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

Robert Dulau


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1The information and reflections that we offer in these few pages reinforce the need to identify, to understand and to encourage a feeling for different aspects of the urban landscape of a town when it is considered as "my town". We also look at the links that may exist between a street, a quarter and the life of its inhabitants.

2The approach that we have suggested aims at creating a fuller relationship with "the place where I live"; it also aims at a redefinition of place, the individual place which belongs to me. In this regard we make use of several approaches: geographical, architectural, historical, socio-cultural and the approach through the senses. All these are brought together to express different aspects of one reality. Each one contributes its own meaning. Each one tells us something about the town, not about the town in the formal sense but about the town that is so close to us and that we are learning to see more intimately and in detail. None of these approaches is exclusive, but we must emphasize that some of them belong very definitely to the domains of knowledge and fact, for instance the approach that highlights the historical or architectural aspects. The approach through the senses, the socio-cultural approach, depend on what we perceive and feel. Simple knowledge of a place cannot account for the living, feeling experience of it. A town, an area or a street can be analysed but a place must be savoured and relished. We need not deprive ourselves of anything our town has to offer us through our eyes, our taste-buds or any of our senses; nor must we miss the chance to explore those half-glimpsed vistas that lure us from hidden corners we’ve always yearned to explore.

3If we now apply this combination of approaches to the traditional Tamil house we may find our appreciation of it greatly increased.

4The Tamil house is limited or bounded by a plot (the urban architectural approach).

5Its facade figures in the landscape of the street (the urban architectural approach).

6It is functional and adapted to the demands of the specific environment (the geographical approach).

7It is a place that expresses customs, symbols, and a faith which belongs to a particular culture and it is tied to community and family life (the socio-cultural approach).

8It may refer to a model architecture, highlighting morphology, that is to say the aesthetic aspect (the architectural and aesthetic approach).

9It may belong to a moment of history and it may have been witness to some important event (the historical approach).

10Finally the Tamil house is an ordinary, individual, private place that we bring to life with our way of regarding it, what we say about it, our questions, our faith, and all that we know of it as long as we are in contact with it (the subjective, perceptive approach).

11The Tamil house can be viewed, not as a simple superstructure, of significance to the built-up area alone, but as an element constitutionally essential to the street, our street. It gives meaning to the street, it has meaning for me; the Tamil house is an eco-symbol.

12So, which memories and what part of our heritage are to be preserved in view of their progressive disappearance?

13First, the Tamil house is a part of the living memory in the town that we love and such memories and the heritage they represent ought to be preserved. The Tamil house, as we have seen, constitutes a fragile entity of which we only become aware by examining it from the symbolic, social and architectural points of view. Not only is the physical integrity of the house threatened, but it also runs the risk of being forgotten because the cultural memory that it represents is less and less understood by the inhabitants of the town.

14The extent of the destruction of the Tamil houses in the city compared to what we can see in the more conservative villages, seems to express a real change of mentality, a manifestation of a new relationship growing between the family and the individual.

15This change indicates the abandonment of a traditional way of living founded on the importance of a codified community life, in favour of the individual as an autonomous being, less strictly tied by the constraints of a particular type of social existence. Thus the Tamil house, as it was perpetuated in its traditional architectural form in Pondicherry up to the 1960’s and basically characterised by a division of space according to specific social customs, does not correspond to the new aspirations of the more affluent segments of the population.

16The town dweller passively observes the effacing of a kind of habitation that has served generations, a disappearance that brings with it the risk of a loss of sense of place as well as of the traditional division of space. Of course, one may say that what is destroyed by a town grows up again in another way so that, though the eye may be offended, the sense of place, street or house is not truly lost. However, from the point of view of form alone, we note that the interior space of the new houses of Pondicherry, both collective and individual, tends to be divided into uniform rooms without any particular differentiation. The facades adopt a conventional style which is a simplified representation of a stereotyped modernity. This functional style, borrowed from the West and copied as a universal model has abolished the reality, uniqueness and specificity of a place.

17Pondicherry is not like any other town. Villupuram is not Pondicherry, neither is Cuddalore.

18From the point of view of form, these transformations are at present deeply affecting the texture of the urban fabric through the rupture of alignment, the changes in size, the widening of streets, amongst other things. It seems that Pondicherry today has reached a precarious point and any further inroads may profoundly affect the face of the town. Certainly this abandonment of the traditional dwelling in favour of a type more in line with the desire for comfort, privacy and security, cannot be condemned. These three criteria are moreover conditioned by the ratio between cost and quality in construction.

19Taking all this into consideration it is pertinent to question this change and the negative consequences it may entail.

20First of all, is it logical to introduce into a particular place, in this case Pondicherry, construction techniques which are totally unsuited to the climate of the place and its history? In a word, how can people be so disastrously indifferent to the context of a place? Is there a fate that demands that every change and transformation in building methods should result in a break with, or a partial loss of, a specific culture that is our own?

21How can we forget that the Tamil house represents a living part of the cultural history of its inhabitants?

22Is it not more genuinely modern to bring together, by sane and intelligent methods, the acquisitions of a culture and join them to the reality of a world equally centred on positive interests?

23To better conceive the sense of the place where we live, mustn’t we look into ways of producing a new type of dwelling place that integrates the best features of modern design with what is valuable from the past?

24If this is accepted then the next question is what can be done to slow down the rate of destruction and to awaken people to a greater awareness of what is at stake, as far as the cultural heritage is concerned. As we formulate these ideas, the reality will certainly remind us to be modest in our approach.

25Passing of legislation aimed at defining a protected zone with a battery of regulations and constraints will take a long time. Moreover, the disruption of the life of a street or a building while transforming it into part of a heritage or a historical monument, is not always the solution. Moreover the awakening of a sense of heritage and a cultural consciousness requires a good deal of preparation. The purpose of these reflections is to arouse in teachers and their students an interest in the long and patient process of coming into relationship with the town where they live. That is why learning to read the elements that constitute a town is an important prelude to dealing with the problems that concern the town. It is college and high school students who will become the future leaders of the town; therefore they are the ones who must be made aware. We must ask ourselves how such students can best be encouraged to think for themselves about these matters. It seems essential, in Pondicherry, to bring students and teachers together to set up a range of activities, to encourage new reflections pertinent to a living culture.

26As we have seen, the stakes are high. The town, with its plans, its boundaries and its improvements is unique. It is the perfect place for the development of a culture and is susceptible to all possible innovations and, at the same time, is constantly at risk. It is here that apparent differences can be reconciled, through economic necessity, ecological emergencies, the use of modern techniques and through attempts to keep the vital elements of a culture alive. In order to deal with all these essential aspects it is invaluable to be able to investigate and explore the town. This investigation is necessary in order to make the town one’s own. Then an individual is in a position to say, "I know the place that belongs to me, it speaks to me, I am linked with it through the signs time has left in its wake; I recognise these signs, they are meaningful to me, and resonate in me. I am at home in my town."

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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