What makes a city? Last week I wrote about the blank slate city, Le Corbusier, his influence on Ballard and the new city structure that emerged around Heathrow. Ahmedabad was something of a playground for Le Corbusier, he did some of his most experimental work here. DNA India points out some of his best known architectural ideas can be traced to Ahmedabad. His building at the Musuem of the City was the first to use his internal form circular exhibition, and by all accounts the Mill Owners Association is beautiful. Ahmedaabad offered a lack of constraint to Le Corbusier and the modernist movement.
I’m interested in the Tabula Rasa and about what the seeds of an experiential, playful city might look like. Ahemedabad and India in general can be a sobering place to do that. 50% of people live in slum housing, there is a massive disparity between rich and poor and huge sanitation and health issues. There is a phrase spoken with a mixture of pride and frustration here: ‘We have more malls than parks.’ Public space is a hot topic. The National Institute of Design, where we are working, was built in Corbusier’s modernist style following a report from Charles and Ray Eames. That report though written over 50 years ago and relatively brief, is surprisingly similar in it’s message: India has huge social problems and all design and artistic effort must be mobilised to improve living conditions. So it’s into that historical context with pressing social issues, that we are designing and thinking about cities in a universal sense.
CEPT, the school of architecture here, describe Ahmedabad as the formless city. A place where there is no one public space and all are claimed by many. The multiple centres are activated according to time of year and day. Manek Chowk in the city is an excellent example. It’s a vegetable market early morning as traders make their way in to the city, jewellery and gold during the day, then a food market at night. It lives 24hrs. Ahmedabadis describe their chaotic, polycentric city with a pride for the empathetic chaos that defines how space is used. Interestingly Chandigarh, Corbusiers top down, full plan city here in India has two faces, as a protected city the concrete facades are listed buildings, yet inside, away from the view of planners and conservationists spill out chaotic, colourful interiors. Owners were forced to turn their expression inwards and there’s a much discussed tensions between the values of modernism and the way people actually live.
The imagination of a modern municipality doesn’t include the idea of cows on the street. Yet that is the truth of an India city, a society defined by a visible acceptance of what should remain public. This city has cow insurance policies and municipal organisation who collect bovine corpses. Indian cities are defined by an on going tussle for how things should be. So the values of testing systems and rules through iteration and exploration are very Indian. Though the Eames report is heavy reading in many ways, there is a suggestion of a more experimental approach:
Like most problems in design and architecture, [planning for an event] is a problem in true speculation. You must relive the act before and evaluate many possible courses of action.
Which in the discussions we’ve had in groups, and following the definition of a playful manifesto today, is how I see play. In a sense it’s the creation of an alternate space in which to inhabit other realities and branches of this reality. It’s the freedom to contest and re-articulate systems, to appropriate, to hack and subvert. It’s well documented in the work of Guy Debord and the situationists that play and the spectacle, in the French sense, can be a tool for political change. As it is in Eric Zimmermans idea of the ludic century. If we think of play as a way of both exploring the slack in a system and creating a new system that demands a different reality, then it’s potential both here in Ahmedbabd and globally, is to be our tool to challenge the status quo.
And of course India does play, at sports and in unusual spaces. In Ahmedabad they play in rusty old cars, they play catch in the crowded street and cricket in a 4 foot wide alley. In some sense play, and the constant re-articulation and contestation of space, and the consent achieved through public visibility is play at it’s most powerful. As we move forward I’ll be thinking of play as a way of exploring what an alternate, experiential city might look like. Whether that’s the spacial qualities of a game city like Assassins Creed’s Venice (Ahemedabad old town has a wonderful secret passage network ), the engineered social experiences of Disney’s Celebration or completely new types of city on other planets or in other futures.