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

Robert Dulau

Limits and the idea of passage in the town where we live

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1In studying limits we must penetrate as deeply as possible into the intimate nature of a town. Elements perhaps not immediately identifiable, even for the person who lives in that part of the town, create limits: surrounding walls, rivers, canals, the sea coast, railways and boulevards all structure urban space and make up territories in the town according to designation and function. Limits constitute frontiers or intermediate steps that set apart spaces that may be very different from one another. These limits or frontiers can generally be crossed or got around, though some prevent any passage at all. Most often, however, the idea of limit and the notion of passage are closely associated. A limit authorizes and opens the way for a passage; it indicates that the nature of the territory is changing, and that one has gone from one place to another.

Some Characteristics of the Role of Limits in a Town

2Limits may bar a passage for defence and security reasons as well as for the regulation of trade. Such was the case in the past for walls that surrounded towns and for toll gates, which strictly controlled passage. Even today it is for reasons of security that barracks and prisons constitute barriers which cannot be crossed.

3However, even when certain limits, surrounding walls for example, have lost their original meaning (defending and protecting the inhabitants of a city), and have become no more than reminders of the architecture of the past, or have been rehabilitated as historical monuments, they continue to be included in the plan and organisation of the town. They condition and nourish our vision of the town and influence the course of our movements.

4Other limits appear as compact insurmountable obstacles. Thus they often correspond to areas reserved for activities with their own rules and regulations. It is not easy to cross them: one must go around such places, as railways, highways, and airplane runways.

5Limits can profoundly modify the sense of passage by transforming the nature of the space concerned: for example, the walls and the doors of a temple. They mark a transition, a pause between two spaces that brings with it a change in the description of the place: sanctified area, unsanctified area.

6The transition that a limit creates between two kinds of space may also furnish information about the occupation of a quarter, or about the diversity of activities of a city: a community of bungalows spread out on one bank, apartment houses on the other; commercial activities on this side of a boulevard, administrative on that.

  • 1 A limit, an old wall of a town, for example, may have disappeared completely. Ancient forts, rampar (...)

7Another property of a limit is its ambivalence. A limit is in fact incorporated intrinsically into the landscape of a town1. It divides or separates one space from another and makes its mark on the urban fabric. At the same time a limit unites two spaces. It constitutes a point of passage, often fragile, between two places, two sectors of activity.

8The limit is often a line or a natural border, sea, stream, river, etc. Very often, the bed of a stream prepared for a canal or the course of a river constitute a clear and natural limit serving two quarters, two distinct parts of a town. This separation, when it is a river, might even become a border between two countries. In a town, zones situated on different sides of a river may evolve in very different ways. In Pondicherry the Grand Canal for a long time during the colonial period served as a limit.

9In attempting to recognise the limits of a town we identify the seams, that is, the borders, in fact all the structural elements which, in a city, join one quarter to another, one bank to another, one fragment of a street to another. Sometimes these seams or limits come up close to the house. In fact, the "kolams" that women create on the streets every morning constitute a sort of extreme limit of the house. The "kolam", half private, half public, is the ultimate extension of domestic space; beyond the area taken up by the "kolam", one is out of doors, where one enters a neutral and homogeneous area: public space.

10Attempting to set out the limits of the town we live in involves understanding the way in which limits may influence our habits and spontaneous behaviour as pedestrians, cyclists or even as drivers of cars. For instance, if there is an obstacle we have not foreseen, we may be side-tracked or even have to retrace our steps. But we may also feel like crossing a bridge or going down an alley, just because we are attracted by the presence of a building, a shop on the opposite bank of a river, on the other side of a boundary or limit.


11Look at the plan of the town of Pondicherry and see what limits you can identify.

12What natural limits are there?

13What man made limits?

14What role can these limits play for the inhabitants?

15Is their role functional? Is it aesthetic?

16Do "kolams" act as limits in the street?

17Do they represent the ultimate extension of the actual domain of the house?

18In the course of a walk what limits does one experience as obstacles?

19What means does the city provide for crossing these?

20Are there any historical limits, such as walls and tollgates, still remaining in Pondicherry?

21What are the new limits?

22How do these new limits structure urban space?


1 A limit, an old wall of a town, for example, may have disappeared completely. Ancient forts, ramparts, or fortifications have often been totally destroyed and the space that they occupied transformed into a boulevard, promenade or public garden or may simply have been absorbed into the fabric of the city as has been the case with those temples to Ellaiyamman, goddess of limits, now well inside the city. These reminders, nevertheless, constitute a visible mark on the urban landscape.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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