in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, who is called "the remover of obstacles", so that he will make clear the way to their marriages. The significance of this popular living art is endless; when there is a marriage, for example, "kolams" take on an exceptional importance and may occupy all the space in front of the houses. On the other hand, when there is a death in the house, there will be no "kolam" on the pavement there for one year.


44The variety of habits and customs of daily life are the foundation of the urban landscape and of the life of its inhabitants. It is these social customs that give body and colour to the spectacle of the street. The identification and perpetuation of such customs helps us to come into an increasingly close relationship with what is solid and enduring in our culture.

45What is meant by the infrastructures and superstructures of a town?

46What are the main characteristics of the houses of the old "ville blanche"? Of those on the other side of the Grand Canal?

47What is the impression given when houses are all constructed in the same architectural style on a street?

48Do street merchants exercise an influence on the landscape of a street? Is it possible to establish categories of professions exercised on the street?

49Does the presence of animals, the passage of bicycles, buses, and rickshaws fit into the urban landscape or not?

50Does the variety of visual and other sensory impressions we receive tell us anything specific about the urban landscape?

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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