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

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Robert Dulau

An "experiential approach" to the town we love

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1We can make the landscape of the town that we love our own by taking a walk through it with our senses open to what we perceive, hear, smell and feel. Everything in the great diversity of an urban landscape can touch us, enriching and adding meaning to our vision of the place and making us feel more closely linked with the life, the preoccupations and the aspirations of the people who live there. Every detail of an urban landscape speaks to us through signs that are real and perceptible.

2We never cease to perceive things and to move around: this is a fact of our daily experience. However, while looking at a particular place or participating in any social exchange, our perceptions are not as simple as they might seem. It is true that the beauty of a monument, or a strange scene on a street may take hold of us, perhaps even overwhelm us, but we must not forget that our perceptions are constantly brought to us and nourished by our knowledge and imagination. Our knowledge is enriched by the long history of the place we are in and is founded on our own experiences and our social behaviour as the inhabitants of a house and of a town. This knowledge enables us to decipher the complexity of urban space and to understand it in relation with the inhabitants. Our knowledge nourishes our perceptions and, by chance or by design, our perceptions retain something of this knowledge.

3Imagination accompanies us and increases our appreciation of every street-scene that we observe. The most down-to-earth, ordinary scene is always developing, becoming richer and enriching us in the bargain At the same time images, postures, repeated words or legends arouse and enliven our perceptions.

4If our imagination remained fixed, caught in the moment of perception, without allowing us detours into the uniqueness of our personal history, it would hardly be worthy of the name. Our imagination also nourishes our perception and our perception retains a part of that imagination too.

5The approach through the senses cannot be reduced to the superficial aspect of a sensation or a momentary experience. Visual perception, like the perception of duration, is supported by our experience, our past, our knowledge, and our imagination. This approach is part of our reality and can be used as an instrument of practical research in the study of a town.

6To perceive things and hear people is to recognise the road that leads them to us and permits them to dwell in our memory. A map can never create the same impression that the actual landscape can offer us.

7We therefore give here an example of a line of thought and some themes for exploration, that will help us to appreciate the approach through the senses in the diversity of the town that we love.

When Climate becomes Atmosphere

8It is interesting to consider variations in climate which affect a town, to distinguish summer from the monsoon seasons and analyse the effect of rain on the behaviour and habits of those who live in that town, recognising the influence of climate on the structure of houses and the choice of building materials. All of this information is of the first importance, but other avenues of exploration must not be overlooked.

9Exploration may take the form of a stroll through the town. Let's imagine a Sunday afternoon in July, during the third month of the Tamil calendar. This is a period of transition between the last days of summer and the first monsoon, the period when people, especially the farmers, are waiting for the rains to begin.

10A look at the sky shows us a dense mass of clouds which are turning grey. Moving about is uncomfortable and we are acutely aware at every moment of the all-enveloping heat. It is hard to find the exact word for this state and the precise expression to describe the particular density of the heat. It is heavy, it is humid, the word is almost found and, finally, it comes to us by itself or is whispered in our ear. Then suddenly it is possible to name the quality of this perception. There is a Tamil expression: "ūmai veyil" dumb heat, a heat which engulfs us and keeps on increasing though the sun is not even visible. If the discovery of the expression can do nothing to change the nature of that heaviness, if the perception itself does not change in us, it may still influence the course and the intention of our walk and make us more aware of ordinary aspects of the town that we might not have paid any attention to if that torpor and overwhelming heat had not played a revealing role in our appreciation of atmosphere.

11Suddenly another reading of the town is imposed bodily on our point of view. A walk through the streets, however well known they may be, becomes a kind of rebirth; a view of the town presents itself in which only cool, refreshing space is remembered.

12In this quest for relief from the heat, we find ourselves on the look out for isolated spots, shady spaces. We long for freshness. Our desire makes us remember the sea breeze which, we know, blows through the streets closer to the sea front, the streets of the old "ville blanche", but we don’t really feel this breeze on the face and body until we come to a confluence of streets. We may therefore stop a moment, before crossing the road, to enjoy the freshness and take a breath of air as we continue our walk. In the old "ville blanche", that part of the town situated east of the Grand Canal, we discover that, at this hour of the afternoon, the shadow created by the houses is so meagre that it does not make for a refreshing pause at all. The old colonial houses have neither a "tiṇṇai" nor a verandah opening on to the street nor even a bench to rest on. The eyes are drawn towards the interior, the doors of these houses almost always remain closed and we don’t feel we can knock and penetrate into one of them unless we are invited. Almost no one is around at this hour, there are only a few goats in a patch of shade, sound asleep.

13So now we are attracted towards the old "ville noire". The effects of the breeze fade away as we go further into the western quarters situated on the other side of the Grand Canal. Small brick bridges cross the canal at every intersection. At once we are more aware of vegetation. Trees become trees once again and take on names: coconut palms, banyan trees, pipal, flame-of-the-forest and neem. These trees create shade and trace their limits on the ground with their ondulant grey territories that serve as landmarks in the unceasing quest for shade.

14Close to the Grand Canal, in the old "ville noire", the rows of traditional Tamil houses, with their aligned "tiṇṇai" supported by wooden columns and verandahs that extend the open area of the "tiṇṇai", are charged with a special significance. For the first time we are impressed by projections, rarely interrupted by the roofs of verandahs. This is, first of all, the meeting place for family friends. At this hour of the afternoon people are taking advantage of the shade to have a sleep on the bench attached to the wall of the "tiṇṇai". Through the open door, we can see the corridor which leads to the interior courtyard, an enduring symbol of coolness and the heart of the Tamil house. It suggests the possibility of entering into communication, of coming across a woman busy at her work, perhaps discussing something with a neighbour who has come to share a little of that coolness, to rest a while, immobile, waiting for the dumb heat to give way to another heat which is more tolerable, and which also waits to be named.

15Here then, through a particular instance, an ordinary afternoon in July, by means of a simple perception, a special aspect of the town reveals itself as having dominion over all others. An atmosphere has been created; the shady spots of the town engender an abundance of images that nourish our knowledge and help us to make the urban landscape our own. Bit by bit, an itinerary is arranged in accordance with our desire for coolness; a particular geography of places outlines itself with routes, focal points and landmarks.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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