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

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Robert Dulau

Landmarks and signs in our town

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1To continue the exploration of the different elements which make up a town, it is necessary to identify landmarks and signs along with the role that they play in the history of the town.

2Landmarks as architectural objects: cathedrals, temples, mosques and official buildings give form and meaning to the town. Because of their volume, their dimensions, and their position, they stand out from their surroundings. Their identification allows us to recognise a monument as distinct from the ordinary urban landscape of a street, generally composed of a line of houses. Thus, scale is a crucial factor in our perception of the buildings of a town. The architecture around a major building can also tell us something of the architect’s intentions as well as those of the people who are responsible for the city, such as town planners. This helps in putting an edifice into its proper perspective, or discovering how a building fits into the composition of a planned square, or seeing how a house relates to its garden or how a monument set back from other buildings relates to the line of the rest of the street. A monument is often created to portray a truth about the landscape.

3In fact, the disposition or the particular placement of important landmark buildings in the town often develops out of a desire to dramatise or set the stage for an edifice so that it may be recognised and easily identified by the inhabitants.

4Religious or official buildings also tell us something about the history of the town. A cathedral, a mosque, a temple, the governor’s mansion "Raj Nivas" and the market places: each of these was built at a particular moment in the history of the town. Knowing the period of their construction, appreciating and identifying the architectural style, understanding something about the general plan being worked out, distinguishing the choice of materials used: these are also tools that may refine our knowledge and perception of the town we live in. Sometimes a building may reveal an architectural style influenced by a foreign culture; it may thus be interesting to find out the source and distinguish the decorative motifs belonging to that culture.

5Not all the landmarks of a town are large edifices, neither do they all rise to the level of monuments. They are, nonetheless, strong points often symbolically charged. The statue of Gandhi on the sea front in Pondicherry constitutes a landmark and an affective image for the people of the town who come out for an evening stroll along the sea front. Gandhi with his back turned to the sea looks inland to India.

6The old clock tower on the corner of Mahatma Gandhi Street and Lal Bahadur Shastri Street is another example of a symbolic landmark in the town. Higher than the neighbouring houses, without being monumental, situated at a commercial crossroad, and influenced by the French colonial style, it serves at once as a landmark and as a sign and above all as witness to an epoch that has passed away, as far as Pondicherry is concerned.

7Landmarks also exercise a role in our behaviour when we are out for a stroll. Our path from one place to another will be more rhythmic if it is punctuated by a vision and a recognition of successive structures that create a weave, an invisible network that carries us to our destination.

8A landmark may also have a personal significance: personal landmarks are rarely monuments; rather they are objects, ordinary signs on the road that may affect us and guide our steps. These landmarks, known only to us, influence us and give an intimate meaning to our walk. A small café, a shop, the bus stand, a particular tree at a street crossing, an advertisement, something written on a wall, one of the numerous statues of political leaders: all these become signs, charged, even if only temporarily, with meaning and serving as a kind of relay of personal preference that helps us to decide our line of movement.

9These signs, which we ourselves choose, may give us pleasure and amusement. We may, in the course of our movement, anticipate the appearance of a sign or we may purposely avoid it. We may also relate it to some personal event, for example by deciding that a sign is an indication of good luck. It is essential to understand and to feel the infinite wealth of material that a town is constantly putting at our disposal; a variety of landmarks and signs that catch our attention and which we order, use, suppress or file away according to the needs of movement.

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10Looking at the map of Pondicherry can you identify any architectural landmarks? any monuments?

11What category do they belong to, for example, administrative? religious? Among religious buildings, can you establish a classification according to the religion to which the building belongs?

12Does the location of religious buildings tell us anything about the nature of a neighbourhood?

13What can we find out about the distribution of religions in Pondicherry from its landmarks and monuments?

14By visiting a cultural or official monument, can you analyse the way in which it fits into the urban landscape? In a public square? In isolation? In terms of the alignment of a street?

15Can you estimate its volume? its dimensions?

16Are all the houses on any one street built on the same scale?

17What does a change in scale imply in the reading of a town?

18Have any of the buildings been influenced by foreign architecture?

19What architectural motifs characterize this influence?

20Do these landmarks and monuments ever serve as a relay of preference during your walks? How?

21Are there other landmarks that are not monuments? What do they symbolise?

22Can you think of other landmarks or signs which are personal and which might guide the course of your movement in the town?

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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